By Bob Allen
A historic church formerly affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention is making headlines with a “discernment” process about how to relate to the LGBTQ community.
In early May members of First Baptist Church in Greenville, S.C., approved an affirmation that: “In all facets of the life and ministry of our church, including but not limited to membership, baptism, ordination, marriage, teaching and committee/organizational leadership, First Baptist, Greenville, will not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity.”
The Greenville News ran a front-page story on the policy Aug. 3 headlined “First Baptist opens its doors to same-sex couples.” Conservative religious media passed on the news with alarm. “First Baptist Church to ordain gay, transgender ministers,” Charisma News reported Aug. 13. The Christian News Network framed the story, “180-year-old Baptist church to perform same-sex ‘weddings,’ ordain homosexuals.”
Internal church communications described a process toward reaching “consensus” a controversial issue as an alternative to an up-or-down vote. While not all church members signed off on the statement, they agreed not to let it divide the congregation.
“We made no decision regarding the issue of homosexuality – members hold different convictions,” Pastor Jim Dant wrote in the church newsletter. “We did make a statement on what it means to be church – diverse and respectful of God’s unique work in the life of every member, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”
While unique in heritage — its founding pastor, William Bullein Johnson, was first president of the Southern Baptist Convention — First Baptist, Greenville, is representative of a number of traditionally moderate churches finding themselves in between a liberal “welcoming and affirming” stance toward homosexuality and conservatives like leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention who view anything short of calling on gays to repent as condoning sin.
Last fall the Arcus Foundation awarded the Alliance of Baptists $104,000 for an initiative to help such congregations begin healthy conversations about an issue that has in the past divided denominations and is unavoidable in the larger culture today.
Tim Moore, writer-in-residence at Sardis Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., predicted in an Alliance blog Aug. 12 that with increasing support for same-sex marriage the “in-between” churches are going to feel a pinch.
“In the years to come it will be more difficult to attract young adults — not an easy task already — if they do not begin to welcome gay and lesbian Christians,” Moore said. “Young adults have little tolerance for bigoted or judgmental churches, which is what they will label unwilling churches, rightly or wrongly.”
“If there is a generational split, between older members who are ‘not ready’ and younger members and seekers who are demanding it, the pinch will be harder,” he continued. “Do you risk alienating your best donors, or your future?”
The discernment process at First Baptist, Greenville, began in February 2014, when deacons voted to appoint a task force to “study the viewpoint FBC will take in relating to members of the LGBT community.”
Cody Sanders, an openly gay preacher and author of Queer Lessons for Churches on the Straight and Narrow, filled the pulpit at First Baptist the first Sunday in March 2014, while the church was without a permanent pastor.
After electing Dant as senior minister last June, the church held four “discernment” sessions on consecutive Sundays last November to talk through various viewpoints.
The LGBT Discernment Team reported its findings of the church consensus to deacons May 4. A majority of the diaconate endorsed the report. In May members of the congregation were invited to stand to indicate their affirmation of the statement. A majority stood, but the few who didn’t were invited to stand to agree to remain in fellowship. By the time it was over, according to the Greenville News, everyone was standing.
“This church’s journey is like of a lot of churches’ journey,” Dant told the newspaper. “You think you’re about to make a decision about homosexuality or how the church is going to deal with the LGBT community or live with the LGBT community, and it really ended up not being a decision about homosexuality but being a larger decision about what it means to be a church.”
First Baptist, Greenville, voted to leave the Southern Baptist Convention in 1999 over differences about issues such as the role of women in ministry. For years the SBC has excluded from membership churches which “act to affirm, approve or endorse homosexual behavior.”
Today First Baptist affiliates with both the Alliance of Baptists, which supports LGBT inclusion, and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which bans the hiring of gay staff members and missionaries but does not dictate its position on homosexuality to the local church.
“We are a diverse people,” Dant described the congregation to the Greenville News. “We sit on pews every Sunday morning with people who have diverse opinions.”
“We are not united by our agreement on any one issue,” Dant said. “We’re united by our desire to be followers of Christ in a particular community.”
“It’s really not up to us who the Spirit of God falls on,” he said.