Western NC church withdraws from local association amid scrutiny over abuse claims

Biblical Recorder [Cary NC]

March 1, 2024

By Chad Austin

A western North Carolina church that was recently deemed not in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) over issues related to sexual abuse claims has withdrawn from the Carolina Baptist Association (CBA)  just days after the association had called a special meeting to consider its own action against the congregation.

West Hendersonville Baptist Church delivered a letter to the association indicating that the congregation had “voted unanimously on Wednesday, February, 28, 2024 to leave the Carolina Baptist Association and cease affiliation with the CBA of Hendersonville, North Carolina” effective Feb. 29, 2024. The letter was signed by Ronnie Rhodes, who was identified in the letter as chairman of the deacons.

CBA leaders shared a copy of the letter with the Biblical Recorder.

Earlier this week, associational leaders had called a special meeting scheduled for Tuesday, March 12, to consider action against West Hendersonville. The special meeting has now been canceled since the church has voluntarily withdrawn from the association, CBA leaders said.

On Feb. 20, West Hendersonville was one of four churches that the SBC’s Executive Committee deemed not in friendly cooperation with the SBC based upon recommendations made by the SBC Credentials Committee. 

In announcing the decision against West Hendersonville, SBC leaders said “the church is acting in a manner inconsistent with the Convention’s beliefs regarding sexual abuse as demonstrated by their retaining as pastor an individual who is biblically disqualified.”

According to Annual Church Profile (ACP) data, Jerry Mullinax began serving as senior pastor of West Hendersonville Baptist Church on a part-time basis on Sept. 1, 2020. Posts to the church’s Facebook page referred to Mullinax as “interim pastor” after he began serving the congregation in 2020, but posts began referring to him as “pastor” beginning in January 2021.

In 2003, Mullinax was suspended and later resigned from his position as a sixth-grade language arts teacher at Hendersonville Middle School during an investigation by school officials into possible improper conduct with a female student following a complaint from the student’s parents related to possible improper computer use, according to published reports.

In 2004, Mullinax had his teaching license revoked by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction for sending “improper emails” to a student, according to an online database of more than 750 teaching licenses that have been suspended or revoked by the state board of education since 1967.

Prior to his current role as pastor at West Hendersonville Baptist Church, Mullinax served in ministry roles at Calvary Baptist Church in Hendersonville, N.C., Emmanuel Baptist Church in Greer, S.C., Boiling Springs Baptist Church in Fletcher, N.C., Little River Baptist Church in Penrose, N.C., and Shaws Creek Baptist Church in Hendersonville, N.C., according to a bio on the church’s website.  

Ray Brickhouse, interim associational mission strategist at the Carolina Baptist Association, told the Biblical Recorder that the revocation of Mullinax’s teaching license was just one factor in the decision by leaders at the association to consider action against the church.

“We have additional information that is more recent than the 2003/2004 incident,” Brickhouse said. Brickhouse did not release details about the nature of the additional material because the situation was ongoing.

Multiple individuals with direct knowledge of the situation also told the Biblical Recorder that they are aware of additional information related to the matter.

Before receiving the letter from West Hendersonville, the association had made multiple attempts to contact Mullinax and the church for a response after the SBC Executive Committee made its ruling. Church leaders had also declined an invitation to meet with CBA leaders about the matter, Brickhouse said. 

Neither Mullinax nor church leaders have responded to multiple requests by the Biblical Recorder for comment.

Brickhouse said members of the CBA’s leadership team were in “unanimous” agreement with the decision made by the SBC Executive Committee to deem West Hendersonville not in friendly cooperation with the SBC. But since that ruling did not affect the church’s affiliation status at the state or local level, associational and state leaders began their own processes related to the church’s status.

“We want to make it clear that the Carolina Baptist Association denounces sexual abuse in all its forms,” Brickhouse said.

A spokesperson for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina told the Biblical Recorder in a statement that state convention leaders have notified members of the executive committee of the N.C. Baptist board of directors “of the concerns surrounding the church’s response to allegations of misconduct by its pastor” and are “taking steps to review the information in accordance with our policies.”

The state convention’s statement also included a denouncement of sexual abuse.

“Sexual abuse is evil and should not be tolerated among our churches,” the statement said. “As a movement of churches on mission together, we believe the house of the Lord from the sanctuaries to the Sunday School rooms ought to be a safe place to experience the love of Jesus.”

Associational and state convention leaders encouraged anyone who has been the victim of sexual abuse by a pastor, staff member or member of a local church, or those with knowledge or suspicions of sexual abuse, in this care or any other, to report it to local authorities.

North Carolina has mandatory reporting laws related to instances of abuse or neglect involving minors. North Carolina General Statute 7B-301 states that any individual or institution who witnesses or suspects abuse or neglect to juveniles under age 18 must report it. The law further states that those who knowingly fail to report abuse or neglect cases involving minors or prevent others from making a report shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.