UPDATE: SBC messengers sever ties with Texas church over gay members

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (ABP) -- It took messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting June 23 only 30 seconds to sever a 125-year relationship with a prominent Texas congregation because of the church’s perceived toleration of gay members.



Voting in the opening session of their annual meeting in Louisville, the messengers chose overwhelmingly to dismiss Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth. They did so on a recommendation the convention’s Executive Committee approved, without dissent, the day before.

The recommendation did not specifically mention homosexuality. But that issue has been the backdrop of controversy at the church since late 2007, when a dispute arose regarding whether to include pictures of same-sex couples alongside other families in the church’s membership directory.

The decision is the first time the SBC has ejected a church for violating a policy prohibiting affiliation with pro-gay churches despite the congregation's contention that it was not in violation of the rule.

"We are disappointed with the decision of the Southern Baptist Convention," said Kathy Madeja, the church's deacon chair, in a statement released shortly after the vote June 23. "Our mission at Broadway is and will continue to be consistent with the SBC’s stated enterprise of reaching the world for Christ. Like other SBC churches, membership at Broadway is by acceptance of Jesus as Savior and Lord and the experience of believer’s baptism by immersion.

"We do not believe Broadway has taken any action which would justify its being deemed not in friendly cooperation with the SBC. It is unfortunate that the Southern Baptist Convention decided otherwise and has severed its affiliation with Broadway Baptist Church."

At last year's SBC annual meeting in Indianapolis, Bill Sanderson, pastor of Hephzibah Baptist Church in Wendell, N.C., made a motion to declare Broadway not "in friendly cooperation" with the convention -- the SBC's constitutional language describing affiliation.

A work group of the Executive Committee met with church leaders Feb. 17 and asked for more information to clarify whether the church complies with an article in the SBC constitution banning churches that "act to affirm, approve or endorse homosexual behavior."

In late 2007 and early 2008, Broadway was embroiled in a controversy over the directory photos. The congregation eventually reached a compromise, agreeing not to family-by-family photos, but rather group and candid shots of all church members.

The controversy was highly publicized by bloggers as well as local and national media outlets. Sanderson made his motion for Broadway's ouster several months after the compromise vote.

The Executive Committee recommended "that the cooperative relationship between the Convention and church cease, and that the church's messengers not be seated, until such time as the church unambiguously demonstrates its friendly cooperation with the convention" under the constitution's article on membership.

August Boto, the Executive Committee's executive vice president and general counsel, sent an April 21 letter to Broadway officials. It said members of the committee had received information from people with firsthand knowledge of the church showing "rather pointedly that there is a clear divergence between the prevalent views of the Convention on the topic and those of your church."

Boto said the church needed to respond to a series of questions about the church's stance on homosexuality in order to "protect the reputation of the Convention."

Broadway's deacons responded in a May 21 letter saying specific questions in Boto's letter were "the same rumors that were circulated about Broadway during the last year" and that after February's meeting, "We should not now have to respond to innuendo and gossip."

Broadway did not send any representatives to the June 22 Executive Committee meeting and did not elect messengers to the convention meeting.

Church officials declined to discuss to speak on the record about specific allegations that SBC officials raised with them. But, in materials provided to the Executive Committee during its investigation, a Broadway staff member denied violating the SBC constitution.

“Broadway never has taken any church action to affirm, approve or endorse homosexual behavior,” Jorene Taylor Swift, the church's minister of congregational care, wrote to Boto.

“Broadway Baptist Church considers itself to be in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention and has every intention of remaining so,” Swift wrote.

In fact, the church decided to publish its membership directory “with candid photographs of our members participating in many ministries and activities of Broadway,” she said. “One of the factors in choosing this style of directory was our belief that it does not make a statement to anyone to indicate that Broadway has in any way affirmed, approved or endorsed homosexual behavior.”

Swift’s letter acknowledged the church’s membership reflects “a variety of views” on homosexuality. “Like a number of other Southern Baptist churches, our congregation is trying to understand how to minister to those who are engaged in a homosexual lifestyle,” she added. “Our church has not adopted the position that the Bible condones this behavior.”

The Broadway deacons' May 21 to Boto addressed the “innuendo and gossip” regarding the church’s position on homosexuality.

“We have not denied that we, like most other churches, have a few gay members,” the deacons’ letter said. “We do not inquire about sexual orientation when people present themselves for membership. We do require their profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord followed by believer’s baptism.”

The deacons’ letter confirmed Swift’s statement that the church has not acted to “affirm, approve or endorse homosexual behavior.”

“Broadway Baptist Church desires to maintain its longstanding and historic affiliation with the SBC,” the letter said. “We believe our continued association with the Southern Baptist Convention will benefit both Broadway and the convention and further the kingdom of God.

Broadway was established in 1882. Today its main affiliation is with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a moderate breakaway group that formed in 1991. But the congregation was long prominent in Southern Baptist life, and a few church members still teach at nearby Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Southwestern requires its professors to belong to Southern Baptist churches. Those members will now have to choose between their job and their church.

The SBC changed its constitution in 1993 to exclude churches that are welcoming and affirming of gays. Previously the amendment was interpreted to apply only to churches that take some formal action, like ordaining or licensing a gay minister or conducting a ceremony to bless a same-sex union, but in 2006 an SBC-affiliated state convention with a similar policy said a church could be expelled for simply being perceived as affirming homosexual behavior.

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Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press. Marv Knox is editor of the Texas Baptist Standard. ABP Managing Editor Robert Marus contributed to this story.

Previous related ABP stories:

SBC Executive Committee postpones vote on ouster of Broadway Baptist (2/17)

Fort Worth congregation subject of latest Internet-fueled struggle (2/21/2008)