Path to fuller inclusion of LGBT Christians challenges church leaders

Pastor Jim Dant of First Baptist Church of Greenville, S.C.

Pastor Jim Dant of First Baptist Church of Greenville, S.C.

GREENVILLE, S.C. — Some churches and denominational groups have no confusion or conflict regarding persons with same-sex attraction or transgender identities. On one side or the other, the matter is settled.

“Welcoming and affirming” congregations and church organizations fully embrace gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. Conversely, many churches and denominational groups that have long opposed homosexuality as being anything other than a chosen, sinful lifestyle have hunkered down.

Some of these more-conservative groups have geared up for the culture war they continue to lose by every measure.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide increased their alarm and led to a series of mixed results in getting state governments to pass laws that restrict and punish those with sexual orientations or identities different from what these church leaders consider to be the God-given norm.

The cultural shift is apparent. Recent results of a Pew Research poll showed that 55 percent of Americans now support same-sex marriage, with 37 percent explicitly opposed. Those results show a complete reversal from polling in 2001.

White mainline Protestants favor same-sex marriage by 64 percent, but the numbers drop for black Protestants and white evangelicals. So it is not surprising that diverse congregations and conventions will not be of one mind concerning this issue — and that the minds of many have changed or are changing.

Exactly how this issue will continue to play out in many church circles is uncertain. However, continued disagreement and even fracturing are expected as leaders in the broader middle of church life struggle to find common ground or at least peaceful accommodation for those within their fellowships who hold strong but differing opinions about homosexuality and gender identities.

Fracturing has already been the case within some Christian bodies.

TIMING

The potential for conflict and upheaval has led many church leaders to push the issue down the road as far as possible. Some congregations and fellowships have assumed a “don’t ask; don’t tell” position in which gay and lesbian persons are engaged without the church or organization taking a formal position on the issue.

A recent study by LifeWay Research showed that just 8 percent of Baptist pastors — compared to 30 percent of Protestant pastors — say gay and lesbian persons can serve in any role open to church members. Also, 54 percent of these Baptist ministers indicated there were no positions in their churches where openly LGBT persons can serve.

Many church leaders recognize, however, that the issue is moving — or has moved — to the surface as public opinion in support of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons continues to sweep the nation.

Last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision calling for all states to recognize same-sex marriages pushed the issue closer to the forefront. Affirmation of LGBT persons and the defense of their equal rights are not going away — in and outside faith circles.

Many churches and denominational leaders are feeling the squeeze between members who are demanding equality for all persons regardless of sexual orientation or identity and those in opposition based on their biblical interpretations. And the latter often uses “religious liberty” in defense of their right to discriminate — even in the public sector.

For some this issue strikes a chord within their calling to stand up for those long oppressed. It is a matter of justice more than mere church policy. On the other side are those who see the issue as threatening the very institution of holy matrimony as given by God since creation.

In the head and hearts of many church leaders are the big questions of when and how to address this inevitable, controversial and likely divisive issue. And they are finding it hard to keep pushing the “when” question down the road.

SANCTUARIES

In an article last June, USA Today explored the challenge gay and lesbian persons experienced in finding spiritual sanctuary following the deadly shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

The article referenced the 2015 Pew Research Center study showing that 48 percent of Americans who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual also identify as Christian. Therefore, many persons with same-sex attraction seek a spiritual home for worship, fellowship, service and spiritual growth — as would any other Christian.

The mass shooting at Pulse in Orlando, some supporters noted, revealed much beyond the evil-induced carnage: Gay nightclubs are more than entertainment options; they are sanctuaries for LGBT persons who often cannot find such refuge in churches or other settings.

Many thoughtful and compassionate church leaders feel torn between their desire to affirm and include gay and lesbian Christians in the fullness of church life while not alienating devoted church members who consider homosexuality to be a sinful practice. And they wonder how to address the issue in a way that would be more constructive than reckless — while acknowledging that a price will be paid.

The question becomes one of “how much loss?” — and what can possibly be done to minimize the fracturing?

ONE CHURCH

First Baptist Church of Greenville, S.C., made a big news splash — not by the congregation’s design, though not by surprise either — after grappling with this issue of wider inclusion and reaching the conclusion that the congregation would not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Pastor Jim Dant noted that the church did not reach full agreement on how the Bible is to be interpreted regarding homosexuality. Rather the congregation chose to acknowledge those differences with respect — while not excluding LGBT persons from any aspect of church life.

The defining question, he said, became: “Can you worship and live with the LGBT community in the church?” Eventually, the church said, “yes” — with 12 members choosing to leave the congregation.

Dant warns other church leaders wading into these waters and seeking his advice to avoid the false assumption that some magic formula will lead to a smooth process and positive conclusion.

“The first step is figuring out where you are as a church,” said Dant, noting that not every church starts the conversation at the same place.

Well before his coming as pastor in June 2014 and last year’s Supreme Court ruling, the historic Greenville church was already addressing the issue.

Dant calls these developments — including the significant participation of gay and lesbian persons in various aspects of church life — the “unquantifiable part” of the congregation’s journey toward non-discrimination.

BEYOND TASK

A year before his call to be pastor, the deacons appointed an LGBT task force to educate the congregation on the relevant issues and to make a proposal to the church on how to relate to the LGBT community.

“The process looked like a civil war in the making,” Dant surmised, fearing the approach was leading toward clear winners and losers — with a lot of loss for the congregation at large.

He asked the deacons to rename and refocus the task force into the LGBT discernment team without a timeline or specific goal other than hearing from one another and seeking a consensus.

“I laid out what that [process] would look like,” said Dant.

Roberts Rules of Order were put aside in favor of discernment. Plans called for small-group participation — in which everyone would speak — rather than town hall meetings easily dominated by a few, loud voices on each side of the issue.

Each of the four discernment sessions began with a 15-minute presentation on biblical background, pastoral care or another subject to help frame the conversations rather than be persuasive. Then the small-group conversations followed.

Broader questions than one’s personal opinion about homosexuality were raised, said Dant, such as: “What is the truth of who we are as a church, and where is God in that?” “What would you talk with Jesus about regarding this issue?”

Dant said he and other church leaders underestimated the interest, setting up for 50 people for the first of the four Sunday nights sessions. “We had 250 show up the first night and never had fewer than that.”

Pastorally, Dant urged the congregation to not group up with those in agreement or to carry their conversations into Sunday school classes or the parking lot.

BEING CHURCH

In the Sunday evening sessions, participants discussed whether or not they were comfortable being a “welcoming and affirming” congregation — or whether they didn’t know for sure.

Dant encouraged the congregation to continue asking and responding to the various questions until they honed a consensus with which they were comfortable.

It was clear, said Dant, that church members were not in agreement about homosexuality and gender identity, but could be comfortable with members of the LGBT community participating in all aspects of church life “as it is consistent with their faith.”

The big shift in the discernment process, he noted, was the move “from how they felt about LGBT issues to what it means to be a church, particularly a Baptist church.”

The church took a break from these discussions during Advent and Christmas, picking back up early last year. As the consensus statement emerged, Dant said he placed a lot of emphasis on the Baptist belief in soul competency — that each person is accountable to God.

This perspective, he said, allowed for disagreement yet respect for others. “Welcoming and affirming could not be said of our church; not everyone affirms homosexuality.”

The consensus statement was presented to the church on a Sunday morning.

“We didn’t vote,” said Dant. “We stood to agree that this is a fair statement of the church.”

All but 12 of the approximately 800 congregants in attendance stood on the first call. Then the congregation covenanted to not speak of the matter publicly for two months in order to prepare for what would follow when the news hit.

IRONIES

Church members honored their covenant, said Dant, giving him time to talk with them about how to respond to neighbors, friends and coworkers reacting to the church’s controversial affirmation. He focused on the “ironic aftermath” that church members could expect.

“You’ll be told that you’re not Christian and not Baptist,” Dant told the congregation. “The irony is you are Christian and are Baptist,” he said of the process they had followed to consensus.

The three sessions following the affirmation of the consensus statement were “probably the most valuable thing we did in the whole process,” he said.

One of the church’s many gay members shared how he and others simply wanted to be a part congregational life. One of the most conservative members, recalled Dant, said this process was “the proudest I’ve ever been of our church.”

Church leadership released the story — in a wide-open manner — to The Greenville News, then referred all other inquiries to the local newspaper.

The preparation done between the congregational affirmation and the public release of the document was well needed said Dant: “Our people got hit hard.”

National media picked up the news quickly, and fundamentalist Baptist leaders such as Al Mohler and Franklin Graham denounced the congregation. The language on talk radio in Upstate South Carolina became threatening to the point that the church added security.

“We were not trying to make a point nationally but be a church in Greenville, S.C.,” said Dant, noting that the public relations storm raged for about two and a half months. Facebook posts as well as phone calls and emails to the church reached the tens of thousands.

SAFE LANDING

Implementation took its own natural course, said Dant. About 100 persons joined the church in the following weeks. Most were not gay, just persons looking for a church that doesn’t discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The bottom line, said Dant, is that the church “treats LGBT persons no differently than any other member.”

“There are not just two choices,” he added, pointing to the opposing positions of excluding gay and lesbian persons or affirming homosexuality.

“If you have to be welcoming and affirming, then you’re not Baptist,” said Dant. “That’s not the only place to land.”

The Greenville church landed on a consensus statement that affirms, “We are a covenantal people, bound together, not by agreement on all issues, but by our desire to worship and serve together, and by our commitment to embody and embrace the spirit of Christ.”

Showing respect for those members who hold opposing views on homosexuality was critical to the church’s unity, said Dant. It allowed for the wider embrace of the affirmation that emerged from the unrushed process of discernment:

“In all facets of the life and ministry of our church, including but not limited to membership, baptism, ordination, marriage, teaching and committee/organizational leadership, First Baptist Greenville will not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity.”

‘FOR US’

This process and its conclusion may not work in every setting, Dant acknowledged. “It’s worked for us.”

His role, he said, was just “a little piece” in what had already begun. “I’ve followed up on a lot of people’s work here.”

Having faithful members — who were gay and out before the discernment process — was a great advantage, he said. “It’s hard to discount that.”

Beyond the harsh outside condemnation of the church, often from anonymous sources, Dant received many calls from ministry friends seeking advice on how to deal with this hot topic in their congregations.

He is honest with them: “You may not be in a place where you can implement a process and get through it peacefully.” For those wanting to give it a try, Dant offers these suggestions:

First, know where you are relative to controversy and the LGBT community. Just because the pastor is ready to deal with this issue doesn’t mean the congregation is ready.

The Greenville congregation was used to “cutting some paths” related to issues of justice and equality; that history helped, he said.

Second, learn about the discernment process and get wide buy-in from the congregation. The larger body must believe this process is the right course for dealing with the issue at hand and seeking a constructive outcome.

Third, be prepared for the aftermath. “It’s hard,” said Dant candidly.

Of the barrage of emails, Facebook posts and phone calls received by the church, he added, “the vast majority were brutal.”

That’s why it is important for the church to reach a consensus and to respect those who hold different views, he said.

For example, some members of the wedding guild choose to not work on gay weddings, he said. They are respected.

The implementation was not hard, he added, since it was simply to not discriminate based on sexual orientation or identity.

Throughout the discernment process, said Dant, he wanted the congregation’s focus to be on the larger idea of being church rather than debating a particular issue.

“From June through October, I preached through the book of Acts and never mentioned LGBT issues,” he said, “but talked about the broadening of the church and what it means to be the church.”

BAPTIST BODIES

Denominational groups reflect many of the same struggles seen in congregations with diverse perspectives. How these larger church bodies address the inclusion of LGBT persons depends on polity, diversity, theological orientation and commitments to unity.

Among Baptists, very conservative groups including the Southern Baptist Convention have cemented their opposition to homosexuality in resolutions and policies.

One position statement asserts: “Homosexuality is not a ‘valid alternative lifestyle.’ The Bible condemns it as sin. It is not, however, unforgivable sin.” That “forgiveness” or conversion, however, requires a repudiation of one’s sexual orientation.

Churches considered to be endorsing or affirming of homosexuality are dismissed from the convention ranks — as are those calling women to the pastorate.

Progressive groups such as the Alliance of Baptists and Welcoming and Affirming Baptists have fully embraced LGBT Christians for many years — attracting congregations that reflect their position.

Tension over the full inclusion of LGBT persons has surfaced among other Baptist groups such as American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA) and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) where perspectives are wide-ranging and potentially divisive.

In 2005, members of the ABCUSA General Board amended their “We Are American Baptists” statement to affirm themselves as “Biblical people who submit to the teaching of Scripture … and acknowledge that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Biblical teaching.”

Over the past decade, however, that statement has not settled matters for American Baptists. Known for being inclusive in general, American Baptists have experienced most of their tension and even division related to LGBT issues at the regional level.

CBF, which does not pass formal resolutions on such issues, adopted a hiring and funding policy in 2000 that forbids the funding of partner organizations that affirm homosexuality or the hiring of knowingly homosexual persons. It was considered a compromise effort to keep congregations engaged that wanted some clarity about the Fellowship’s position on homosexuality.

However, the policy has become contentious among Fellowship participants in recent years with a growing number of calls for it to be rescinded.

During their national assembly last June, CBF leaders announced a new initiative called the Illumination Project to identify intentional processes whereby the Fellowship can retain unity despite disagreements.

While the initiative is designed to address differing opinions on a variety of issues, all participants are keenly aware of what one issue remains at the forefront: the full inclusion of LGBT persons.

Whether in congregations or denominational groups — where opinions change and vary regarding the inclusion of all Christians regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity — there seems to be one point of agreement: this issue can only be pushed down the road so long.

Determining exactly when and how to address this matter, however, seems to bring as many and as strong opinions as the issue itself. NFJ

Story and photos by John D. Pierce