(Editor’s note: A major news item in the Baptist world recently has involved the fate of a Dallas church that recently announced its gay-friendly stance publicly — thus jeopardizing its longstanding affiliation with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. ABP solicited commentaries from two writers — one for the church retaining its relationship with the BGCT, another who supports the church and state convention severing their relationship.)
By Marty Duren
As reported by Associated Baptist Press on March 18, a recent move by Royal Lane Baptist Church in Dallas has put it “at odds” with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. The church’s decision to announce publicly its inclusion of people of “varied … sexual orientations” into membership and church leadership potentially places it next in line after University Baptist Church in Austin, Texas, which was previously disfellowshiped by the BGCT in the 1990s.
Royal Lane’s position and possible predicament is another in a slowly growing list of churches and conventions facing off over the question of whether active, openly gay men or women should have leadership roles in a cooperating local church. Churches in North Carolina, Georgia, and, as mentioned above, Texas, have already found themselves unilaterally excluded from denominational relationships that had, in some cases, endured two World Wars, the Jim Crow era and the end of modernity. In another instance, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention withdrew fellowship from a church, Faith Harbour, which allowed a “gay-friendly” group to use its facility.
I understand why news agencies would report on this — but here’s why it, if you really think about it, is not news.
Royal Lane is not a new church, nor is its affiliation with the BGCT new. Royal Lane has a long-standing affiliation with both the BGCT and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Royal Lane’s leadership should be expected to know the positions of each of its ministry partners, so they must know that the BGCT clearly sees homosexuality as a sin of which to repent, not a lifestyle to be celebrated. They must know that the CBF, while leaving their partner churches to themselves on the question, is on record as being against homosexual behavior. So is it news that Royal Lande is “at odds” with the BGCT?
All denominational affiliations are based on shared vision and friendly cooperation. Realistically, that is the sum total of all our denominational relationships. When the vision is no longer shared or cooperation becomes improbable or undesirable, then either party has the right — I daresay the obligation — to break off the relationship. But the primary obligation rests with the local church.
The last church that I pastored went through a constitution-and-bylaws revision a couple of years into my tenure. Part of our statement of cooperation included that affiliations would be evaluated based on their effectiveness in assisting us in carrying out the mission that God had given our church. If the Georgia Baptist Convention had decided that its member churches should only have hymns, choirs and pulpit furniture we would have sent a letter to the state headquarters saying, “It’s been fun, but now we’re done.” We would not have waited for them to threaten exclusion.
If local-church autonomy means anything, it means local-church responsibility. Why did Myers Park Baptist Church in North Carolina, Virginia-Highland and Oakhurst Baptist churches in Georgia and University Baptist Church in Texas not take a proactive approach and sever ties with their respective conventions before they were asked to leave? Should churches aspire to antagonistic, rather than friendly, cooperation? It takes much less time and energy to simply quit a group that no longer shares your values than it does to force a floor fight or convention action calling attention to that fact.
In all the instances that I’ve been able to read about, meetings (sometimes multiple) have been held between convention leaders and church leaders. Any real leader should be able see if no agreement can be reached in a meeting of the leadership, no agreement is going to be reached at Microphone No. 4 in the convention hall. Severance decisions are therefore the responsibility of the church and should be instigated by the churches individually, not the convention.
If state and/or national conventions are really the inflexible, staid, un-Christian monsters they are at times made to appear in these situations, it seems any of these churches would be running like a man with his house on fire to get away. Why remain in cooperation at all? Are there no other affiliations by which to accomplish the church’s goals? Yes — and most of these churches are already members of such partnerships.
For most churches that have been involved in a cooperative relationship, there do exist shared efforts and levels of financial support — which make the partnership more than a signed, on-paper-only agreement. Support of children’s homes, missionaries and colleges are but a few of these emotional and financial ties between churches and conventions. Adding another level of difficulty are situations in which a church’s members have served faithfully in a denominational capacity.
Although all of these can make the decision to break ties over any disagreement a prolonged, thoughtful and sometimes-painful process, the fact remains that it falls to the church to instigate the separation.
The issue here is not gay-friendly versus gay-bashing institutions; no one here is bashing gays. The issue here is not local-church autonomy; all these churches, including Royal Lane, have made decisions with no outside impediment or coercion. The issue is not legality; no laws have been broken and no constitutional rights have been violated.
In the end, this is merely a matter of who should bear the responsibility to separate when vision is no longer shared, goals no longer overlap and purposes diverge. It is procedural rather than moral, structural rather than ethical, and functional rather than theological.
It is also why this is not really news.