Editorial: Boundaries: When does agreeing to disagree become separation?

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When is it necessary to separate? Boundaries help answer that question for both parties.

The answer to the question about how the Baptist General Convention of Texas would respond to University Baptist Church in Waco turned out to be far less dramatic than the happenings of November 2016 and February 2017. I attribute this in part to a clearly defined boundary.

Repeated statements by the BGCT regarding its position on sexuality did not clearly define whether or not full inclusion of same-sex marriage constituted a breach of fellowship with the BGCT in the way that two motions and a floor vote during the 2016 BGCT annual meeting established that boundary.

Setting the boundaries

Craig Christina, pastor of Shiloh Terrace Baptist Church in Dallas, brought a motion that “because of the historical and biblical positions of the BGCT as stated in multiple resolutions, motions and actions, that any church which affirms any sexual relationship outside the bonds of a marriage between one man and one woman be considered out of harmonious cooperation with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.” His motion passed, establishing a boundary between churches inside and outside of the BGCT.

Steve Wells, pastor of South Main Baptist Church in Houston, brought a motion that “the convention reserves to itself exclusively, through a two-thirds vote of its Executive Board, the authority to remove a congregation from harmonious cooperation.” He defined “harmonious cooperation” as “three actions on the part of the churches—prayer, financial support of the convention and engagement in the ministry of the convention.” His motion also passed, establishing the mechanism—or process—by which a church that affirms same-sex marriage could be excluded from the BGCT.

Following the passage of these two motions, the BGCT Executive Board voted in 2017 to exclude Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, First Baptist Church in Austin and Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco.

Boundaries contested

Not everyone agreed with the newly clarified boundary or the process by which it was established. Critics characterized the process as an assault on local church autonomy. Others reacted to a perceived shrinking of a big tent that mirrored moves by the Southern Baptist Convention.

Pastors of the three churches excluded from the BGCT each responded with sadness and agitation. Two characterized the Executive Board decision as “selective exclusionary practices” and “regressive.” All three referred to autonomy of the local church—either directly or by implication.

When the longstanding relationship between these churches and the BGCT came to an abrupt end, the agitation indicated a fuzzy boundary. Despite the BGCT stating its position on sexuality repeatedly over decades, despite precedent set prior to 2016 with the exclusion of churches like University Baptist Church in Austin in 1998 and Royal Lane Baptist Church in Dallas in 2010, some still understood or expected that churches ought to be able to align with the BGCT while affirming a differing understanding of sexuality.

When boundaries are fuzzy—when they are not clearly stated, understood or agreed upon—discord frequently results. Fuzzy boundaries leave people wondering what will lead to the break-up of a relationship, an anxiety-producing situation almost every time. Clear boundaries, even when disliked, can prevent discord and alleviate anxiety.

What boundaries can do

University Baptist Church in Waco came to a similar decision as Wilshire, First Austin and Lake Shore, but its separation from the BGCT was very different. Why? Because the boundary was understood clearly.

University Baptist entered its decision-making process knowing any affirmation of same-sex marriage meant the church was not in “harmonious cooperation” with the BGCT. As a result, when the church arrived at its position, its leaders knew at least one consequence of their autonomous decision and voluntarily withdrew from the BGCT without much fanfare.

Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth provided an earlier example, though its decision to withdraw voluntarily from the BGCT was preceded by some rancor.

Without knowing the closed-door conversations involved between Broadway, University Baptist and the BGCT, what we can see is the outworking of those conversations. In Broadway’s case, members had a clear boundary for themselves. They were going to affirm LGBTQ persons in their congregation and were not going to become embroiled any further in denominational strife. In University Baptist’s case, the BGCT has a clear boundary, and the church did not want to press the matter. In both cases, a less contentious parting was the result.

Another boundary to clarify

Same-sex marriage is not the only issue along which clear boundaries are helpful. Local church autonomy is another. All parties involved in the examples already mentioned refer to local church autonomy. The problem is they have differing understandings of the same concept.

One group says autonomy means they can hold theological positions contrary to the BGCT and still be affiliated. The other group says we respect your autonomy and are exercising ours by excluding you.

How can autonomy be used to support both inclusion and exclusion? Are differing understandings of autonomy operating? I think so.

What exactly constitutes autonomy of the local church is a boundary marker needing to be clarified—especially when it is used as a point of argument in disputes over inclusion versus exclusion.

A caution about boundaries

Those decrying the exclusion of churches from the BGCT over affirmation of same-sex marriage will caution us that boundaries make the BGCT too selective and less than Baptist. Indeed, boundaries can become addictive. We can draw the lines ever closer until eventually only a small group of nearly perfect churches qualify for inclusion. We do have to be careful.

Boundaries should not be exclusionary tactics. Boundaries should be clarifying tools. They should help us know where one group stops and another starts, and they should be clearly and consistently communicated so all sides can relate to one another more amiably.

A thorough-going discussion of local church autonomy would be a good exercise for the BGCT and its churches, if for no other reason than because same-sex marriage will not be the last or only issue over which we will disagree in front of a watching world.

Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at eric.black@baptiststandard.com or on Twitter at @EricBlackBSP. The views expressed are solely those of the author.

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