Have we as Virginia Baptists reverted to the early church schismatic movement of Donatism? Perhaps it is not surprising since early Anabaptists were accused of the very same. It was the Donatist schism that emerged in the early fourth century after a harsh period of Christian persecution. Christian clergy were ordered by the Roman government to give the Holy Scriptures over to the authorities in order burn them. Some clergy cooperated with the authorities and others did not.
The Donatists believed that clergy who cooperated with the Roman Empire were traitors to the faith and unfit to lead the laity. These clergy were tainted by sin and thus their performance of the sacraments was likewise tainted. The Donatists desired a Church of Saints rather than a Church of Sinners.
Saint Augustine, however, argued against the Donatists by suggesting the sacraments were holy in and of themselves. In essence, the perfection and holiness of the sacraments were not dependent upon the perfection of the fallible, human priest. It is this view that became “orthodox” within church.
It would appear, however, that the modern church fears the ordination of homosexuals much like the Donatists feared the clergy who handed over the Holy Scriptures. We define homosexuals as traitors to God’s intended order, and we claim that they are unfit to lead, participate and serve in God’s redemptive narrative.
It is not my intention buy into the debate surrounding homosexual ordination, but rather to move beyond this debate in order to ask larger questions about the nature of the Church. I am interested in asking whether the Church, and Virginia Baptists specifically, desire to be a Church of Sinners.
In refusing to acknowledge the call of homosexuals, it seems that we are trying to be a Church of Saints rather than a Church of Sinners. We suggest that homosexuals cannot be ordained and cannot have a calling from God because they openly defy a number of passages in Scripture. We refuse to read these passages with fresh, new eyes because we know that these passages of Scripture are the literal, stagnant, dead commandments that God intended for all humanity for all time.
Has this become the lifestyle litmus test for ordination? Do we have other equally rigid biblical standards?
We do ordain the rich — those who refuse to sell all their possessions, defying the words of Jesus. We read Matthew 19 allegorically, metaphorically and any which way but literally because if we make any suggestion that being rich may be a sin, what does that say about us? Selling our possessions could not possibly be something that God commands of us now.
The examples are endless. We seem to be able to find and create exceptions by cutting and drawing lines for just about everything but homosexuality. Rather than cutting or drawing new lines, I am suggesting that we uncover a theology and hermeneutic that can allow for cooperation within a Church of Sinners.
It would seem logical that churches deeply rooted in their opposition to the ordination of homosexuals have not fostered a vibrant ministry toward the LBGTQ community. In these churches, discussing the ordination of homosexuals makes about as much sense as discussing the ordination of mermaids. Recognizing the non-experience of these churches with regards to the LBGTQ community, it would seem right to prohibit homosexual ordination within these churches.
Churches, however, that have developed relationships with members of the LBGTQ community must begin to question traditional theological and hermeneutical positions. They must begin to think about making room for this population within their church. These churches have ministered to and loved members of the LBGTQ community in order that they may know God. In these congregations, the ordination and recognition of calling in the lives of their homosexual members is a natural outgrowth and continuation of this ministry.
Denominational policies that prohibit churches from recognizing and affirming the call of certain individuals within their congregation only limit the continuing ministry of local churches.
By limiting church leadership to righteous clergy who refused to cooperate with the Roman authorities, the Donatists limited the ministry of their local churches affected by traitorous clergy. The Baptist General Association of Virginia does the same when homosexuality becomes a lifestyle litmus test for ordination.
In the days leading up to the BGAV annual meeting, I pray that we will remember that whether or not we think homosexuality is sin, we will strive to allow the local church to be the local church. We will strive to cooperate because the Kingdom of God is bigger than the traditions of our local church. We will strive to be a Church of Sinners, daily carrying our own crosses, rather than a Church of Saints, crucifying others on their crosses.
Andrew Gardner ([email protected]) of Yorktown, Va., is a recent graduate of the College of William & Mary and a student at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity.