Today, it is my honor to host the Rev. Dr. Ellin Jimmerson, the first Southern Baptist minister (and perhaps only) to perform a legal same-sex wedding. And in Alabama no less! Having grown up in the Huntsville metro area, I was thrilled to see her standing for justice and equality in my hometown. Unfortunately, the Southern Baptist Convention didn’t quite feel the same way …
On February 9, I became the first Southern Baptist in the state of Alabama to officiate at a same sex wedding. Two Baptist women, Yashinari Effinger and Adrian Thomas, wanted a Baptist minister to officiate at their ceremony. I received the invitation, was available, and agreed.
It was to be the lead wedding at an outdoor celebration called Wedding Week by its organizers, scheduled to begin the day a Federal court’s reversal of the ban on same sex marriage in the state took effect. It drew national and international media attention.
The day after the wedding, the Alabama Baptist Convention issued a statement that any minister officiating at a same sex wedding risked his church being disfellowshipped. This means that although the church remains Baptist, it is kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention [SBC].
However, since I am an unpaid minister with an honorific title, Minister to the Community, the representatives of the two state organizations wanted a stronger case. They discovered that in 2013 the Senior Minister, David B. Freeman, had preached a sermon in which he said the Bible does not condemn homosexuality.
The Madison Baptist Association [MBA] then notified my church, Weatherly Heights Baptist, that it was considering breaking ties with us. The MBA is the association through which my church belongs to the SBC. David Freeman and I met with Jeff Pike and other representatives of the MBA.
In the amicable meeting, there was talk of “one man one woman” and “biblical marriage” but the pivotal issue was Freeman’s stance. They had one question: will you change your position? Freeman said he could not. The representatives’ conclusion was that his endorsement of homosexuality and gay marriage was contrary to the Association’s Constitution and By-Laws. The upshot is that on March 5, the SBC will disfellowship Weatherly Heights Baptist Church.
The Constitutional issue was the “presenting” issue. The real issues were the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, “biblical marriage”, and a cultural phobia of LGBT persons.
The fundamentalist takeover of the SBC is hardly incidental to our being disfellowshipped. There was a time when being a Baptist meant this: the only source of authority is Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible, the individual believer’s soul competency, the priesthood of all believers, and the autonomy of the local church. This meant that no Baptist could tell another Baptist what to believe nor tell any Baptist church how to conduct itself.
All that disappeared with the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC. Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler in their now infamous 1967 meeting in New Orleans’ Cafe Du Monde developed a strategy for it. The strategy included such things as requiring seminary professors to take oaths that they believed certain things, coercing missionaries to focus on winning converts, and the subordination of women.
It culminated in the 2002 Baptist Faith and Message. In it, the Bible and the SBC were elevated above Jesus Christ. The SBC was the ultimate authority. No longer were Baptists to work out our beliefs based on our relationship with Jesus Christ, we were to work out our beliefs based on the dictates of the SBC. Gone were the sole authority of Jesus Christ, soul competency, the priesthood of believers, and local church autonomy.
The takeover of the SBC, I suspect, has a relationship to the relatively recent invention of a concept called “biblical marriage”. The day after I officiated at the Effinger – Thomas wedding, Alabama SBC officials Rick Lance and Travis Coleman, Jr. issued a statement titled “Stand Strong For Biblical Marriage”. Without mentioning me by name, they said that any minister who performed a same sex marriage was “clearly outside biblical teachings about human sexuality and marriage” and that her church could no longer be considered in “friendly cooperation” with Southern Baptists.
Qualified Bible scholars such as Dr. Jennifer Bird have pointed out that the notion of one man and one woman united by bonds of love simply does not exist in the Bible. Let me emphasize the “united by love” part which is the basis for modern Western marriages. It is true that we see the unions of one man and one woman in Genesis, but those marriages were arranged and virginity was compulsory upon penalty of stoning.
It would be my guess that Lance, Coleman, and the representatives of the MBA are not intentionally endorsing stoning for pre-marital loss of virginity. Nor, I suspect, are they intentionally endorsing the other types of marriages that appear in the Bible: a man, his wife, and his concubines or a man, his wife, and his wife’s slaves or a man and multiple wives or a woman forced to marry her dead husband’s brother or a virgin forced to marry her rapist or a prisoner of war forced to marry her captor or a slave owner assigning a woman slave to a male slave. Yet these are what biblical marriages actually look like. Not one man and one woman united by love.
Then there is Matthew’s ideal of a man castrating himself to advance the Kingdom of Heaven. Or being born a eunuch. To my knowledge, I’ve never met a man who has castrated himself for the Kingdom. Nor is there any way that one could choose to be born a eunuch, not even if the SBC were to demand it. By the same token no one chooses to be born straight, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, or transgendered. Its that simple.
The real issues are denominational power politics and American cultural uneasiness with gender and sexual realities. “Biblical marriage” is a cover up and a smoke screen.
I cannot tell anyone else what to believe. But I can say that I will never knowingly follow the dictates of the SBC or my culture. Instead, I will to my best to follow Jesus Christ.
Rev. Dr. Ellin Jimmerson is Minister to the Community at Weatherly Heights Baptist Church. She is the Director of The Second Cooler, an award-winning migrant justice documentary narrated by Martin Sheen. You can find her on Twitter @Ellin Jimmerson and on Facebook at The Second Cooler Fan Page.