Texas Baptists, Homosexuality and Royal Lane Baptist Church: A Few Short Thoughts
Earlier today I attended a town-hall forum on hunger relief at Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco where Alexis and I are members. This excellent and informative forum was put on by the Texas Hunger Initiative. Led by Jeremy Everett, the Texas Hunger Initiative is a collaboration between the Baylor University School of Social Work and the Baptist General Convention of Texas with the purpose of making the state of Texas “food secure” by 2015 through policy, education, community organizing and community development.
Those of us at the forum learned that 1.3 million Texans experience hunger daily and 14.8% of Texas are hungry or food insecure ahead of only Mississippi and New Mexico. After demonstrating the real hunger problems in Texas and specifically in the Greater Waco area, the Texas Hunger Initiative team offered ways that individuals and congregations could become involved in mobilizing existing resources to meet the challenge of becoming food secure by 2015.
Recalling the Civil Rights Movement, Everett emphasized that each generation will ultimately be judged by its response (or lack thereof) to the pressing problem of hunger or food insecurity. I was moved by Everett’s presentation and his call to action to become involved in the fight for what others have called Hunger Justice. I left the forum at Lake Shore inspired to become an active participant in this emerging movement here in Texas.
Despite this positive, motivating experience, these feelings were soon replaced with a bit of frustration when I learned via my iphone that the top leader of the same organization that collaborated with Baylor University to form the Texas Hunger Initiative had just taken action against what the Associated Baptist Press described as a church “suspected of affirming gays.” According to the website of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, Executive-Director Randel Everett asked leaders from Royal Lane Baptist Church to “remove the partnership with the BGCT from any of its church’s publications.” According to his public statement, Everett promised to “escrow any money received from Royal Lane in 2010 until such a time that the church has clarified its position reflecting it is in agreement with the theological position of the BGCT.”
For those unfamiliar with this recent controversy, nearly two weeks ago the Dallas Morning News ran an article which explained that Dallas’ Royal Lane Baptist Church had “come out of the closet” with a change to their website. What website changes sparked this controversy? The following sentence was added to Royal Lane’s website: “We are a vibrant mosaic of varied racial identities, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and denominational backgrounds.”
The article noted that the 500-member Royal Lane had for many years welcomed gays and lesbians in the life of the congregation. In fact, Royal Lane had even ordained gay and lesbian members as deacons. Ruth May, vice chair of the deacons, was quoted as saying that this website change was “a collective coming out about who we are and have been for a long time.” Royal Lane’s gay-friendly status was certainly no secret to those in the “Baptist Building” including Executive-Director Randel Everett as the Dallas Morning News reported that the church includes BGCT staffers as active members.
I understand that organizations have the right to set boundaries in terms of who’s in and who’s out. And certainly there are occasions when organizations have to draw a line in the sand. From Everett’s recent actions, actions which were made in consultation with the President of the BGCT and officials from the BGCT’s Executive Board, it is abundantly clear that the BGCT’s orthodoxy on this challenging issue of homosexuality is surely not a “generous orthodoxy.” A line has been drawn.
I can only wonder though: who is next? For the sake of consistency, it seems that Broadway Baptist must get the boot as well. The situations of Royal Lane and Broadway are similar in so many ways. And how many other Texas Baptist congregations function the same way as Royal Lane in their ethical approach towards gays and lesbians? I’m sure Royal Lane is not alone with its history of being inclusive.
It seems to me that the difference between Royal Lane and certainly at least a handful (probably quite a few more) of Texas Baptist churches is that Royal Lane made the decision to announce publicly what many already knew and had experienced: that Royal Lane is indeed a “vibrant mosaic of varied racial identities, ethnicities, sexual orientations and denominational backgrounds.”
Thus, it seems that the BGCT has been operating under some sort of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Texas Baptists are a tight-knit bunch and obviously top leaders from the Dallas-headquartered BGCT were familiar with the reputation of the prominent Dallas church. So, what can we take away from all this? 1) It’s okay for a church to be gay-friendly as long as said church does not announce its gay-friendly disposition to the world and 2)If a Baptist church gets depicted as being pro-gay in the media, a big denominational boot is right around the corner.
Finally, I – as a student of Baptist history – would be remiss not to mention the Baptist heritage and those treasured distinctives. Again, while an organization like the BGCT does have the right to set boundaries, it should be pointed out the real tension that exists between the recent action against Royal Lane and the historic Baptist distinctives of soul freedom and local church autonomy. Walter Shurden was spot-on in his description of these wonderful freedoms as “fragile.”
One line that really stuck with me from Randel Everett’s statement was his assertion that basically all would be well between the BGCT and Royal Lane once the church clarified its position to reflect that it is “in agreement with the theological position of the BGCT.”
Over the years, the BGCT has taken theological positions on COUNTLESS issues. I’m just wondering how many other congregations have been forced to conform to the party-line on other non-homosexuality related issues? The principle of local autonomy is respected when churches take positions and act in ways contrary to “historic Texas Baptist values” on issues other than homosexuality. For example, not once to my knowledge has the BGCT taken similar action against an affiliated congregation that turned a blind-eye to clergy sex abuse (see EthicsDaily.com). Meanwhile, all it takes is a simple website change and a couple gay-friendly comments to a newspaper reporter for a congregation to get the soft-side of a denominational hob-nailed boot. Think about it.
Also, how is the notion that a congregation must be “in agreement with the theological position of the BGCT” in order to avoid disfellowship any different the Southern Baptist conservative and fundamentalist leaders of yesteryear who required missionaries to sign the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 and required folks looking to serve the Convention on the various boards and committees to affirm the “inerrancy” of the Bible. This is simply Texas Baptists’ own version of doctrinal conformity, is it not?
A litmus test is a litmus test whether it is written or unwritten. Creedalism obviously comes in many shapes and forms.
After the Southern Baptist Convention ousted Fort Worth’s Broadway Baptist Church last summer, Marv Knox – editor of the Baptist Standard, the newsjournal of Texas Baptists- penned an editorial titled It’s Time to Talk About Homosexuality. Knox argued that Baptists and Christians “must determine how we respond redemptively to homosexual church members.” He explained that the SBC’s action “does not seem to be redemptive, because it singles out one behavior for condemnation while turning a blind eye to the broad range of sins.” Referring to gossipers, authoritarian pastors and hypocritical church leaders, Knox emphasized that “these sinners have done far more damage to the Kingdom of Christ than Baptist gays and lesbians.” Knox concluded his editorial with a call to talk about homosexuality.
It’s a shame that Marv Knox’s call for an authentic conversation was ignored. Had that conversation taken place, I think we would have learned or at least should have learned that Texas Baptists are not entirely monolithic on sexuality issues. I’m sure numerous Texas Baptist families and Texas Baptist congregations are comprised of both Tony Campolos and a Peggy Campolos, the former who calls gay and lesbian Christians to a life of celibacy and the latter who calls all Christians – homosexual and heterosexual alike – to committed, healthy, life-long monogamous relationships. It’s unfortunate that Texas Baptists can’t follow the example of Tony and Peggy Campolo who despite their divergent beliefs on homosexuality – beliefs which both did not come to haphazardly – are able to respect one another and cooperate together in addition to sharing the same bed!
So, while I was greatly encouraged and inspired today by one project of the Baptist General Convention of Texas – the Texas Hunger Initiative – I am just a bit bothered as this 1500-word post might indicate by this recent decision of the BGCT. As with the SBC’s action against Broadway, there was nothing “redemptive” about this decision.