GREENSBORO — On Nov. 13, delegates of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina overwhelmingly voted to expel Charlotte’s Myers Park Baptist Church for welcoming LGBT worshippers.
Myers Park is the first church to be expelled under a 2006 N.C. Baptist Convention policy against churches that “affirm, approve, endorse, promote, support or bless homosexual behavior.”
With a congregation of close to 2,000 members, Myers Park is the first church to be expelled under new convention policies passed in 2006 excluding from fellowship churches “which knowingly act to affirm, approve, endorse, promote, support or bless homosexual behavior.”
The expulsion controversy started in February when the church’s board of deacons penned a letter to convention officials “outing” themselves and their gay-friendly theology. In the letter, deacons asked convention leaders to visit with the church and join them in “all facets of our church life, including our worship, Christian education, mission outreach and all of the other activities of our congregation.”
In the letter, Myers Park deacons also implored the convention to operate in a fashion befitting a Baptist institution.
“We hope that a Baptist Convention operating in the spirit of the Baptist principles of soul competence, soul freedom and local church autonomy would provide for a wider range of scriptural interpretation than your decision indicates,” the letter read. “We are also concerned about what other differences of scriptural interpretation the Convention might use in the future to exclude North Carolina churches.”
The day before the full convention meeting, the statewide fellowship’s executive committee met and voted to expel Myers Park. According to reports, there were no dissenting votes and two abstentions. The church appealed the decision, placing the matter before the full body of convention members.
In the church’s written appeal, Myers Park Senior Pastor Stephen Shoemaker noted, “We could base the unity of our fellowship on any number of issues of Biblical interpretation: speaking in tongues, war, abortion, death penalty, divorce, homosexuality and on and on. Let us base our unity on Jesus Christ as Lord and his call to discipleship and on the competence and freedom of the individual to open scripture and interpret for his or her life guided by the Spirit of God.”
Shoemaker compared Myers Park’s journey of faith to that of St. Peter, the early Christian leader who struggled with acceptance of non-Jews into the first century church.
Nancy Walker, a lesbian member of the church’s board of deacons, wrote a letter recalling a time when some of her gay friends were not welcome with their own families for Christmas. She invited them to spend the holiday with her.
“We could debate Bible verses until God calls us all home,” she added, “but I don’t think it is the purpose of this Baptist body to interpret scripture for all Baptists by majority vote. It is certainly not in our great Baptist tradition to do so.”
Prior to the vote on the Myers Park’s membership, Shoemaker addressed the crowd of 3,000 delegates, or “messengers.”
“Jesus welcomed those considered outcasts and sinners by his culture and religion,” he said. “We hope we live in his spirit.”
According to The Charlotte Observer, the convention’s board president, Allen Blume, argued to the gathering that sinners should turn away from sin and further suggested that Myers Park Baptist was interested mostly in publicity.
He added that the church “has chosen to exclude itself from fellowship.”
The motion to disassociate passed with a showing of hand-held ballots. According to the Observer only a dozen or so delegates voted in favor of Myers Park remaining in the fold.
The Rev. Susan Parker, associate pastor of Wake Forest Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, said Myers Park “tried to give the convention a chance to act like Baptists again.” She continued, “If you don’t recognize local autonomy, I don’t know how you can call yourself a Baptist.”
In 2000, Parker’s church was dismissed from the state convention when a holy union service was held for her and her partner.
“The important thing is for the larger world to continue seeing that when someone says they are Baptist you can’t assume you know what that means,” the openly lesbian pastor said. “Yes, there is a Southern Baptist Convention but there are also all these other churches. Don’t let the Southern Baptists define the terms for you.”
Wake Forest and Myers Park are members of the Alliance of Baptists, a fellowship that upholds historic Baptist principles of church autonomy. The Alliance’s affiliated congregations are mostly LGBT-inclusive. There are almost 20 Alliance of Baptist congregations in North Carolina and four in South Carolina.
Immediately following the convention’s vote to expel Myers Park, Human Rights Campaign Religion and Faith Director Harry Knox said that his group stands “with the principles taught by Jesus by defending those the church and society seek to marginalize.” Knox thanked Shoemaker and other Myers Park members “for their prophetic witness in the face of the denomination’s miscarriage of God’s call to justice,” and said the church’s stand “called the convention to live up to Jesus’ standard and not down to the level of their basest fears.”
In a statement on the N.C. Baptist Convention’s website, Executive Director Milton Hollified, Jr. said, “The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina has no desire to alienate or harm those who are practicing homosexuals. Our motive is to faithfully obey Holy Scripture regarding homosexuality. All who struggle with homosexuality will find help and healing in the person of Christ, and we, as His body, desire to faithfully serve those who seek deliverance and restoration from this and all sin.”
Since the passage of the 2006 policy, six churches have voluntarily left the convention. Convention leaders said Myers Park’s expulsion required special treatment because it had not yet instituted a “formal process to address a church that voluntarily stated they were in violation of the Convention’s requirement regarding homosexuality.”
On the Sunday following the church’s expulsion, Shoemaker spoke to his Myers Park congregation.
“I must say this morning feels a bit like Easter morning to me,” he said, “Something old is dying and something new is being born. There is grief and there is unbridled joy as at the birth of a baby. The grief is of an old dream dying. I remember as a young minister going to the North Carolina Baptist Convention and thinking and dreaming that one day I would preach the convention sermon. Young ambition, I guess. This week my friend preached the convention sermon and I got kicked out. But I wouldn’t change places for the world.”
— For more information, visit Myers Park Baptist Church online at www.mpbconline.org