At the gathering of the Baptist World Alliance in The Netherlands in mid-August, Baptists from around the globe gathered to celebrate and remember the 400th anniversary of their founding. Among the topics for discussion was what is, perhaps, the Christian church's greatest social and moral dilemma in modern times: LGBT people in the life of the church.
During the meeting, two pastors civilly debated the issue, reflecting a theological divide as great as the geographic distance between them. American pastor Scott Stearman and Nigerian pastor Ayo Gbode conversation was a shining example of the theological diversity of the Baptist faith.
Stearman, of St. Louis' Kirkwood Baptist Church, admonished the gathering. After touring nearby Amsterdam and noting the advertisements for the city's Pride festival, he said, "We Baptists cannot act like this is going to go away. We've got to discuss it."
In agreement with this point alone, perhaps, Gbode said, "The church can no longer stand aloof and believe that some angelic host from heaven will come and cleanse the earth of this gangrene of a behavior called homosexuality. The church must respond, but her response must be ethical."
Gbode, pastor of Christ Baptist Church in Gbagada, Nigeria, said the church must work against "the homosexual agenda" and "always be willing to assist [gays] overcome attraction to the same sex."
Stearman disagreed. The Associated Baptist Press reports:
But Stearman said scientific evidence makes it increasingly difficult to affirm the idea that sexual orientation is a changeable trait. He drew a parallel between how science and changing social standards altered Christians' interpretations of the Bible's passages on slavery and how emerging scientific and social evidence may cause Christians to take another look at what they have, in the past, viewed as unambiguous scriptural injunctions on homosexuality.
"Our understanding of sexual relationships, of monogamy, polygamy and the status of women has changed radically since the Bible was first compiled in the 4th century," he said.
"This change is not in spite of the Bible, but in fact because of the Bible," Stearman continued. "For while there are many texts rooted in systems of injustice that we find abhorrent [such as slavery and gender inequality], the teachings of Jesus prompt us inexorably to another level of freedom."
Regardless of the outcome of this conversation, Stearman's and Gbode's graceful and friendly fellowship in the face of theological disagreement is overshadowed by a very un-Baptist action taken by the Baptist World Alliance more than a decade ago.
In 1994, the Baptist World Alliance approved a resolution affirming a theological view that homosexual behavior was incompatible with Scripture. Although no one is willing to label these statements and resolutions for what they are, such creeds (also passed by state Baptist conventions and the national Southern Baptist Convention) are antithetical to Baptist faith. The divisions caused by these documents are at the very heart of what threatens to tear the faith apart.
In early August, only a couple weeks after announcing his departure from the Southern Baptist Convention, President Jimmy Carter spoke to a gathering of the New Baptist Covenant, a moderate Baptist organization he helped found. There he said divisions among believers, such as those regarding homosexuality, the place of women and abortion, are "like a cancer that is metastasizing in the body of Christ."
Carter's honorable attempt to save traditional Baptist faith inside the Southern Baptist Convention is falling on deaf ears.
Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ken., also addressed the current state of Baptist faith recently. Speaking to fellow Baptists, faculty and students, Mohler said the faith has been met with an unprecedented challenge.
"The Southern Baptist Convention is either going to become younger or dead," Mohler said, according to The Associated Press. "Here we have a big issue; we're losing at least two-thirds of our young people somewhere along the line between adolescence and adulthood. A generation that has reduced religion and Christianity to what is called moralistic, therapeutic deism -- believing that God basically wants them to do well and to do right and to be happy."
Centuries ago, the Baptist church was founded on the principle of freedom of conscience. According to Baptist belief, individual Christians are fully competent to study the Bible for themselves and to seek guidance from God (the "priesthood of the believer"); consequently, Baptists of all stripes strongly opposed the adoption of any formal creeds, save perhaps "Ain't nobody but Jesus going to tell me what to believe." To this day, many Baptist churches maintain this commitment to the autonomy of the local church and the individual believer.
Since 2000, however, the Southern Baptist Church has departed sharply from its roots. Although the SBC's updated Baptist Faith & Message (BF&M) statement is not formally labeled a creed, all references to individual conscience have either been eliminated or redefined to effectively outlaw dissent on any matter outlined in the BF&M. Southern Baptist congregations must now strictly interpret the Bible according to the positions detailed in the BF&M, and the Bible itself has been elevated to a position once reserved for Christ alone. Churches that even appear to be deviating from the party line may be subject to disciplinary hearings.
What is the result of these "disciplinary hearings," you ask? Ex-communication.
North Carolina's State Baptist Convention became one of the first local or state Baptist associations to disfellowship fellow congregations. In 1994, they booted Chapel Hill's Binkley Baptist and Raleigh's Pullen Baptist. And, in recent years, the State Convention has adopted more stringent rules expediting an involuntary exit for churches refusing to conform to "resolutions" condemning homosexuality as sinful.
In Texas, just this month, a professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary resigned his position at the school, rather than be forced to resign from his membership at Broadway Baptist Church, an LGBT-inclusive congregation disfellowshipped by the Southern Baptist Convention this summer.
Mohler laments at the increasing loss of Southern Baptist membership. But he and other Southern Baptist leaders, as well as others across the world, take no pause when chopping off a thumb here or a pinky there and, soon, legs and arms of the Body of Christ.
There is only one possible salvation for Baptists: Adherence to the principles and guiding doctrines that have defined their faith for four centuries: soul freedom, the liberty of conscience and the priesthood of all believers; fellowship in the face of theological diversity and disagreement; and the autonomy of the local church.
If Baptists return to these historic roots, they will once again experience growth. But something else will happen, too. These principles have made the way for progressive and inclusive growth of faith for centuries. If Baptists return to them, they will find their faith growing in acceptance and love for their LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ. The Gospel commands it.