The Oklahoman

Southern Baptists oust 2 churches over LGBTQ inclusion

- By David Crary

The Southern Baptist Convention's executive committee recently voted to oust four of its churches, two over policies deemed to be too inclusive of LGBTQ people and two more for employing pastors convicted of sex offenses.

The actions were announced at a meeting on Tuesday that was marked by warnings from two top leaders that the SBC, the largest Protestant denominati­on in the United States, was damaging itself with divisions over several critical issues, including race.

"We should mourn when closet racists and neoConfede­rates feel more at home in our churches than do many of our people of color," said the SBC's president, J.D. Greear, in his opening speech.

The two churches expelled for LGBTQ inclusion were St. Matthews Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and Towne View Baptist Church, in Kennesaw, Georgia.

Towne View's pastor, the Rev. Jim Conrad, told The

Associated Press last week that he would not appeal the ouster and plans to affiliate his church, at least temporaril­y, with The Cooperativ­e Baptist Fellowship, which lets churches set their own LGBTQ policies.

Towne View began admitting LGBTQ worshipper­s as members in October 2019 after a same-sex couple with three adopted children asked Conrad if they could attend, a decision he defends as the right thing to do.

"The alternativ­e would

have been to say, `We're probably not ready for this,' but I couldn't do that,” said Conrad, pastor there since 1994.

St. Matthews Baptist was among more than 12 churches that lost their affiliatio­n with the Kentucky Baptist Convention in 2018 because they made financial contributi­ons to the Cooperativ­e Baptist Fellowship, which had recently lifted a ban on hiring LGBTQ employees.

In a statement Tuesday, St. Matthews said the SBC's decision to oust it was based on its LGBTQ-inclusive membership policy — which asserts that “a belief in Jesus as personal Savior is the sole criterion for membership in our Church.”

“Nothing in the Southern Baptist Convention's decision changes St. Matthews Baptist Church's deep commitment to carrying out what God calls us to do in our worship and spiritual growth,” the church said.

SBC officials said West Side Baptist Church in Sharpsvill­e, Pennsylvan­ia, was ousted because it “knowingly employs as pastor a registered sex offender,” while Antioch Baptist Church in Seviervill­e, Tennessee, has a pastor who was convicted of statutory rape.

Baptist Press, the SBC's official news agency, identified the Antioch Baptist pastor as John Randy Leming Jr., and said he had pleaded guilty in 1998 to two counts of statutory rape for oral sex with a 16-year-old congregant when he pastored at nearby Shiloh Baptist Church in Sevier County in 1994. The Associated Press was unable to find a working phone number for Leming's church, and there was no immediate reply to a message sent via its Facebook page.

West Side Baptist had made clear on its website that its pastor, David Pearson, has a troubled past.

“Over 29 years ago Pastor David lived as a great sinner and rebel,” the site says. “But Christ Jesus is a great Savior! Today Pastor David has gone from disgrace to amazing grace and now has served the Lord Jesus Christ at West Side for 18 years.”

Pearson is listed on Florida's sex-offender registry as having been convicted of sexual assault of a child in Texas in 1993.

Addressing tensions

Also on Tuesday's agenda was a report by an executive committee task force about the SBC's public policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and its president, the Rev. Russell Moore. Moore has dismayed some SBC conservati­ves with various stances — including criticism of former President Donald Trump and support for a more welcoming immigratio­n policy.

But the executive committee took no action on the report, declining to embrace some recommenda­tions aimed at reining in Moore's outspokenn­ess.

The two-day meeting opened Monday in Nashville, Tennessee, with a schedule featuring speeches by Greear and executive committee President Ronnie Floyd bemoaning the multiple acrimoniou­s divisions within the denominati­on.

“This sound of war in the camp of Southern Baptists is concerning to me, and I know it is also concerning to many of you,” Floyd said. “While we hear and see how the American culture is so out of control, my friends, our own culture within the Southern Baptist family is also out of control.”

Floyd noted that the divisions mirror ideologica­l, political and racial difference­s nationwide.

“In this fever-pitch environmen­t, each of us needs to be very careful with the words we write, speak, tweet or post,” he said. “As SBC leaders and followers of Jesus, our public behavior matters.”

Greear addressed racial tensions in the SBC, a longstandi­ng problem that recently has been rekindled. Some Black pastors have left the SBC and others are voicing dismay over pronouncem­ents by the SBC's six seminary presidents — all of them white — restrictin­g how the subject of systemic racism can be taught at their schools.

Going forward, Greear said, Black Southern Baptists should be included in discussion­s on this topic, including the SBC's stance toward the concept of Critical Race Theory, which the seminary presidents repudiated.

“The reality is that if we in the SBC had shown as much sorrow for the painful legacy that racism and discrimina­tion has left in our country as we have passion to decry CRT, we probably wouldn't be in this mess,” Greear said

“Do we want to be a Gospel people, or a Southern culture people? Which is the more important part of our name — Southern or Baptist?”

After the two speeches, the executive committee unanimousl­y adopted an expansion plan called Vision 2025. It would increase full-time Southern Baptist internatio­nal missionari­es from 3,700 to 4,200, boost the number of congregati­ons by 5,000 and seek to reverse the decline in baptizing 12- to 17-year-olds.

Floyd said SBC churches are baptizing 38% fewer teenagers than in 2000.

 ?? [AP FILE PHOTO] ?? The Rev. Jim Conrad stands Feb. 18 in the Towne View Baptist Church in Kennesaw, Georgia.
[AP FILE PHOTO] The Rev. Jim Conrad stands Feb. 18 in the Towne View Baptist Church in Kennesaw, Georgia.

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