In a her church newsletter column, pastor Julie Pennington-Russell of the First Baptist Church of Decatur, Ga., reported on an early January visit by representatives of the Georgia Baptist Convention. (I will have a more complete news story early next week.)

It was the first direct communication since the convention passed a somewhat-veiled motion in November permitting leaders to reject mission funds from the congregation and to prohibit First Baptist members from having representation in the convention.

The GBC’s punitive action was in response to the church daring to call a female pastor — something some Southern Baptist men just bristle over.

Pennington-Russell reported that Executive Director Bob White — accompanied by GBC Church-Ministers Relations director Danny Watters and Christian Index editor Gerald Harris — informed her and two other church representatives that while the church is free to call the pastor of their own choosing (something known as local church autonomy that Baptists have valued for some 400 years now) the convention is also free to decide with whom they choose to relate.

Decatur First Baptist is not welcome in their clubhouse. Also, Pennington-Russell reported, the GBC leaders warned that “some individuals” are not satisfied with the action from last November and will likely move to formally “withdraw fellowship” from the Decatur church.

When she asked about the difference between the vote last year and the potential stronger action this year, Pennington-Russell said she was told that a formal “withdrawal of fellowship” would mean that the church could not receive materials or services from the GBC such as training in Vacation Bible School, Sunday school or evangelism.

Here’s how she explained it in the newsletter: “Not sure I’d heard correctly, I pressed a little. ‘Do you mean that if I called you up one day and said—”The Spirit is doing something amazing at First Baptist Decatur! Waves of men, women and teenagers are responding to God and are being baptized and we could use some additional help in giving them a good foundation. Could you send a team over to meet with our folks?”—are you telling me that the GBC wouldn’t want to help us with that?’”

The answer was “no”. Heroically, however, Bob White said he would be willing to help “personally” in such a situation, but not as an official representative of the GBC.

For Julie — and those of us who read of this ongoing, unnecessary, childish saga — there are lessons to be learned. Here are her good conclusions shared with her church family:

“Friends, in that hour-long conversation it became crystal clear to me why people are abandoning denominational structures in droves and why denominationalism as it exists today is doomed: It is largely missing the point. The denominational leaders in my office that day love people and care deeply about the gospel—I’m certain about that. But the sad reality is, most denominational organizations are stuck in bureaucratic systems that have forgotten why they exist in the first place.”

I have a few observations of my own:
1. Fundamentalism has no “stop” button. The circle keeps getting smaller; the noose gets tighter.
2. The Georgia Baptist Convention is clearly in a fundamentalist stranglehold.
3. The Decatur church (and any others wise enough to learn from this experience) are more effective apart from rather than connected to such hostile, myopic organizations.
4.The “fundamentalist clubhouse” concept is growing in my mind. (This is good editorial fodder.)

And one more point: a member of Decatur’s First Baptist Church told me recently that he has never been more excited about being involved in a congregation. More than 60 members joined last year, he said, while most churches inside the Atlanta perimeter are struggling. New converts are being baptized and people are giving generously to support innovative ministries to reach out into this diverse community.

The First Baptist Church of Decatur, Ga., is doing well. The buffoons guarding the old declining GBC clubhouse — no matter how many hostile actions they take — are irrelevant to them and to any other person or church wise enough to see the modern-day realities and move on.

[Photo from www.fbcdecatur.com)

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