Where Does American Baptist Churches USA Stand on Sex, Abortion, and Decline?

on June 14, 2018

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.

  1. Comment by William on June 14, 2018 at 2:12 pm

    Satan has sure landed on a most effective weapon to battle the Christian Church in this age — sexual immorality. And, man is working overtime to assist the great deceiver with practices of sexual immorality running rampant. Satan has even convinced many church leaders to endorse this in the name of love, inclusiveness, et al. He’s not called the great deceiver for nothing.

    But, God will prevail in the end!!

  2. Comment by Walter Pryor on June 16, 2018 at 12:35 pm

    Amen to you statement!

  3. Comment by Walter Pryor on June 16, 2018 at 12:35 pm

    Amen to you statement!

  4. Comment by Joan Sibbald on June 16, 2018 at 9:29 pm

    Homosexual sexual conduct is unnatural, despicable, perversion and, an abomination. Any questions, call God. He’s in the Book!

  5. Comment by Geoff Smith on June 15, 2018 at 8:39 am

    There have been American Baptist churches expelled from their regions for endorsing homosexuality. These churches then transfer into non geographical liberal regions. The national denomination claims to not have the authority to expelled from the national level.

  6. Comment by William on June 16, 2018 at 8:58 am

    At some point, perhaps the LGBT movement could do the right thing and form a 21st century denomination, and, perhaps, by pooling their resources, could financially sustain it — instead of expecting traditional Christians to keep paying their bills in these declining mainline denominations.

  7. Comment by Sandy Williams on June 15, 2018 at 6:38 pm

    American Baptist polity makes it difficult (or, impossible) for ABCUSA leadership to hold “affiliated congregations accountable”. Individuals and congregations are accountable to Christ. Whether American Baptist Christians and churches remain faithful remains to be seen. Some of our greatest strengths (liberty of conscience and local church independence or autonomy) are also our biggest weaknesses.

  8. Comment by Paul Zesewitz on June 16, 2018 at 11:01 am

    Baptist congregations, be they ABC or other, have always been run autonomously, meaning on their own without any interference from their denomination or conference. So any church that supports LGBTQ or homosexuality does so by voting in it’s business meetings. As far as denominational decline goes, I have always believed that the Lord will not bless a church where the Gospel is not preached and souls are not led to Jesus Christ. I myself come from a more conservative Baptist background.

  9. Comment by senecagriggs on June 16, 2018 at 12:12 pm

    https://www.mccchurch.org/ [ Metropolitan Churches ]

    Endorsed homosexual relationships from the moment of their founding in 1968

  10. Comment by Mary on November 26, 2018 at 5:09 pm

    The size of a church or denomination often does not reflect its faithfulness in following Jesus Christ (look at mega churches which preach the unchristian prosperity gospel). If the ABC is losing members, perhaps those remaining are the ones who truly understand Christ’s command to love. Sexual sins are so puny compared with the sin against the Holy Spirit.

  11. Comment by Steve on May 26, 2019 at 4:42 pm

    It’s very nice to see that sin is no longer merely “separation from God”, but rather weighted by whether or not it’s “against the Holy Spirit”. After all, it’s not like the Holy Spirit is God …

  12. Comment by Tom Brown on January 31, 2019 at 12:04 pm

    All of those statements about where the denomination stands on abortion, homosexuality and any other subject dance around the one and only important consideration: Where does God stand on the subject?” God’s position, despite the creative revisions to the Bible in recent decades, has never changed.

  13. Comment by john the second baptist on October 9, 2019 at 9:09 pm

    As in the days of Noah so shall it be in the last days….
    look at Genesis 6:5, And God saw that the wickedness of man was great on the Earth and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
    We should remember that calling evil good and calling good evil does not make it true.
    There is much more for those who wish to listen.

  14. Comment by gene bukowski on December 2, 2019 at 12:40 pm

    a thought about baptism came to me when reading the verse in the christian bible that babies at the age of 8 months of jewish birth had to be circumsised and pledged to god . all blessings come from our lord i have to wonder why a christian baby shouldn’t be baptised and pledged to god .

  15. Comment by Rev. JamesSheldon on December 4, 2019 at 4:03 pm

    There are two kinds of baptism. One, which is typical to denominations such as Catholic and Episcopalian, in which a child is dedicated / consecrated to God. This type of baptism is found nowhere in the Bible. The other type of baptism, which is found repeatedly and consistently, is adult, believer’s baptism. This is the exclusive form in the New testament, and the way in which Jesus was baptized..

  16. Comment by Scott on January 7, 2020 at 1:19 pm

    Infant baptism — not a dedication or consecration but an actual baptism in the name of the Trinity and with water — has been practiced for centuries. I realize that Baptists don’t view it as “believer’s baptism,” but it is a baptism nevertheless. And “believer’s baptism” has never been limited to just adults. Many children even as young as 5 have been baptized by immersion in Baptist Churches .

  17. Comment by Tim Meador on February 24, 2020 at 8:48 am

    The American Baptist Churches who, among their congregants, determine that they will be “inclusive” and bow to the activism of homosexuality are promoting sin and are an abomination to God. They jeopardize the freedom of Pastors to publically perform marriages between a man and woman in fear of being reprimanded publically by LGBT dissent.
    This dissent and public outcry will destroy the Church and discourage those who seek the natural union of man and wife to look elsewhere for a Biblical Union.
    My wife and I have permanently left an otherwise reverent Church because of the decision of a few leaders to be inclusive and turn away from traditional marriage.
    ABC churches have made a horrible decision—much of it based on the 2015 Supreme Court decision.

  18. Comment by Rick Cash on March 4, 2020 at 1:01 pm

    I believed many of these same things until I had a gay son. My grandfather was a Southern Baptist preacher and I was taught being gay was a choice and a sin.

    My son has attended religious private schools. He chose to be baptized on his own at 12 and had a strong faith. I say had because, after realizing he is attracted to same sex and remembering what he had learned, he feels he can only live 1 side. He has even had suicidal thoughts because of this. I now believe that how he feels is not a choice. He can live as a gay man, live single and loveless, or try a relationship with a girl and live a lie. He is still in a religious high school and loves God, but the more he hears on this subject, the more he is being driven away. Don’t push people away from God, but pray for them instead.

    I have seen him struggle through this and know, in my heart, this is not a personal choice. Either God made him this way, or there is no God.

    I know the God I know loves him and this is all I can tell him. Everyone sins, and if God gave him these feeling, he will forgive him.

    Ending point, you cannot know what being gay is unless you have those feelings or are so close to someone who does, that you know it is not a choice. It took a gay son for me to see the truth.

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.