The Pacific Southwest region of the American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA) has begun defecting in the largest church exodus from any denomination over the presenting issue of homosexuality. Underlying issues, according to leaders, include the authority of Scripture and church discipline. Representing more than 300 churches, the region's board of directors voted September 8 to begin withdrawal. At least four other regions are considering leaving the ABCUSA, a member denomination in the National Council of Churches.

The ABCUSA officially states that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." However, gay-affirming congregations remain affiliated with the denomination. When conservative regions have disfellowshiped such congregations, those congregations have simply affiliated with a more liberal ABCUSA region.

This summer, conservatives failed to convince the denomination to apply church teaching on homosexuality. The defeat made conservatives despair of making any headway on this issue in the future, says Bill Nicoson, executive director of American Baptist Evangelicals (ABE), a 13-year-old renewal group.

Others are troubled by the breakaway. "This is totally unnecessary," says Tony Campolo, professor of sociology at Eastern University, an ABCUSA-affiliated school. Campolo, also an ordained American Baptist pastor, says the denomination should have let local congregations decide how to handle homosexuality. The denomination of 1.5 million members and 5,800 congregations, founded in 1907 as the Northern Baptist Convention, allows for wide diversity. Homosexuality "shouldn't be a defining issue," Campolo says.

Those leaving argue that something more crucial is at stake. "Biblical authority has brought [separation] to the head today," says Nicoson. "I just can't do ministry and missions together with somebody who may deny the Trinity. … I didn't want to spend any more energy or donors' money in fighting a losing battle."

ABE organized a September meeting at American Baptist-affiliated Northern Baptist Seminary to plan the conservatives' next steps. Before the meeting, Nicoson said he did not want to form a new denomination. However, ABE president Scott Gibson, professor of preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, adjourned the meeting with plans to create an organization that would provide denominational services. Leaders estimate that this new association might include between 1,500 and 2,000 churches.

"I have never heard [in recent history] of several hundred [churches] leaving in one swoop," says Mark Tooley, United Methodist committee director at the Institute on Religion and Democracy. "It serves as a threatening reminder to other mainline denominations of what can happen to them. Perhaps it will caution Methodists and Lutherans and Presbyterians."

Related Elsewhere:

American Baptist Churches Communication Department to Close | Reorganization comes as regions threaten to leave over how the denomination has handled homosexuality.

More about the American Baptist Churches is available from their website.

More information about American Baptist Evangelicals is also available online.

The Pacific Southwest Region has statements from their board president and executive minister as well as a press release about leaving the denomination.

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