ATLANTA, Feb. 9 -- The Atlanta Baptist Association risks losing thousands of dollars in denominational funds after a vote last month not to expel Virginia-Highland and Oakhurst Baptist churches because of their acceptance of homosexuality.

The executive committee of the Georgia Baptist Convention -- the state arm of the national Southern Baptist Convention -- will vote March 13 on whether to cut off funding to association programs after Dec. 31. Trustees of the North American Mission Board, the SBC's domestic ministry agency, say they will follow the lead of the state convention.

Meanwhile, one of the association's largest churches, the 7,000-member Rehoboth Baptist in Tucker, is scheduled to decide Wednesday whether to pull out of the association because of its decision to keep the two gay-friendly churches. Rehoboth deacons voted unanimously to recommend that the church withdraw, said the Rev. Bobby Atkins, its senior pastor. Another church, Glen Haven in Decatur, is also in the process of withdrawing, according to Baptist officials.

In a letter mailed Thursday, the administration arm of the Georgia Baptist Executive Committee recommended ending funding to the association, saying Virginia-Highland and Oakhurst "are active in their support of homosexuality." The two churches were voted out of the Georgia Baptist Convention in 1999.

A vote by the Atlanta association on Jan. 30 to retain the churches as members "places the Georgia Baptist Convention in the position of either affirming the decision . . . by its silence, or taking action against the association," the letter says.

Martin King, a spokesman for the North American Mission Board, says the denominational agency is spending about $61,000 to help fund six full-time positions and $14,600 on salary supplements for another six part-time positions within the association.

The association is also budgeted to receive $60,000 for hunger relief from the state convention and North American Mission Board combined in 2001, said the Rev. Joel Harrison, executive director of the association.

"I'm not bitter over this, but I do want to say that the association does not affirm homosexuality," Harrison said. "It affirms the long-standing Baptist policy of local church autonomy."

The Rev. Robert Reccord, president of the North American Mission Board, said the agency had to support withholding funds from the association because, "we hold that the word of God is the source of absolute truth. The action was taken to affirm two churches who have approved and endorsed something that the Scripture says clearly is sin. We had to respond accordingly."

The Georgia Baptist Convention will meet its 2001 commitments to the association, said the Rev. William Ricketts, convention president. "But we feel very strongly the association is sending the wrong message about what Baptists believe and where Baptists stand."

Virginia-Highland pastor the Rev. Tim Shirley said he is "sad but not surprised" by the proposed funding cut-off.

"The Atlanta Baptist Association does some wonderful ministry," he said. "The people who are going to be affected by that are the employees and those to whom they minister."

Oakhurst's pastor, the Rev. Lanny Peters, said, "One of the things we need to model as Christians is to be able to talk to each other about our differences without splitting."

"It's one more move toward demanding theological uniformity among autonomous Baptist churches," Peters said. To demand doctrinal uniformity on homosexuality "opens the door to looking at churches that ordain women and divorced deacons and pastors."

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