By Kyle Caudle
The recent story about a Southern Baptist pastor’s son coming out as gay has garnished quite a buzz in Baptist circles and beyond. On first glance this story did not seem especially newsworthy. After all, this is neither the first nor the last Southern Baptist pastor to have a gay child come out. What drew attention in the media and even from the Southern Baptist hierarchy was the way this pastor’s church responded. Rather than calling for the resignation of their pastor for choosing to support his son, the church responded by taking a “third-way” stance toward persons who identify as LGBT.
According to a letter released by pastor Danny Cortez, New Heart Community Church voted “to not dismiss me, and to instead become a Third Way church (agree to disagree and not cast judgment on one another). … This is a huge step for a Southern Baptist church. So now, we will accept the LGBT community even though they may be in a relationship. We will choose to remain the body of Christ and not cast judgment. We will work towards graceful dialogue in the midst of theological differences. We see that this is possible in the same way that our church holds different positions on the issue of divorce and remarriage. In this issue we are able to not cast judgment in our disagreement.”
But is there really a third way or moderate position on gay marriage?
Herein lies the problem with gay marriage for Baptists in the moderate camp: there is no moderate position on gay marriage.
Churches can take a variety of positions on how they choose to welcome gay and lesbian individuals in the life of the Christian community. However, gay marriage proves to be a significant challenge for moderate churches who like to have it both ways: a church either performs gay marriages or it does not.
Conservatives and progressives generally find little to agree on when it comes to gay marriage, but on the impossibility of a “third way” position on gay marriage, conservative Al Mohler and progressive Tony Jones actually find something they can both agree on. In his response to New Heart Community Church’s “third way” position, Mohler says that “[f]or some time now, it has been increasingly clear that every congregation in this nation will be forced to declare itself openly on this issue. That moment of decision and public declaration will come to every Christian believer, individually. There will be no place to hide, and no place safe from eventual interrogation. The question will be asked, an invitation will be extended, a matter of policy must be decided, and there will be no refuge.”
So where does this leave moderate Baptists?
Gay marriage presents a unique problem for moderate Baptist communities who often “agree to disagree” on controversial issues. Taking a stance means someone or some group loses.
Moderate Baptist denominational leaders — seeking to honor local church autonomy — have left this issue to the churches. But taking a stance is a risk few churches want to take, considering the potential fallout. For this reason many churches remain silent on the issue.
Other moderate Baptist churches have become more open to conversations on human sexuality — whether in homes or Sunday school classes, at breakout sessions at denominational meetings or most notably at the [Baptist] Conference on Sexuality and Covenant. Conversations like these help to humanize issues that can be so divisive and painful. We can learn a lot from these conversations, but at some point conversations can go on too long and yet not go far enough.
Moderates have excelled at the art of conversation, but have a long way to go when it comes to making public declarations — especially on potentially divisive issues. The late Will Campbell wryly observed that if Jesus had been a moderate, he would have never been crucified.
This much is true. The problem with gay marriage — like so many other issues that Baptists have faced over the years from slavery to women’s rights — is that there comes a time when a third way becomes harder and harder to hide behind. That time is coming very soon — that is, if it is not already here.