A respected moderate Baptist church in the news over controversy about homosexuality decided Sunday to postpone a vote about whether or not to photograph same-sex couples together in an upcoming church directory.
Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, planned to include a new pictorial directory as part of its 125th anniversary celebration. A wrinkle developed when gay couples asked to have their portraits included, setting off an internal church debate that went public in a Fort Worth Star-Telegram story published Nov. 16.
The church scheduled a called business meeting after yesterday’s worship service to decide whether to picture gay couples together, separately or–in a compromise supported by members including Pastor Brent Younger–not to have individual and family pictures at all.
Instead, the congregation decided to send the matter back to the church’s deacons for more discussion.
“The decision of the congregation of Broadway Baptist Church was not to vote today on how the church directory will be published,” deacon chair Kathy Madeja said in a prepared statement. “We will continue to discuss this issue together as a church family. We do not want to rush to make a decision, but rather to continue to listen to each other and for God’s leading for our church. Our members have diverse opinions about many things, but what we have in common is our love for God, the church and each other.”
Younger described sending matter the back to the deacons for further study as “helpful and gracious.” The Fort Worth Star-Telegram said deacons are expected to make a recommendation by Feb. 24.
“We were not planning to engage this issue,” Younger said in Sunday’s morning sermon before the business meeting. “We’ve had some wonderful moments of dialogue and understanding, but we’ve also had some not-so-understanding moments. And it is tempting to wish it was some other church and not us.”
Younger said Friday in an e-mail to EthicsDaily.com the church viewed the discussion as a family matter not to be debated in the media. A church member, however, went public in a Friday opinion article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram arguing that church directories need to be “big enough for God.”
“I cannot believe that the Creator of the universe made ‘defective’ people for the purpose of condemning them for their defects,” wrote Fort Worth resident Allen Patterson. “God is bigger than we can possibly imagine–big enough to create everything we see around us. God is big enough to be in all of us.”
One current church member wrote a blog revisiting interpretations of Bible verses used to condemn homosexuality. Another blogger accused the congregation of “riding the fence” on the issue of including gays, arguing the stance of “welcoming without affirming” doesn’t work.
Conservative outlets, including Baptist Press, featured the flap, not only because homosexuality has divided many liberal faith groups, but because Broadway Baptist Church is viewed as a flagship congregation of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a group that broke from the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1990s over various theological differences and still considered a threat by the mother convention.
Former pastors of the church, founded in 1882 in a down-and-out area of Fort Worth nicknamed Hell’s Half Acre for its reputation for gambling, prostitution and lack of law enforcement, include Cecil Sherman, the first CBF moderator elected in 1992.
Sherman’s predecessor at Broadway was Welton Gaddy, one of a small group of preachers invited by Sherman to a 1980 meeting in Gatlinburg, Tenn. They plotted an unsuccessful attempt to oppose a movement called the “conservative resurgence” engineered by Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler in 1979, which exploited appointive powers of the SBC president to successfully remove moderates from power over two decades.
Gaddy went on to become a leader in the Alliance of Baptists, a smaller and more progressive group that broke from the SBC earlier than the CBF. Gaddy now leads the Interfaith Alliance and is a prominent spokesman for the religious left.
Another former Broadway pastor, Stephen Shoemaker, left in 1999 to become pastor of Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., another Baptist church also in the news over homosexuality. Last month the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina voted overwhelmingly to expel Myers Park from membership for welcoming and affirming gays.
The CBF’s current moderator, Harriet Harral, is a member of Broadway Baptist Church. She did not respond to a Friday e-mail requesting comment about the directory controversy before this story was written.
Some Baptists, like the Alliance of Baptists, Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, have endorsed full inclusion of gays in church life. Others, most notably the SBC, have condemned homosexuality. A few, like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, have tried to maintain a centrist “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
In 2000 the CBF Coordinating Council adopted policies that the organization “does not allow for the expenditure of funds for organizations or causes that condone, advocate or affirm homosexual practice” and forbid “the purposeful hiring of a staff person or the sending of a missionary who is a practicing homosexual.”
In his Sunday sermon at Broadway Baptist, Younger lamented the difficulty of finding consensus on an issue that is dividing many mainline churches.
“Some of the most committed conservative Christians in our congregation are baffled by this whole episode,” Younger said. “They’re seeking the best they know how to be faithful to Scripture and follow Jesus. They’ve been taught all of their lives what the Bible says on this issue, and those who read the Scriptures in a different way don’t seem to be taking the Bible seriously. The verses in Leviticus seem straightforward on homosexuality. How can the majority opinion throughout 2,000 years of church history suddenly be wrong? It’s hard for these gracious Christians to understand how anyone could disagree.”
“But there are other thoughtful Christians who feel differently,” he continued. “They are seeking the best they know how to be faithful to Scripture and follow Jesus. They know the Bible has been used to defend polygamy, slavery and the oppression of women. They look at the compassion of Jesus and the way he included everybody, and it seems clear that we should do the same. How can anyone who knows Jesus believe that God condemns people to the way they were born? It’s hard for these gracious Christians to understand how anyone could disagree.”
“Both sides feel so certain that any real compromise can feel like being asked to give up something close to the center of their faith,” Younger said. “Many feel so strongly about this issue that a church directory in which gay couples are pictured together seems dishonest. And others feel just as strongly that a church directory in which gay couples are pictured separately seems dishonest.”
“This predicament has left many feeling despair,” he said. “When churches have a vote that may be divisive, it’s hard not to feel like we’ll all lose.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.