A report of an administrative committee recommending the change said it was proposed “as a result of questions raised regarding First Baptist Church of Decatur, who has a woman as senior pastor.”
The Georgia Baptist Convention defines membership as “messengers from cooperating Baptist churches.” A cooperating church is one that is in “harmony and cooperation with the work and purpose” of the convention.
But the new financial policy for the first time appears to tie “harmony and cooperation” with whether a church agrees with the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message. The revision of the Southern Baptist Convention’s confessional document includes the statement, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
“Our main mission at FBC Decatur is to love God and to connect as many men, women, teenagers, and children as possible with God’s love for them in Christ,” said Julie Pennington-Russell, who took over as pastor of the church in 2007. “I guess the Georgia Baptist Convention will need to decide whether or not this is in harmony with their own mission.”
Pennington-Russell said the church has been connected with the Georgia Baptist Convention and the national Southern Baptist Convention for 146 years. The last two decades it has affiliated primarily with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a moderate breakaway group formed in 1991, but a number of members — many of them senior adults — remain connected to the SBC and describe themselves as Southern Baptists.
Pennington-Russell said it never felt important to the church to “draw a line in the sand” over the issue of affiliation.
She said the main impact on the church would be that “some members of our church who have faithfully supported Southern Baptist ministries and missionaries through the years — often with money given from their monthly Social Security checks — will have to be told that the Georgia Baptist Convention doesn’t welcome their support any longer.”
Prior to moving to the Decatur church, Pennington-Russell was pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, and Nineteenth Avenue Baptist Church in San Francisco. She is a graduate of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary and earned a doctor of ministry degree at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Baptist Theological Seminary.
She was a featured preacher at the New Baptist Covenant Celebration in January, a gathering of more than 30 racially, geographically and theologically diverse Baptist groups in North America.
First Baptist Church of Decatur reportedly gave about $10,000 in 2007 through the Cooperative Program, a unified budget that supports both the Georgia Baptist Convention and Southern Baptist Convention.
Pennington-Russell said she heard a couple of months ago that something was in the works about withdrawing fellowship from the church, and she was surprised that no one from the Georgia Baptist Convention contacted her about it.
“First Baptist Church of Decatur has been affiliated with the GBC since our beginnings in 1862,” she said. “Pastors and lay leaders of our church have played significant leadership roles along the way, and FBC Decatur has given several million dollars to Southern Baptist efforts through the years. I assumed that a 146-year relationship was worth, at very least, a personal conversation.”
The new Georgia Baptist policy also addresses concerns over acceptance of funds and property that raise the risk of liability, involve donor restrictions not in line with convention priorities or reasons “not otherwise in the best interest of the convention.”
Robert White, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Convention, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution the policy would not be enforced against churches that call women as deacons or members of their ministerial staff other than pastor but would give convention leaders discretion to refuse gifts from questionable sources, like alcohol distributors.
Bob Allen ([email protected]) is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.