This week's news that the United Methodist Church is suffering the pain of denominational fracture over same sex marriage and exclusion of LGBTQIA persons from their midst is devastating. We pray for all of those persons who experience profound pain and loss at this news, including especially persons who identify as members of the community under exclusion.
Prior to my call as the Associate Pastor, in 2016 Northside Drive Baptist Church approved a non-discrimination policy which states that
“Northside Drive Baptist Church, believing in the love of God for all persons, will provide equal access to all facets of the life and ministry of our church (including membership, baptism, ordination, marriage, teaching, staffing, and leadership) without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity.”
If NDBC had not already left the Southern Baptist and Georgia Baptist Conventions years earlier, this policy would have resulted in a forced departure. We had exercised a preemptive use of local church autonomy. We sadly named that these Baptist tents had shrunk; and though we had not moved, we were suddenly outside of the tent in the rain.
Baptists have walked the road of fractured denominations before. Many a seminary professor and graduate alike I’ve encountered over the years wear the marks of denominational trauma. Ask any of them where they attended seminary and after listing the seminary, to a person you'll get the same follow up remark: before the Fall.
Before the Fall. That’s strong language, given the Fall’s grip on our theological imagination. Original Sin. The forbidden fruit. All that is bound up in such weighty language used to describe the violent takeover of seminaries. What is being named is the profound sense of loss that accompanies the history of the "takeover" to use another shorthand term. There used to be academic freedom, room for women in ministry, and diversity...but then came the takeover with its forced creedalism.
So strong is the taint of fundamentalism’s original sin that guilt by association must have its own theological language. I get that.
The Baptist principle moderates and progressives rallied behind then, as they do now, was local church autonomy. Each church had the power and responsibility to decide its own polity, governance, and discipline. Voluntary associations like denominational bodies may be convenient ways to pool resources for missions and brainstorming, but they should never supplant the church.
Our Methodist brothers and sisters are experiencing the pain of denominational fracture. This week, the United Methodist Church, by a rather slim margin, voted to strengthen its ban on same-sex marriages and LGBTQ inclusion in clergy and leadership. There was a movement afoot for something called the “One Church Plan” which would have allowed individual churches to set their own policy regarding LGBTQ inclusion and same-sex marriage.
That plan was voted down, causing much grief and consternation for many of my friends, some family, and colleagues. I get the theology and principle of the One Church Plan. Baptists who supported women in ministry, a non-fundamentalist reading of Scripture, and eventually full LGBTQ inclusion have always resorted to their own One Church Plan when threatened with expulsion or denominational “excommunication.”
As societal changes in law and culture herald a greater inclusivity (in some quarters) on grounds of gender, sexual orientation, and race, test cases emerge in Christian life concerning how much agreement we must have in order to continue in communion with each other. Yet, culture and law are not the truest authorities for churches. God is. Theology informs our humanity and how we humanely treat one another, since all are made in God’s image. For Baptists in the 70s and 80s, the test case was women in ministry and the reactionary hermeneutic of the fundamentalists. (They would frame it, as conservatives do today, as “standing for the Bible”).
For Baptists today, the question of whether LGBTQ persons may become married in the church, become ordained clergy and deacons, and otherwise participate in the life of the church on the same grounds as heterosexual persons has emerged as a test case.
In Texas, several Baptist churches exercising Baptist local church autonomy (read: “The One Church Plan”) embraced a welcoming and affirming theology and polity. They were subsequently expelled from the Baptist General Convention of Texas. At the state level, the Kentucky Baptist Convention has recently entered the fray, ending relationships with any church associated with the CBF. That move, in turn, was a reaction to the CBF's Illumination Project, the name for a 2-year effort to broker a compromise regarding CBF's own internal hiring policy for LGBTQ persons. The compromise was that leadership positions would not be open to active LGBTQ persons, but other staff positions would be. Conservatives were angered that the door to inclusion had been opened at all; progressives were angered that it was not opened far enough.
All of that to say, Baptists have their own history and experience with the pain of fracture within voluntary associations and denominational bodies. That our Methodist friends now walk this road of sorrow is not shocking, but we should mourn with them and continue to keep them in prayer. It is in some ways inevitable as our society continues to fragment and polarize. And yet, God’s specialty is broken things: broken people, broken churches, broken hope. God is bigger than broken denominations. With Easter soon coming, we remember that God can do a lot, even when death steps in.
Gays, lesbians, and transgendered persons have long suffered the trauma of exclusion from the Church's table. Churches which have promised to be welcoming in generic terms have been unable to do so when specific persons experiencing same-sex attraction come forward for baptism, communion, ordination, and marriage. The narratives of pain because the church did not know how to show God's love to all of God's children continue to be told and wept over. This is just the latest chapter.
The weeks ahead will be painful for those Methodists returning to their local communities and sorting out the way forward. I pray for wisdom and discernment for each church struggling to be faithful in this time of division…and new possibilities.