Point: Sorting out the BGCT, LGBT and Baptist autonomy

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Editor’s note: The Waco Tribune-Herald originally published this column, and the Baptist Standard received permission to reprint it, along with a response written by David Currie, former executive director of Texas Baptists Committed. To read Currie’s Counterpoint column, click here.

As a Baptist theologian, I read the Trib article “Baptist churches react to LGBT ruling” with interest and some dismay. So far as I could tell, not one Baptist theologian or church historian was interviewed. Decisions such as this one by a Baptist convention have theological reasons and implications that Baptist theologians and historians best understand.

RogerOlsonRoger OlsonFirst, in Baptist theology, “church autonomy” includes the right of a voluntary association of Baptists such as the Baptist General Convention of Texas to make decisions that exclude fellow Baptists from it. That’s also part of Baptist belief in church autonomy. A Baptist convention has no power to control a Baptist congregation unless it receives funding from it. Excluding a congregation from a Baptist convention or conference does not affect its autonomy; it is still Baptist and can continue to operate freely.

Second, being Baptist never has meant “anything goes.” There’s an old saying that every Baptist’s hat is his own church. That’s an extreme version of the Baptist distinctive of “soul competency” and does not fit with traditional Baptist customs and habits that long included church discipline. In the past, especially, almost every Baptist church had a “church covenant”—often published in the hymnal—members pledged to believe and obey. When they didn’t, they were subject to church discipline, including possible expulsion.

Third, there is no one anywhere with the authority or power to declare someone not a Baptist. There is no Baptist pope. As editor of the 14th edition of the Handbook of Denominations in the United States, I have found literally scores of Baptist denominations in the United States but no overall Baptist headquarters or hierarchy. Being excluded from a Baptist convention or conference doesn’t put a dent in a congregation’s being Baptist. Nobody has that authority or power.

Fourth, very few, if any, Baptists would say their Baptist congregation or convention should include just anyone regardless of their beliefs or practices. In my experience as a Baptist theologian for 30-plus years, and as someone who has belonged to 10 Baptist churches and four Baptist denominations, no Baptist group really believes in “no limits” to church membership or absolutely open membership in a Baptist convention or conference.

I once had a friend who pastored a Baptist church that advertised itself as “liberal,” which he defined as “inclusive.” I asked him if his church would welcome into membership a fundamentalist. He responded that it would help him find a different Baptist church to join.

Fifth, when a Baptist church is expelled from one convention or conference, it can easily find others with which to affiliate and have fellowship. The options are wildly many and astoundingly diverse.

Some “moderate Baptists” like to think being Baptist means absolute freedom of thought and action—both on the part of the individual and on the part of the church. That is not traditional Baptist theology. It is a modern accommodation to America’s culture as expressed in the advertising mantra “no limits.”

Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary.

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