An American Baptist church in West Virginia has been removed from its local association because its pastor does not believe that homosexuality is a sin.
The ouster, recommended in February by the association’s executive board, responds to comments made by First Baptist Pastor Valerie Gittings at a city council meeting last fall in favor of a human rights commission ordinance adding protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.
Gittings — who studied at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University and was ordained as “Pastor Val” by First Baptist Church Fairmont in 2015 — said in a statement that not all Christians believe homosexual behavior violates God’s law.
“We believe that the references to homosexuality in biblical passages are not toward committed, monogamous relationships,” she said in February. “Rather, what is being condemned is inhospitality, heterosexual rape, pagan ritual sex and orgies and pederasty.”
“We contend that gay orientation is not a choice; not only should gay behavior not be viewed as sinful, but gays are entitled to the same treatment as heterosexuals,” she said. “We believe that gays should be welcome to participate fully in all areas of life, including the church.”
The 371-church West Virginia Baptist Convention adopted a standing resolution in 2004 against recognizing the ordination of anyone “practicing, affirming, endorsing and/or celebrating adultery, fornication, gay/lesbian/bisexual behavior, or any other sexual practices that are contrary to God’s creation intent.”
“Any church that that endorses, celebrates, or affirms unrepentant adultery, fornication and/or gay, lesbian or bisexual behavior is choosing not to agree with the churches and associations of the West Virginia Baptist Convention,” the resolution says.
“Such action will be deemed to indicate that church’s desire not to be affiliated with the West Virginia Baptist Convention and its desire to sever its relationship with the West Virginia Baptist Convention,” it continues. “We call upon our associations to recognize their responsibility as gatekeepers for the West Virginia Baptist Convention.”
Gittings says she was unaware of the rule when she joined more than 80 people rising to speak during a 3 1/2-hour debate Sept. 12 before the city council passed a new human rights commission ordination by a vote of 7-2.
According to the local newspaper, several people said they feared the ordinance would allow men to use women’s restrooms and vice versa. A group called Keep Fairmont Safe collected enough signatures to demand its reconsideration. Opting against another contentious meeting, the council decided to let the issue go to a public vote this November.
After the meeting, Gittings said her comments drew attention of another pastor in the association. When they spoke, she clarified that she does affirm LGBTQ inclusion. The pastor turned the matter over to David Hulme, Northeast Area Minister for the West Virginia Baptist Convention. Hulme, a graduate of Furman University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is not responding to requests for comment.
The association discussed the matter last November and determined that the church could remain in fellowship if Gittings would resign. She offered to quit, but her church wanted her to stay. She and the congregation disagree about homosexuality, she told the Times West Virginian, but they “have worked it out so that we have agreed to disagree and we don’t all have to line up exactly on that issue.”
Members of First Baptist Church said in a statement they “are greatly saddened” by the association’s vote.
“Our relationship has been long-standing and important to us,” the statement says. “We remain hopeful, therefore, that at some point in the future the association will return to the Baptist fundamentals of soul liberty and local church autonomy, and we will be able to work together once again.”
“In the meantime, First Baptist Church reiterates that everyone is welcome to be fully included in our faith community, and we call on other churches to join us in extending that kind of invitation,” the statement continues.
The Greater Fairmont Council of Churches voiced unanimous support for both Gittings and the First Baptist Church in a statement applauding “their diversity of belief but unity of purpose.”
“They have shown all of Fairmont and others what it means to be a loving and caring congregation in spite of differences,” the group said in February.