Two churches face removal from BGCT due to gay issue

Officials with the Baptist General Convention of Texas notified two churches—Wilshire Baptist in Dallas (left) and First Baptist in Austin (right)—an affirming stance toward LGBT members places them outside the bounds of “harmonious cooperation” with the state convention.

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Officials with the Baptist General Convention of Texas notified two churches an affirming stance toward LGBT members places them outside the bounds of “harmonious cooperation” with the state convention.

BGCT Executive Director David Hardage, BGCT President René Maciel and Executive Board Chairman David Russell sent letters Nov. 8 to First Baptist Church in Austin and Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas.

“We have made no demands of the BGCT that it become welcoming and affirming” of same-sex relationships, said Griff Martin, pastor of First Baptist Church in Austin. “We’ve just asked for a place at the table.”

In the case of Wilshire, Pastor George Mason called the decision by BGCT leaders both “provocative” and “premature,” noting a relevant vote by his congregation has not been completed.

“The outcome is not yet known, and it will not be known until after the convention messengers are seated,” he said, noting Wilshire plans to send messengers to the BGCT annual meeting in Waco, Nov. 14.

The letter to Wilshire frames the congregation’s relationship to the BGCT in terms of “potential withdrawal.”

“Should your church choose to publicly affirm same-sex sexual behavior, the BGCT will no longer be able to accept funds from the church, seat its messengers to the annual meeting, allow the church to express affiliation with the BGCT or allow its members to serve on the BGCT boards, committees or other roles,” the letter states.

‘Painful’ but consistent with previous actions

“This is painful for us,” Hardage said. However, he said, it is consistent with previous Executive Board actions and resolutions adopted by messengers to annual meetings, declaring belief the Bible teaches any sexual relations outside the bounds of a male/female marriage are sinful.

So, he said, any church that essentially affirms other types of sexual relationships “effectively chooses to withdraw itself from harmonious cooperation with the churches of the convention.”

Due to the timing, some nominees from Wilshire will be presented as nominees to BGCT-related boards at the annual meeting.

“If elected, they will be given time to make a decision,” Hardage said. They may choose to resign from the board or move their church membership, he explained. Or, if the institution allows a percentage of non-BGCT-elected directors on its board and has a vacancy, the institution may choose to move the person into that position.

Although current policy requires BGCT Executive Board staff to be members of BGCT-affiliated churches, no immediate action will be taken regarding staff who are members of churches considered outside of  “harmonious cooperation” with the convention, he added. The BGCT Staff Support Committee will revisit the policy at its meeting prior to the February 2017 Executive Board meeting, he said.

Previous BGCT resolutions and actions

A resolution at the 1982 BGCT annual meeting stated, “The homosexual lifestyle is not normal or acceptable in God’s sight and is indeed called sin.”

In 1996, the BGCT Executive Board approved a report from its Messenger Seating Study Committee that said: “The Bible teaches that the ideal for sexual behavior is the marital union between husband and wife and that all other sexual relations—whether premarital, extramarital or homosexual—are contrary to God’s purposes and thus sinful. Homosexual practice is therefore in conflict with the Bible.”

In 1998, the convention’s Administrative Committee and Executive Board voted to decline any financial contributions from University Baptist Church in Austin after the congregation ordinated a gay man as a deacon. Messengers to the BGCT annual meeting subsequently affirmed the action. The recommendation as approved dealt not only with University Baptist, but also “any church which openly endorses moral views in conflict with biblical teaching.”

The BGCT Executive Board in 2010 took similar action toward Royal Lane Baptist Church in Dallas, saying the congregation’s decision to ordain gay deacons placed it outside the BGCT understanding of biblical sexual ethics.

“We haven’t changed,” Hardage said. “We’re trying to be both gracious and consistent.”

First Baptist Austin welcoming and affirming

A diversity statement on the First Baptist Church of Austin website states the congregation “welcomes and wants people of every race, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, age, physical and mental ability, nationality, and economic station to thrive in the full life of our community; (and) affirms and celebrates all people as created in God’s very image and likeness.”

In a Nov. 2 article in The Clarion, the church’s newsletter, Martin writes: “It might be helpful for us to think about our history and the bridges that we have crossed: our move from the old property to this new property, the bridge that lead us away from the Southern Baptist Convention, and the bridge from a system of only male leadership to equal leadership between genders. All the way to our most recent bridge of inclusivity, where we bravely walked into a place that too few Baptist churches have yet crossed over, saying that at First Austin, all are welcome and all are equal.

“This bridge has lead us to perform same-sex weddings, ordain LBGTQ+ deacons, and has helped create a safe space in the Baptist world for a group that was often excluded. Crossing that bridge has not come without cost. We have lost folks who did not agree and have begun to understand this stance may cost us our place in some of our affiliations.”

Wilshire in process of voting

Members of Wilshire are in the process of voting on a resolution to affirm the church’s “existing bylaws, which provide for a single class of membership.” An article included in the church’s newsletter and online explained the significance of the vote. 

A “yes” vote “would permit all members to participate in congregational life on the same basis as any other church member regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. This affirms the ability of the church’s committees and lay and staff governance structures to consider all members for leadership, ordination, baby dedication and marriage based upon individual merit and the discernment of those duly elected to governance positions,” the explanation stated.

A “no” vote “affirms the existing principle that does not allow some members to be considered for certain leadership roles, ordination, baby dedication and marriage based upon sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Last fall, the deacons at Wilshire appointed an Inclusion and Diversity Study Group to guide church leaders on issues related to sexual orientation and church life.

In particular, the group studied questions regarding limitations on deacon service, ordination to ministry, marriages performed at the church or by ministerial staff and family dedications at Wilshire.

Mason responds

Throughout the process, Mason noted, the church deliberately avoided making public statements and avoided “welcoming and affirming” language that would “put the BGCT on the defensive or be interpreted as provocative.”

Instead, when the matter came to a church vote, the deacons framed it simply in terms of affirming the church’s existing bylaws.

“I do not accept the idea that we have withdrawn ourselves from the BGCT,” he said. “We believe we have been rejected by the BGCT.”

In earlier conversations with Hardage, Mason said, the two talked about ways the church might continue to support BGCT missions causes and work together on matters of shared concern. However, he interpreted the letter to mean the state convention did not want Wilshire’s support.

“The BGCT appears to care more about institutional survival than missional partnerships,” he said.

Austin church drafts open letter to Texas Baptists

In an open letter from First Baptist Church in Austin to BGCT leaders, the Austin congregation insists it acted in keeping with Baptist principles of biblical freedom, soul freedom, church freedom and religious freedom in reaching its welcoming-and-affirming position. 

“As a church, we did our diligent theological work, being guided by the Spirit, meditating on sacred Scripture and hearing the stories and struggles of our own members. As a result of that thoughtful process, we are proudly and openly welcoming and affirming of all God’s beloved children,” the letter states.

The church asserts the BGCT violated local-church autonomy in taking its action.

“The current actions of the Texas Baptists’ leadership are blatantly against our very Baptist heritage of the autonomy of the local church, where each church has the freedom under the leadership of Christ and the Holy Spirit to make its own choices and stances,” the letter states.

Furthermore, the BGCT surrendered to the will of congregations opposed to LGBT-inclusion who threatened to withhold financial support, the letter asserts. Giving in to pressure on this issue could lead to the BGCT surrendering on other issues, such as women in ministry, Calvinism or biblical inerrancy, the letter says.

“When will you draw the line on what you will or won’t hold a required belief for being a Texas Baptist?” the letter asks. “Once we begin to listen to the voices who wield their power and financial strength in this way, we have begun a slippery slope to fundamentalism and irrelevancy. This is a familiar road we have been down.

“From our perspective, the current model of discernment being used by the leadership of Texas Baptists is based on money and influence, far from the model that Jesus set forth in the Gospels.”

Decisions based on principle and precedent

The BGCT had to make a decision based on principle and precedent, in light of the positions adopted by messengers to the annual meeting and actions taken by the Executive Board regarding LGBT issues, Hardage asserted.

“I believe a church can be welcoming but not affirming,” he said, explaining his belief churches can welcome people regardless of sexual orientation but maintain a traditional understanding of marriage and sexual ethics. “I believe that is not only possible, but also biblical. I also realize some would disagree.”

Hardage, Martin and Mason agreed on at least one point.

“It’s sad,” each said.

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