Lexington's Central Baptist Church withdrew from the Elkhorn Baptist Association after its minister's supportive position on gay and lesbian issues was questioned by a pastor in another association church.
The Rev. Mark Johnson, pastor at Central Baptist, said his church unanimously decided to split from the association in December. Johnson said the move stemmed from questions raised over comments he placed on his blog last fall suggesting that Jesus would have been supportive of gay and lesbian people.
Don Reed, executive director of the Elkhorn Baptist Association, said Thursday that Central Baptist chose to leave the organization before Elkhorn ever looked into questions about the blog post.
Now Central Baptist Church's decision is drawing praise from the Kentucky Equality Federation, an advocacy group for gays and lesbians.
Federation president Jordan Palmer said in a statement, "We need more churches like this across the commonwealth. Everyone's relationship with God is personal and not for any one person or any association of churches to condemn or frown on."
Central Baptist withdrew from the Southern Baptist Convention and Kentucky Baptist Convention in fall 2000 in what church officials said at the time was a response to growing conservatism in both organizations.
But Central Baptist had remained in the Elkhorn Baptist Association, which includes more than 80 Baptist churches in Lexington and Central Kentucky. Formed in 1785, Elkhorn Baptist Association is the oldest Baptist organization west of the Allegheny Mountains. Central Baptist Church, which has about 350 members, joined the association almost 60 years ago, Johnson said.
Central Baptist officials released a statement saying the church has "no feelings of animosity toward or alienation from" Elkhorn Baptist Association, but members thought it was "best to officially part ways."
Johnson said events leading to the split began in October, when the Rev. David Prince, pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, wrote to the Elkhorn Baptist Association membership committee questioning statements Johnson made Sept. 23 on his blog.
In his post, titled "Who Stole Jesus," Johnson applauded a church in Indianapolis that believes Christ "would be a strong advocate and defender of equal rights for all persons, including those in the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community."
Prince said Wednesday that individual Baptist churches are free to believe as they wish, but he considered Johnson's blog comments to be outside the "doctrinal commitments of the Elkhorn Baptist Association."
"A church sadly and tragically disqualifies itself by certain practices, conduct, preaching or doctrine contrary to the doctrinal statement," Prince said. "In my mind, that alone at least clarified that the pastor (at Central Baptist) was outside the bounds of our shared doctrinal commitment."
Prince said he simply suggested that the Elkhorn Baptist Association membership team "look into" the question.
Reed, the Elkhorn Baptist Association director, said Thursday that the organization received Prince's inquiry but that Central Baptist decided to leave before any action was ever taken.
The association never looked into whether Johnson's statements conflicted with doctrine, Reed said.
Johnson said in a statement that Central Baptist was faced with a choice of "should we fight to stay or graciously and quietly just go?"
"When we were informed that one church was perhaps asking the membership committee to look into what was going on, we felt that given the nature of how Baptists go about this, it probably wouldn't be a very nice experience," Johnson said. "We just felt, since we'd left the other two organizations, maybe it was time to leave the third."
Johnson said Central Baptist wanted to be "identified as an open and inviting fellowship for God's people."