Moderate Baptist group in Georgia closing doors - Word&Way

Moderate Baptist group in Georgia closing doors

ATHENS, Ga. (ABP) — A group formed 10 years ago to oppose fundamentalism in the Georgia Baptist Convention has decided to close up shop.

The Baptist Heritage Council of Georgia's board of directors voted in September to close the organization at the end of 2010, Executive Director Becky Matheny reported in the group's final newsletter dated November 2010.

Becky Matheny

Matheny said the economic downturn and changing denominational landscape led the board to decide "that the organization had done its job for this time and place."

"Certainly we are not saying that the task of educating Baptists in Georgia has ended," Matheny said. "All of us need to keep telling the story of Baptist history and the principles that have been the building blocks of our denomination in America."

Formed in April 2010, the Baptist Heritage Council is one of a number of statewide groups forming the Mainstream Baptist Network, moderate Baptists working locally to prevent the "conservative resurgence" inerrancy movement that captured the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s from trickling down to SBC-affiliated Baptist state conventions.

Mainstream networks in Texas and Virginia were successful in distancing themselves from the leadership of the national convention and charting a more independent route, but moderate Baptists in most other states eventually gave up the fight as their conventions drifted toward the right.

In Georgia, for example, the state convention is poised for the second straight year to expel a church for hiring a woman as pastor contrary to changes added to the Baptist Faith and Message confession of faith in 2010.

Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, wrote in an Oc. 14 blog that he was sorry to see the Georgia branch come to an end.

"One-by-one formal Mainstream Baptist organizations have been shutting down as historic Baptist distinctives have lost their appeal to most Baptists in the South," Prescott commented.

"There's little room for prophets in Baptist life any more," Prescott said. "Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians own the brand."

Matheny, a former campus minister at the University of Georgia, now serves as pastor of spiritual and communal development at Lake Oconee Community Church in Greensboro, Ga. She said she has focused on Georgia Baptists for 30 years, and the last 10 have deepened her appreciation for those "who still believe in the principles of true Baptists."

Those principles, as stated on the Baptist Heritage Council's website, include the priesthood of believers, soul competency, separation of church and state, autonomy of the local church and "responsiveness to a changing world."

"As I have worked to explain who Baptists really are, I have been impressed with the grace of the human spirit — that even amidst much hatred, accusations, name-calling and church takeovers, many of you still believe in the Baptist way," Matheny wrote.

"Our kind of Baptists may not have all the money, the buildings or the institutions, but the true spirit of the Baptist minority is evident," she continued. "You have trudged up the hill on numerous occasions, and many times your spirits have been low, but your will has remained strong."

"Our organization may close, but the spirit from which we were hewn will not die, if we continue to tell our story," Matheny concluded. "It will die, however, if we do not take some hard looks at who we were and who we are as Baptists. So what is the future of Baptists? My hope is that you will begin to ask this question for your own area of the state and make an effort to be the real Baptists."

The council plans to hold its final Baptist Heritage Breakfast Nov. 8 at Highland Hills Baptist Church in Macon, Ga., held in conjunction with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia General Assembly scheduled Nov. 7-8.

Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.