News: Decatur church warned of future GBC action

Ga. Baptist leaders warn of further action against church with female pastor
By John Pierce
Baptists Today

DECATUR, Ga. — In her church newsletter column dated Jan. 23, pastor Julie Pennington-Russell of the First Baptist Church of Decatur, Ga., reported on a Jan. 7 visit by representatives of the Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) who warned her that some unidentified individuals within the convention are seeking a formal “withdrawal of fellowship” from the congregation.

Pennington-Russell reported that Executive Director Robert 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, the convention is also free to decide with whom they will relate.

It was the first direct communication since the convention drafted and passed a somewhat-veiled motion in November 2008 permitting GBC leaders to reject mission funds from the congregation and to prohibit First Baptist members from having representation in the convention. The action was in response to the church calling a female pastor — Pennington-Russell — in August 2007.

She told church members that the GBC representatives explained 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.

“Not sure I’d heard correctly, I pressed a little,” she wrote in the column. “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?”

White said he would be willing to help “personally” in such a situation, but not as an official representative of the GBC, Pennington-Russell reported.

“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,” she wrote. “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.”

She said the congregation must be on guard against “missing the point” as well.

“May God save us from the deadly notion that this church exists to provide goods and services for eligible ‘members,’” she continued. “…We exist to follow Jesus into gospel adventures of all kinds in collaboration with all God’s people, whatever their denominational preferences or doctrinal stances.”

Pennington-Russell acknowledged that the church has “kingdom-focused” relationships with other organizations such as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Willow Creek Association, the Baptist World Alliance and the Atlanta Metro Baptist Association.

Pennington-Russell told Baptists Today that she has received “an overwhelmingly positive response” to the column from church members. Though the GBC’s action last November received much media attention, she said, it was “barely a blip on the radar at Decatur First Baptist.”

In meeting with convention leaders and in writing the column, Pennington-Russell said her goal was “to be kind and to be honest.” She expects the church will take no formal action in response to the convention: “That’s not what we are all about.”

The pastor and congregation are giving their attention to the church’s growing ministries, she said, aimed at reaching persons in the community with no church connections. Last year, largely through a growing second worship service, the congregation added dozens of new members including the baptism of 21 persons, nine of whom were adults.

Pennington-Russell said she envisions the church reaching many more in the days ahead.

“It certainly indicates the direction we are going,” she said. “And that is a high priority for us.”

Any additional GBC action against the church would have very little impact on the congregation, she predicted. Most, she said, “already consider ourselves disfellowshipped” by the earlier decision to reject mission funds from the church.

Only about 13 members — some with relatives serving as Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) missionaries — direct their mission gifts to SBC causes through the church, she said. The church will find a way for them to continue that support if they wish, she added.

Pennington-Russell described the meeting with GBC representatives as friendly — but late in the decision-making process.

“It just seemed so odd to me that all of this would happen without [convention leaders and church leaders] looking eye-to-eye,” she said.

White, the GBC executive director, was asked by Baptists Today about the convention’s intentions regarding further action against the Decatur church, the public relations impact of the decision and the result of refusing mission gifts during an economic downturn.

“I have no comment for you on these matters,” he responded.

(Baptists Today is an independent, national news journal based in Macon, Ga.)


  1. It will be interesting to see what some of the Memphis Declaration Folks including Adrian Rogers son David, Harry Dents Daughter Ginny Brant–former IMB trustee; Anne Graham Lotz and Truett Cathy and Chic Fil A make of this action.
    Susan Shaw of West Rome and the book on her Mom’s Bible Study would be interesting interview on the matter as well, not to mention Jim Henry.
    I would hope the AJC would ask them soon.
    In the interim Wade Burleson who was a force in the election of the Taylors SBC Pastor as SBC Prez has made the following statement at

    And I Quote:

    The Reasons the Questions Must Be Pointed
    by Wade Burleson on Tue Jan 27, 2009 10:20 am


    Thanks for pointing out the faulty link. Attribution for your quote about Julie Pennington-Russell has been corrected. I realize that you are not sure how you feel about airing the problems at Tom Hatley’s church, but since the Georgia Baptist Convention has very little problem airing their “displeasure” at FBC Decatur, and since the Convention is now making a “disfellowship” move toward FBC, Decatur I am putting the Convention leadership on notice that this action will not be done without other Southern Baptists being direct, and at times sharp, in our questioning of their intended course. However, If I were reading my post impartially, I would come away believing my words to be much more critical towards Dr. White, the Executive Director of the Georgia Baptist Convention. His integrity is at stake. I use the situation at IBC and pastor Tom Hatley as illustrative of what you call: (1) the highly selective practice of disfellowshipping, (2) the poor handling of disfellowshipping a church, (3) the shadow of stupidity cast on all the SBC because of GBC, (4) the difficulty or impossibility to justify the action on the basis of consistency, and (5) the lack of kingdom value in such an action. Those pushing to disfellowship from FBC Decatur argue they are being “faithful” to the biblical text. I am asking, as loudly as I can, “What about all the other qualities the Bible commands a pastor to possess? Are you going to disfellowship from those churches who call pastors who lack self-control, gentleness, etc . . . or are you simply singling out those churches that call a “female”?” Obviously, I believe that we should leave both churches, IBC, Rogers and FBC, Decatur alone, and let the local church practice their autonomy without interference from outsiders. My post is to point out the inconsistency of the act of disfellowship.

    To you point number four, which affirms precisely what I am saying, I would like to add two thoughts:

    First, there is a measure of consistency in this new found practice of Convention’s or SBC agencies “disfellowshipping,” “removing,” or “publicly denigrating” those who disagree with various interpretations of the sacred text. Those in power are always the ones who determine what should be believed, and those in power are the ones always removing the dissenters.

    Second, until those without the power are unafraid to confront such un-christian, absurd and definitely un-baptistic abuses of power by SBC trustee and denominational leaders, there will never be a stop put to it in the Southern Baptist Convention.

    I am doing my part to make it end.

    The world is too dangerous to live in – not because of the people who do evil but because of the people who sit and let it happen.

    Albert Einstein

  2. My interview with Susan Shaw appears as the cover story in the Feb. issue of Baptists Today coming out this week. We discuss the GBC-Decatur FBC matter.

  3. Wade has another interesting post today. Honestly, it is folks like Wade (don’t know how many there are, but) who give me some hope for the SBC……..but very little hope.

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