Perhaps one of the least discussed members of the Seven Sisters of Mainline Protestantism is the American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA). Odd, since this Oldline denomination still maintains traditional sexual ethics, making it one of only two Mainline Protestant denominations (besides the United Methodist Church) that have not surrendered their official disapproval of practicing homosexual behavior.
Among the ABCUSA’s Policy Statements and Resolutions is a response pertaining to homosexuality which states, “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Surprisingly, the denomination’s latest response to homosexuality was made in 2005 when the ABCUSA General Board (now the Board of General Ministries) voted to amend their statement of beliefs titled “We are American Baptists” by adding the following language:
A Biblical People: Who submit to the teaching of Scripture that God’s design for sexual intimacy places it within the context of marriage between one man and one woman, and acknowledge that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Biblical teaching.
Before we praise the ABCUSA for its staunch defense of traditional marriage, it is important to recall the independent and autonomous structure of the Baptist tradition. The resolution goes on to encourage continued “dialogue on human sexuality” and recognizes varying views on the issue among its affiliates. In fact, the ABCUSA’s resolutions web page plainly declares:
In the current structure, it is understood that while the work of the Board of General Ministries continues to be guided by established and future Policy Statements, Resolutions and other declarations, they “in no way obligate American Baptist congregations or regions to any position or course of action.” Under the present structure only the Office of the General Secretary is specifically guided by those documents.
This statement lends to acceptable — and considerable — divisions among local congregations on the subject of homosexuality. The historic Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., for example, is an affiliated congregation with the ABCUSA and currently boasts a lesbian couple as co-pastors. Manhattan’s famously progressive Riverside Church is affiliated with both the ABCUSA and the United Church of Christ (UCC). Riverside dedicates an entire ministry, Maranatha, to affirming practicing homosexual behavior.
When it comes to hot-button issues such as human sexuality or abortion, the ABCUSA’s motto seems to be “seeks unity and avoids divisiveness” and an “anything goes” attitude towards individual churches at the congregation level.
In the denomination’s resolution concerning abortion and local church ministry, the General Board eschews the subject of abortion as “a concern that primarily rests within the local churches.” The resolution—apparently dated 1987— does affirm life as created by God, sacred, and condemns abortion as a means of birth control. But here too, the ABCUSA shuns taking a polarizing stand against abortion, adding the following elusive paragraph:
We also recognize that we are divided as to the proper witness of the church to the state regarding abortion. Many of our membership seek legal safeguards to protect unborn life. Many others advocate for and support family planning legislation, including legalized abortion as in the best interest of women in particular and society in general. Again, we have many points of view between these two positions. Consequently, we acknowledge the freedom of each individual to advocate for a public policy on abortion that reflects his or her beliefs.
Available denominational statistics reveal that the ABCUSA has experienced a slight 6 percent membership decline over the last five years. In 2012 total membership dropped from 1,235,726 to 1,198,046 in 2014, and landed at 1,159,492 in 2016. Total congregations declined by about 3 percent between 2012 and 2016.
Baptisms represented the steepest decline numbers, dropping 41 percent in just five years. This significant decrease makes one wonder what weekly church attendance numbers look like.
Among the denomination’s regions, the ABC of the South reports the largest total membership numbers with 151,307 total congregants and 234 local churches as of 2016. ABC of New Jersey reported growth, attracting 5,007 members and 21 new churches within five years.
ABC of Los Angeles shed nearly 20,000 members and lost 110 local congregations between 2012 and 2016. In 2005, a California-area region initiated the process to leave the ABCUSA over homosexuality. Leaders within the ABC of the Pacific Southwest–comprising of about 300 local churches–were frustrated with denomination heads for failing to implement church policy and resolutions on homosexuality. In 2006, ABC of the Pacific Southwest voted to official sever ties with the national denomination.
Problems exist within the ABCUSA. As best I can tell, the denomination’s approach to challenging ethical issues is to simply ignore unorthodox congregations. It uses past policy statements and resolutions more like suggestions rather than denominational guidelines. Decline persists, if only gradually. We pray the ABCUSA leadership reject culture’s pressure to capitulate on sexuality and abortion, holding affiliated congregations accountable to the authority of Scripture and the national denomination’s own policies.