A historically black college that used to have ties with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has drawn criticism for inviting three gay marriage proponents to address students.
Forrest Harris, president of American Baptist College in Nashville, specifically defended his decision to invite a lesbian bishop to speak by denouncing those who use “idolatry of the Bible” to discriminate against homosexuals. Harris defined idolatry of the Bible as “when people say [the Bible] is synonymous with God and the truth.” He added, “We can’t be guided and dictated by a first century worldview,” the Tennessean reported.
Among the critics of Harris and the college is a coalition of pastors who minister at congregations in cooperation with the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. (NBC USA), America’s largest predominantly African American Baptist denomination. Known as the National Baptist Fellowship of Concerned Pastors, the coalition objects to American Baptist College’s speaking invitation to Yvette Flunder, an open lesbian and United Church of Christ bishop, Delman Coates, a pastor who led a campaign in Maryland to legalize gay marriage, and Allan Boesak, a South African minister and politician who urged the South African Dutch Reformed Church to affirm same-sex marriage.
The 150 members of the National Baptist Fellowship of Concerned Pastors asked in a news release that Harris rescind Flunder’s invitation, that NBC USA Inc. President Jerry Young release a statement expressing his position on Flunder’s invitation and that Flunder’s addresses be moved from the American Baptist College’s facilities.
Dwight McKissic, a co-coordinator of the conservative pastors group whose church cooperates with both the NBC USA Inc. and the SBC, told Baptist Press that Harris, who teaches at Vanderbilt Divinity School, is taking American Baptist College “down a liberal Vanderbilt trail.”
“The issue with the college is, how did the board of trustees allow this to happen?” McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, said. “That’s the focus of what we’ve been looking at. The board of trustees has allowed Forrest Harris to take the school down a liberal Vanderbilt trail against the theological beliefs of the pastors of” the NBC USA Inc.
Randy Vaughn, pastor of Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church in Port Arthur, Texas, and the other co-coordinator of the National Baptist Fellowship of Concerned Pastors said, “As a Baptist body believing that the scripture really governs and dictates to us what our convictions are about God and our Christ, the very fact of Yvette Flunder’s being in a lesbian same-sex marriage is a violation of what we believe. And certainly her preaching in our sacred sanctuary is much of an abomination for us. And as a result, that requires an objection.”
In a March 15 worship service at the college, those in attendance participated in a responsive reading that affirmed, “We are committed to a love and justice ministry that shuns all forms of oppression and hates based on race, class, gender and sexual orientation. We are committed to fostering leaders who uphold cultural and racial diversity, gender justice and developing effective leadership for a more inclusive church and society,” according to a copy of the reading provided by McKissic.
The NBC USA Inc.’s website describes American Baptist College as “an independent college for the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc.” But Monchiere Holmes-Jones, a spokeswoman for the college, said it “is not directly correlated” with the convention. She did not know whether the NBC USA Inc. contributes any money to the college.
Harris did not respond to Baptist Press’s request for comment by press time.
American Baptist College’s governance has long been “shrouded in mystery,” McKissic said. Though National Baptists have been told the school is “owned and operated” by the NBC USA Inc., it is unclear who appoints trustees or whether the convention funds the college. McKissic believes Young, who was elected as NBC USA Inc. president last year and opposes same-sex marriage, will help clarify questions about American Baptist College’s governance.
Young was not available to comment by press time but may provide comments for a follow-up article, his assistant said.
Harris has not responded to emails or phone calls from McKissic and other concerned pastors, McKissic said. The college’s spokeswoman said Harris has decided not to respond but to let his supporters respond on his behalf. Open letters from supporters are posted on the American Baptist College website.
The controversy over Flunder and other gay-affirming speakers at American Baptist College may help generate discussion about a larger “tension” within the NBC USA Inc. regarding same-sex marriage, McKissic said.
The NBC USA Inc. has not taken a position on same-sex marriage as a convention, but Young announced in January that he would appoint a resolutions committee to develop a position statement on same-sex marriage for National Baptists to vote on later this year, according to McKissic’s blog. Last year, the NBC USA Inc.’s Home Mission Board released a statement instructing board-endorsed military chaplains “not to participate in any activity that implies or condones same sex marriage or same sex union.”
Founded in 1924 as the American Baptist Theological Seminary, American Baptist College was organized “for the training of Negro ministers and religious workers” and was jointly owned by the NBC USA Inc. and SBC. The SBC financially supported the college until 1995, when as a part of the Covenant for a New Century the SBC decided that the school was a “legacy of an age of racial discrimination, when African-American students were not allowed to enroll in the convention-supported seminaries.”
The SBC moved further toward racial inclusion by granting sole responsibility for the institution to the NBC USA Inc., noting that Southern Baptists “are convinced that this is no longer the appropriate structure for Southern Baptist support of African-American Baptist leadership.”
Deeds for the college’s property drafted in 1977 and 1982 specified that the school “may not use or allow the use of the property other than exclusively for the purpose of training persons in Christian theology as interpreted by Baptist doctrine.” A violation of that condition would have resulted in the property being transferred back to the SBC.
In 2011, the SBC’s Executive Committee waived the convention’s rights to 55 acres on which American Baptist College sits, property appraised at $1.7 million at the time.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)