As you can read here, the Richmond Baptist Association voted on Tuesday evening, March 19, 2013, “to embrace Ginter Park Baptist Church as a sister church.” As many have pointed out, the vote was not a ringing endorsement of ordaining homosexuals, nor an affirmation of homosexuality in general. And, as others have pointed out, it was. At least it was enough of an affirmation to be understood as a watershed moment for the RBA.
Specifically, the vote was whether or not to continue the long relationship between the RBA and Ginter Park, or to follow the example of the Baptist General Association of Virginia and withdraw fellowship. But the vote involved much more than the inclusion or exclusion of an individual church.
Many who voted that night saw the issue to be a referendum on local church autonomy. It wasn’t. No one disputes the right of Ginter Park to take the action it did. The question was, having ordained a homosexual (in accord with its autonomous right), would the other churches in the association decide that action was acceptable for a member church or not.
Some said churches in the association have no business judging another church’s action. Yet, unless they believe anything is acceptable, even they must have a boundary line somewhere.
Others say the vote was about neither homosexuality nor autonomy, but about biblical integrity. They cite scriptures that clearly prohibit homosexuality. Since we all agree that we routinely ignore certain prohibitions in Leviticus, like eating shrimp and lobster (11:10) and bacon (11:8), or having a tattoo — even a nice little heart that says “Mother” (19:28), or wearing polyester (19:19) to name just a few, I won’t even bring up Leviticus 20:13. But New Testament passages like Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9, that were written specifically to the Christian church are more difficult to overlook.
For many who voted that night it was not a question of whether we should love all people, or grant local church autonomy, but whether to simply ignore what the Bible so clearly says. But the interpretive task is not merely to ask, “What does the Bible say,” but also “What does the Bible mean?” This has been a dilemma the church has faced from its very inception. This remains the challenge of “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
In the days of the Apostle Paul, some were saying, “The scriptures clearly teach that those who follow God — at least the male followers — are to be circumcised.” In fact, they produced from Scripture a whole list of things that one had either to do or refrain from doing. The Jerusalem council of Acts 15 is a record of the church leaders getting together to discuss not just what the scriptures say, but what they mean. They came to the conclusion that some things should be ignored, while other things should not.
After listening to different viewpoints, James, the Lord’s half-brother and the leader of the early church, said, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood” (Acts 15:19-20).
One thing is clear about this decision, however. They did not ignore Scripture. Rather, they used Scripture to arrive at a new understanding of what the scriptures mean. (See verses 15-18.)
What I mean to point out is that the church has always lived with this tension between knowing clearly what the Bible says and understanding what the Bible means. Usually they are one and the same. Sometimes, they are not. The history of the church teaches us that the Bible is truly inspired. The Spirit who inspired it, and the word he inspired, are dynamic enough to meet the challenges of change. Just when critics have predicted it is no longer relevant, the Bible flames again into a fire that lights and purifies.
What is needed now are those who will engage in serious and thoughtful inquiry and let the Spirit and the scriptures be our guides. We live in a changing culture, but if the church simply affirms the whims of culture we have nothing of substance to say. On the other hand, God has often used cultural changes to nudge the church to a fresh understanding of who he is and what he wants for our world.
What is also needed are those who will be respectful of opinions and positions with which they disagree. I hope we can avoid a disruptive and destructive mindset that says, “If they don’t do things the way I think they should be done, I’ll leave!” We have seen this unfortunate attitude in both conservative and progressive churches. Still, being respectful of differing positions means we must recognize that for some, the boundary line of what can be accepted in sister churches has been reached. This does not make them in any way substandard. It just means they are exercising their autonomy.
I must confess that for a time I was angry at Ginter Park’s choice to make this an issue rather than quietly withdraw without forcing a showdown. I saw withdrawal as the honorable and loving thing to have done, choosing to spare their sister churches the pain this vote has and will likely yet bring to the association. I believe now that sooner or later the matter would have surfaced anyway.
One thing I believe is sure. We haven’t seen the last of this issue so we’d better prepare ourselves for healthy deliberation.
Jim White ([email protected]) is executive editor of the Religious Herald.