The decision of the Southern Baptist Convention to find Broadway Baptist Church not in friendly cooperation is a missed opportunity for the denomination to reverse its regressive slide and take a small, safe step in the direction of inclusiveness.
For a year now, both Broadway and Southern Baptist leaders have worked diligently to maintain its historic, 127-year relationship. The ties that bind the church and denomination are strong and numerous, particularly given Broadway’s close relationship with Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Last summer a motion was made by a North Carolina pastor to remove Broadway from the Southern Baptist Convention on the grounds that the church was in violation of Article III of the SBC constitution, which prohibits churches from taking any action “to affirm, approve or endorse homosexual behavior.” How he concluded such a thing is a mystery; he has never had any formal communication with the church.
Nevertheless, the motion was referred to the SBC’s Executive Committee of the Convention, which opened up a dialogue that was largely respectful and gracious. A spirit of concord and mutual understanding prevailed in our conversations and correspondence. A number of Southern Baptist leaders were helpful and constructive in behind-the-scenes ways to bring the matter to the positive conclusion of Broadway’s continued friendly cooperation with the SBC.
It became clear early on that the Executive Committee did not wish to disfellowship Broadway. They seemed painfully aware of the negative, intolerant image of the SBC in American public life and were determined not to do anything more to contribute to that image. Furthermore, the committee appeared to embody more diversity and complexity than I had imagined.
We explained before the committee that Broadway has never entertained any formal order of business before the congregational body that constitutes an endorsement of homosexual behavior. We further explained that church membership and congregational service in no way denotes ratification of the behavior of the individual holding that membership and performing that service.
Discussions were candid and thorough. More conservative voices on the Executive Committee wanted Broadway to do something clearly not required by the SBC constitution: Take formal congregational action to condemn homosexual behavior. This extraordinary measure has not been required of any other SBC church. It would be unprecedented and unauthorized. Such a requirement repeatedly surfaced in our deliberations, and each time the Executive Committee backed off it.
Our presentations were thoughtfully and hospitably received. A spirit of Christian reconciliation emerged. Several Executive Committee members privately questioned the SBC’s authority to pursue the matter. I felt we had a historic opportunity to move the denomination in a progressive direction. It seemed that the committee was prepared to receive our direct, good-faith testimony of continued cooperation rather than scurrilous allegations from unnamed sources outside our congregation. (Perhaps when we finish purging our church roles of homosexual persons, we can get to work on weeding out the gossips.)
The breakdown came when those advocating the more rigorous constitutional test won the day. It became clear several weeks ago from the Executive Committee that Broadway would have to implement measures to identify, isolate and distinguish our gay and lesbian members from the rest of the congregation in order to be found in friendly cooperation. Of course, conscience, congregational autonomy and common decency prohibit us from doing so.
Now, it appears that the constitutional language as presently stated in Article III is not sufficient. It is not enough for cooperating Southern Baptist churches simply to take no action to affirm homosexual behavior. They must now take formal action explicitly to disapprove such behavior.
Every Southern Baptist church of any size has homosexual members. These friends pray with us, sing with us, give with us, serve with us and take the Body and Blood of Christ at the table of the Lord with us. Will the test imposed upon Broadway by the denomination now be required of all the churches?
The recommendation to disfellowship Broadway was unanimously passed in the Executive Committee. It was approved by the convention without discussion. Not even one lone solitary dissenting voice. Such uniformity of thought and silence of conscience mean that the SBC remains Baptist in name only.
The moral legalism inherent in the Southern Baptist Convention’s decision indicates the spiritual disease infecting and destroying our Baptist body today. Instead of focusing our energies of love on a lonely and hurting world, we are obsessed with endlessly parsing out arcane legalities designed to assert our own moral purity and superiority.
It is a sound and fury signifying nothing.
Charles Johnson has just completed a year’s interim at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. This column appeared previously on his blog.
Charles Foster Johnson is pastor of Bread in Fort Worth, Texas, and founder and executive director of Pastors for Children, a nationwide network of faith leaders mobilized for public education ministry and advocacy.