By Bob Allen
Two Cooperative Baptist Fellowship pastors who have been friends for 30 years say it’s possible to disagree — even disagree strongly — on homosexuality and still remain friends.
“You can advocate on these things without being polarizing,” Steve Wells, pastor at South Main Baptist Church in Houston, said at a workshop at the CBF General Assembly June 15-19 in Dallas titled “LGBTQ and the Church: A Panel Discussion on Pastoral Responses.”
Beside Wells on the panel sat Joe Phelps, pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., a congregation not far from the campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary that is welcoming and affirming of gays.
“Steve and I are dear friends, but we disagree on this issue,” Phelps said. “It doesn’t break fellowship with us, but I do want to bear witness to at least when I began was very much a minority point of view.”
When he interviewed for the pastor job 18 years ago, Phelps said Highland Baptist was a “don’t ask don’t tell” church, and the first question he answered was where he stood on homosexuality.
“I am a welcoming and affirming pastor, but I am not going to press my views upon you,” Phelps told the congregation. “However, you need to know that when these issues arise, and they will arise, that I’m going to speak my truth to those issues.”
Early on the church members decided they would be open to anyone, regardless of their views on LGBTQ issues. Over time, as gays became more involved, requests came along the lines of electing a gay deacon, dedicating a lesbian couple’s baby, ordaining a seminary student to the ministry and most recently that two gay men could get married. Each time the congregation approved.
Wells said not long after he arrived at South Main, he had no problem baptizing a person who had been attending the church who was openly gay.
“Baptism is the entry point into faith,” Wells reasoned. “We ask people two questions in the baptistery at South Main. One is have you given your life to the Lord Jesus Christ? The other is will you follow him all the days of your life, wherever he leads you? If people say yes to those two questions, we baptize them.”
Years later, after the couple moved away, got married and adopted a child, they returned to Houston and asked South Main to do a baby dedication service.
“We weren’t ready for that.” Wells said. “It seemed to me what one of them really wanted was the blessing of the church on them as they took on the weight of parenting, which is what we try to do. And what the other one really wanted, at least it seemed to me, was for our church to say that you are married in the way that every other couple in this church is married. And I didn’t think I had the authority to do that.”
In the end, Wells said he didn’t believe he could put two men with the same last name on the platform holding a baby in the context of worship without giving the appearance the church was endorsing same-sex marriage.
“My best reading of Scripture says that marriage is an institution woven into the fabric of creation,” he said. “Genesis 2 says it’s restricted in number, kind and duration: Two people, a man and a woman, in a covenant for life. And I didn’t have the authority to change the nature of that.”
While churches often avoid talking about sexuality issues because they fear conflict, Rebecca Adrian, pastoral care manager and ACPE supervisor at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, said that isn’t always the best approach.
“What I have learned is when we can allow for conflict, when we can kind of put aside our fear for a moment and truly engage with others, there is such deep, richer chance for understanding,” Adrian said.
Wells said he almost never has conversations with people interested in joining South Main that don’t ask where the church stands on two issues: women in ministry and same-sex issues.
“My best read on this issue is scripturally this matter is settled and peripheral to the life of the church,” Wells said.
Phelps respectfully disagreed. “I do think it’s a central issue,” Phelps said. “I don’t think it can be called peripheral when it deals with people’s humanity and their equality.”
Phelps said the conversation at his church came not because of great pastoral leadership but in patient conversations between members and because of the kind of LGBT people who were showing up at Highland Baptist Church.
When it comes to dealing with texts typically used against LGBT inclusion, Phelps said, “We have sought to be honest with the Bible.” That includes looking both at the presumptions that modern-day readers bring to their interpretation and the “larger context and trajectory” of the biblical narrative.
“The same hermeneutic that we use to understand all those passage in the Bible about slavery, all of those questions that have been raised over the years about why women aren’t equal to men and can’t serve as ministers or as deacons in the church — that’s the same hermeneutic we’ve applied to the issue of homosexuality,” Phelps said. “And we’ve come to the conclusion that what is being condemned in the Bible is not the same thing as homosexuality as we understand it today.”
Adrian said in her work she sees the downside of avoiding the issue altogether.
“We had recently a young man who came into our area in the final stages of AIDS-related complications illness,” Adrian said. “His parents did not know he was gay. They learned this and traveled here to Dallas. By the time they came, he was not able to communicate with them anymore.
“It broke my heart to hear that story,” she said. “I think: ‘What if there could have been some risk taken there to open communication on both sides? What if there was space to talk about that?’”
“There was not a chance for those parents on this side of eternity to communicate, to understand it with their son,” Adrian said. “That’s a sad thing, so I hope that we will be willing to enter into conflict — we will be willing to take the risk with those that we love and with those in our congregations — even if it means having conversations that are difficult and messy.”
Wells said he was glad to be asked to discuss the issue with a longtime friend.
“Joe and I disagree about this, but it’s not a break-fellowship issue, and it doesn’t have to be a break-fellowship issue,” Wells said. “I think I’m doing what I’m doing out of my best reading of the Scripture. That’s where I have to start. And I think Joe’s doing what he’s doing out of his best reading of the Scripture, and I think he’s wrong, and he thinks I’m wrong.”
What their churches have in common, Wells said, is the ability to navigate through ensitive issues without splitting over them.
“If you want to look at some healthy churches, you can start with ours,” Wells said. “They’re different, but they are seeking to be faithful. When you’re healthy in a lot of ways, you can find ways to have hard conversations in appropriate ways.”