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American Baptist Churches in the USA & homosexuality

Church history, culture, and "the issue"

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A brief history of the American Baptist Churches in the USA:

The Northern Baptist Convention was organized in 1907. Its creation was largely prompted by a need for coordination among the many Baptist mission agencies that existed at that time. During the early 20th century, the denomination survived a bitter conflict between internal liberal and conservative elements. The battles centered about higher criticism, the belief that the Bible should be analyzed as a historical document, including a study of the sources used by its authors.

The church was able to avoid a schism over this conflict. They now teach that the Bible is inspired and is the ultimate religious authority in matters of faith and practice. However they do not have a clear position on biblical inerrancy -- the absence of error in the Bible. That is left up to the individual member to decide.

The Northern Baptists changed their name in 1950 to the American Baptist Convention. In 1973 the present name was adopted: the American Baptist Churches in the USA (ABCUSA). Their head office is located at Valley Forge, PA where they also operate a publishing arm, Judson Press. They have about 1.5 million members among 5,800 congregations distributed within 34 regional jurisdictions. They are members of the National Council of Churches and the World Baptist Alliance.

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Culture of the ABCUSA:

Their Mission Statement says, in part:

 "American Baptists are a Christ-centered, biblically grounded, ethnically diverse people called to radical personal discipleship in Christ Jesus. Our commitment to Jesus propels us to nurture authentic relationships with one another; ... engage every member in hands-on ministry; and speak the prophetic word in love.

"As a people of prayer, purpose, and passion, we are in the forefront of creating a community of faith where people of every race, nationality, and culture gather as one in worship, service, and work. ...

"Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we work together in mutual trust, humility, love, and giving that the gospel might be preached and lived in all the world." 1

Like other Baptists worldwide, they teach the "competency of all believers to be in direct relationship with God and to interpret Scripture." 2

Their Statement of Identity states that they regard themselves as:

"An inclusive People

bulletwho, gifted by a variety of backgrounds, find unity in diversity and diversity in unity;
bulletwho embrace a pluralism of race, ethnicity, and gender; and
bulletwho acknowledge that there are individual differences of conviction and theology. 3

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"The issue:" full inclusion or continued exclusion of homosexuals and some bisexuals:

As with other mainline North American religious denominations, the ABCUSA is in a deep crisis over homosexuality.

There are two major problems involved:

  1. The ethics of same-sex sexual behavior:  ABCUSA members typically rely on the Bible to answer ethical question such as this. Interpreting the Bible's message on homosexuality is troubling -- particularly the Bible's "six clobber passages" that many members believe refer to homosexual behavior. Members generally agree on what the Bible says; they are divided on what the Bible means and how to interpret it today.

    There is no mainline Christian ethical position, per se, about sexually active homosexuals and about bisexuals who are sexually active with members of the same sex. Rather there two conficting beliefs of exclusion and inclusion:

    bulletMany members in the ABCUSA's conservative wing believe that same-sex sexual behavior is inherently a serious sin -- no matter what the nature of the relationship. Some even consider it among the most serious of all sins; one that denies the participant access to Heaven.
    bulletMany members from the ABCUSA's liberal wing believe that homophobia -- rejection and oppression of homosexuals and bisexuals -- is the serious sin. They regard same-sex and opposite-sex behavior either as forbidden activity or a gift from God to be enjoyed, depending upon the nature of the relationship.

    The denomination's mission and identity statements are not applicable here. They refer to the ABCUSA being "ethnically diverse;" being inclusive; and creating an environment where people "of every race, nationality and culture" work together, Unfortunately, the statements only refer ethnicity, race, nationality and culture. They are silent on the topic of sexual orientation in its three forms: heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality.

    When deciding an ethical question, people are often heavily influenced by their secular culture. This is particularly noticeable in the case of the Anglican Communion. The 38 Anglican Provinces are all part of the same Anglican tradition. They use the same Bible. However, the Episcopal Church, USA and the Anglican Church of Canada are embedded in a culture that has abandoned much of its homophobia. Those churches are generally in favor of equality for homosexuals. The Anglican provinces in Africa are in the same Communion and use the same Bible. But they are embedded in cultures that are still profoundly homophobic. As a result, having an openly gay bishop, as in the case of the American Province, or blessing loving committed same-sex couples in the case of some dioceses in the Canadian Province is profoundly distressing to the African Anglicans. Stress over the homosexual issue may well trigger a schism in the Communion.

    The same dynamic happens in the ABCUSA. All regions use the same Bible and value their Baptist tradition. However, there are regions in the U.S. that are quite homophobic, and others that promote acceptance of people with all sexual orientations. Thus, we see some ABCUSA regions expelling inclusive congregations even as other regions welcome those same congregations back into fellowship.

  2. Individual and congregation freedom: American sociologist and educator Robert N. Bellah wrote, in 1998:

"What was so important about the Baptists ... was the absolute centrality of religious freedom, of the sacredness of individual conscience in matters of religious belief."

This is often referred to as soul freedom or soul liberty: the concept that an individual is capable of making religious and ethical decisions with the help of the Holy Spirit, without interference from their denomination or other outside group. The Commission on American Baptist Identity has emphasized that their denomination respects "individual difference of conviction and theology." 5

Added to soul liberty is a second principle that has been cherished by Baptists for centuries. This is church freedom: the autonomy of the local congregation. The two principles form a major part of what it means to be a Baptist.

The ABCUSA's emphasis on the autonomy of each congregation, on diversity, and on individual differences in belief clash with recent efforts by the denomination's regional organizations to expel congregations who are inclusive of homosexuals.

Most conservative ABCUSA members would prefer that the denomination exclude homosexuals involved in sexually active relationships. But some hesitate to advocate for this if it means that soul freedom and church autonomy are to be violated.

Since 1987:

bulletResolutions at biennial meetings,
bulletResolutions by the General Board,
bulletExpulsions of inclusively-minded congregations that treat gays, lesbians and transsexuals equally, and
bulletThreats by conservatively-minded congregations and regions to leave the denomination because it is too inclusive

indicate that gay/lesbian/transsexual equality is a festering controversy within the denomination that might produce a major schism.

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The 1991 task force:

A resolution passed at the ABCUSA biennial meeting in 1991 asked that a task force be created to "... guide us in our personal and collective thinking and spiritual development of a Christian perspective on sexuality". In their contacts with local congregations, the task force found that homosexuality was not a major item of concern. The membership had apparently reached a near consensus that human sexuality is a gift of God, but that homosexual behavior was incompatible with Christianity. The task force affirmed supportive friendships that are emotionally intimate, but reserved genital sexuality to monogamous, opposite-sex couples within a legal marriage. Their 1996 final report and bibliography did not even have a section on gay and lesbian issues; the latter were only mentioned indirectly as they relate to other sexual topics, such as celibacy, marriage, etc.

The reference books that the task force recommended teach that gays and lesbians should choose one of two options:

bulletChange their sexual orientation, -- a conversion that most gays, lesbians, bisexuals, mental health professionals, human sexuality researchers, and religious liberals believe is impossible impossible to achieve for all or essentially all adults.
bulletRemain celibate. For most, having a lifetime without a partner is an extremely heavy load to bear.

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References:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "ABCUSA Mission Statement," (2005) at: http://www.abc-usa.org/
  2. "10 facts you should know about American Baptists," at: http://www.abc-usa.org/ This is a PDF file.
  3. "American Baptist identity statement," 2005-NOV, at: http://www.abc-usa.org/
  4. Robert N. Bellah, "Is There a Common American Culture?," The Journal for the American Academy of Religion, Volume 66, Number 3, (1998-Fall), Pages 613-625. Online at: http://www.robertbellah.com/
  5. "Pastor Peg," "Why I am an American Baptist," 2005-JUN-05, First Baptist Church, Lafayette, IN, at: http://www.firstbaptistlafayette.org/

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Copyright 1999 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1999-NOV-28.
Latest update: 2008-JAN-15
Author: B.A. Robinson

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