By Bob Allen
A South Carolina Baptist pastor whose decision to officiate a same-sex wedding got his church kicked out of its local association and state convention says he is concerned about a culture within the Baptist faith that is ashamed of a nuanced belief when it comes to the controversial topic of human sexuality.
“I feel like there’s still this culture of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ within the church,” Greg Dover, pastor of Augusta Heights Baptist Church in Greenville, S.C., said in comments quoted Nov. 24 in the Greenville News.
Greenville Baptist Association voted Oct. 22 to dismiss Augusta Heights Baptist Church after a wedding announcement appeared in the local paper identifying Dover as the minister officiating an Oct. 10 wedding between two men. The Southern Carolina Baptist Convention followed suit Nov. 10.
The state convention called on the congregation to “express corporate repentance and return to a biblical view of marriage and sexuality that is in agreement with the principles of God’s word as summarized in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.”
Dover, who declined comment at the time of the state convention vote but after consulting with deacons decided to speak only once, preferably to a local media source, told the newspaper the congregation cannot be expected to “repent” from a policy that does not exist.
Dover, a Wake Forest Divinity School graduate who began his ministry at Augusta Heights in March after six years as associate pastor at Greenville’s Earle Street Baptist Church, said longtime friends of him and his wife asked him in May if he would perform their wedding at a location they had picked outside the church.
Dover consented, with one condition. He first had to talk to his church’s leadership. “I told them: ‘This is a wedding. There will be pictures. It’ll be on Facebook,’” he said.
The deacon leadership agreed it would be “a different conversation” if the wedding were to be performed in the church, but as it stood they wouldn’t stand in his way if he felt God was leading him to do it.
“Essentially, they gave me the freedom to follow my convictions, which is a very Baptist thing to do,” Dover said. “I did not expect or ask everybody else to agree with me. I did not want to have our church take a vote or take an official position.”
Dover, 32, said he has personally subscribed to what is often described a “welcoming and affirming” view of gays for about 10 years, but beliefs on same-sex marriage vary within the church.
Some members believe homosexuality is a sin. Others don’t judge same-sex relationships but believe marriage is only between a man and a woman. Some, like Dover, believe that gay people are born the way God intended them to be and should have the same access to marital rites as everyone else.
Dover said he doesn’t think it would be “the healthy thing” for the church to state a formal position on the issue “unless there was 100 percent consensus” that it should.
He said the church hasn’t lost any members as a result of his participation in the same-sex ceremony. If anything, he said, it “has become more of a galvanizing thing for our church.”
Dover said Augusta Heights remains affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, and some longtime church members embrace “Southern Baptist” as part of their identity. Nobody knows how long that affiliation will last, however.
In 2014 the SBC booted a church in California, finding the act of acknowledging that different opinions in the church about homosexuality need not be a test of fellowship placed it outside a ban in the SBC constitution and bylaws on churches “which act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior.”
Leaders of the SBC, South Carolina Baptist Convention and Greenville Baptist Association all believe the Bible clearly teaches that any sexual activity outside marriage between a man and a woman is sinful.
Dover noted that in the past it was just as clear to many Southern Baptists that the Bible condoned slavery, racial segregation and the subjugation of women.
“The Bible has been very clear about a lot of things that we have since changed our minds about,” he said. “We have to interpret the Bible to make sense of what meaning it has, not only within the text itself, but for our lives. We have to interpret the Bible for our culture, for our day.”
Dover said the church’s separation from the state convention and association is unfortunate, because “there’s a lot more that we have in common and we can work together on for good than we disagree on here.”
But if he’s “going to be damned for anything,” he said, “it’s going to be for including someone who God might exclude rather than excluding someone who God would include.”
Dover serves on the Ministries Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, an 1,800-church association viewed as more moderate than the SBC. Founded in 1991 and based in Decatur, Ga., the CBF regards how to respond to homosexuality as a matter to be determined by the local church.
As an organization, however, CBF forbids the hiring of staff or missionaries who are openly gay. In recent years some younger CBF leaders have suggested the policy is wrong and outdated, but a suggestion by the outgoing moderator that the hiring ban be revisited received significant pushback in 2012.