When our church was voted out of the Baptist General Convention of Texas last year at this time for our decision on full inclusion of LGBTQ Christians, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship staff sent us flowers. Months earlier, during the debate on the floor of the convention, my CBF friend and colleague, Steve Wells, pastor of South Main Baptist Church in Houston, argued for our right to make that decision. He did not agree with our decision, but he spoke up for our being included in BGCT life without sanction. These are the complicated times we live in when friendships are being tested and loyalties stressed.
The Persian poet, Rumi, said, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,/ there is a field. I’ll meet you there./ When the soul lies down in that grass,/ the world is too full to talk about./ Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’/ doesn’t make any sense./ The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you./ Don’t go back to sleep.”
My experiences with LGBTQ Christians over the past several years have taught me that binary language fails to capture the essential oneness of our spiritual identity. We are brothers and sisters of and in Christ, born under an original blessing, children of one merciful and loving God. “Even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense” when we sense in the other another who shares the self-same image of God.
I can’t go back to sleep. I don’t know if I am “woke” to my privilege, but I am waking to it. And the world I am waking to is Technicolor, not the monochrome of my previous dream world of black and white, right or wrong, this or that. LGBTQ Christians are not issues to be debated or matters to be decided, let alone problems to be solved. They are us.
The new hiring policy of CBF gives us a chance to live into a new joy that is only possible when justice is done. All hiring policies are and should be discriminating. We have one now that puts the discrimination in the right places: things such as commitment to Christ and the church, spiritual self-discipline, gifts for the position, collaborative spirit with colleagues. The policy no longer discriminates based on sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status. We have now a policy to aspire to, to be worthy of.
Some of my progressive friends are hurt, angry or disappointed with the new policy (and especially the confusing doublespeak of the implementation plan). They believe it trumpets an uncertain sound that lacks the clarion call of affirming intent. Some may leave or distance themselves from CBF because of it. They hoped we would stand unequivocally with them. I hope they will remain in fellowship anyway, as I know from experience how their friendship has changed me. I hope my more conservative friends will stay too. Some of them were looking to this policy change for an excuse to leave while others were looking to it for a way to stay, even though both could see the way we were trending.
I know something of the grief and loss of broken fellowship from the left and right both. I pray we can model a different way of walking and working together in this so-called post-denominational age. As a “denomi-network,” we can either narrow our range of tolerance for disagreement as many denominations are doing, or we can widen it the way networks may. I believe there is much yet to be done for God and for good together.
The painful truth the Illumination Project uncovered in their long discernment process is how silent our churches are when it comes to what is life and death for real people in our pews. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach of most of our churches toward LGBTQ Christians leaves them in the shadows, if not in the dark. If we want CBF to be a bright light on the spiritual equality of all Christians, that light must begin to shine more brightly from our CBF congregations. CBF would not have to parse its hiring policy so carefully if our churches did the hard but liberating work of the gospel where Baptists know it matters most.
Whether CBF thrives going forward depends upon how we conceive it. If it’s an instrument of the God who is bringing about a new creation in Christ, it will be a source of vitality for many. If it’s an institution of a god who is protecting and preserving a malformed world that is passing away, it will soon need a hospice chaplain. I hope it’s the former. I have a life wish for CBF, but not at any cost. I will not sacrifice my LGBTQ sisters and brothers on the altar of unity when unity without them is no unity at all.
That “breeze at dawn” Rumi speaks of, the one that “has secrets to tell” – could that be the wind/breath/spirit of God who has been whispering to us since the first day of creation? I hear it as a wake-up call to love broadly and boldly.
CBF, out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
This column is part of a series of articles on the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Illumination Project. Other articles in the series are:
Illuminations: The Long Struggle Against Discrimination by Colin Harris
Illuminations: Agree to Disagree – Agreeably by Steve Wells
Senior pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, and the founder and president of Faith Commons.