Atlanta Baptist group cuts ties with First Baptist Church of Decatur

First Baptist Church Decatur was recently notified it was kicked out of the Atlanta Metro Baptist Association. It’s not the first time, the church has been in hot water with a Baptist association. AJC FILE

First Baptist Church Decatur was recently notified it was kicked out of the Atlanta Metro Baptist Association. It’s not the first time, the church has been in hot water with a Baptist association. AJC FILE

The Atlanta Metro Baptist Association has severed ties with the First Baptist Church of Decatur over what it calls a “misalignment” of biblical standards.

First Baptist’s Senior Pastor David Jordan, though, thinks it boils down to the fact that the church has ordained gay deacons and is an LGBTQ-inclusive congregation at a time when the association has taken “a pretty hard right turn.”

“I don’t think anybody likes to be kicked out of anything, but in a way, we can feel good about it because we are being kicked out for a very worthy cause,” Jordan said. “It’s sad that people have this kind of mindset.”

The Clairmont Road church was notified of the action in a Jan. 31 letter from Atlanta Metro Baptist Association Executive Director Jimmy D. Baughcum.

The letter does not mention LGBTQ issues.

It says the church’s “misalignment with the qualifications of a member church by affirming, approving, or endorsing practices or behaviors that do not align with biblical standards as outlined in the Manual of Procedure adopted by the association in May 2019.”

Baughcum declined to elaborate.

“This is an association and church matter and I have committed to speak about it only with those within the church and faith community at this time,” he said in an email Thursday.

The letter also says that the Decatur church has not sent a representative or messengers to any Atlanta Metro meetings in the past two years.

However, Jordan, who came to the church from Charlotte, North Carolina, two years ago, said members have frequently volunteered at the association.

Jordan was visited by association officials last November.

The conversations started off on a good note, but the “tone quickly changed to basically you are in very clear violations of our bylaws. The wording was basically it’s your choice, you can either go quietly or we will vote you out. I told them that is your issue, not ours.”

He said the Atlanta-based association has been a good support system for churches through partnership in local missions, help for struggling churches and combining resources “but clearly we have a different vision of what a church should be.”

This is not the first time the historic church, which has an active membership of about 700 people, has been at odds with a Baptist association.

The Georgia Baptist Convention in 2009 severed its 148-year relationship with First Baptist Church of Decatur after it called a woman, the Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell, as its pastor. The church is now part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

She is currently senior pastor at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, D.C.

Pennington-Russell, who could not be reached for comment, led efforts to welcome members of the LGBTQ community in all aspects of the church’s ministries.

Theron Clark-Stuart was ordained as a deacon in 2015.

His husband, David Clark-Stuart, currently serves as an active member of the deaconate, and both are members of the praise and worship band.

“Christian churches that are very conservative tend to have a black-and-white view of the world,” said Theron Clark-Stuart, a longtime member who lives in DeKalb County. While denomination-affiliated associations can serve a purpose, “there’s a reason people don’t want the same kind of church their great-grandmother had. We don’t live in a bubble anymore.”

Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, an advocacy organization for the LGBTQ community, recently spoke at the Decatur church on the topic of religious liberty legislation.

While he declined to weigh in on First Baptist’s disfellowship, he said it was important “to recognize first and foremost that surveys have shown that the majority of folks who identify as LGBTQ also identify as people of faith,” he said. “There are a growing number of faith traditions and denominations that are working through their own internal processes to come out with an understanding that truly follows their faith and to be accepting and inclusive.”

Graham said he has spoken with several members of the First Baptist congregation.

“They are very proud of the fact that the church has taken this stand and members of the community who identify as LGBTQ can find solace in having a place to worship that is accepting of them and where they can turn to for guidance, support and a sense of community.”

This is not the only denomination grappling with matters of human sexuality.

The United Methodist Church is facing a split over LGBTQ issues.

According to its Book of Discipline, pastors cannot perform same-sex marriages and “practicing” members of the LGBTQ community are not allowed to become ordained pastors.

“One of the things I really need to emphasize is that I stand on the shoulders of the good work of others,” Jordan said. “The previous pastors and strong lay leadership have done a lot of the heavy lifting.”