First Baptist Church in Pell City has changed its bylaws to state clearly its beliefs in marriage as a covenant between one man and one woman. In contrast, the pastor of Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham, a congregation that formerly cooperated with the Alabama Baptist State Convention (ABSC), has taken steps toward accommodating same-sex commitment ceremonies.
Meanwhile, a task force with the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions has developed potential wording for bylaws and policies that churches can consider to formally state their belief in traditional marriage.
The Birmingham church, led by pastor Sarah Shelton, voted earlier this year to withdraw support from the state convention as well as the Southern Baptist Convention and Birmingham Baptist Association.
Mike McLemore, BBA executive director, confirmed the church had withdrawn from those affiliations prior to Shelton's public move toward embracing same-sex unions.
Shelton told her congregation in a sermon Aug. 25 that she was reconsidering her previous policy of not performing marriage-like ceremonies for same-sex couples, according to news reports. She said the Baptist Church of the Covenant, which was founded on the basis of equality during the Civil Rights Movement, has kept at its core "the principal that there would not be second-class citizens."
The Alabama convention, in a 2012 resolution, stated that "it is regrettable that homosexual rights activists and those who are promoting the recognition of same-sex 'marriage' have misappropriated the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement."
Marriage is a "covenant relationship and an institution established by God" for one man and one woman, the resolution stated, registering the convention's opposition to "any attempt to frame same-sex 'marriage' as a civil rights issue."
Rick Lance, executive director of the State Board of Missions (SBOM), said, "I am deeply disappointed to hear of a former Alabama Baptist church's decision to endorse same-sex 'marriage.'"
At First Baptist Church in Pell City, pastor John Thweatt said one reason the church changed its bylaws is to protect future generations from a paradigm shift.
"Our young people are increasingly changing their views toward homosexuality, and we wanted to make sure the bylaws of our church stated clearly what the Bible says in case the church ever had a move from within the membership or a pastor ... who might try to turn them away from a biblical view," Thweatt said.
The church also wanted to safeguard itself against future lawsuits, the pastor said.
"We have always believed that marriage is to be between a man and a woman, but we never felt the need to state it -- until now," Thweatt said. "Our leadership felt it would be best to have a clear statement in our bylaws in case the laws of Alabama are trumped by the federal government and we are asked to allow a same-sex 'marriage' ceremony to be performed in our church."
An SBOM task force unveiled suggested wording for "a potential marriage statement" during the Aug. 16 state board meeting in Montgomery. The statement is a starting point for churches interested in considering a bylaw change related to same-sex marriage concerns and "is not binding on local congregations, which are entirely self-governing," SBOM officials noted.
The statement reads:
"We believe that marriage is a union between one man and one woman, following biblical principles (Gen. 2:19-24, Lev. 18:22, Matt. 19:4-6, Rom. 1:18-27, Eph. 5:22-23, Heb. 13:4). We believe that God sanctions only the union in marriage of a man to a woman, including civil unions. Therefore, this church sanctions only a ceremony compatible with those standards."
"1. Due to our belief in the biblical teachings about marriage, same-sex couples will not be married in any facilities or on any properties owned by the church.
"2. Ministers of (insert church's name) Baptist Church will not perform any same-sex 'marriages' or civil unions whether on or off church-owned properties. Doing so would be grounds for termination."
Lance said the task force statement "may serve as a starting point for discussions about reaffirming biblical marriage. Revisions to various churches' bylaws and policies will vary, of course, because of local church autonomy, but we anticipate Alabama Baptists will stand strongly on the side of traditional marriage."
Baptist leaders and legal advisers have expressed differing opinions about whether a bylaw change would help protect a church in court.
Jim Guenther, an SBC attorney, said there is no "magic language" that a church can use in its governing documents. He also said that current First Amendment protections should hold up on churches' behalf in court.
Grace Thornton is assistant editor of The Alabama Baptist (www.thealabamabaptist.org), newsjournal of the Alabama Baptist Convention. To download the Alabama State Board of Missions' marriage statement model, visit www.alsbom.org/resources/a-potential-marriage-statement-for-churches/. This story first appeared in The Alabama Baptist newspaper and is available online at www.thealabamabaptist.org.
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