I disagree with the editorial written by Baptist Standard Editor Marv Knox, “A welcoming way ahead for the BGCT.” Marv Knox and I are friends and colleagues, and he has been gracious enough to let me present a different perspective.
In his editorial, Knox promotes local-church autonomy over the right of the Baptist General Convention of Texas (expressed by either the body or its leaders) to choose with whom it will associate. Such association normally is demonstrated by the receipt of funds from a congregation or the seating of messengers from a congregation.
I wonder if Knox really is prepared to travel down the road upon which he has begun? Does he really believe that a church can express just any form of “faith and practice” and still be associated with the BGCT? I think not.
While I, too, fully support local-church autonomy, I understand it quite differently. Local-church autonomy does not, in any way, prevent the BGCT from having the right to cease its association with churches that abandon the ethical guidelines set forth in Scripture. For example, while local autonomy would allow a Baptist church to teach “white supremacy” theology, as a pastor of a cross-cultural congregation, I would not participate in any gathering of Baptists that welcomed racism. Even if the racist church declared it was autonomous and, thus, free to teach and practice faith under its own collective conscience, I would hope you would join me in excluding them from what Knox called the “big tent.”
In reality, we all know lines must be drawn. Without such boundaries, membership in the BGCT would be absolutely meaningless. Member churches would share little commonality in faith and practice. Clearly, we all must admit we endorse excluding certain churches from the BGCT; the only question remaining is: “Where will the lines be drawn?” At the end of the journey, the defensive cry of “church autonomy” fails miserably in protecting both the integrity and shared vision of the convention.
The recent actions of the BGCT leaders should surprise no one. They acted both upon historical precedent and clear guidelines set forth by the convention and its messengers. In fact, I would have been completely appalled if the BGCT had not excluded these churches once they decided to ignore a clear New Testament sexual ethic.
Additionally, let’s look beyond the BGCT’s history and precedent toward broader church history. Without question, the church’s historical approach to same-gender sexuality always has been one of rejection. From the Patriarchs to the Reformers, every voice coming from the church has condemned homosexuality as an unnatural passion that finds no place in the community of faith. Only in the last several decades have some Christian interpreters expressed a theology which accepts homosexual behavior. Clearly, the tradition of the church speaks overwhelmingly against the acceptance of same-gender sexuality within the church.
Before we do an “about face,” making the historic blunder of ignoring 2,000 years of history and scholarship, perhaps we would do well to look at a sexual ethic founded upon the principles of Scripture.
Romans 1:18-32 is quite clear in its rejection of same-gender sexual lifestyles as an acceptable alternative to heterosexuality. Leading New Testament ethicist Richard Hays of Duke University concludes the Apostle Paul depicted homosexuality as an example of turning away from God and his created order. While homosexuality is only part of Paul’s broader attempt to deal with the Jewish agenda in his letter to the churches in Rome, it plays a role in demonstrating that perversity occurs—as part of God’s wrath—when individuals worship the creation rather than the Creator.
As Paul alludes to the creation narrative in Romans 1, readers should remember that part of God’s creation included the forming of humankind in his own image … “male and female he created them,” commanding them “to be fruitful and multiply.” Also, Genesis 2:18-24 describes the creation of the opposite sexes for one another and moralized, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” The complementary nature of maleness and femaleness is given nothing less than a complete theological grounding based upon God’s creative activity. The act of becoming “one flesh” is the created goal of “maleness” to “femaleness.”
Being a fundamental part of God’s design as depicted in the early chapters of Genesis, sexual distinctions are not to be ignored. Refusing to acknowledge such distinctions results in ignoring the Creator of those boundaries. The employment of same-gender sexual relations as an illustration was a powerful instrument used by Paul to formulate his argument. No other sin seems to go more directly against the Creator and his created order. Every single biblical text, moreover, that addresses homoerotic activity condemns it. There are no exceptions. Hermeneutical gymnastics and revisionist readings of Scripture will never deliver an authentic interpretation that allows us to accept or bless same-gender sexuality. All such attempts have utterly failed to convince honest readers of the text.
While sexual orientation is a complex formation, including both physiological and psychological components, we cannot be so naïve to assert that we now know better than Paul. Such foolish arguments travel along these lines: “If Paul knew then what I know now, Paul would have agreed with me.” Employing such willy-nilly logic, we could reformulate many of Paul’s positions to agree with our modern sensibilities.
Concerning modern science, no one is professing a biological determinism. Even in the studies that make the most radical claims for a biological basis for sexual orientation indicate development of an orientation is complex. No one claims biological factors are so strong that individuals are simply responding helplessly—like puppets on the end of biological strings—to physiological impulses beyond their control. In fact, no serious ethicist finds fault in the same-gender orientation itself. It is the practice of that orientation that becomes sin.
Even in our compassion and acknowledgment of the complexities surrounding a same-gender sexual orientation, we must never give approval to homosexual acts. We must give Scripture the place of primacy in the formation of our ethical responses. If we refuse to do so, we have, by definition, ceased to be the church.
The acceptance of same-gender sexuality by the common culture in no way obligates the church to follow suit. The church is to be a prophetic voice to a lost world. Rather than adjusting our clear course to accommodate the ever-changing and often-confused moral compass of the world, the people of God are to live by the revealed word of the Lord. For example, the people of God, ancient Israel, never were called to live by the moral matrix of their pagan neighbors. In the New Testament, moreover, the church was admonished to be salt and light in the midst of a culture dominated by power, lust and greed. Unfortunately, I fear that in embracing same-gender sexuality, churches have “sold out” to current sensibilities and ceased to be a “voice crying in the wilderness.” They have, in fact, joined the wilderness.
Love and grace
It is true some homosexuals have experienced a great deal of emotional pain and mistreatment from a heterosexual society. This is clearly unfortunate. All arguments, however, that withhold the church’s blessing from same-gender sexual behavior cannot be described as “homophobic.” No love is expressed if we redefine destructive sin as acceptable. Jesus loved the woman who was found in sexual sin, but told her, “Go and sin no more.”
One of my friends has long said if he were to replace the label on a bottle of strychnine with “essence of peppermint,” it wouldn’t make the contents any less deadly or harmful. In fact, I conclude the most loving position the 21st century church could take is to continue to identify, along with the Apostle Paul and the historic church, same-gender sexual behavior as a destructive and unacceptable lifestyle. At the same time, the church must reach out to all who struggle with a same-gender orientation, just as we reach out to those who struggle with greed, heterosexual lust, alcoholism or any temptation known to humanity.
Clearly, it is philosophically indefensible to argue a church can both believe and practice anything and yet still demand inclusion into the body of Baptists called the Baptist General Convention of Texas. This has never been the case nor, I pray, will it ever be. These churches have the right to express their autonomy, but they should realize that, in doing so, all choices have ramifications.
While saddened by the necessity of the decision, I affirm both the BGCT and its leadership for the courage to do the right thing, even when they are sure to face an onslaught of criticism. Such criticism will unfairly paint Texas Baptists as an intolerant denomination that punishes churches for loving gay people. It is unfortunate the BGCT has been put in this position, since all Texas Baptist churches will be affected as a result.
Given the clear precedent of the BGCT and its messengers, these two churches should have simply withdrawn from the Baptist General Convention of Texas. In doing so, they would have taken a higher—though less traveled—road to preserve the missions and ministries of our great fellowship.
Howie Batson is pastor of First Baptist Church in Amarillo.