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Georgia Baptists vote to end relationship with Mercer University after 172 years

 

Joe Westbury

Kirby Godsey, president of Mercer University, urges messengers not to sever ties with the school. Standing in background is Fred Evers, pastor of Northside Baptist Church in Tifton. Evers brought the recommendation from the Executive Committee for the state convention to discontinue its 172-year relationship with Mercer.

COLUMBUS - The Georgia Baptist Convention by an overwhelming majority voted to sever its 172-year-old relationship with Mercer University in a historic decision made at its annual session here on Nov. 15th. The vote was based on years of mistrust between the two institutions, and was inflamed by last month's discovery of a student-led gay lesbian bisexual transgender organization that had existed since 2002.

The group's 'coming out day' on October 11, sponsored by the Mercer Triangle Symposium, galvanized Georgia Baptists to cast a vote of no confidence in the ongoing relationship.

Just hours prior to the first session of the Convention the GBC Executive Committee went into an executive session and agreed to present a motion to the messengers at the annual meeting to sever ties with Mercer, one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the south.

Mercer, the second-largest Baptist-affiliated educational institution in the world with 7,300 students, traces its roots with Georgia Baptists to its 1833 founding by Jesse Mercer. It was founded in Penfield but moved to its current Macon campus in 1871.

 

Deviation in beliefs

Fred Evers, pastor of Northside Baptist Church in Tifton, represented the Executive Committee and brought the motion for the Convention to separate from Mercer. The motion included three actions: (1) that the relationship of the Georgia Baptist Convention and Mercer University be discontinued; (2) that this matter be brought before the GBC for approval at the 2006 meeting; and (3) that the GBC Executive Director and Mercer University president take action to provide for an orderly discontinuance of the relationship.

Joe Westbury

Mercer University President Kirby Godsey fields telephone calls after the Convention's near-unanimous vote to sever ties with the institution.

Evers spoke to his motion contending that the Georgia Baptist Convention was no longer compatible with the Macon-based university in neither theology nor purpose. He illustrated his case by referring to Godsey's 1996 book When We Talk About God, Let's Be Honest. He stated that the book had created a considerable amount of discontent toward Mercer among Georgia Baptists because of it deviation from biblical doctrine and theology. Evers also cited an identity crisis, stating, "The administration of Mercer often wishes to identify itself with Baptist heritage, but we need our institutions to identify with Georgia Baptists."

In an effort to appease Georgia Baptists just 72 hours prior to the Convention, university President Kirby Godsey released a memorandum in which he stated, "I have been deeply concerned about the problems that have arisen regarding the Mercer Triangle Symposium. In an effort to be sensitive to the concerns of our Baptist constituents, two actions have been taken: (1) The Mercer Triangle Symposium has been disbanded. (2) I have issued a new policy that the President's Office reserves the right to review and to approve the creation of student organizations."

Alluding to the Godsey memorandum, Evers commented, "Why change the Mercer Triangle Symposium now? The Symposium should have never been allowed on the Mercer campus in the first place. The problem is that Mercer has created an environment where such a thing can begin and flourish."

 

"In a culture war"

The Tifton pastor related that it was particularly troubling that supporters of the Symposium's National Coming Out Day included faculty and members of Mercer's Department of Christianity.

Evers concluded his remarks by explaining, "We are in a culture war. The world is changing and we need a biblical worldview. What we are attempting to do here has nothing to do with a hatred of homosexuals. God commands us to love all people. The greatest thing we can do for those who are struggling with this difficulty is to proclaim the truth that is only found in Holy Scripture."

Joe Westbury

Jeff Barker, pastor of Gordy-New Bethel Baptist Church in Sylvester, asks if the Mercer Baptist Student Union would continue in existence if messengers voted to defund the university over the homosexual issue. He was assured that the status of the organization would remain unchanged. "My daughter was very active in the BSU during her years at Mercer and it made a tremendous impact on her spiritual development. It was the only conservative voice in that liberal environment and it's important that we continue the presence of the Mercer BSU. They have to scrape for every dime they get and it would be a shame for them to labor under even a greater financial hardship," he told the Index. "It has a powerful ministry among students who are shaping their biblical convictions while in college."

A motion to postpone the matter at hand was made by Mike Ruffin of The Hill Baptist Church of Augusta. When Ruffin's motion was ruled out of order, Ruffin asked if the motion could be tabled and was told that parliamentary law would not permit that. Later the Augusta pastor stated that he was concerned that the scholarship money provided by the Convention would be withheld to the detriment of deserving Georgia Baptist students.

Godsey was invited to the platform and appealed to Convention messengers to defeat the motion by reminding them that the school and Convention had walked together for many years and urged the gathered assembly not the take the initial action to dissolve the relationship.

The Mercer president reasoned, "We are educating the best and brightest of your young people. The Georgia Baptist Convention invests $3.5 million in the university and all of that goes to educate Georgia Baptist students. We have tripled that amount so that the total amount provided to educate Georgia Baptist students is $11.6 million."

 

Actions speak louder than words

Godsey continued, "Much has been made of the Mercer Triangle Symposium. When it existed it showed grace to those who were trapped in that lifestyle. Mercer University has never promoted, advocated or encouraged gay or lesbian behavior. Discussion, yes, but encouragement never.

"I believe the underlying issue in this matter is governance. For almost 175 years our relationship has been built on cooperation, not governance. I am convinced that the future of Mercer and the Georgia Baptist Convention would be diminished by this action, and the unified work of the Kingdom would be diminished by this action."

Sherri Brown

Messengers vote to sever GBC ties with Mercer University. The action requires a second vote at the 2006 annual meeting before the dissolution will be final. Registration at the time of the motion was 1,825.

Mike Stone, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear, responded to Godsey's comments, "Actions speak louder than words. All we have heard is a fundraising speech for $3.5 million. It is tragic that Mercer has created the kind of atmosphere where this kind of situation (a homosexual coming out day) can take place."

Stone added, "Not only am I concerned about the actions and atmosphere, but the authority. This institution has departed from the authority of God's Word. Certainly they are free to do that, but not on our nickel."

Kevin Calhoun, pastor of Hilton Terrace Baptist Church in Columbus and member of Mercer's Georgia Baptist Advisory Committee, spoke to the messengers urging further dialogue between the Convention leadership. Calhoun advised, "I think further communication between Mercer's leadership and the GBC would result in a clearer understanding of the situation and thus help us to make a more informed decision."

GBC Executive Director J. Robert White, in addressing the 1,825 messengers present for the vote, cited issues of incompatibility over the past several decades. He declared that the stated purpose of the Mercer Triangle Symposium was contrary to the values of the Convention and specified, "It is time to make this decision."

Bucky Kennedy, pastor of First Baptist Church in Vidalia, called for the question and when the vote was taken an estimated 98 percent of the messengers raised their ballots to express their approval of taking the initial step to discontinue the relationship.