Atlanta assoc. executive committee takes steps to dismiss Oakhurst

ATLANTA (BP)--The Atlanta Baptist Association's executive committee has voted to apply updated bylaws to member churches, specifically asking Oakhurst Baptist Church to either comply or withdraw by Oct. 31 or face expulsion from the association. The issue in question is the church's affirmation of homosexuality by allowing practicing homosexuals to serve in leadership positions.

The motion to take action in regard to Oakhurst passed by the required two-thirds majority during an Aug. 27 executive committee meeting. The vote was 44 to 20. Despite the divided vote, the association's moderator, Robert F. Browning, pastor of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, described the meeting as very civil in spirit. "People disagreed without being disagreeable," he said. "Everyone was treated with respect and courtesy regardless of his or her opinions."

The Atlanta Baptist Association has been at the center of controversy since last year when the association's membership committee failed to dismiss two churches, Oakhurst of Decatur and Virginia-Highland of Atlanta. Individuals within the association had called for their dismissal on grounds that the two churches were affirming of the homosexual lifestyle with their policies of ordaining individuals and allowing them to serve in leadership positions without regard to their sexual orientation. The churches also were open to their facilities being used for union services of homosexual couples.

The Georgia Baptist Convention had already dismissed the two churches after changing the convention's bylaws to specifically deal with the situation. But the association's membership committee stated at that time that there were no specific bylaws within the association that would support the ouster of the churches. A motion was introduced at the association spring meeting March 12 that would specifically exclude from membership churches that "affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior." The motion passed by a two-thirds majority, but a subsequent vote to immediately dismiss the two churches failed to get the two-thirds majority needed.

The matter was then referred to the association's membership committee. That committee met earlier this summer and made the recommendation to the association's executive committee that the bylaws be implemented in regard to Oakhurst Baptist Church. Virginia-Highland Baptist Church had already withdrawn from the association voluntarily.

The divided vote at the annual spring meeting of Atlanta Baptist Association, which had counted 152 affiliated churches, resulted in a number of them leaving to form a new association, the Atlanta Association of Southern Baptists, which now counts 44 affiliated churches. The Atlanta Baptist Association's failure to dismiss the two churches also resulted in decisions by the Georgia Baptist Convention and North American Mission Board to remove all funding to ministries of the association at the end of this year.

As a result of the Aug. 27 action, missions gifts from the state convention and NAMB will remain intact, but the new association now in existence likely will share in future missions funding from those Baptist entities.

"The recent action of the ABA makes it possible for us to fully restore the relationship," said J. Robert White, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Convention. "I am very pleased that the executive committee of the Atlanta association has taken action to resolve this crisis. The recent action has strengthened my confidence in the cooperative relationship of state conventions and associations. Significant crises can be resolved through diligent effort, extensive communication and, most of all, the leadership of the Holy Spirit."

A letter sent from the association to Oakhurst states that if the church does not change its practices of ordaining homosexuals for leadership posts, it will be "removed from membership automatically," the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Sept. 6.

The church's interim minister, Melanie Vaughn-West, told the newspaper, "We accept that this is what the executive committee has voted." She also noted, "Changing our covenant isn't an option." The church's senior pastor, Lanny Peters, returns from a sabbatical Sept. 18.

Browning said he sees the lengthy process for dealing with this issue as being a healthy one: "Few associations would have studied this issue, allowed discussion and taken three votes. The process reveals the compassion of the ABA leadership. We agonized over the fact that churches in the association were at odds with each other and tried valiantly to resolve differences."

Browning went on to say, "I am grateful for the churches and leaders who stayed with the ABA to give us time to work out our differences while maintaining our social ministries. People are more important than ideology, rules or timetables, especially those who are depending upon our ministries for food, clothing and shelter."

White stated that "it was never in the heart of the [state] convention to hurt the ABA missionaries." Those who would have lost their funding through ABA at the end of the year would have been permitted to continue their work under the auspices of the convention and NAMB if they chose to do so. "I am thankful that it appears this augmented approach will be unnecessary," White said.

"We knew from the beginning this was going to be a lengthy process," said Joel Harrison, lead missionary for Atlanta Baptist Association. "The issue was complicated by the fact that our churches were generally supportive of Oakhurst church as being innovative and on the cutting edge of social issues like racism and ministries with groups such as the disabled. But on this particular issue, the association has made its decision following due process and I hope we will all agree to part as friends."

Harrison went on to say he appreciated all the prayers and support of people throughout Georgia during this difficult period. "We have received calls all year from people we did not know saying that they were praying for our association and for our staff."


Art Toalston contributed to this article.

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