Interracial couples and Baptist 'hierarchy'

Over at Yahoo! News — one of the most visited sites in the online universe — the third and fourth most popular items at this moment relate to a tiny Kentucky church voting to ban interracial couples from joining the flock. The top of Reuters' report on the Appalachian church:

TOMAHAWK, Ky (Reuters) - A vote to bar interracial couples from a small church in eastern Kentucky has triggered hand-wringing and embarrassment.

Nine members of Gulnare Freewill Baptist Church backed their former pastor, with six opposed, in Sunday's vote to bar interracial couples from church membership and worship activities. Funerals were excluded.

The vote was taken after most of the 40 people who attended Sunday services had left the church in Pike County, near the border with West Virginia. Many members left to avoid the vote.

I assume the writer means "hand-wringing" in a cliche sense and that it has nothing to do with the congregation's religious rituals. But I digress ...

Our thanks to Ann Rodgers, Pittsburgh's queen of religion news, who came across the Reuters story and thought it might be a candidate for some GetReligion treatment. The part of the relatively short report that tripped up Rodgers came near the end:

The move has drawn scrutiny from the hierarchy of the Freewill Baptist Church, Harville said.

Did you catch that? Hierarchy.

The reason for Rodgers' concern? There really is no such thing as hierarchy among autonomous Free Will Baptist congregations (yes, "Free Will" is two words).

The Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky didn't use that same terminology but also seemed to stumble on how Free Will Baptists operate:

Harville said he plans to ask the conference of churches to which Gulnare Freewill Baptist belongs to overturn the vote.

Here's what a quick Google search turned up concerning the National Association of Free Will Baptists' practice on church government:

Free Will Baptist churches enjoy local church autonomy (self-governing). The local church is the highest authority in the denomination. Local churches voluntarily organize themselves into quarterly meetings, district, state, and national associations for the purpose of promoting the cause of Christ on the local, state, district, national, and world-wide level.

The Associated Press showed a better understanding and provided more complete context:

The church’s pastor, Stacy Stepp, said Wednesday that he was against the resolution. Stepp said the denomination’s regional conference will begin working on resolving the issue this weekend.

The National Association of Free Will Baptists in Antioch, Tenn., has no official position on interracial marriage for its 2,400 churches worldwide, executive secretary Keith Burden said. The denomination believes in (sic) the Bible is inerrant and local churches have autonomy over decision-making.

“It’s been a non-issue with us,” Burden said, adding that many interracial couples attend Free Will Baptist churches. He said the Pike County church acted on its own. Burden said the association can move to strip the local church of its affiliation with the national denomination if it’s not resolved.

“Hopefully it is corrected quickly,” Burden said.

Here's how Peter Smith, Godbeat pro at the Louisville Courier-Journal, explained the situation:

Free Will Baptist congregations are self-governing, but the association can decide whether it wants to be affiliated with one.

For reporters wanting to explore the big picture, Smith offered some excellent context that perhaps gives some insight into why this isolated story about a tiny Kentucky church is drawing so many Internet pageviews:

The story hits a nerve in part because the church actually put a segregationist policy in writing, but cultural barriers remain at many houses of worship. Segregation was long a fact of life in Bible Belt churches, whether by explicit or implicit policy, born out of both white exclusion and blacks’ post-Civil War wish to have autonomy in their own churches rather than stay in the ones that had preached obedience to their slaveholders.

Fifty years ago, Christian civil-rights activists found the “most segregated” hour of Sunday morning worship to be an embarrassment to their church culture, but today most Americans worship among people of their own race. For bi-racial couples, that’s not an option. The Gulnare church, in its own shocking way, shows this is an issue that will affect even the most remote areas.

More than 40 years after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned state laws against interracial marriage, estimates for biracial couples top 400,000, and the child of one such couple is in the White House. And of course, families are increasingly blended in other ways, such as with cross-racial adoption. Multi-racial families can tell when they show up somewhere for worship, even without a policy in writing, whether people are welcoming, hostile or squirmy.

“When you have the 'other’ in your own family, it’s hard to think of them as 'other’ anymore,” Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfeld said in an MSNBC article. The article was on cross-racial marriage, but churches like to think of themselves as family, and these are guess-who’s-coming-to-dinner days for them as well.

By the way, just in case you need a reason to be paranoid, Your Smartphone is Spying on You is the most popular item on Yahoo! News right now.

Interracial marriage photo via Shutterstock

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