A small community of Baptists in the former Soviet-bloc nation of Georgia has divided over issues of homosexuality during the past two years.
The nation of Georgia straddles the divide between Europe and Asia, providing strategic advantages and a precarious situation.
Baptists in the nation also see ripe opportunities and destabilizing threats. At times this minority community faced outside attacks, but now finds itself roiled by internal controversy.
Three key Georgian Baptist leaders recently explained the controversy to EthicsDaily.com.
It is a tale common in Baptist and other Christian communities in the U.S. and elsewhere. But among a small and sometimes persecuted group, the division can appear more significant and tragic.
In a nation where the Georgian Orthodox Church claims more than 80 percent of the population of 4.5 million, Protestants accounts for less than 2 percent.
The Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia includes just 72 churches and slightly more than 5,000 members.
The divisions started in May 2013 when then-Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili spoke out against violent attacks led by Orthodox priests against LGBT people.
Songulashvili condemned homophobia and criticized the government for failing to protect LGBT rights. He also argued homosexuality could be viewed as natural and affirmed same-sex marriage.
“Homophobia, which is an irrational fear and resentment of other human beings, is a cardinal sin,” he argued. “God has created homosexuals and heterosexuals in his own image, both are God’s children and he loves them equally. Some are born as a woman, man, left-handed and right-handed, blacks, whites; some are heterosexual, some are homosexual, and some are transgender. … We do not choose what we were born. All this diversity is not the fault of mankind, but rather the gift of God.”
After his comments sparked controversy among Georgian Baptists, Songulashvili sought to preserve unity by resigning as archbishop.
As a rare global Baptist body with an episcopal – instead of congregational – polity, the election of a new archbishop could bring significant changes.
The two candidates in the election traveled together to all the convention’s churches to share their visions.
Given the controversy surrounding Songulashvili, the issue of homosexuality dominated the congregational discussions.
Both candidates agreed in naming it a sin, but disagree over whether Songulashvili and another bishop with similar positions on homosexuality should be allowed to continue to minister.
“I believe that there can be different opinion about this matter in a church and therefore Archbishop Malkhaz [Songulashvili] should not be sidelined for his opinion on homosexuality,” said Ilia Osepashvili, one of the two candidates. “But Merab [Gaprindashvili, another candidate] insisted that it was impossible to have two different opinions regarding homosexuality within one church.”
In the election for a new archbishop in May 2014, Gaprindashvili narrowly defeated Osepashvili.
Since then, both new Archbishop Gaprindashvili and former Archbishop Songulashvili (still senior minister at Peace Cathedral in Tbilisi) have accused the other of undermining their positional authority.
Gaprindashvili led a new congregational split-away Peace Cathedral.
Meanwhile, he accused Songulashvili of not respecting the status of archbishop during services, such as a unity service on Pentecost in June of this year where Gaprindashvili preached at Peace Cathedral but Songulashvili led the Eucharist liturgy (which is particularly important in liturgical traditions like that of Georgian Baptists).
“The Pentecost is the day when ministers from the different parts of Georgia come together,” Gaprindashvili said. “What is the role the Archbishop of EBC of Georgia? Why he is not allowed to lead the Eucharist? Where is ecclesiology and structure of the Church? How the church visitors can distinguish the archbishop from the bishops? Unfortunately, my role is very much diminished and it is visible for everyone who had a chance to attend worship at least once in the Peace Cathedral.”
Addressing the issue of homosexuality, Gaprindashvili emphasized his concerns that Songulashvili “discredited” the “reputation of the church.”
“Everyone, including Archbishop Malkhaz [Songulashvili], may have different views on homosexual practice,” Gaprindashvili said. “But our main problem with Malkhaz was that he had made a public statement in favor of homosexual practice without consulting the church. We will continue to work together and this will only become difficult if practicing homosexuals are baptized, married and ordained. This is the stance of the EBC of Georgia.”
“I do hope we can overcome all difficulties and misunderstandings we are facing related to homosexual issues and build a community on the basis of love, tolerance, compassion, care, etc.,” he added. “I will try to do my best to keep the unity of the EBC of Georgia.”
The former archbishop also worries about the division.
Songulashvili fears that division “weakens Baptist witness for peace, justice and reconciliation.”
He remains hopeful, though, that the Peace Cathedral continues to serve as “a beacon of hope for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue” and is helping lead the “struggle against irrational fears towards minority representatives of Georgian society.”
Earlier this month, Baylor University Press published a book by Songulashvili on the history of Baptists in Georgia.
Osepashvili stressed his admiration for Songulashvili despite disagreeing with the former archbishop on homosexuality.
Osepashvili finds it “unfair to push away from church life a man of great devotion and diligence … who led the church in very difficult times.”
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.