Court upholds inmate’s religious liberty

January 21 2015 by Tom Strode, Baptist Press

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously delivered a victory for the religious liberty of prison inmates Jan. 20.

The justices ruled the Arkansas Department of Corrections violated the religious free exercise of a Muslim prisoner by prohibiting him from growing a beard in order to practice his beliefs. The high court found the prison system failed to abide by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a 2000 federal law.

Religious freedom advocates hailed the 9-0 decision as an important win.

Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore commended the Supreme Court for doing “the right thing.”

“Religious liberty isn’t a prize earned by those with the most political clout,” said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “Religious liberty is a right given by God to all people. The Court here respected liberty of conscience and free exercise.

“Christians and others should be glad, especially in a time when the most basic religious liberties are routinely dismissed in many corners of our national debate,” he said in a written release. “Thomas Jefferson would be proud of this good decision.”

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty – which represented the prisoner, Abdul Muhammad, in the case – described the decision as a milestone for all faiths.

“No religion is an island,” Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund, said. “This is not just a win for one prisoner in Arkansas, but a win for all Americans who value religious liberty.”

The Southern Baptist International Mission Board was among organizations that filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of Muhammad.

The religious freedom victory came in a challenge by Muhammad, also known as Gregory Holt, to a prison policy that banned beards on prisoners unless they have a skin disease. The prison system provided no exemption for religious reasons. The Arkansas Department of Corrections contended its policy was to prevent prisoners from hiding contraband in their beards and to keep inmates from disguising their identities.

Muhammad proposed a limit of one-half inch to his beard, but the prison rejected it. A federal judge and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis ruled in the prison system’s favor.

RLUIPA prohibits government policies that substantially burden free exercise of religion by inmates and, in land-use cases, by a person or institution. However, a legal exemption can be claimed by the government by showing it has a “compelling interest” and is using the “least restrictive means” to further that interest.

Associate Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the Supreme Court, said the prison policy substantially burdened Muhammad’s religious free exercise. The prison, Alito wrote, failed to demonstrates its rule was the “least restrictive means” to advance its interests.

The lower courts “deferred to these prison officials’ mere say-so that they could not accommodate petitioner’s request,” Alito wrote. “RLUIPA, however, demands much more.”

At least 43 state, federal and local prison systems allow beards on inmates, according to the Becket Fund.

“[W]hen so many prisons offer an accommodation, a prison must, at a minimum, offer persuasive reasons why it believes that it must take a different course, and the [Arkansas Department of Corrections] failed to make that showing here,” Alito said.

The Supreme Court, Rassbach said in a written statement, “repeated a fundamental American principle today: government doesn’t get to ride roughshod over religious practices. Where government can accommodate religion, it ought to.”

The Obama administration and a diverse group of organizations filed briefs in support of Muhammad. Among these were Prison Fellowship, American Civil Liberties Union, Alliance Defending Freedom, Muslim Public Affairs Council, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Christian Legal Society and Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

The case was Holt v. Hobbs.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.

1/21/2015 11:51:33 AM by Tom Strode, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

GGBTS announces site of new N. Calif. campus

January 21 2015 by GGBTS Communications/Baptist Press

Following the relocation of its main campus to Southern California, Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary will retain a presence in the San Francisco Bay area by opening a new campus in Fremont, Calif., on land donated by a local congregation that is moving to a house church ministry model.
The new campus will be situated just north of San Jose about 50 miles southeast of the present Mill Valley campus.
Mission Bay Baptist Church in Fremont, announced that it will donate to the seminary land valued at $2.9 million. Golden Gate plans to replace the existing church facilities with academic buildings and has already begun the process of obtaining construction permits. Construction is set to begin soon, though no date was announced for the opening of the Bay Area Campus.
“We are committed to training students in the American west and the Bay Area,” Golden Gate President Jeff Iorg said. “We have been given a generous gift of land in a prime location that will become our new Bay Area Campus. I am amazed at how God continues to bless our school during our relocation efforts.”
Iorg has said previously that the target date for Golden Gate’s main campus relocation to Ontario, Calif., just east of Las Angeles, is June 2016. When Golden Gate finalized the sale of its Mill Valley property in July 2014, administrators stated that the sale agreement allowed the seminary to remain fully operational in its current facilities for two years.
Mission Bay pastor Larry Floyd said the congregation had been praying about how God wanted it to use its former building in light of the shift to a house church ministry model. The land and facility are “kingdom property that we are just passing along,” Floyd said.
“Our mission is to bring the gospel to the world, so giving the property to Golden Gate Seminary absolutely fulfills that goal by training and sending students around the globe,” Floyd said.
Iorg said the Fremont campus will be “a second state-of-the-art campus in California – mirroring what we are creating in Southern California. These two new campuses will anchor seminary training on the West Coast for Southern Baptists for years to come.”
In other news, Iorg announced the appointment of Rick Durst as director of the Bay Area Campus effective Jan. 1, 2016. A professor of historical theology, Durst has served previously as inaugural director of the online campus, vice president of academic affairs and director of the Southern California Campus.
“Dr. Durst is a visionary leader who will help us train Bay Area students for the work of the gospel,” Iorg said. “For years, every time Golden Gate has needed an innovator to start something new, we turn to Rick Durst. His passion for the Bay Area is well-known and his leadership gifts well-proven.”
In accepting his appointment, Durst said, “Golden Gate Seminary has been very gracious to allow me to serve in a variety of leadership roles over the years. I love startups, whether it is a new church, program or campus. The Bay Area Campus will offer the seminary’s high quality theological training, specifically designed to ensure the expedient progress of commuting students’ degree programs.”
Iorg also announced a core faculty at the new Bay Area Campus that will consist of six professors currently teaching at the Mill Valley Campus.
“With Durst’s leadership and this cadre of highly qualified faculty, our commitment to the Bay Area is made clear,” Iorg said. “While we are moving our primary campus to another location, we will continue to train leaders from and for this area for years to come.”
Golden Gate began its relocation process April 1, 2014, by announcing the sale of the Mill Valley Campus. Having finalized the sale for $85 million in July, the seminary purchased a six-story building in Ontario to serve as the new primary campus. The building was constructed in 2009 and has remained vacant due to the economic downturn. The building’s exterior is finished and all mechanical systems have been installed, but its interior is unfinished. Construction of the interior is expected to begin soon.
The seminary intends to add around $50 million to its endowment after completing the two new campuses in Ontario and the Bay Area.
Golden Gate is in the process of requesting approval for a name change to Gateway Seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention. The new name will require approval at two consecutive SBC annual meetings, beginning in 2015 in Columbus, Ohio.
Golden Gate also operates campuses in Brea, Calif.; Phoenix; Denver; and the Portland, Ore., area.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Compiled by the communications staff at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary.)

1/21/2015 11:45:08 AM by GGBTS Communications/Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Missions in postmodern culture WMU focus

January 21 2015 by Julie Walters, Baptist Press

Equipping leaders, preparing children for missional living and focusing on small church ministries will be Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) priorities through 2018, WMU Executive Director Wanda S. Lee announced at the group’s 2015 board meeting.
The national WMU “will focus on equipping for missional living in as many different formats and avenues as possible,” Lee said, outlining leadership development and training opportunities planned the current fiscal year.
“We believe WMU can reshape the way we develop curriculum and guide teachers in their experiences with children and youth to help shape a stronger generation for faith and service,” Lee said.
As a result of a visioning trip to the Nordic cluster in 2013 in partnership with the International Mission Board (IMB) to learn more about postmodernism, Lee said WMU “must take the lead in preparing our children and youth for living in a postmodern culture … for knowing what they believe and how to share their faith in this culture, and for determining the truths of scripture that never change when everything around them is changing.”


Regarding small churches, Lee said WMU will help smaller congregations develop missions discipleship programs for all ages, noting approximately 90 percent of Southern Baptist churches have 250 members or less.
“WMU works well in the small church,” Lee said, “a church with a pastor and maybe another part-time staff member … a church that values the gifts of its laypeople and cannot succeed without them in planning and taking the lead in ministry.”
Addressing faith issues in the midst of trauma will be addressed through WMU’s Project HELP emphasis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“We will continue to seek ways to address the issues of post-traumatic stress our children are now faced with,” Lee said, “from violence in our schools, to effects of war on families, to the response needed in our churches.”
Through Project HELP, WMU identifies a social and moral issue and supports national projects to encourage churches to address it. Since the launch of Project HELP in 1994–1995, WMU has focused on a variety of universal problems including hunger, poverty, HIV/AIDS and racial injustice.
The 150 people in attendance at the Jan. 10-12 WMU Executive Board meeting at the Shocco Springs Conference Center in Talladega, Ala., included WMU board members, state and national WMU staff members and guests.
Speakers included National WMU President Debby Akerman, North American Mission Board President Kevin Ezell, IMB President David Platt, and several active missionaries.
In her presidential address, Akerman encouraged state WMU leaders to actively assist churches in starting new WMU missions organizations.
“We produce the finest curricula and resources available for missions information, missions education and missions discipleship,” she said. “We must not sit silent. We must take a stand and help our churches take missions discipleship to the next level for next generations.”
In other business, the board members awarded $230,000 in endowments, grants and scholarships in partnership with the WMU Foundation; adopted overarching plans for WMU work in churches 2016-2018, and replaced the title of Women on Mission planner with Women on Mission leader, effective in September 2015.
Board members also extended through 2016 an emphasis on PTSD as the Project HELP focus issue, approved $175 million as the 2015 Lottie Moon Christmas Offering goal, and approved $70 million as the 2016 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering goal.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Julie Walters is WMU corporate communications team leader.)

1/21/2015 11:37:15 AM by Julie Walters, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Nigeria too unstable for election

January 21 2015 by Diana Chandler, Baptist Press

Boko Haram’s January attack on Baga and its sustained control of several towns in northeastern Nigeria make credible February presidential elections impossible, Nigeria relations expert Adeniyi Ojutiku told Baptist Press.
“There is no way there can be … free, fair and credible elections while Nigeria is engaged in war against terror, because people cannot feel free to be able to cast their ballot,” Ojutiku said after Boko Haram’s January attack on Baga and surrounding towns that killed about 2,000 and displaced 30,000 more.
“So whatever the outcome, the result of the election is going to be in disputation,” Ojutiku said. “Whatever party loses is going to claim it was not free and fair, so it will again lead to an escalation of the Boko Haram crisis.”
In addition to Baga, Boko Haram has established caliphates in towns covering some 20,000 square miles, including Gwoza, Damboa, Bama, Mafa, Dikwa, Kala Balge, Ngala, Marte, Abadam, Mobar, Kukawa, Guzamala Gubio, Magumeri, Chibok, and Askira/Uba in Borno state; Madagali, Michika, Mubi South, Mubi North, Hong, Gombi and parts of Maiha in Adamawa state, and Gujuba and Gulani in Yobe state, according to an Ojutiku associate in Abuju, Nigeria.
In elections slated Feb. 14, Nigeria President Goodluck Jonathan of the ruling People’s Democratic Party faces a strong challenge from a Muslim candidate, Retired Gen. Mohammad Buhari of the All Progressive Congress, a political party formed in 2013 from three ethnically and regionally based parties, according to news reports.
“If [Buhari] loses, the north is going to boil with human carnage. If he wins, and Jonathan loses, the [deep] south where all the oil revenue of Nigeria comes from, is going to cordon off the oil revenue of Nigeria and Nigeria is going to topple into serious economic crisis,” Ojutiku predicted.
A Jonathan victory, Ojutiku said, would incite Boko Haram to escalate attacks and become more genocidal, killing non-indigents in northern Nigeria, including Christians who migrate from the south in search of employment.
“That was what led to the fourth Nigerian civil war. The Nigerian civil war was because the northern Muslims began to kill the Southern Christian Ibos,” Ojutiku said. “There is going to be a repeat of that event because this time they are going to just go after the southerners, the people who have migrated from the south to work in the north.” While oil is concentrated in the south, the revenue does not benefit southern Nigerians, Ojutiku said.
“We have two possible scenarios it seems like we cannot avoid. So whoever wins, whichever wins, there is going to be a crisis situation in Nigeria,” Ojutiku said. “Going into the election, people are already killing each other … destroying each other’s property.”
Ojutiku, a Southern Baptist in Raleigh, N.C., has founded Lift Up Now, a grassroots outreach to reform his homeland economically and spiritually. A Lift Up Now representative from Nigeria, Ojutiku said, will speak during a Jan. 27 congressional hearing on the Nigeria elections, hosted by the U.S. House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations.
Another Lift Up Now supporter, Emmanuel Ibrahim, a member of the Church of Christ in Nations Church in Abuja, Nigeria, told Ojutiku that many members of the electorate in northeastern Nigeria have been displaced from their homes, their polling places and voting identification cards destroyed.
“Most of the electorates have been dispersed from their homes, local governments, states, [and] the country to refugee camps scattered all over Cameroon, Chad Republic, Niger Republic and the internally displaced persons camps in Maiduguri, Yola and Gombe,” Ibrahim emailed Ojutiku. “The question now is where are all these eligible voters who have become Internally Displaced Person’s in their own country going to cast their votes?”
Internally displaced persons not only have no locations to cast their votes, but likely do not have copies of their voter credentials issued in 2011, as their belongings were destroyed in Boko Haram attacks, Ibrahim wrote.
Boko Haram, seeking to establish Sharia law, had killed thousands of Christians, moderate Muslims, government officials and civilians in attacks targeting religious communities in Northern Nigeria since 2012, according to news reports, with the death toll calculated between 10,000 and 12,000. An estimated 1.5 million Nigerians have been forced to flee their homes, according to September 2014 figures from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Boko Haram intensified attacks in Nigeria after Jonathan declared a state of emergency in northeastern Nigeria in May 2013 and has become more indiscriminate in attacks that originally targeted Christians.
“The crisis has escalated beyond just killing Christians,” Ojutiku said Jan. 12. “Now there is evidence that this very radical Islamic sect is now devouring their own moderate Muslims. Initially, yes, Christians, but now they are more indiscriminate.”
The U.S. State Department designated Boko Haram an official foreign terrorist organization in December 2013, giving the U.S. added power to weaken the group. The European Union followed in June, designating the jihadists a terror group.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is general assignment writer/editor for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)

1/21/2015 11:28:47 AM by Diana Chandler, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Ergun Caner steps down as Brewton-Parker president

January 20 2015 by Brewton-Parker College

In an early morning meeting with the full trustee board of Brewton-Parker College (BPC), Ergun Caner briefly addressed the packed room informing them he was stepping down as their sixteenth president. Below is the prepared statement as Caner presented it:

“I have asked for the unusual privilege of calling together the board of trustees this morning, before the committees meet.

“I believe a summary of the past twelve months is in order, given our context. When I arrived last year, we immediately set out to prepare for the [Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS)] Team visit in April. That visit did not go as we had expected, and it led to our appeal in San Antonio in June. Though the appeal vote did not resolve our five-year struggle, in September we won a remand of our case with SACS, and along with our attorneys and the entire executive team, we prepared in earnest for December. We presented our case before the SACS committee on Dec. 6, and two days later, we accomplished what no other college has ever done – we were reaffirmed by SACS and taken off probation. After five years of struggle we are out of crisis.

“Intermingled with all those legal meetings, the college saw over one hundred students saved in our fall revival, balanced our budget and ended our fiscal year in the black.

“This herculean effort and victory could not have been accomplished anywhere else, I believe. The faculty, staff, board and students of BPC are to be commended, and BPC is now ready to once again be a thriving institution.

“I missed two very obvious events of the past year however. In July, my fifteen-year old son Braxton committed suicide. I was back to work a week later because, frankly, that’s all I knew to do. The subsequent result was my hospitalization in November. A heart catheterization, the removal of seven pints of fluid and all the tests in the world can’t resolve this one issue.

“Brewton-Parker College cannot become a healthy, growing and stable college under the leadership of a man who is broken. And I am admitting to you that I am broken. I can’t get over his death, and I am not sure I want to. I do know that I cannot muster the fight needed to be the leader of our college. My family and my heart need healing, and you deserve better.

“Therefore I am resigning as president, so I can go back to Texas and heal with my wife and ten-year-old son, Drake. It is one thing to lead a college through a crisis, but this position demands a person’s full attention and full strength. At the moment, I have neither. When Braxton died, a part of me died as well.

“I shall endeavor to fulfill whatever obligations are necessary through the year, though I believe attending to the needs of my family are most important to me at the moment. I want to personally thank you for calling me as President, and allowing me to see the greatest victories I’ve ever experienced in my entire 30-year professional life. I believe God has an incredible future in store for Brewton Parker College. I shall be cheering you on.”
Ergun Caner, D.Theol.
Immediately after the outgoing president read his resignation, chairman of the trustee board, Gary Campbell, called the board into executive session and dismissed all non-board members. After approximately 45 minutes in executive session, the board released a resolution of support for Caner they unanimously adopted.
Below is the resolution in full:

WHEREAS, Dr. Ergun Caner served as President of Brewton-Parker College from January 1, 2014 to January 20, 2015, a crucial and pivotal time for the college; and
WHEREAS, during Dr. Ergun Caner’s tenure, Brewton-Parker College overcame a monumental challenge when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS) first voted to remove the school from accreditation, then, upon a successful appeal of this decision, the school celebrated a great victory in December 2014, when SACS fully reinstated Brewton-Parker’s accreditation; and
WHEREAS, during Dr. Ergun Caner’s tenure, Brewton-Parker College continued to grow stronger financially, lives were won on campus with decisions for Jesus Christ and the mission of the school continued forward; and
WHEREAS, Dr. Caner and his family recently suffered a tragic loss in the death of their son, Braxton; now
BE IT RESOLVED, that the Board of Trustees of Brewton-Parker College hereby express our thanks and appreciation for Dr. Ergun Caner’s service; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Board of Trustees of Brewton-Parker College, pray for God’s blessing and restoration for Dr. Caner and his family as they move forward through a time of personal tragedy and healing; and for Dr. Caner much success in his future endeavors.

1/20/2015 1:21:40 PM by Brewton-Parker College | with 0 comments

ERLC unveils leadership council for 2015

January 20 2015 by Tom Strode, Baptist Press

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) has introduced its new Leadership Network Council.
The 40 Southern Baptist pastors and leaders announced Thursday (Jan. 15) will serve as the advisory council for the entity’s Leadership Network in 2015. The ERLC unveiled the network and its first advisory council last January. Most members of the council serve for one year.
The Leadership Network is open to men and women who seek to identify with the ERLC’s gospel-focused approach to cultural issues in their roles as pastors, leaders or lay people.
Council members – all of whom are serving or have served in pastoral ministry – will receive equipping from the ERLC staff and give guidance to the network. They also may provide content for the entity’s website.
ERLC President Russell Moore described the council as “one of the most beneficial initiatives of 2014.”
“It provided us a chance to invest in a strategic group of key leaders,” he said in a written release. “But it also allowed us to get reporting from the front lines of ministry about ethical issues cropping up in communities around the country.”
He is elated to welcome the new council members, Moore said, “in order to equip them to apply the gospel to the cultural and ethical issues they face in ministry every day.”
Fred Luter, the Southern Baptist Convention’s first African-American president and pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, La., is one of the new council members.
In addition to Luter, other new members of the council are:

  • Mike Cosper, pastor of worship and arts at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville.

  • D.A. Horton, executive director of ReachLife Ministries in Atlanta and the North American Mission Board’s national coordinator for urban student missions;

  • Kevin Peck, lead pastor of The Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, Texas.

  • Vance Pitman, senior pastor of Hope Church in Las Vegas.

  • Juan Sanchez, preaching pastor of High Pointe Baptist Church in Austin.

  • Robbie Seay, worship pastor of Bayou City Fellowship-Cypress, Texas, and leader of the Robbie Seay Band.

  • Hershael York, preaching professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.

In the ERLC release announcing the new council, Matt Chandler said it was a blessing to be a member last year. “When I need help navigating the challenging ethical issues that exist in today’s culture, the ERLC is a great resource for me,” said Chandler, lead pastor of The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas.
The benefits of belonging to the ERLC’s Leadership Network include receiving unique content, gaining preferred access to commission events and securing discounts for events and materials. There is no charge to register for the network. Members of the network receive regular messages from the ERLC regarding materials and other benefits.
While the network is open to all, the ERLC fills the network council annually on an invitation only basis.
Registration for the network, the entire list of council members and other information are available online at
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)

1/20/2015 10:21:34 AM by Tom Strode, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Sanctity of Life: Family blessed through adoption

January 20 2015 by Jessica Vanderpool, Arkansas Baptist News

Those who know Haylee Kirtley would probably describe her as a talkative, sweet 6-year-old with a big heart. She is good at school, enjoys playing soccer and, like so many girls her age, loves Elsa from the movie “Frozen.”
And to her parents, she is a gift from God – a gift for whom they waited a long time.
Jada and Allen Kirtley, members of First Baptist Church, Dumas, Ark., tried to have children for a decade before Jada Kirtley underwent a medically necessary procedure that made it impossible for her to bear children.
It might have seemed like the end of a dream for the couple. But Jada Kirtley, who serves as assistant director for First Baptist Church’s day care center, knew God could make her a mother if it was His will.


Contributed photo
Allen, Jada and Haylee Kirtley

“We’d been praying for a child before this, and so I finally just said, ‘Well, God, it’s in Your hands like it always has been,’” Jada Kirtley recalled. “And I said, ‘If I’m meant to be a mother, You will make it happen in Your own timing.”
A couple of months after her medical procedure, Jada Kirtley’s cousin told her of a woman who was pregnant and planned to place her child for adoption. The Kirtleys met with the family; then they waited to hear if they would be chosen as the adoptive parents.
Allen Kirtley said his wife was nervous that they would not be chosen.
“So she and I got in the floor in our living room, held hands and I prayed for our God to give us (this) baby and let us be this baby’s mom and dad,” Allen Kirtley said. “I can tell you that when we got up, God told me she was ours and I would not believe anything else but what God had told me.”
A few days later, they received the news that they had been chosen as the adoptive parents, and a few weeks after that, Haylee was born.
“I was in the delivery room when she was born,” Jada Kirtley said. “And so I got to hold her first.... The nurse put a warm blanket over me and placed her in my arms and said, ‘Here.’ And so I carried her out of the operating room to the nursery.”
Allen Kirtley recalled looking at her in the hospital.
“I can tell you right then and there I knew how much God loves me because that one instant I was in love with that little girl more than anything and to think God loves me more than I could love anything,” he said.
Jada Kirtley said the adoption of Haylee brought her story full circle.
Jada Kirtley, herself, was adopted. In fact, it was her aunt – the mother of the cousin who helped the Kirtleys find Haylee – who helped Jada Kirtley’s own parents adopt her.
“Adoption to me is the most wonderful thing in the world ... because these ladies could have chosen abortion over adoption, and you know there are so many ... women who can’t have children of their own,” Jada said. “And that whole adoption process was just wonderful.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Jessica Vanderpool is assistant editor of the Arkansas Baptist News, newsjournal of the Arkansas Baptist Convention.)

1/20/2015 10:05:45 AM by Jessica Vanderpool, Arkansas Baptist News | with 0 comments

King’s vision embraced by Ala. church

January 19 2015 by David Roach, Baptist Press

An Alabama church whose pastor was criticized 52 years ago by Martin Luther King Jr. for contributing to the “silent – and often vocal – sanction” of racial segregation says today it has come to embrace the civil rights pioneer’s vision for Christian fellowship among people of all races.
“Fifty years ago, our church and its relationship with Dr. King reflected the divisiveness of a difficult time in American history,” Jim Cooley, current pastor of First Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., told Baptist Press. “Today our church reflects the inclusiveness of churches who recognize that everyone is a person Christ died for and everyone has a place within God’s house.”
Today First Baptist has white, black, Hispanic and South Asian members and conducts outreach to people of other ethnic groups. But that was not the case in 1963, when First Baptist’s pastor, Earl Stallings, was one of eight white Protestant, Catholic and Jewish clergymen in Birmingham to whom King addressed his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”


SBHLA photo
Earl Stallings, pastor of First Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., welcomed black worshipers following an Easter service in 1963.


Amid protests of racial segregation in the city, King was arrested for disobeying a judge’s injunction against demonstrating. While in prison, King read in the newspaper a statement by Stallings and the seven other religious leaders agreeing that injustice existed but accusing King of being an “outsider” who used “extreme measures” that incited “hate and violence.”
King responded at length, criticizing “white moderates” who claimed to favor integration but wanted blacks to wait rather than protest. He also took exception with the charge that civil rights activists were extremists.
“Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ Was not Martin Luther an extremist: ‘Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God,’” King wrote.
“... So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime – the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists,” King wrote.
Though criticized by King, Stallings, who died in 2006, was also praised by name in the letter for opening his church to black worshipers days earlier on Easter Sunday – a move that drew criticism from segregationists.
“I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a nonsegregated basis,” King wrote.
Years later, Stallings told Samford University history professor Jonathan Bass that he was harassed and threatened following his decision to admit black worshipers, and his wife Ruth feared for his life when he left home to go to his office. The experience led Stallings to vow that he would never discuss his years in Birmingham while Ruth was alive – a promise he kept, talking about his experience at First Baptist only after Ruth died in 2001.
Stallings left First Baptist in 1965 to assume a pastorate in Georgia, but racial tension persisted in Birmingham. In the early 1970s, a black woman presented herself for membership at First Baptist, and the disagreement over whether to receive her was one factor that contributed to a church split.
Carlisle Driggers, who served as an associate pastor at First Baptist between 1969-71, went with the splinter group and agreed with its plan to welcome people of all races.
Many of the people who remained at First Baptist “were not rabid segregationists by any means,” Driggers, who went on to become executive director of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, told BP. “Some of them were, but some of them were not.”
Yet national media reports portrayed First Baptist as opposed to integration, Driggers said.
Many members “who were cast as anti-integration had hardly ever gone out of Alabama,” Driggers said. “They were homegrown folks and they lived there, worked there and were educated there. And they protected Alabama fiercely, whereas the ones who were more progressive and open to interracial ministries and having the church develop outreach to blacks ... had gone off to be educated in other parts of the country” or had jobs that required them to travel and interact with persons of other races.
In time, First Baptist moved from downtown Birmingham to its present location in Homewood. Cooley said few members today know who Stallings was, but they embrace King’s vision of a multiracial church, a reality underscored recently by the congregation’s celebration of an African American teenager’s baptism as a natural part of their worship.
The struggles of the civil rights era “happened to different people a long time ago,” pastor Cooley said. First Baptist “decided it wanted to be a church that extended the arms of Jesus to everybody.”
James Dixon, an African American pastor who lived in Birmingham in 1963, urged Southern Baptists to learn from the resistance to racial inclusion of congregations like First Baptist in the mid-20th century. If churches had fulfilled their responsibility to love people of all races, the “outsiders” of whom Stallings and others complained would not have had to lead protests, Dixon said.
Churches tend to discuss the topic of race only “when you’ve got a devastating situation going on, when people have lost their lives,” Dixon, now the longtime pastor of El Bethel Baptist Church in Fort Washington, Md., said. “But I think the church needs to be very deliberate in embracing the Bible and let the Bible be the driving force by which we act in terms of our love.”
As Southern Baptists worship this Martin Luther King Day weekend, they must accompany their commitment to biblical doctrine with a recommitment to living out the Great Commandment of loving God and neighbors, Dixon said.
“We need to revisit the Great Commandment and really understand what it means when we’re looking at love,” Dixon said. “The Great Commandment fully understood opens the door to the Great Commission.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)

1/19/2015 1:20:23 PM by David Roach, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

How Southern Baptists became pro-life

January 19 2015 by David Roach, Baptist Press

In 1979, Larry Lewis picked up a copy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and saw a full-page ad listing the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) among denominations that affirmed the right to abortion.
“Right there beside the Unitarians and universalists was the Southern Baptist Convention,” Lewis, a St. Louis pastor who went on to become president of the Home Mission Board (HMB; now the North American Mission Board), told Baptist Press (BP). “... That bothered me a lot.”
So Lewis did something about it, proposing in 1980 the first of more than 20 pro-life resolutions adopted by the SBC over the next few decades. When Lewis became HMB president of in 1987, one of his first actions was to create the office of abortion alternatives to help churches establish crisis pregnancy centers.
Thanks to Lewis and others, newspapers do not call the SBC pro-choice anymore.

Before Roe v. Wade

In 1979 though, it may have seemed a reasonable classification.
Baptists and Roman Catholics had long agreed that life begins at conception, but Baptist scholars, unlike their Catholic counterparts, generally did not develop biblical and theological arguments regarding unborn children. By the mid-20th century, abortion rarely came up among Southern Baptists, and average church members had only “a general feeling that abortion was wrong,” Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, told Baptist Press.
Things got worse in the ‘60s. “The whole nation and culture kind of went off the rails and lost its moral moorings, including any kind of understanding of the sanctity of pre-born life,” he said.


SBHLA photo
Larry Lewis, former president of the Home Mission Board seen here in 1979, led the board to establish a ministry to assist churches in opening crisis pregnancy centers.


Between 1965-68, abortion was referenced at least 85 times in popular magazines and scholarly journals, but no Baptist state paper mentioned abortion and no Baptist body took action related to the subject, according to a 1991 Ph.D. dissertation by Paul Sadler at Baylor University.
In 1970, a poll conducted by the Baptist Sunday School Board found that 70 percent of Southern Baptist pastors supported abortion to protect the mental or physical health of the mother, 64 percent supported abortion in cases of fetal deformity and 71 percent in cases of rape.
Three years later, a poll conducted by the Baptist Standard newsjournal found that 90 percent of Texas Baptists believed their state’s abortion laws were too restrictive.
Support for abortion rights was not limited to theological moderates and liberals. At New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in the early 1970s, some conservative students who went on to become state convention presidents and pastors of prominent churches supported abortion for reasons other than to save the life of the mother, Richard Land, said former president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).
“They pretty much bought into the idea that life begins when breath begins, and they just thought of [abortion] as a Catholic issue,” Land, who attended New Orleans Seminary between 1969-72, said of his fellow students.
A 1971 SBC resolution on abortion appeared to capture the consensus. It stated that “society has a responsibility to affirm through the laws of the state a high view of the sanctity of human life, including fetal life.”
But the resolution added, “We call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”

Reaction to Roe

When the Supreme Court legalized abortion on demand in 1973 with its Roe v. Wade decision, some Southern Baptists criticized the ruling while maintaining their support of abortion rights as defined in the 1971 resolution.
Others embraced the Supreme Court’s decision. A Baptist Press analysis article written by then-Washington bureau chief Barry Garrett declared that the court had “advanced the cause of religious liberty, human equality and justice.”
Norma McCorvey, the unnamed plaintiff in Roe v. Wade who later became a pro-life activist, made her first public statement after the ruling to BP, revealing her true identity. One of McCorvey’s attorneys, Linda Coffee, was a Southern Baptist and also granted BP an interview.
“It’s great to know that other women will not have to go through what I did,” McCorvey told BP in 1973, commenting on her experience of giving birth and placing her child up for adoption. “I’m glad the court decided that women, in consultation with a doctor, can control their own bodies.”
A 1981 pamphlet published by the Christian Life Commission, a precursor organization to the ERLC, spoke of “Christian concern for the value of the defenseless fetus” but went on to argue, “It is questionable that Christian love and justice would be served by extremely restrictive laws which do not give conscientious people with proper medical advice the opportunity to choose when they are faced with very grave moral dilemmas related to abortion.”
In a more extreme stance, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Paul Simmons argued that “God is pro-choice,” and some prominent Baptist leaders were among early supporters of the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights.

How opinions changed

Not all Southern Baptists supported abortion rights, however. Lewis became strongly pro-life in the late 1960s when he and his wife sought to adopt a child, believing they were unable to have biological children. The Lewises – who eventually had three biological children – were told they had to wait five years to adopt due to a shortage of children.
“To me it was incongruous that people would be destroying their babies when there were [couples] who were desperately wanting children,” Lewis said.
For Land, a high school science class drove home the reality that unborn babies were humans worthy of protection. A classmate whose father was an obstetrician brought a fetus to school in a jar of formaldehyde as a prop for a presentation and stored it beside Land’s desk. When Land told the teacher he was disturbed by the fetus, he was sent to the principal’s office, where a school administrator asked, “You’re not Catholic, are you?”
A few months later, Land’s mother told him doctors had urged her to abort him, believing he would be born with severe abnormalities.
“From that moment forward, I really felt an obligation to speak up for unborn children who couldn’t speak for themselves, because I had been in danger,” Land, who was president of the Christian Life Commission (CLC)/ERLC for 25 years and now serves as president of Southern Evangelical Seminary, said.
As the 1970s progressed, Land, Lewis and thousands of individual Southern Baptists – including the organization Southern Baptists for Life – argued for protecting unborn life in all cases except to save the physical life of the mother. Among non-Southern Baptists, apologist Francis Schaeffer and future U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop argued that abortion was immoral and gained increased support for the pro-life cause.
Southern Baptists as prominent as W.A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, began to shift from a qualified pro-choice view to fully embrace the pro-life position.
Following the Roe v. Wade decision, news sources reported that Criswell said, “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”
But, according to Land, Criswell “listened intently” to pro-life arguments during the ensuing years, including arguments Land made while teaching at Criswell College beginning in 1975. When the “Criswell Study Bible” was published in 1979, Criswell included “overtly pro-life” study notes, Land said.
Mirroring Criswell’s change of mind were similar changes in the broader evangelical world. Theologians Carl Henry and Norman Geisler, for example, both became ardently pro-life.
“Some of our pastors in those years hadn’t really studied what scripture said about abortion,” Jerry Vines, former SBC president and retired pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., told BP. “But I think the carnage [of increased abortion following Roe v. Wade] drove them back to their Bibles to take a further look at it.”
Studying a Greek word from the New Testament “really nailed down the abortion issue for me,” Vines said.
The word “brephos,” translated as “baby,” is used eight times in the New Testament, Vines said. Six of those occurrences refer to children who have already been born, but two speak of John the Baptist in his mother’s womb.
“That’s pretty convincing evidence that scripture looks on a baby in its mother’s womb as a baby,” said Vines, who also noted Jeremiah 1 and Psalm 139 as convincing pro-life passages.

Moving forward

When a succession of conservative presidents were selected by messengers to lead the SBC beginning in 1979, they appointed resolutions committees that consistently proposed pro-life statements. In turn, messengers to the convention’s annual meetings supported those statements – partially because some had changed their opinions and partially because greater numbers of conservative messengers were attending the meetings.
Meanwhile, Land was elected chief executive of the Christian Life Commission in 1988 and made defending unborn life one of the entity’s priorities. Under his leadership, the CLC lobbied for pro-life legislation in Congress and taught Southern Baptists how a biblical ethic of life applied to abortion, reproductive technology, human cloning and embryonic stem cell research.
Current SBC President Ronnie Floyd told BP that Southern Baptists must build on victories of the past and rearticulate their commitment to defend unborn life in every generation.
“If we continually hold high our commitment to holy scripture, to the lordship of Jesus Christ and our commitment to human life from the moment of conception, I think we can constantly be an effective voice” for life, Floyd said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)

1/19/2015 1:08:37 PM by David Roach, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Supporters rally for fired Atlanta fire chief

January 19 2015 by Baptist Press staff

Some 600 people gathered at the Georgia Capitol Jan. 13 to support terminated Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran and ask elected officials to preserve religious liberty.
Following the rally, demonstrators delivered 40,000 petitions to Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed requesting Cochran’s reinstatement. Reed fired Cochran Jan. 6 following his publication of a book that calls homosexual behavior immoral.
Meanwhile, former Southern Baptist Convention president Bryant Wright warned the Georgia House of Representatives Jan. 14 that protection of so-called gay rights is threatening religious liberty, drawing criticism from an openly gay Georgia legislator.
At the rally for Cochran, Georgia Baptist Convention executive director Robert White told Christians, “It is time to stand up for our faith.”


Photo by Bryan Nowak/Georgia Baptist Convention
Hundreds of residents showed up for a rally in support of dismissed fire chief Kelvin Cochran, which begin at the Capitol and ended with a walk to City Hall, where nearly 40,000 petitions were presented to the office of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.


“We have been very courteous and quiet, but now we must become courageous and vocal about those things we hold dear as Christians and as Americans,” White said.
Cochran is a deacon, Sunday School teacher and Bible study leader at Atlanta’s Elizabeth Baptist Church, a cooperating church with the Georgia Baptist Convention. A two-time Atlanta fire chief, Cochran also served as U.S. Fire Administrator under President Obama from 2009-10.
“Mayor Reed,” White said, “you have probably fired the most loyal employee you ever had.”
Cochran delivered the final address of the rally, telling supporters that “freedom of religion and freedom of speech are under attack.”
Cochran said his termination served as a warning to all city employees that “if you seek to live out the true meaning of our nation’s Pledge and Constitution and have a living faith and believe that sex should be between a man and woman in the bonds of holy matrimony, ... you had better keep your mouth shut or you will be fired.”
He continued, “This experience has taught me that there are worldly consequences for publicly standing for righteousness, but I stand before you to tell you that the Kingdom consequences are far greater and more glorious than the earthly consequences.”
Among other speakers at the rally were Wellington Boone, bishop of the Father’s House in Atlanta; Craig Oliver, pastor of Elizabeth Baptist Church; Ken Barun, chief of staff for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association; Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council; and Alveda King, niece of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
In related news, Wright, pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., said while delivering a devotional to the Georgia legislature that “erotic liberty” wrongly trumps religious liberty when Christians are required to support same-sex marriage in word or deed.
“We’re liable to see this with our military chaplains in the years ahead if they in good conscience believe they cannot perform same-sex weddings and could be kicked out of the military,” Wright said according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Lawmakers should protect the principle and practice of religious liberty even if “a majority of your constituencies have embraced erotic liberty over religious liberty,” Wright said.
Simone Bell, one of three openly gay Georgia legislators posted on her Facebook page that she told Wright “he is a disgrace to the clergy, the Word and the state of Georgia. ...
“He responded that we clearly have a difference of opinion.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Compiled by David Roach, chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)


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1/19/2015 12:41:28 PM by Baptist Press staff | with 0 comments

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