“Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so …”
It’s a song many of us grew up with. It’s also a truth we cling to, especially when prominent voices try to say otherwise.
Our congregation, First Baptist Church of Decatur, Georgia, was asked to leave our local Atlanta Metro Baptist Association last week.
I received a letter by certified mail telling we were dismissed “… due to First Baptist Church of Decatur’s misalignment with the qualifications of a member church by affirming, approving or endorsing practices or behaviors that do not align with biblical standards …”
Their action came specifically because, five years ago, our congregation ordained a deacon, Theron Clark-Stuart, who is gay.
The Atlanta Metro Baptist Association has every right to cull their ranks I suppose, but their logic has serious flaws and their procedures have tragic consequences, for they are diminishing, even dismissing, the depth, breadth and power of Jesus’ love.
The Atlanta Metro Baptist Association seems to assume that our “misalignment” and our “affirming, approving or endorsing practices or behaviors” are based on choice.
In other words, members of our congregation and broader community have chosen a certain “lifestyle.” And as a congregation, we are endorsing that “lifestyle choice” by supporting Theron’s ordination.
One of the many problems with this kind of thinking is how illogical it is. Why would anyone “choose” to be rejected by friends, family and community?
Who would choose to suffer finger-pointing, cruel jokes, bullying, humiliation, shame and the loss of those you care most for?
Listen to any person from the LGBTQ community; hear their stories of loss, sadness, rejection, struggle, shattered faith and the heartbreaking, ego-shattering conclusion many feel forced to make: “Something is wrong with me. If the church that nurtured me no longer loves me, if my family no longer accepts me, I must be worthless.”
These are gut-wrenching experiences of growing up in families of faith, learning about God’s love, singing “Jesus Loves Me” and then being told you could no longer share in that community.
Simple logic says this makes no sense. These would be foolish choices few would want to endure – unless you had no other choice. Unless you have come to realize a vital truth as many have in our congregation and in our broader neighborhood of Decatur:
“You are what God has made you,
You are beautiful in spite of what others say.
You are made in God’s image,
your hair, your face, your body, your skin, your sexuality and sexual orientation …
And though you might not fit what a few others deem acceptable,
You are who God created you to be,
Endowed with God’s Spirit,
Filled with all the love and potential God hoped and dreamed for you.”
And to attempt to be anything else than what God has made you? That’s illogical.
So, the logic that supports our ouster is seriously flawed. But more tragically, the mentality behind that logic generates vast ripples of hurt and exclusion.
Beautiful friends have egos smashed, spirits crushed, faith derailed and lives destroyed. This is more than wrong. And such thinking does not “align” with “Jesus loves me, this I know.”
It also raises questions of what is meant by “biblical standards.”
Ironically, Jesus says nothing about homosexuality. But he is very clear about divorce.
When the executive director of the Atlanta Metro Baptist Association informed me of our congregation’s “misalignment,” I asked him about how many of the key leaders in his congregations were divorced.
He didn’t know, and he also didn’t want to talk about it.
But logic demands a certain consistency. If we are going to be strict in one area of Scripture, we logically should maintain the same adherence to strict interpretive rules in other areas.
In Matthew 5:31-32, Jesus says if a man divorces his wife and marries another, he commits adultery. If the Atlanta Metro Baptist Association is worried about our gay deacon, they should be very concerned about this potential for widespread deacon infidelity as well.
Instead, with selective moral outrage, they condemn only that we love, welcome and affirm members of the LGBTQ community. The potential for adultery apparently gets categorized as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
So, who chooses? And which biblical standards apply?
In the Bible, a Jesus follower named Philip offers an interesting lesson. When the early church was trying to determine exactly who could be in this new and growing movement, the leaders were struggling with boundaries.
In the book of Acts, Philip comes upon a man who is not only an outsider, but he is also a eunuch from Ethiopia.
From this man’s reading of the Scriptures and from his conversation with Philip, he is excited about Jesus and drawn to this new faith.
He says to Philip, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36-37)
Notice the wording: “What is to prevent me?” This is one of the more poignant questions in all the Bible because it is likely the eunuch from Ethiopia is already afraid he knows the answer.
Like many courageous, resilient friends in our current circumstances, he knows what it feels like to be excluded. He is familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures and probably knows that Deuteronomy 23:1 is clear.
As a eunuch, he is not allowed in the “assembly of the Lord,” but he wants to be included.
Philip’s response is instructive. He says nothing about theology or rules and asks no questions about sexuality or lifestyle or choices or food preferences. In fact, he says nothing.
Here’s the way the Bible describes the immediate response to the eunuch’s request. “Philip and the eunuch went down to the water, and Philip baptized him” (Acts 8:38).
And then the story concludes describing the eunuch’s response, “and he went away rejoicing” (Acts 8:39).
Now there’s a life-giving biblical standard.
I have had the priceless honor of seeing this same kind of joy in our congregation from people whose past experience with church was dishearteningly demoralizing. Too many in our church were previously “outed,” excluded, exiled, wounded and shamed.
But they didn’t give up on faith. And they didn’t give up on themselves.
Their kindness, patience, steadfastness, forgiveness, courage and love inspire me every day. And now they’ve found a home, a place where they can be embraced and accepted, welcomed and affirmed, loved unconditionally and celebrated as blessed children of God made in the image of God.
These beautiful brothers and sisters have come to this place not because they want a “gay church.”
They are here because they want to be part of a church that follows Jesus – a loving, welcoming Christian family filled with regular folks from different backgrounds, cultures, perspectives and orientations.
So, we are here, standing and loving together, and we will continue to do so.
Then, like the Ethiopian eunuch, we can go on our way rejoicing, singing with glad and joyful voices: “Jesus love me this I know, for the Bible tells me so!”