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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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jerry

    This is a great post because you answered many of the questions that were rattling around in my brain after I read the story.

    As an aside, since you mentioned it, the smartphone spying software might have violated a few laws as well as being evil. It almost makes me long for that communication medium used by ancient and lost civilizations in the hoary past: pen and paper.

  • Bobby

    Thanks, Jerry.

    I like pen and paper, too, but haven’t figured out how to blog that way. :-)

  • tioedong

    I have several questions.
    Were they banned for being of different races, or was there another question, e.g. conduct.
    Why did they chose to join this tiny church?
    Why did they publicize the fact they were turned down?
    And why does the “biracial marriage” statistic think only a black/white marriage is “biracial”? Lots of other interracial marriages occur in the US, starting with Pocahontas.

  • Harold

    As far as looks go, the two in the pic are both outstanding examples of their races. A very handsome couple.

  • Pamela Zohar

    The woman is a church member, though not active – her parents are members. The man is her fiance.She brought him with her to church, which seems quite normal.

    That part of Kentucky is about 90% white I believe.

  • Bobby

    Here’s how the Lexington story characterized her:

    Stella Harville grew up in the church and was baptized there, but she is not a member, Dean Harville said.

  • Barbara C.

    Two thoughts crossed my mind when I first read this (beyond the obvious racism angle).

    Some Protestant Churches are really worried about couples who might marry being “unevenly yoked”. I’ve heard some people have concerns that interracial couples might be putting an undo burden on their marriage, similar to the reasons many churches give for discouraging marrying outside the denomination or congregation.

    My second thought was that there may have been some other church politics going on. I’ve heard stories from other small Protestant churches in Kentucky of personality clashes between church leaders (official and unofficial) leading to people being driven out of the church through subtle pressure.

    The former pastor is swearing he is not a racist, yet he was supposedly the one who started this mess. I’d be interested to learn why he ended up leaving his position. It’s possible that someone was threatening his job if he “didn’t take care of this”.

    Over half the people who attended the service right before the vote left without voting. I’d be interested to hear why they skipped out. This seems like it would be a pretty important things to vote on as a congregation.

    I think this is a very interesting story with a lot of unexplored angles.

  • Joel

    A couple more things to add to Barbara’s list of roads not traveled by:

    If Stella was baptized there but is not a member, where is she a member? Or has she let her church membership lapse?

    Are there questions about the couple’s chastity, that nobody wants to ask about and so are being addressed obliquely in this vote?

    Frankly, what I’m seeing is something urban journalists don’t have much grasp of: small-town dynamics. In rural areas, everything is personal one way or another. I have a suspicion that the boyfriend’s skin shade and the church’s rules are both peripheral issues here and that Harville or his daughter have given offense to Thompson at some point and this is the latter’s way of working out a grudge. Even in my rather larger town, local politics often reflect petty personal animus, in ways that baffle city people. And at the risk of stereotyping, this is Appalachia. Think Hatfields and McCoys.

    One thing I’m not seeing in any of the news reports that I’ve read, that I absolutely expected to see, is comparisons between interracial marriage and same-sex marriage. That’s a topic that seems to find its way into all sorts of religion stories, and I’m surprised nobody took the low-hanging fruit here.

  • John Pack Lambert

    It might be nice if they explained what makes someone a member of the Church if it is not baptism.

    Reading through the articles I got the impression that Ms. Harville is away at school, possibly involved in Christian organizations there, and when she comes home for a visit she goes to this church.

    It sounds like her fiance is a Christian as well. I wonder, is he baptist? Did they meet in a Christian setting? These questions might be worth asking.

    If some of my suppositions are correct it would make how hurtful this is to Ms. Harville more evident. To many people mixed marriages are inter-faith, not inter-race, and objecting to two people of the same faith but different races marrying can be seen as very hurtful.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I found it interesting that one commenter noticed that “biracial marriages” seemed only equated with black-white marriages and mentioned Pocahantas.
    This hit home with me because my youngest daughter (of all Irish roots) is married to a member of the Penobscot Indian Tribe and all their 4 children are members of that tribe. (My son-in-law likes to joke that since his family became Catholic in the 1600′s-converted by Jesuit missionaries—his family has been Catholic in North America far longer than any Irish Catholics have been in North America).
    I taught history for almost 40 years in an inner city high school where about half my students were usually Black.
    One day I mentioned in class that my grandchildren were biracial: American Indian and White. I was rather surprised by the fierce bigoted reaction toward American Indians from–not the white or hispanic students— but the Black students.
    The media tends to play up racism as mostly a white “disease.” But, sadly, there are plenty of hate bacilli circulating among too many of all races.

  • Jimmy Mac