The Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship (FGBCF) held its first convention in 1994 at the New Orleans Louisiana Superdome. More than 30,000 Baptists attended. At the time of its formation, there was concern among the leadership of the largest denomination of black Baptists, the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., as to the group's purpose.
Rev. Henry Lyons, former president of the 8.2 million member National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., (NBCUSA) told delegates at their 1995 Convention, "They are our brethren. I don't want to get into their way or the Lord's way", (1) thus distancing himself and the Convention from any formal ruling on the subject of churches and pastor's holding dual membership in both organizations. Lyons, citing a passage from the book of Acts read, "And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to naught: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God. (2)
However, in an earlier statement Lyons was less understanding. "My personal opinion is that my friend Bishop Morton (founder of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship) is trying to put me out of business."(3)
At issue was whether or not newly established Full Gospel member churches would be allowed to retain their membership in the nation's largest African American protestant denomination. "In New Orleans, Baptist preachers who held memberships in both groups were lovingly advised to resign their posts with the NBCUSA before they were kicked out.".(4) Within this directive lies the framework for potential division to take place.
The Rev. Paul S. Morton, Sr., pastor of the Greater St. Stephens Full Gospel Baptist Church, an eighteen-thousand member congregation in New Orleans, Louisiana, started the Fellowship in 1993. Morton calls his new association, "The movement that gives Baptists the right to choose".(5) The focus is on two contrasting additions to traditional African American Baptist Church history. First, "a more Pentecostal approach to worship including speaking in tongues and the laying on of hands."(6)
Second, the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship initiated, " a structural hierarchy that many Baptists do not support." (7) The introduction of bishops, elders and other denominational titles into the African American Baptist Church threatened Baptist polity which adheres to the autonomous nature of the church. Morton, however, sees his group as giving a space for African American Baptists to express themselves without feeling constrained by tradition. H. Beecher Hicks, District of Columbia pastor and educator, wrote in an article for the Journal of Religious Thought , "This Fellowship is not designed to threaten or replace mainline denominations, but to provide an opportunity for those who wanted to remain Baptist and yet exercise all of the gifts of the Spirit, particularly speaking in tongues."(8)
The Full Gospel Fellowship published two documents detailing their purpose and beliefs. A ten-point theological declaration, "Doctrinal Statement of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship," and the "Full Gospel Distinctives," a list of fifteen items describing their beliefs. These documents were distressing to some within the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc. Hicks writes, "The Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship, then represents a significant institutional change that will ultimately and radically alter both church and community."(9)
At its outset, the Full Gospel Fellowship began attracting several of the larger NBCUSA congregations and their pastors. Within this group were younger clergy. "Most pastors who have embraced this movement," Hicks states, "are tired of 'do-nothing' boards and other layers of political structure within the Baptist church."(10) They see this adherence to 'tradition' as a hindrance to the work of the Kingdom. These are, "obstacles to accomplishments of the mission of the church and deterrents to the minister's sense of purpose and calling." (11) However, while the mission may be affected, another concern is financial. A church holding membership in both conventions, also must split their financial obligations thus extending the church and pastors resources. With less money to operate, the NBCUSA faced losing the ability to sponsor a myriad of programs and activities.
Morton, who as the National Presiding Bishop, kept his dual alignment with the NBCUSA until 1995, when he left the denomination. This caused more concern that a split with the NBCUSA would occur. This has not happened, although "the creation of the group triggered an uproar. Fear and misunderstanding fueled tension as people had to choose what type of Baptists, they should be."(12) Despite these tensions, Morton and Lyons maintained a cordial relationship.
The Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship at the time of this writing in 1997, stated a membership of one million congregants and 5000 churches in thirty-five states, making it a significant organization with a great deal of potential influence. Hicks concurs. "While it is technically not a denomination, its numbers are too large, its growth too rapid, and its broad base of appeal too large, its growth too rapid, and its broad base of appeal too obvious to be ignored."(13)
(1) Jacqueline Trussell, "New Baptist
President Offers Plans for the Future," Operation PUSH magazine,
February 1996, p. 11-12.
(2) Acts 5: 38-39.
(3) "Eye on Gospel," Citizen Newspaper, (Chicago: Garthco Publishers, 27 July, 1995) p. 3
(4) Ibid, p. 3.
(5) Full Gospel Baptist Times (New Orleans, Sept. 1994), p. 4.
(6) Trussell, p. 12.
(7) Ibid, p. 12.
(8) H. Beecher Hicks, "Challenge to the African American Church: Problems and Perspectives for the Third Millennium," Journal of Religious Thought 51 (1994), 81-97.
(9) Ibid, p. 89.
(10) Hicks, p. 88.
(11) Hicks, p. 88.
(12) Valerie G. Lowe, "Black Baptists Join New National Fellowship," Charisma, 1996.
(13) Hicks, p. 89