The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina has expelled a Cabarrus County church for accepting two gay men as members and later baptizing them. The action by the state's largest religious group represents the first time the convention has gone after a church for having openly gay members. The 3,969-church convention previously kicked out three churches that ordained gays or blessed same-sex relationships, based on a 1992 policy that forbids churches from showing "public approval, promotion, or blessing of homosexuality." Expelling a church is mostly symbolic, because affiliation with the state
convention or the national Southern Baptist Convention is voluntary.
Baptist churches do not have hierarchical structures, and each congregation decides for itself whether to join forces with a local Baptist association or state convention. Those that do, pool their resources to work together on evangelism and missions.
In the Cabarrus County case, the two gay men joined the 101-year-old McGill Baptist Church in Concord last year and were baptized in March. The middle-aged men have been together six years and share a house in Kannapolis. After a church member complained, the 81-church Cabarrus Baptist Association voted a month later to sever ties with McGill Baptist Church. The state convention did the same but did not notify the church. Two weeks ago the church's pastor, the Reverend Steve Ayers, found his congregation's name missing from the state convention's Web site.
McGill Baptist was dropped because it was unwilling to repudiate homosexuality, according to James Royston, executive director and treasurer of the state convention. "The basic issue that appears to be in violation of our policy is that by having openly gay members, the church sanctions or approves of homosexuality," Royston said. "The traditional interpretation of Scripture would call an openly gay lifestyle unbiblical and therefore unchristian."
Ayers said his church has never discussed the issue of homosexuality and did not go through a process of declaring itself "open and affirming" to gays and lesbians, as some other churches have. He said church leaders didn't ask the men if they were homosexuals. "In our tradition, we open the church doors to everyone who comes to know Christ," Ayers said. "Jesus told us to fish for people. He didn't say to use fishhooks, but nets. It's not our job to sort the fish. He'll take care of any sorting."
The two men, who declined to be interviewed or identified, are regular worshipers and sing in the choir. "They were not out to make a statement," said Wanda Ritchie, a deacon in the church and lifelong member. "They're just like anyone else."