(See a related Associated Baptist Press story at http://www.abpnews.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=3640&Itemid=53.)
It happens that this is my congregation, and Julie is my pastor.
And so I would like to begin this unofficial, unauthorized response by saying that the daily Christian ministry offered by my wonderful church will not be at all affected by this decision. The preaching of the gospel, prayer, benevolence ministries, after-school programs for children, youth ministry, global missions, counseling ministry, women’s ministry, care for homeless and abused women and children — all of these will go on just as before.
The decision does apparently mean that the GBC would prefer not to receive the thousands of dollars that we otherwise would have chosen to send them, as we have done for 145 years. In a time of economic recession, with money tight all over, the GBC will choose to reject our financial support for their activities. This must be an unusual organization, sufficiently flush with funds that it can refuse money — in this economy — based on differences over a disputed doctrinal matter. Would someone else like our money?
This action gets the relationship between church and denomination entirely wrong. In a religious tradition that believes in congregational polity, state and national conventions exist as a result of the free decisions of congregations to work together on common projects. They pool their funds to do together what none of them can do as well on their own. State and national conventions exist to serve congregations, and congregations are the ones who get to decide whether the entities that they created to help them advance their mission are still worth supporting. But here, the situation is reversed. That’s just wrong.
Baptists used to believe that God’s plan is for congregations to order their own affairs, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in obedience to Christ.
First Baptist Decatur undertook a slow communal process of discernment in the months before they called Julie Pennington-Russell as their pastor. This 145-year-old congregation with 2,700 members did their biblical and theological homework, they prayed earnestly, and they finally emerged with the decision that they did.
It is more than a little insulting for other Georgia Baptists, and the GBC itself, to decide that this autonomous congregation made such a bad decision that our missions money is now tainted. This puts FBC Decatur in company with, as Journal-Constitution reporter Christopher Quinn reported after a conversation with GBC Executive Director Robert White, other “gifts from questionable sources, such as alcohol distributors.” I’m sure that comparison will go down exceptionally well in our congregation.
Most Baptist churches are in a situation of flat or declining membership. Many are in serious trouble, fighting for their very survival.
But First Baptist Decatur is doing well. Many are coming to faith in Christ for the first time. Our innovative early worship service is booming, with many new visitors each week. I have the joyful privilege of teaching a Bible study class each week to dozens who have never really participated in adult Christian education before. We are actually reaching our community, and our congregation’s increasing racial and ethnic diversity clearly attests to this happy fact.
At the heart of it all is Julie Pennington-Russell herself. The sober-minded search committee that called Julie saw in her what we have all now experienced.
She is a pastor, called of God. She has all the requisite gifts of preaching, teaching, leadership, and care for souls. She exemplifies the fruit of the Spirit. She loves people, and people respond accordingly. But by calling her, FBC apparently joined the morally questionable ranks populated by alcohol distributors.
Daily readers of the Atlanta newspaper know that religion news rarely makes the front page. But today it did, under this title: “Baptist change isolates church.” Baptists made the newspaper — not for loving people or serving the poor, but for a decision to reject one of their oldest, most significant churches.
“Baptist change isolates church?” Not really. The headline should read: “Baptist change isolates Georgia Baptist Convention.” Our congregation will be just fine.
DAVID P. GUSHEE is distinguished university professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University, Atlanta, Ga.