MOUNT AIRY, N.C. — Two churches in Mount Airy, N.C., have withdrawn from the local Surry Baptist Association [http://www.surrybaptist.org/] in response to its dismissal last July of an affiliated church which called a woman as pastor.
Piney Grove Baptist Church [http://www.pgbcmtairy.org/] voted unanimously Nov. 30 to leave the 66-church association, centered on Surry County northwest of Winston-Salem, N.C. Four days later, on Dec. 4, First Baptist Church [http://www.acswebnetworks.com/firstbaptistchurchmountairy/] also voted, 145-34, to end its ties.
Both churches cited the association’s July 26 action to dismiss Flat Rock Baptist Church [http://www.flatrockbaptist.com/] in Mount Airy two weeks after its new female pastor, Bailey Edwards Nelson, began her ministry there. But they added Surry’s move was only the latest indication of growing disagreement with the association’s direction.
“The dismissal was the thing that brought it to a head, but I think the bigger issue was the way it was done,” said Roger Gilbert, pastor at First Baptist.
In a statement, Gilbert said, “In our congregation, and in several other congregations, there was strong disagreement with the action, the biblical interpretation given for the action, and the way the issue was handled.”
The New Testament accounts “lead some of us to believe … God just might call a woman to be pastor,” he said. And while the association is autonomous and can set its membership guidelines, “some of us find it offensive … that they are unwilling to accept churches who exercise their local church autonomy by being a bit different than the majority of churches. “ In addition, he added, Surry association’s action was taken without prior notice to member churches.
By contrast, the decision-making process at First Baptist was “open and respectful of all,” Gilbert said.
“[We] allowed four months before we asked the congregation to make a decision. I presented my perspective on the issues in our church newsletters. The deacons discussed it and made their recommendation to the church council. The church council discussed it and developed their proposal. We had a churchwide discussion on Oct. 26. We asked the director of missions [of Surry Baptist Association] to come to a second congregational conversation meeting on Nov. 16 and respond to questions from the congregation. We then voted on Sunday morning, Dec. 4.”
First Baptist, which has about 700 members and some 250 who regularly attend worship, has contributed about $9,000 annually to the association. That amount had been reduced in recent years from $18,000 due to “some issues which bothered us,” said Gilbert.
The church will redistribute the funds equally to three ministries in the state — the Baptist Children’s home of North Carolina, North Carolina Baptist Hospital and the Baptist Retirement Homes of North Carolina – and to a variety of faith-based causes in Surry County.
Piney Grove’s vote on Nov. 30 ended formal ties with Surry, but in October the church withdrew all funding for the association, said pastor Mark Reece.
“I feel like our withdrawal from the association has been a gradual process over six years,” Reece said.
The church, which has about 350 members and about 200 who attend worship, was budgeting about $4,800 for the association when funding was halted, Reece said. Much of that will be redirected to Blue Ridge CareNet, a counseling center in Surry County which the association has ceased to support. Remaining funds will be used to support local missions.
The reduction in contributions won’t affect associational ministries, said Billy Blakley, Surry’s director of missions.
“We will not do a thing differently,” said Blakley. “The economic loss from both those churches has already been made up by other churches and individuals.”
Blakley also said he expects the association to stick with its vote to dismiss Flat Rock and with its view that Scripture prohibits women from serving as senior pastors.
“We as Surry Baptists and as Southern Baptists simply believe the Bible is true,” he said. ‘That’s where it all begins. Our churches back in July made a statement that God’s word says what God’s word says, and that Flat Rock was disobedient to God’s word by calling a woman as senior pastor.”
Nelson, Flat Rock’s pastor, said she and her church are grateful for the expressions of support from First Baptist and Piney Grove.
“Both as an individual and as a congregation we’re feeling the affirmation from the churches,” she said. “We weren’t the sole reason for the churches making the decisions they did. Our relationship with the association and the way it was handled was unsettling for them as well.
“But it means something that fellow churches feel the need to step out and be vocal about things when churches are being treated unfairly,” she added. ‘They didn’t have to do that. They’ve chosen to be a voice for change, a prophetic voice.”
Flat Rock will move beyond the dismissal and won’t let it affect its ministry, which is expanding in the community, said Nelson. And while she doesn’t anticipate any effort by churches to form a new organization, regional cooperation will continue, she added.
“Our churches are aligned with both the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Southern Baptist Convention, but we’ve been leaning heavily on the CBF of North Carolina and its regional networks,” she said.
A recent meeting of one of those informal regional networks was held at Flat Rock and drew about 15 churches, Nelson said.
“There was no business meeting or attempt to form an organization,” she said. “We focused on fellowship and worship and sharing best practices. I see that as the direction we’ll go.”
Gilbert agreed that First Baptist will continue to network with other churches.
“We now plan to move forward, leaving this behind us, working in partnership with those churches who want to work with us,” he said.
Reece said he looks forward to partnering with “First Baptist, Flat Rock and other likeminded churches in local missional endeavors and fellowship events.”
“I'm hoping we can use the money [which previously went to the association] to continue being associational with local churches even though we're no longer formally a part of a local association. That will require some creativity and collaboration, but I believe it's a desire of our people and community.”
He also cited the CBFNC regional event as “one creative way that local churches came together for meaningful fellowship, productive workshops and inspiring worship. Several churches were represented and that was a promising sign for the future of churches who will no longer be affiliated with the SBA.”
Robert Dilday (firstname.lastname@example.org) is managing editor of the Religious Herald.