Alabama Baptists called to prayer over concerns about controversial student group at Samford


July 5, 2017

The Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions (SBOM) has authorized an ad hoc committee to work with Samford University in Birmingham regarding official recognition of a student organization called Samford Together (ST), according to SBOM chairman Morgan Bailey, pastor of Canaan Baptist Church, Bessemer.

The description of ST on Samford’s website says the group will provide a forum for Samford students “who want to discuss topics relating to sexual orientation and gender identity.”

But SBOM and state convention leaders are concerned the group’s intent is for advocacy.

Several state Baptist leaders noted students can dialogue anywhere on campus without having an official group. But if Samford approves a discussion group as an official organization then it becomes advocacy, they said.

The ad hoc committee was approved without opposition during a closed-door, executive session of the SBOM trustees May 12 in Montgomery, Bailey said. The committee will consist of the three state convention officers and the immediate past president, the SBOM chairman and vice chairman, and the SBOM executive director. This same group met with Samford President Andrew Westmoreland on May 11 in Montgomery.

During the May 12 meeting SBOM trustees also approved and affirmed without opposition the April 27 joint statement released by state convention president John Thweatt, pastor of First Baptist Church, Pell City, and SBOM Executive Director Rick Lance. The statement was in response to the Samford faculty vote in favor of approving ST.

Thweatt and Lance said in the statement that “Alabama Baptist leaders will be in dialogue with the leadership of Samford as to the serious implications this action has for the relationship between Samford University and the Alabama Baptist State Convention.”

Thweatt said May 12, “Several states have lost institutions and we do not want to lose Samford. We love Samford and want to continue having a great relationship with them.”

Open letter 

Thweatt called Alabama Baptists to prayer with the following open letter.

“For almost 200 years, Alabama Baptists have worked together, preached together and sacrificed together for the cause of missions and the strengthening of gospel ministry in this state. We have also prayed together. We are now at a moment when praying together has become an urgency. This letter is a call to prayer.

“Since 1841, Alabama Baptists have loved, supported and strengthened Samford University. Our partnership together is not merely historical, financial and structural; it is also spiritual and relational. We care deeply about Samford University and its future. We care about its leadership, trustees, faculty and students.

“We also believe in the full authority of the Word of God and Alabama Baptists have been consistently clear in affirming the Bible’s clear teachings on matters related to gender, sexuality and marriage. We have every right and reason to expect our ministry partners and historic Alabama Baptist institutions to do the same.

“Thus, the news that Samford is considering the granting of official recognition to a student group that would oppose those teachings and advocate for beliefs and policies that are directly contrary to Scripture is of great concern. News reports indicate that the final decision to grant such recognition has not yet been made. As Dr. Rick Lance, our executive director, and I made clear in a recent public statement, any decision to grant official recognition to this group would have serious implications for the relationship between Samford University and the Alabama Baptist State Convention.”

‘Uphold Bible’s teachings’

“We call upon President Andrew Westmoreland and the board of trustees of Samford University to stand in faithfulness with Alabama Baptists and with the authority of Scripture and to uphold the Bible’s teachings on sexuality, gender and marriage and to grant official sanction to no organization that would question or oppose those teachings.

“With this letter, we also call Alabama Baptists to pray for Samford University, President Westmoreland and the board of trustees. Further, let us pray for all who study, learn and teach at Samford. Let us pray that Samford will be a university that models both respect for persons and respect for God’s truth. Pray for those entrusted with leadership for the Alabama Baptist State Convention. Please pray for God’s wisdom and truth to prevail in every dimension of our work together and for the power of the gospel of Christ and the truth of God’s Word to be cherished and upheld in all we do.”

Westmoreland told The Alabama Baptist, “We are deeply grateful for the prayers, financial support and affirmation of Alabama Baptists throughout Samford’s history, and I am pleased that we are maintaining trust and open channels of communication as we engage in ongoing conversations.

“Through our process for recognition of student organizations, the students who seek to gain approval for Samford Together have stated that the purpose of the group is to ‘discuss topics related to sexual orientation and gender identity’ as opposed to forms of advocacy,” Westmoreland said. “For this most fractured of contemporary topics, all institutions and families are striving to find paths toward loving, truthful conversations. For Samford, that approach will include honest dialogue that affirms Scripture and offers compassion and the hope of Christ.

“As our trustees consider this matter throughout the summer, they will seek the best ways of achieving those goals in a manner that will honor God and bring hope to a hurting world.” (TAB)

 

 


April 27 article on Samford Together being approved by vote of Samford faculty:

BIRMINGHAM (TAB) — Another step has been taken in the process of approving a new student group at Samford University in Birmingham promoting discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity.

The group, Samford Together (ST), was given provisional recognition in the spring semester 2016 and approved by the student senate in the fall of 2016. A divided faculty senate narrowly approved ST earlier this year and a majority of the full faculty voted for approval this morning (April 27).

Samford President Andrew Westmoreland said it would likely be September before there is formal consideration of any proposal related to the organization. There are several other steps remaining in the process, he said.

The description of ST on Samford’s website says the group will provide a forum for Samford students “who want to discuss topics relating to sexual orientation and gender identity. In an open-minded and accepting environment, students will find community and opportunities to study an array of ideas and opinions on these subjects. Samford Together hopes to encourage students’ academic development, social consciousness, spiritual formation and relational clarity, all within a community of peers who might share experiences, concerns, fears, difficulties, opportunities and hopes. Samford Together is rooted in the Samford motto and core values, and its members strive to follow Christ on a path of learning and communication, knowing that the world will be better as a result of the contributions of all Samford students.”

Today’s (April 27) faculty approval drew immediate response from Alabama Baptist leadership — John Thweatt, president of the Alabama Baptist State Convention, and Rick Lance, executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions.

“Reports are that the faculty of Samford University voted to affirm the recognition of a student group that identifies with values contrary to biblical teachings on sexuality. We are saddened by this decision, which provides recognition for an agenda that we believe to be contrary to Scripture,” Thweatt and Lance said in a joint statement. “In the days to come, Alabama Baptist leaders will be in dialogue with the leadership of Samford as to the serious implications this action has for the relationship between Samford University and the Alabama Baptist State Convention. We request your prayers as this situation is handled in a Biblically correct way.” (To read the full statement, see below.)

Before the faculty vote today Westmoreland addressed the group noting his effort to walk in truth and grace.

Noting that while he believes in the traditional view of marriage as between a man and a woman, he said he also believes “we are people who are capable of discussing differences without rancor, perhaps modeling for our students and others a way to move along this most tortured route.”

“Whatever action you take regarding the organization, my intention is for us to love these students, and I will work with our trustees and faculty and staff and religious leaders and others to do that,” he said. “I don’t have to agree with them to love them and to listen to them and to gain in my own understanding of their needs.” (To read Westmoreland’s full remarks, see below.)

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The following is a joint statement from State Convention President John Thweatt and Executive Director, State Board of Missions, Rick Lance:

Reports are that the faculty of Samford University voted to affirm the recognition of a student group that identifies with values contrary to biblical teachings on sexuality. We are saddened by this decision, which provides recognition for an agenda that we believe to be contrary to Scripture.

We strongly believe that the Old Testament and New Testament each speak unequivocally against homosexuality. When addressing same-gender sexual relationships, the Bible without exception never affirms such behavior as an approved lifestyle.

We further believe the vast majority of Alabama Baptists will continue to stand on these clear teachings of God’s Word as authoritative as to how Christians should live according to the unchanging truth of Scripture.

We continue to affirm the biblical truth of God’s love for the whole world and that Christians should reach out in love to all, including those who identify with the LGBT lifestyle and agenda. It is because of obedience to Christ and our love for others that we should preach repentance from sins, proclaiming Christ Who alone offers eternal salvation to anyone who trusts in Him.

In the days to come, Alabama Baptist leaders will be in dialogue with the leadership of Samford as to the serious implications this action has for the relationship between Samford University and the Alabama Baptist State Convention. We request your prayers as this situation is handled in a Biblically correct way.

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REMARKS TO THE FACULTY

Andrew Westmoreland, Samford University April 27, 2017

Through our regular process for sharing responsibilities at Samford, as members of the faculty you’ll be considering important questions today. Dr. Luthin has asked me to say a few words regarding one of those questions. In this response to his request, Dr. Luthin will receive perhaps more than he anticipated. I wrote these paragraphs during several flights while returning from China yesterday. The comments are more lengthy than I would prefer, but they are a pure expression of my mind and my spirit. At the outset, let me acknowledge to you my own sense of inadequacy for so many of the responsibilities that are required of me as Samford president, perhaps never more than in this moment.

I hold what I consider to be, along with perhaps the vast majority of Samford’s constituents, an understanding of biblical marriage as between a man and a woman. I view as relatively timeless some biblical teachings regarding human sexuality which others find to be outdated. In speaking of these things that I believe, I tend to refer to them as biblical truth, even as I recognize that others hold different views and interpretations of scripture. I am not angry toward others who believe differently, but my views are honestly held and I have come to them over an extended period of time. From the depths of my soul, I desire to be faithful to a just and loving God and to abide by the authority of scripture. Theologically, I am what some would consider a moderate, some a conservative, some a fundamentalist, but practically none a liberal.

I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, that he came to us, lived a blameless life, died as an atonement for my sins and the sins of every person, and that those of us who claim Christ are called to demonstrate his love — the love that is within us — to every person. I am no more deserving of that love than any other person, regardless of any differences between us. In a display of grace that is beyond my comprehension, I believe that Christ died for all of us.

Many years ago, long before I came to Samford, a person I knew, a man who had served as a pastor, having retired and then having spent time as a volunteer with Christian outreach efforts in Asia, stopped me as I was making my way to a table in a crowded restaurant. Surrounded by patrons enjoying their lunch, the man began to speak to me.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” he said, “but I have been intending to speak with you for several weeks. When I returned from Asia, I made a list of all the people I needed to see, and you are on that list. I want to apologize to you. During the time that I was away, I came to the realization that, while the message of Christ is about truth and grace, my entire ministry–all of it–has been only about truth. I have failed to teach and to model grace and in the process I have hurt many people, including you. So I am asking for your forgiveness.”

While I have a vivid memory of what this man said to me, I have only a foggy recollection of my response. I hope that I was kind and appropriately sober. It was important for him to deliver the message to me, although I don’t ever recall having been particularly wronged by him. Perhaps he had said things about me to others that never reached my ears, things that he regretted. But as important as it was for him to speak to me of grace, it was equally significant for me to absorb the unspoken part of his message. Even as he acknowledged that too little of his passion as a Christ-follower had been to pursue grace, I was struck by the fact that too little of my passion had been to pursue truth and to subject my will to God’s plan. So there we were, each with our own failures, our own burdens, each with approaches to following Christ that reflected perhaps half an understanding. In my adult life, truth and grace are the touchstones that have emerged from my acceptance of Christ. I am an exemplar of neither, but the concepts answer to each other across the arc of my mind during those moments in which I pause long enough to dwell on the mystery of God.

Many of us who hold what are known as “traditional” views of marriage and human sexuality today are called “haters.” The term is intended to hurt, and it does. So volleys fly back and forth between camps while positions and hearts are hardened, and we run the risk, the very serious risk, that we will drive away from our churches and our universities and our families a generation that thinks about these questions in different ways than we have known. I choose not to walk that path, because brokenness already abounds and I am loath to add to it. I believe that we are people who are capable of discussing differences without rancor, perhaps modeling for our students and others a way to move along this most tortured route.

I don’t know what you will do with the matter of “Samford Together” today. Whatever action you take regarding the organization, my intention is for us to love these students, and I will work with our trustees and faculty and staff and religious leaders and others to do that. I don’t have to agree with them to love them and to listen to them and to gain in my own understanding of their needs. Regardless of the outcome of the vote, I will work throughout the summer to thread these pieces together, never abandoning truth, the biblical truth to which I adhere, and never abandoning grace. I will want to take the time necessary this summer to work especially with our trustees on these questions. If you vote to recommend approval of the organization, I would likely wait until the September meeting of the board for formal consideration of any proposal, as I would want the trustees to have the same luxury of time that you received for discussion, reflection and prayer, and to be further involved in shaping an outcome that is best for Samford and for all of our students. If you vote to recommend the denial of the organization, my outreach efforts will not be diminished.

As you hear me today, some of you may be disappointed by my unwillingness to completely embrace contemporary views of human sexuality and the theology that is used to undergird them. Likewise, some of you may be disappointed that I appear to be offering accommodation to those who hold such views. A clearer path for a different institution with a different president might be to take a less nuanced approach, lining up either fully in favor of more recent views of human sexuality or in favor of a campus that is closed to the exchange of viewpoints and ideas, but that approach does not reflect who I am, so I would be incapable of leading in either of those directions. Furthermore, I am convinced that neither approach is reflective of the Samford that I have come to know so well during these years that I have been here. It is a place of abiding truth and of sustaining grace. Together, and with God’s guidance, we will achieve whatever purpose he has in store for us. In readily acknowledging my many frailties, I ask that you join me on this journey, because I need you, all of you.

Thank you.

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