The First Baptist Church in Greenville SC has adopted a non-discrimination policy which will accept LGBTQ Christians into full membership of the church, and permits performing same-sex marriages upon request. That’s big news, because this particular congregation played a major role in the origins of the notoriously anti-gay Southern Baptist Convention, and was itself a member of that organization until 1999, when it realigned its affiliation to be part of the more moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
There’s a lot of really good stuff that the pastor, Jim Dant, says in the article, which you can read here, and also here. I empathize with his trying to find a path of unity in any church matter where people are of different beliefs, regardless of the specifics of the disagreement. My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) continues to seek a similar path of unity even after we’ve amended our constitution to allow ordination of LGBTQ church leaders like myself, and allowing same-sex marriage. In this case, it’s especially hard to find that unity when the church has held anti-LGBTQ doctrines for centuries. But a comment in one of the articles caught my attention: Speaking about Dant, the reporter writes, “He told Greenville Online a crucial step of the process was assuring church members no one would tell them their personal convictions were wrong.”
I understand the desire for unity that gave birth to this idea, but is it really appropriate to remove from the table any possibility for Pastor Dant to preach an inclusive gospel to members of his congregation? Is it appropriate to agree to not talk about the terrible harm that traditional church doctrines have caused to literally millions of people? Imagine a segregated southern church in the 1960s agreeing to allow blacks as members and leaders, as long as those in the pews holding harmful racist and bigoted views could never be told their beliefs were wrong.
I’m truly pulling for Pastor Dant and his congregation; they’ve made a positive step forward. But it’s an incomplete and transitional step at best, and at worst, it’s one that permits outdated and dangerous biblical interpretations and bigotry to remain unchallenged. Pastor Dant is quoted as saying that when the discussions began last fall, “what I heard was, ‘We need to do the right thing, regardless of what anybody thinks or says about us.’” That’s an excellent and Christlike attitude. But the approach of not being able to call parishioners’ anti-gay stances wrong is a Faustian bargain that runs contrary to this ideal – and frankly, it won’t result in the hoped-for unity that spawned it; if anything it will only make the divisions worse by pushing it under the surface.
I know that people can typically only stretch themselves so far before they need some mental downtime, in order to prepare them to push and stretch themselves even further. But there are some issues that really can’t be made in half-steps, and I believe that full equality of LGBTQ people in both church and society is one of them – a person can be neither almost pregnant, nor partially equal. In adopting a policy of acceptance and inclusion within the church, it’s necessary that we call out people’s continuing to hold outdated understandings of LGBTQ issues in the church as harmful, and yes, wrong. It needs to be said with genuine love and compassion, but it still needs to be said.
Sometimes, the Church has to suck it up and speak a potentially unpopular message – even if it means some people will become upset, or even leave the congregation. Trying to decide when it’s best to do that, and when it’s best to be comforting, postponing the unsettling message for another day, is one of the most difficult parts of a pastor’s calling. I’ve been there myself, and I’d be lying if I said that I’d never shied away from what I believed needed to be said, opting instead for a message that I knew would be safer for me. I admit my own imperfect record in this matter, so I won’t come down too hard or self-righteously on Pastor Dant. But I firmly believe that this is one of those critical times in the history of the Church when it must be that upsetting, unsettling prophetic voice – leading people into right paths even when they hadn’t really asked, and don’t even want, to go there. Pastor Dant, as a pastoral colleague who’s your friend and not your enemy, I’d ask you to seriously and prayerfully consider going there.