Letter from Deacons and Church Council Recommending Separation from Southern Baptist Convention

June 27, 2024

The Southern Baptist Convention Takes Steps to Distance Itself from Aiken’s First Baptist Church

For at least four decades, the Southern Baptist Convention has been engaged in internal power struggles between fundamental conservatives and moderates.  This has spilled out into public fights, razor-thin majorities in key SBC elections, and an unswerving commitment by the conservative winners to shift the focus of the entire body.  This has been accomplished through years of finetuning the membership lists of key committees to ensure a common focus for member churches in a denomination which prominently lists “independence” as one of the key tenets of their Baptist faith.  These struggles have come at a time when church participation nationwide is declining, and young people in particular are engaged at the lowest levels ever as they find these institutions irrelevant and out of touch.

This spring, John Carroll became aware of a troubling development which could very well impact our church and will require our due diligence to educate ourselves and to take action as deemed appropriate.  First Baptist Church of Richmond, on May 19, voted to separate from the Southern Baptist Convention by an overwhelming majority, ending a 179-year relationship.  Like us, at FBC Aiken, they had been dually affiliated with the SBC and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a breakaway group from the SBC formed in 1991.  This action was taken “in response to the SBC’s proposed constitutional amendment requiring pastors and elders of its cooperating churches to be men.”  A statement issued by FBC Richmond characterized the vote as necessary  to “…get ahead of the inevitable process that would have the church expelled from the denomination, as has recently happened to other churches with female ministers on staff.  If the SBC’s constitutional amendment passes, hundreds of churches are expected to depart the SBC or be kicked out.”

A year ago, at the annual meeting of the SBC, this proposed amendment to its constitution was passed by more positive votes than the required two-thirds majority, but by laws requires it be approved by two consecutive votes.  The New York Times described the action taken last year:

“Delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in New Orleans approved an amendment to their constitution that their churches must have “only men as any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by Scripture.”

Even before the second vote at this year’s meeting for ratification, churches have been, and are being, disassociated for including women in their ministerial staff.  A notable case is Saddleback Baptist Church (founded by Rick Warren) voted out last year and several other churches.  This week, the participants in the annual SBC meeting voted on this amendment but fell just short of the 2/3 majority needed to pass it.  That failure, however, did not hinder the SBC’s collective decision to disaffiliate another church for having a woman in the role of Associate Minister for Youth.

Our church has called women to serve in key roles since 1960, when Sara Posey began twenty years of service in professional support for Christian Education.  She was followed ably by Vicky McCullough and Ellen Looper as consecutive Directors of Children’s Programs.  Women were hired as Ministers (or Pastors) beginning in 2000 when Rev. Sheree Jones was hired as Associate Minister (2000-2006), and then Rev. Mary Carol Anderson (Associate Minister for Student Programs 2008-15), Rev. Amy Sterz (Associate Minister in Christian Education, 2008-15), Rev. Megan Doud (Minister of Students and Missions, 2016-21), and Rev. Sarah Laurence (Minister of Youth and Pastoral Care, 2021-Present).

Since 1995, our church has affirmed the right of women to serve as Deacons, with a change in the By Laws to that effect in September, and the election of Jane Talbert as the first woman in December of that year.  A number of women have ably served in that role in the ensuing years, and currently seven of our eighteen Deacons are women.

Given our history and traditions of honoring the contributions, leadership, and ministry of women, both the Church Council and the Deacons have asked that we begin a conversation about severing our ties to the Southern Baptist Convention rather than wait for them to act to ‘disassociate’ us from their organization.  Such a conversation must consider our current relationship with the group.

As far back as 1991-92, the church leaders were concerned that SBC policies were becoming more proscriptive on key issues, and many churches found that the freedom to live out their Biblical mandates as they deemed best were being challenged.  In 1993, the decision was made at FBC Aiken to reach out to a new and emerging group which ultimately evolved into the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  Church members were offered the opportunity to make their mission gifts to SBC or CBF programs as this change was implemented and continuing annually, but the number of gifts designated to SBC programs has steadily declined, with no such requests last year.

Ties to SBC were maintained at minimal levels to retain access to staff benefits programs under the Guidestone banner, open only to SBC churches at that time.  Now, with the actions contemplated at the SBC General Conference, our ability to continue the health insurance and retirement plans currently available to us is in significant jeopardy.  The church staff are exploring alternative sources for these services and the Personnel Committee will be reviewing them in the near future.

With that background, we will hold a congregational meeting on Wednesday, July 24 at 6:00 pm to discuss this matter further.  If deemed appropriate at that time, we may move forward with a called business meeting at a future date to consider a formal proposal to separate from the Southern Baptist Conference.