WASHINGTON (ABP) — State laws legalizing same-sex marriage are becoming the newest battle line in American Christianity's ongoing civil war over the church and homosexuality.
Religion News Service reported recently on a dilemma for churches in the District of Columbia trying to decide whether to perform weddings for same-sex couples in violation of official denominational stances that ban local churches and clergy from doing so.
"My heart breaks for them, because they do not know what to do," Amy Butler, pastor of Washington's Calvary Baptist Church, said of colleagues in denominations like the United Methodist Church who must decide whether to take the risk of marrying same-sex couples even if it means they could be defrocked.
Butler, who has been senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church since 2003, said it isn't an issue for her historic downtown congregation. Two years ago the church adopted a policy granting "full and equal access to all pastoral services and opportunities for leadership" to all church members, whether straight or gay.
"This is old news around Calvary," Butler, who writes a regular column for Associated Baptist Press, said March 30.
Butler served on the steering committee of Clergy United for Marriage Equality, a group of D.C. clergy and religious leaders that campaigned for "marriage equality for loving same-sex couples" in the nation's capital. The steering committee also included two other Baptist pastors, Dennis and Christine Wiley of Washington's Covenant Baptist Church.
Still, Butler told RNS, the debate is causing the church to reassess its own historic ties to various Baptist denominational groups.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship does not hire non-celibate homosexuals or fund organizations that condone or promote homosexuality but does not have an official statement pertaining to the place of gays in local churches. Many gay-affirming Baptist churches remain supportive of CBF.
American Baptist Churches USA has struggled with the issue since the late 1980s. An ABCUSA statement officially says that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching," but the denomination allows churches that affirm gays to remain affiliated. That mixed message prompted a significant split in the denomination in 2006.
SBC's stance would exclude Calvary
The Southern Baptist Convention changed its constitution in the 1990s to exclude "churches which act to affirm, approve or endorse homosexual behavior" and last year removed a church in Texas after learning that it allowed openly gay members to serve on church committees.
Sing Oldham, vice president for convention relations for the SBC Executive Committee, described Calvary's actions on same-sex marriage as "contrary with the stated positions of the SBC."
Oldham said if the church were to send messengers to the SBC annual meeting and someone challenged their seating, the convention would likely address the matter. He added, however, that an annual church profile listing for Calvary Baptist Church lists no financial contributions to the convention's work since 1997.
"It seems as if the church has already distanced itself from the convention," Oldham said. "It has not qualified to seat messengers at the annual meeting for more than a decade."
Instead of waiting for the SBC to take action against them, Oldham said, "One would hope the church would simply inform the convention of its intent to withdraw fellowship from the SBC."
Mohler: Egalitarianism leads to this
Butler's comments in RNS did not escape the attention of Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He wrote a blog March 25 describing the dilemma for liberal pastors in D.C. and the five states that allow same-sex marriage as an example of what he called "Christianity Lite."
Mohler said it is no coincidence that the churches and denominations that are supporting gay marriage have adopted liberal positions on other theological issues as well.
"The bottom line is that something has to explain why certain churches tend to move against the clear teachings of Scripture on issues of human sexuality while others do not," Mohler said on his daily radio program March 25. "If you're looking for the causative issue here, it has to do with the authority of Scripture and the function of doctrine and the basic theological stance of the church or denomination. The fact is that sexual revisionism and theological liberalism go hand in hand."
"Once you make Scripture no longer the authoritative word of God in the midst of the church and the congregation … then guess what? You're no longer accountable to Scripture, and that means you're not accountable to Scripture on anything," Mohler said. "If you begin to treat the Bible as nothing more than a human document, if you reduce its authority to being nothing more than the church's book … then you can make the book do whatever you want it to do."
In his blog Mohler said that, once begun, "theological revisionism" is hard to stop.
"It is no accident that the very churches and denominations now determined to ordain unrepentant homosexuals are the same churches and denominations that were determined to ordain women to the pastorate," he wrote. "The arguments used to get around, over, and under clear biblical teaching are the same."
"You can't have a sexual revolution without neutralizing Scripture," Mohler said on his radio show. "Scripture is not only clear on the issue of human sexuality, it's incredibly consistent."
Calvary Baptist Church, already diverse and multicultural, began what Butler described in a blog post as "the scary conversation" in 2006 about whether the church would be a place "where we accept and affirm all people, even gay people."
"Since we're Baptists we are not bound by any larger denominational position (in theory, of course); we are called to discern our own position as a congregation," she wrote. "But while we've managed to sit quietly on the sidelines not asking and not telling, we've watched churches and denominations ripped apart by all kinds of faithful people with strong convictions on several different sides of the issue…. And while we realize this is a question that will eventually need our attention, we just don't want any more ripping apart going on here at Calvary. That's what makes it scary."
In February 2008 the church's deacons adopted the statement: "As we discern our call as followers of Jesus Christ, all members of Calvary Baptist Church have full and equal access to all pastoral services and opportunities for leadership." The church body approved the statement of inclusion at its quarterly business meeting that April.
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.