New lines on Baptist map in Texas?

Once again, we enter the complex and confusing world of the people called “Baptists,” that diverse crew that ranges from the Rev. Bill Moyers to the Rev. Pat Robertson.

One of America’s most outspoken Baptists, the Rev. James M. Dunn, once told me that one of the strengths of Baptist life, and even Southern Baptist life, is that it is almost impossible to be thrown all the way out of fellowship.

First of all, Baptists define themselves at the congregational level. Then there is the regional association level. Then there is the state convention (and today, there may be more than one). Then there are the national bodies, including some “moderate” bodies that do not require their members to pull completely out of the giant Southern Baptist Convention. The last Baptist congregation that I attended was, in the early 1980s, both American and Southern Baptist. The pulpit was, functionally, Unitarian some days, Episcopal others and, on a few memorable occasions, Buddhist.

This brings us to the Dallas Morning News coverage of a complex and interesting event in a high-profile Baptist flock. Here’s the top of the story:

The Baptist General Convention of Texas is distancing itself from longtime affiliate Royal Lane Baptist Church of Dallas, which recently changed its Web site to reflect an affirmation of gay members.

The BGCT’s long-held position is that homosexuality is a sin.

The Dallas-based BGCT has decided to place in escrow any funds sent from Royal Lane. It also has asked Royal Lane to remove from church publications any reference to BGCT affiliation.

Randel Everett, executive director of the BGCT, said those conditions will remain until the church says it agrees with the stance on homosexuality.

“It is my prayer that Royal Lane Baptist Church will take the appropriate action to return to these Texas Baptist values and restore its fellowship with the BGCT,” Everett said in a prepared statement.

Now, there are several fascinating things about this situation. While reporter Sam Hodges is very skilled in covering Baptist affairs — he’d better be, in Dallas — the framing for the doctrinal issue is still wrong. According to the story, the “BGCT’s long-held position is that homosexuality is a sin.”

Actually, I am sure that the convention would say that it’s stance is that all sex outside of marriage is a sin. Is the mysterious orientation called “homosexuality” — or how about bisexuality — automatically a sin? I am sure that the BGCT, while it may have taken stands on issues linked to homosexuality, would not state the ancient doctrine in Christian moral theology in this way.

However, it is also appropriate to ask this question: What the heckfire are “Texas Baptist values” and what body gets to vote to determine what is what? Since when would this kind of vague statement trump the local congregation’s right to make its own decision? I know that some bodies have, in fact, held votes on these kinds of issues. However, this is not something that happens very often on the Baptist left.

In yet another “It’s a small world after all” connection, the pastor at the heart of this story was my college pastor in Waco, at Seventh & James Baptist Church. That was back in the safer days before Baptists were in open warfare over basic Christian doctrines.

Now, Matthews is caught in a very hot spot — even though this 500-member church (which isn’t very big in Texas) has been known as a gay-friendly place for many, many years.

Royal Lane’s pastor, the Rev. David Matthews, did not return calls for comment. Earlier, Matthews said deacons overwhelmingly approved changing the church Web site to say Royal Lane is “a vibrant mosaic of varied racial identities, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and denominational backgrounds.”

He noted that the church had not changed its bylaws or taken an official vote on homosexuality but said the new Web site language reflected publicly the church’s long practice of welcoming gays and lesbians, including ordaining some as deacons. …

Matthews earlier said that Royal Lane hoped to remain in the BGCT, which is a vehicle by which churches collaborate for evangelism, relief work, support of Baptist colleges, and other purposes.

But here is the detail in this Hodges report that cuts to the heart of the matter. My question: Should this information have been higher in the story?

The stakes are raised in Royal Lane’s case because its membership includes BGCT employees and a BGCT executive board member. BGCT employees must belong to an affiliated church, so a split with Royal Lane could force some to choose between workplace and worship place.

In other words, Royal Lane is not that far out of the BGCT mainstream. It has insider status.

Here is the bottom line: To what degree does the BGCT want to openly proclaim itself as an association that includes churches that are, functionally, in the mainstream of liberal mainline Protestant life? Are the leaders of the convention divided over basic doctrines of moral theology, something that could lead to a split within a split?

Another Hodges report digs even deeper into the basic issues about doctrine and shows the degree to which Royal Lane is already invested in its stance. The vice chair of the church’s board of deacons is named Ruth May.

May, a lesbian, said that when she joined the church in 1994 it already had a reputation for welcoming gays and lesbians. Longtime members include Bruce Lowe, a 94-year-old retired Baptist pastor whose essay “A Letter to Louise: A Biblical Affirmation of Homosexuality” is widely circulated on the Internet and argues that the verses generally cited as condemning homosexuality have been misunderstood and taken out context.

Matthews, who became Royal Lane’s pastor last year, said the Bible “understood through the prism of Jesus” calls for full acceptance of gays and lesbians. The thought of Jesus being unaccepting of somebody because of their sexual orientation — not their choice, but their orientation — that’s unthinkable to me,” he said.

Stay tuned. This work by Hodges is solid, it would help if he actually framed the debate wider — including more views inside the BGCT. I guarantee you, there is diversity in there. This one is going to get complicated. The key: Cover this as a debate about doctrine, not politics.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Interesting that Broadway Baptist, which was ousted from the Southern Baptist Convention last summer, remains part of the BGCT. Also it’s be interesting to see if Royal Lane gets disaffiliated by Texas Baptists but remains part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

  • http://www.equalityloudoun.org Jonathan Weintraub

    tmatt,

    As a practical matter it’s better for a church to hold that “homosexuality is a sin”. Otherwise, it’s not hard to imagine a situation where an out gay couple – let’s call them David and Jonathan for scriptural relevance – could be active in the church. The other members of the church could witness their love grow. They could watch them court, fall in live and get engaged. They’d be just like the other couples in the church except for their sexuality.

    Over the years, the members of the church would see heterosexual couples marry and move on with their lives. David and Jonathan would be stuck in the engaged state forever or until the church expanded its definition of marriage to include same-sex couples. This situation would cause too much dissonance to be tolerated.

  • Dave

    There’s a wonderful line in the movie “Masada” in which General Silva tells some potentially mutinous troups, “You’d better be prepared to march on Rome, and have a candidate for Emperor.” Royal Lane had better have an alternative affinity to BGCT up and running within the year.

  • Joe

    “One of America’s most outspoken Baptists, the Rev. James M. Dunn, once told me that one of the strengths of Baptist life, and even Southern Baptist life, is that it is almost impossible to be thrown all the way out of fellowship.”

    Can anyone explain why this statement is not more juvenile than sane? It sounds like something a writer for PATROL might sputter….

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JOE:

    Please explain your point. Dunn’s statement is simply a crisp way of expressing the often confusing layers of Baptist church polity….

  • http://www.equalityloudoun.org Jonathan

    tmatt,

    FYI, here is the SBC’s <a href="http://www.sbc.net/aboutus/pssexuality.asp"position on sexuality:

    We affirm God’s plan for marriage and sexual intimacy – one man, and one woman, for life. Homosexuality is not a “valid alternative lifestyle.” The Bible condemns it as sin. It is not, however, unforgivable sin. The same redemption available to all sinners is available to homosexuals. They, too, may become new creations in Christ.

    Here is the “position of the BGCT:

    Homosexual behavior is sin
    The BGCT position expressed at its 1982 Annual Meeting has never changed: “The homosexual lifestyle is not normal or acceptable in God’s sight and is indeed called sin.”…

    So the emphasis is on “homosexuality is sin”, not sex outside of marriage as you stated. You may want to correct the post.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JONATHAN:

    Note that it said homexual BEHAVIOR is sin, in the second case. The top one is sloppy, but the use of the word “lifestyle” also implies activity, not simply orientation.

    I never doubted that the BGCT had stated a stance on any homosexual issues.

    I wrote:

    “I am sure that the BGCT, while it may have taken stands on issues linked to homosexuality, would not state the ancient doctrine in Christian moral theology in this way.”

  • OhReally

    tmatt, your differentiation between “orientation” and behavior is not true to scripture. Jesus condemned my “orientation” to adultery (“Whosoever looks on a woman…”). He also condemned my “orientation” to murder. Thus, looking on a person of the same sex with sexual thoughts would then be the same as engaging in those sexual acts.

    It is interesting that no one condemns a married man, say, of trying to remove unwanted thoughts of lust/adultery. The book “Every Man’s Battle” is very successful in detailing how to do just that.

    There is even an “Anger Management for Dummies”. Where is the cry, “God may me that way and God doesn’t make mistakes” from the Angry People Association?

  • http://www.equalityloudoun.org Jonathan

    tmatt,

    Yes, I understand, and as OhReally, citing Jesus explains, a thought *is* a behavior. My first comment described a doctrinal use case. If David and Jonathan are saving themselves for marriage but behave as a head-over-heels in love engaged couple, are they living the “homosexual lifestyle”? Are they engaging in “homosexual BEHAVIOR”?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Back to journalism folks.

    Spiking away.

  • http://www.equalityloudoun.org Jonathan

    tmatt,

    Where did we get off topic. The Dallas Morning News said:

    The BGCT’s long-held position is that homosexuality is a sin.

    and you criticized their reporting with:

    While reporter Sam Hodges is very skilled in covering Baptist affairs — he’d better be, in Dallas — the framing for the doctrinal issue is still wrong. According to the story, the “BGCT’s long-held position is that homosexuality is a sin.”

    Actually, I am sure that the convention would say that it’s stance is that all sex outside of marriage is a sin. Is the mysterious orientation called “homosexuality” — or how about bisexuality — automatically a sin? I am sure that the BGCT, while it may have taken stands on issues linked to homosexuality, would not state the ancient doctrine in Christian moral theology in this way.

    I researched the BGCT position and found it to be:

    “The homosexual lifestyle is not normal or acceptable in God’s sight and is indeed called sin.”

    You brought up the ‘mysterious orientation called “homosexuality”’. It’s pretty hard to just talk about these doctrinal and rhetorical differences if the terms aren’t defined or dismissed for being “mysterious”. To fail to drill down is shallow reporting/blogging. Don’t you think so?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Argue about the journalism, folks, not the doctrines themselves.

    Now, I issued a mild criticism of one part of a story that I praised. I simply stated that I thought there were broader issues at stake, from the point of view of the BGCT.

    Jonathan:

    You found one BGCT position on one wording of the issue. Rest assured that there are more.

    I remain skeptical that Baptists on the left side of the spectrum would say that homosexual orientation itself is sinful, as opposed to homosexual acts.

  • http://www.equalityloudoun.org Jonathan

    tmatt,

    The distinction you make between orientation and acts *is* the story because the maintenance of that distinction is unsustainable. That’s what makes this story so interesting. Royal Lane had been GLBT friendly for decades, but it was a change to their web site that caused the action. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a story about the decision process within the BGCT? Why was Royal Lane ok before they changed the web site to be inclusive of

    “a vibrant mosaic of varied racial identities, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and denominational backgrounds.”

    If a homosexual orientation is not sinful, the BGCT doesn’t have a doctrinal argument. They appear to be operating out of prejudice. You’re right. This is going to get complicated.


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