By Vicki Brown, Word&Way Associate Editor
Jefferson City — At least eight churches have been targeted for exclusion from the Missouri Baptist Convention, based upon changes to the MBC constitution and bylaws annual meeting messengers adopted last year.
Over the past three weeks, some Missouri Baptist congregations have received an apparent form letter from the convention's credentials committee. The only specific concern the letter notes is that the churches to which it was sent have "been listed as being in some way associated" with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, either at the national or state level.
Congregations confirmed to have received the letter include Grace Point Baptist Church, Kansas City, and First Baptist churches of Cape Girardeau, Hamilton, Jefferson City, Lee's Summit, Sweet Springs and Smithville. Although it has not been affiliated with the convention for a number of years, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, also received the letter.
A copy was sent to six individuals at each church — the pastor, the trustee chair, the deacon chair, the church clerk, the Sunday School director and the Woman's Missionary Union director or equivalent.
Last year, messengers adopted changes that converted the credentials committee from temporary to standing status and that tightened affiliation requirements to include only churches that exclusively support the Missouri Baptist and Southern Baptist conventions.
In the past, the MBC president named a credentials committee at least 30 days prior to the convening of the annual meeting. The committee would deal with any challenge made to the seating of a church's messengers prior to or during the annual session.
The change now allows committee members to take up questions about a church's status or challenges to a church's messengers at any time throughout the year. The committee also can investigate "upon receipt or discovery of any information which causes the committee to believe" a church or individual does not qualify.
The committee's recent letter reminded targeted congregations that churches cannot include another denomination or convention in their budgets, financially support another such body's work, or vote to send messengers to another denomination or convention's meetings.
Aside from the reference to CBF, the committee made no specific charges and did not spell out what steps, if any, had already been pursued to verify each church's alleged association with CBF.
The committee did not ask for a personal meeting with the pastor or church leaders. Nor did it reveal from where committee members had learned about the alleged affiliation.
'...take necessary steps....'
Instead, even before noting the possibility the church had affiliated with another Baptist body, the committee "invited" the congregation to "take the necessary steps to protect your 'single alignment' status. We sincerely hope that you will do so; we love you and hope to strengthen our historic relationship through reaching out to you in this correspondence."
The letter pointed out that allowing members to designate gifts to bodies other than the MBC would not jeopardize the church's standing.
The committee also sent each church a copy of the brochure, "Questions & Answers Regarding the Committee on Continuing Review's 2004 Report."
Both First Baptist churches of Sweet Springs and Lee's Summit responded to the MBC letter with an appeal to their historic relationship with the MBC and laid the matter back at the convention's feet.
"The Missouri Baptist Convention may seek to exclude us from its membership because of our decision to add ministry partners. That will be a decision for the Missouri Baptist Convention," Sweet Springs pastor Charles Ahlemann wrote.
"Our hope is that the leadership of the Missouri Baptist Convention will recover the spirit of Jesus in its attitude and relationships. We fear the MBC has strayed strongly toward behaviors modeled by the Pharisees," his letter noted.
Lee's Summit pastor Scott Harrison wrote, "Please know that it is with sadness that we watch you end this historic relationship with us. We wish you the best and pray with you as we both share the gospel of Jesus Christ with this great state."
Both pastors acknowledged that their churches' budgets include CBF.
Local church autonomy
Ahlemann and Melvin "Pete" Hill, pastor of First Baptist Church, Smithville, stressed church autonomy.
"We believe that Christ cares more for our local church than for any particular convention, fellowship or association," Ahlemann wrote.
Hill pointed out, "We have also been a Baptist church that believes in the priesthood of the believer and the autonomy of the local church.... Our church has determined and will continue to determine for itself how we will spend mission monies."
The denominational relations committee at First Baptist Church, Jefferson City, reported to the congregation that it would send a response to the credentials committee, expressing disagreement with the MBC's interpretation of single alignment and requesting specific committee charges.
Some congregations had already indicated they might distance themselves from the MBC before the credentials committee sent its letter.
In a March letter, Overland Baptist Church pastor David Johnson noted the church would not force members to "choose a side."
Also in March, First Baptist Church, Savannah, formally informed MBC executive director David Clippard that because the convention's changes "define our church as excluded," the church would bypass the MBC and send its Cooperative Program funds directly to the SBC. The congregation no longer considers itself an MBC church.
The Savannah church has aligned with the Baptist General Convention of Missouri.
In June, credentials committee chairman Rick Seaton contacted Rock Falls Baptist Church, near Orrick, after that church also voted to send CP funds directly to the SBC.
After the single alignment provision was tightened, the church voted to send funds to the SBC, CBF of Missouri and the national CBF body.
In addition to Seaton, who is pastor of First Baptist Church, Kahoka, credentials committee members include Wesley Hammond, pastor of First Baptist Church, Paris; Bruce McCoy, pastor of Canaan Baptist Church, St. Louis; James McCullen, pastor of Liberty Baptist Church, Belgrade; and Eleanore Warner, a layperson from Eolia Baptist Church. Hammond, McCullen and Warner are MBC Executive Board members. (08-24-06)