Tennessee Megachurch Withholds Funds From SBC Over Support of Mosque Construction

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(Photo: Facebook / First Baptist Church, Morristown)First Baptist Church Morristown, Tennessee

A 2,800-member Baptist church in Tennessee is withholding funds to the Southern Baptist Convention in protest of decisions made by SBC entities last year to join an amicus brief supporting the right for a Muslim community to build a mosque.

As previously reported, SBC's International Mission Board and Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission joined a coalition of various religious groups that signed onto a friend-of-the-court brief last spring supporting the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge in its federal lawsuit against a New Jersey township that rejected its request to build a mosque.

Although U.S. District Court Judge Michael A. Shipp sided with the mosque and the religious freedom arguments put forth in the brief in his court ruling in late December, IMB's participation in the brief drew the ire of ex-IMB trustee Dean Haun, pastor at First Baptist Church in Morristown, Tennessee, and former president of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.

Haun told The Christian Post on Thursday that he resigned from his role as a member of the IMB board of trustees in November after reaching an impasse when he voiced his disapproval with IMB leadership over its involvement in the mosque lawsuit.

After news of IMB's involvement in the brief spread, Haun had received calls and emails from about 60 different pastors from Tennessee, Georgia, Arkansas and Kentucky, who also did not approve of the IMB supporting the mosque.

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(Photo: Facebook / Dean Haun)Dean Haun

"As a trustee for the International Mission Board, I was getting call after call from pastors asking me why we did this as the International Mission Board. I had no idea because we were not informed of any of this in our trustee meetings," Haun said. "If you put our International Mission Board mission and purpose statements on one side and put this action on the other side, it just doesn't fit."

Haun told CP that he wished IMB leadership brought their intentions to get involved in the court case before the trustees to discuss before they went ahead and signed on to the brief. Helping to secure a right for Muslims to build a mosque, he said, is counterproductive to the IMB mission.

"Our goal is to reach the entire world for Christ and this is a religious liberty issue that really has nothing to do with the IMB," he explained. "That was my biggest complaint. First of all, I told leadership that as a trustee, one of my obligations was to try to protect the organization because I had so many pastors calling me upset about it. My second thing was that I felt like this was not a part of our mission and was going to detract from our mission and that we didn't have any reason to do this."

In addition to stepping down as an IMB trustee, Haun said that congregants at First Baptist Church, Morristown voted unanimously to escrow the church's Cooperative Program funds, which are a percentage of the church's undesignated receipts given in support of SBC missions and ministries.

Overall, First Baptist Church, Morristown gives about 11 percent to the Cooperative Program and began escrowing the Cooperative Program funds in October. Haun said that the "substantial" funds would be withheld until a compromise can be made regarding IMB's inclusion in the brief.

Ideally, Haun and other members of the church want IMB to rescind its name from the brief. He added that First Baptist Church, Morristown was ranked fifth in the state of Tennessee when it comes the amount of money given to the Cooperative Program.

"What we are doing is we are hoping we can work everything out. What we are doing is we are escrowing our funds. In other words, we still have them in our bank ready to send on if we can come to some kind of agreement or work this out," the pastor said. "When [the congregation] heard about this, they came unglued. They just said, 'What in the world are we doing?' We have got some pretty influential leaders among the Tennessee Baptist Convention in our church."

Despite the escrow, the church is still sending funds to the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board for missions within Tennessee.

"We are hoping that the escrowing of these funds is a temporary thing because we have really been committed to SBC. We gave $151,000 to the Lottie Moon [Christmas] offering last year and all of our mission giving last year was right around a half a million dollars," Haun explained. "We are a church that believes in giving and cooperating and everything else. We just felt like this is one little piece of leverage that we have to get somebody's attention."

Although First Baptist Church, Morristown fits the 2,000-member requirement to be considered a megachurch, Haun, who previously pastored a megachurch in Georgia, doesn't consider it to be a megachurch. 

"We are a big First Baptist Church in the county seat town in East Tennessee," he said. 

Before Haun resigned as an IMB Trustee, he asked IMB President David Platt to address the issue in the August meeting of IMB trustees. Haun said that Platt simply read from a brief statement that is now posted on the IMB FAQ page. However, that still left Haun and others with questions.

"Will this further our mission? Is this going to help us reach the world? Or, will this become a distraction for us?" Haun asked. "Some of these pastors were just really livid over it and didn't think that the IMB really had any responsibility [in the mosque issue]. They couldn't understand why the IMB was jumping into this."

Scott Harris, the chair of IMB's board of trustees, offered his thoughts on Haun's resignation in a statement shared with The Christian Post.

"While we have heard Dean Haun's perspective on why he feels compelled to resign as a trustee, we cannot comment on the extensive discussions and varied opinions that took place during IMB Trustee Forum on this particular topic," Harris explained. "IMB trustees commit to respecting that IMB Trustee Forums are closed, confidential, non-public sessions, and I'm committed to maintaining the confidence of those discussions, in accordance with the policy for current and former IMB trustees."

Platt also offered kind words in response to Haun's resignation.

"We are grateful for Dean Haun's service to the IMB. He has contributed much to Southern Baptists' cooperative work around the world," Platt said in a statement shared with CP. "While our desire was to see him complete his term as a trustee, we respect his decision to resign."

Haun, who has been an IMB trustee for over six years, insisted that he was not pressured by any outside groups to resign and added that it was a decision he made based on his own personal conviction after he and IMB leadership had reached an impasse.

"I pleaded with them and told them that if we would get out of [the brief], I would make it my personal mission to contact all the pastors that had called me and tell them we have gotten out of it and that there was not going to be any of this any more," Haun said. "That was not the decision that was made."

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