MOUNT AIRY, N.C. (ABP) — Surry Baptist Association in North Carolina expelled Flat Rock Baptist Church in Mount Airy from membership July 26, two weeks after their new female pastor started at the church.
The association of 65 churches reportedly voted “overwhelmingly” at a regularly scheduled meeting to disfellowship the church for calling Bailey Edwards Nelson as pastor. Messengers viewed the church’s action as violating scriptural guidelines that they believe reserve the role of pastor to males.
Nelson, 28, a graduate of Furman University and McAfee School of Theology, is the first female pastor in Surry County, which is in north central North Carolina. Her first Sunday at Flat Rock was July 10.
The following week the church received a letter from the association’s membership committee citing “concerned pastors” and asking for a meeting to discuss “possible solutions” to the issue they said threatened the fellowship of the association.
Nelson said Flat Rock’s leadership knew no “solution” short of withdrawing her call as pastor would satisfy the membership committee, so they declined the meeting.
Bill Blakley, associational director of missions, said the church’s “refusal” to attend the meeting with the membership committee was mentioned at the associational meeting as evidence the church was unwilling to maintain fellowship.
Nelson said no one from Flat Rock attended the associational meeting, nor were they aware that their membership in the association was going to be discussed.
Reached while on vacation, Blakely said the association’s decision “has nothing to do with women in ministry.” He cited ministry roles of many women in the association, including teachers, music leaders and deacons.
“We can’t do without the women, we know that,” said Blakely, whose daughter-in-law is a Christian counselor. “But that’s not what we were addressing.”
He said the sole issue is the majority of the association interprets the Bible as denying females the role of senior pastor.
Blakely said pastors in his association wanted to withdraw fellowship from Flat Rock as “peaceably” as possible amid rumors that an angry motion would be made at the associational meeting.
After the membership committee chairman moved to withdraw fellowship, one pastor spoke on behalf of Flat Rock. One pastor supported the motion to withdraw and the vote was taken. Blakely said about 80 percent voted in favor of the motion.
While the rapid action was surprising — with no call for referring to the membership committee, or for a study committee – Blakely surmised it was just as well, since no amount of study would have altered either party’s position.
The issue has made Flat Rock Baptist Church the talk of the county’s 74,000 residents. One church member suggested putting on their identity sign, “Yes, we’re the church with a female pastor!”
Nelson said Aug. 4 that church attendance has climbed to a consistent 200, higher than previous trends, and that 18 visitors registered the previous Sunday.
“I’m getting calls from pastors, laity and community leaders across the county and across denominational lines, from differing theological perspectives within the Baptist family,” Nelson said. “They’re saying: ‘We’re so upset at what happened. We support your church. We support you.’ It’s been overwhelming.”
Nelson said multiple people now want to partner with Flat Rock and to include the church in their networks.
“We never saw what the issue was to begin with,” Nelson said. “We’re seeing growth already, old faces coming back and many new faces. This church is filled with energy and confidence in who they are and the direction they’re going.”
She said her members “feel confident” and are “clinging to Baptist principles more than ever before. Suddenly they care about why they’re Baptist” and understand autonomy, soul competency and priesthood of the believer.
“This church was courageous,” Nelson said. “They were willing to call a person and not a gender.”
Nelson and her husband, Justin, have one son, Aidan. Justin Nelson is a chaplain at Mountain Valley Hospice.
Norman Jameson is reporting and coordinating special projects for ABP on an interim basis. He is former editor of the North Carolina Biblical Recorder.