By Vicki Brown, Word&Way Associate Editor
Members of University Heights Baptist Church, Springfield, have officially recognized the possibility that the congregation may no longer be considered a cooperating Missouri Baptist Convention church.
In an open letter adopted on Jan. 25, members cited messenger action at the 2005 MBC annual meeting to tighten requirements for churches to remain part of the convention.
Although church members had planned to wait until the convention forced them out, they decided to publicly express their understanding of the messengers' action.
Church won't sacrifice autonomy
In an open letter sent to MBC executive director David Clippard, church members noted, "Today, like our founders, we believe in the autonomy of the local church, and we believe that Christians should work together in ministry and evangelism….
"We should not and cannot surrender our autonomy and submit to the control of the Missouri Baptist Convention as would be required for us to remain a partner."
Messengers to the annual meeting adopted two constitutional amendments that significantly narrowed affiliation requirements. Under those requirements, often referred to as single alignment, churches now must be aligned only with the Southern Baptist and Missouri Baptist conventions to be considered cooperating MBC churches.
As approved, the membership article permits MBC-affiliated churches to relate to racial, ethnic, cultural and community organizations and conventions, as long as those relationships do not violate the MBC constitution and bylaws or "accepted Southern Baptist faith, polity and practice."
Intent of single alignment
At the annual session, MBC leaders and messengers clearly pointed out that single alignment targets churches that want to be dually aligned with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship or the Baptist General Convention of Missouri, while maintaining historic ties to the MBC and SBC. But they did not list those organizations by name in the documents.
Messengers also voted to make the MBC credentials committee a standing committee and adopted guidelines to determine which churches no longer meet membership requirements.
But messengers did not touch the grandfather clause in the constitution's membership article. Section 2 of that article allows churches dually aligned in 1961 and earlier to remain in fellowship with the MBC.
Dually aligned since 1945
University Heights has been dually aligned with the SBC and the American Baptist Convention and has been a cooperating MBC church since its beginning in 1945.
According to ABC historical records, 13 Missouri Baptist Convention churches also were considered American Baptist congregations. Those congregations included Bethel, First and Little Bonne Femme Baptist churches in Columbia; Roanoke and Broadway Baptist churches in Kansas City; Delmar, Des Peres, Third, Webster Groves, Fourth and West Park Baptist churches in St. Louis; and Southern Heights and University Heights Baptist churches in Springfield.
Only five ABC churches
Today only five of those MBC churches maintain ties to the American Baptist Convention — Third, Delmar and Des Peres in St. Louis; First Baptist Church, Columbia; and University Heights — according to the ABC's Web site.
While the constitutional changes do not name specific organizations and conventions, the guidelines spell out specific requirements for MBC churches. The convention will consider a church as cooperating with another body if it sends representatives to another organization's meetings, financially supports its work or includes the organization in the church's budget.
MBC congregations must also be a cooperating Southern Baptist church, which the MBC defines as adopting a doctrinal statement in line with accepted faith and practice, contributing financially to the SBC, and refraining from participating with or contributing to another national convention.
University Heights has cooperated with the American Baptist Convention in all the ways in which the MBC's new guidelines do not allow. But University Heights has been doing so since 1945.
Ten-year CBF affiliation
The Springfield church also is affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a relationship the congregation has had for 10 years.
The church stopped sending Cooperative Program funds to the Southern Baptist Convention in 2001, but continues to send mission gifts and other designated money to the national body.
University Heights pastor Michael Olmsted said in a telephone interview that two years ago, he had been told unofficially the church would be forced out of the MBC once single alignment was adopted.
Rick Seaton, chairman of the credentials committee, declined to comment on how the grandfather clause will be interpreted in light of the constitutional changes and new guidelines. Because the updated documents do not identify specific organizations, apparently University Heights falls under the constitution's grandfather clause.
MBC president Ralph Sawyer could not be reached for comment by press time.