The Pacific Southwest region of the American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA) has begun defecting in the largest church exodus from any denomination over the presenting issue of homosexuality. Underlying issues, according to leaders, include the authority of Scripture and church discipline. Representing more than 300 churches, the region's board of directors voted September 8 to begin withdrawal. At least four other regions are considering leaving the ABCUSA, a member denomination in the National Council of Churches.

The ABCUSA officially states that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." However, gay-affirming congregations remain affiliated with the denomination. When conservative regions have disfellowshiped such congregations, those congregations have simply affiliated with a more liberal ABCUSA region.

This summer, conservatives failed to convince the denomination to apply church teaching on homosexuality. The defeat made conservatives despair of making any headway on this issue in the future, says Bill Nicoson, executive director of American Baptist Evangelicals (ABE), a 13-year-old renewal group.

Others are troubled by the breakaway. "This is totally unnecessary," says Tony Campolo, professor of sociology at Eastern University, an ABCUSA-affiliated school. Campolo, also an ordained American Baptist pastor, says the denomination should have let local congregations decide how to handle homosexuality. The denomination of 1.5 million members and 5,800 congregations, founded in 1907 as the Northern Baptist Convention, allows for wide diversity. Homosexuality "shouldn't be a defining issue," Campolo says.

Those leaving argue that something more crucial is at stake. "Biblical authority has brought ...

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