The Mississippi Baptist Convention, which oversees around 2,100 Southern Baptist churches in the state, has booted Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson from its rolls amid “a difference in philosophy.”
Northminster, a staple in the Jackson spiritual community and one of the largest Baptist churches in the state, has long leaned left of the traditional values of the state convention, welcoming same-sex couples and ordaining women as ministers and deacons.
Northminster leadership announced the official split to the congregation in a letter last week.
“The Mississippi Baptist Convention Board no longer considers Northminster a member church of the Mississippi Baptist Convention,” the church’s letter to the congregation said, citing a July 24 letter from the convention’s executive committee.
The Mississippi Baptist Convention does not impose doctrine on churches. Structurally, Baptist churches in Mississippi operate in autonomy and church leaders may choose to join or leave any convention or any association at any time.
But convention member churches must follow two guidelines: They must contribute money to the cooperative program, which funds the convention and its missions work, and they must follow the Baptist Faith and Message, the Southern Baptist Convention’s book of doctrine.
When leaders of the Mississippi Baptist Convention determine that either of those guidelines aren’t fulfilled by a member church, they may vote to dismiss, as they did with Northminster in July.
A spokesman for the convention confirmed the split to Mississippi Today last week but declined to comment on specific reasons for removal, saying Northminster was “found not to be in friendly cooperation with the convention.”
“The convention’s executive committee feels like it’s their duty to respect the autonomy of the church,” said William Perkins, spokesman for the Mississippi Baptist Convention. “As far as I know, it’s been a gracious separation. Out of respect for them (Northminster) and their future, the board has no comment.”
Several church leaders, including pastor Charles Poole, also declined to say exactly what reasons were cited by the association in making its decision. Poole said on Friday he was not comfortable speaking on the record until everyone in his congregation had a chance to receive the letter and he was able to have conversations with church members.
Anne Guidry, the chair of the denominational relations committee at Northminster, described the split with the convention simply as a “difference of philosophy” but said that any specifics would have to come from Poole, who has had many conversations over the years with members of the association.
The Mississippi Baptist Convention adheres to the Baptist Faith and Message, the book of church policy, of the Southern Baptist Convention. One section of that policy states: “In the spirit of Christ, Christians should oppose racism, every form of greed, selfishness, and vice, and all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography.”
Poole preached a sermon in 2014, which is available on the church’s website, and expressed a more conciliatory view toward those who are gay.
“Most people believe what they believe about homosexuality because of what they think about it and how they feel about it, not because of something they read in the Bible about it, which is fine; we just need to be honest about it,” Poole wrote.
“I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, when it comes to the subject of homosexuality, I do not know all the truth. … Most importantly, I do not know the full mind of God as it regards human sexuality; nor do I believe anyone else does,” he added.
A 2015 document produced by the state Department of Mental Health called “Mississippi LGBTQ Youth Resource Guide” lists Northminster as an “LGBTI welcoming and affirming church.”
While Northminster has never administered a same-sex marriage, it is not because of any policy against doing so, church leaders said last week. Guidry said to her knowledge, no one has ever asked.
“We tried our best to stay in fellowship with (the convention), but it just didn’t happen,” Guidry said.
Doug Boone, Northminster member and listed chairman of the Metro Baptist Association, said that while he hates to use political terms, he would describe Northminster as more progressive than most Baptist churches.
“Theologically we’ve probably always been on the perimeter of how most Southern Baptist churches are,” Boone said.
Expelling member churches is not new to the Mississippi Baptist Convention. Perkins said “less than five a year move in or out” of the convention.
In 2015, University Baptist Church in Hattiesburg was booted from the convention and the Pine Belt Baptist Association for affirming “the practice of homosexual lifestyle,” according to a 2015 letter from the association.
The Mississippi Baptist Convention meets just once a year and includes thousands of church members from around the state. At that annual meeting, voting members set the annual convention budget and appoint a 100-member board.
That board then appoints a 16-person executive committee — including one person representing each Baptist association within the state — that meets as needed throughout the year to handle matters such as adding or removing a church from the convention’s rolls.
Perkins and church leaders said the association’s decision to remove Northminster has been in the works for months.
Northminster, in accordance with convention policy, has been contributing money to the Mississippi Baptist Convention each month to support its missionary work and other efforts. As a result of those contributions, the church receives messenger cards for members to attend the annual convention in the fall in Jackson.
The church contributed about $44,000 a year to the convention until it stopped cashing its checks in September of 2016. The church then stopped receiving those cards, Guidry said.
“The executive committee decided (in September 2016) it wouldn’t be appropriate to accept funds while in the process of being removed from the convention,” Perkins said. “It wouldn’t be ethical to accept their money.”
Northminster will continue to be a member of the Metro Baptist Association, Boone said, and send money directly to that group.
Both Guidry and Boone spoke of the importance of the Mississippi Baptist Convention in helping Northminster start 50 years ago. They both also spoke of the importance of the missionary work the convention does.
Perkins, too, said there were no fights between the convention and the church, and “there are no hard feelings that I know of.”
Northminster leaders said the convention’s decision to officially remove them will not change their work or mission.
“Needless to say, this decision… in no way impacts our church’s Baptist identity,” the letter from church leaders to the congregation said. “Baptist churches are Baptist, not by affiliation, but by practice and belief.”