What are churches for? Think about your place of worship: why do you call it your spiritual home? I have found that people shop for churches like they shop for organic groceries. In LA there are a million products with slightly nuanced differences all offering a customized blend of health, sustainability and fair wages.
When I began shopping for a church, I approached the spiritual home market in much the same way, but chose the church I currently attend because when I walked in, it felt like my childhood church. I was struck with an overwhelming wave of nostalgia and sadness as I remembered the congregation that reared me from a toddler and wounded me so deeply as a gender confused teen. Though some might question the decision, I remain in this congregation despite their conservative sexual ethic, hoping to realize a purpose for the church that goes beyond theological agreement.
I believe the church is meant to build Christian community, not divide it on the basis of theological disagreement.
Since thoughtful theology is foundational to the church, there must be room within theological reflection for differing opinions between brothers and sisters. According to Rowan Williams (the former Archbishop of Canterbury) in "On Making Moral Decisions," his reflection on the process of how the church makes moral judgments and decisions, unity in diversity is not for "thoughtless, shallow, uninstructed Christians, but precisely those who make themselves accountable to the central truths of our faith.” In other words, community should be built among committed Christians whose theological and moral opinions differ.
First Baptist Church of Greenville, South Carolina has done just that by considering their LGBTQ congregants even before the SCOTUS ruling. Their path to including queer people in all aspects of community life was not a thoughtless reaction to a cultural event. Since its founding in 1831, the church has been deeply rooted in the Baptist community, birthing the Southern Baptist Convention and the Souther Baptist Theological Seminary.
Although they separated from the SBC nearly 20 years ago, their journey toward inclusion destroyed my expectations of Southern Baptist churches that had seeped into my roots since I was four years old. There is no magic recipe for LGBTQ inclusion in the conservative church, but FBC Greenville presents a compelling path that favors uniting the church body over defending traditional theology. It is my hope that the following values will set the tone for future evangelical change.
First, FBC Greenville valued their congregants over politics. A friend once told me that community is about getting in each others personal space. What she meant was, I want you to come over unannounced and hang out in my home. When we get all up in each other business, we get to know one another; we begin to see the needs of others while exposing our own.
Due to the fact that many churches consider any sexual orientation or expression of sexuality outside of heterosexuality to be a sin, queer Christians are being starved of authentic, honest, and loving community. The kind that knows your family, your history, your struggles in life and your dreams for the future. Community can be terrifying for a queer person in church because of the overwhelming pressure to conform to a male-female gender binary and a traditional sexual ethic. As a result, queer lives are kept tightly under wraps and only superficial community is experienced.
FBC Greenville historically operated with the same ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ mentality toward its queer members, but in a radical move of compassion and community the church decided to really see one another. They decided to own the reality of queer people among them, instead of talking about what to do with ‘those queer people out there’, as if the queer community was some mysterious entity far removed from their church. They chose to recognize that the queer ‘other’ was actually a neighbor sitting in the pew with them.
Second, FBC Greenville valued community over theological unity. In a time when the number one concern of evangelical churches seems to be guarding church boundaries, FBC opened its doors to diversity. After a month of intense small group discussion involving 200 members of the church, the ‘homosexual issue’ was distilled to one central question: “Can you worship and live with the LGBT community in the church? The answer, for the most part, was yes.”
In Williams view, there are appropriate occasions for breaking communion with fellow Christians but he contends that fellowship with a brother or sister can still be maintained even if that person is extremely "deluded in their belief about what [is] involved in serving Christ.” Are differences in sexual ethics reason enough to exclude queer Christians from fellowship with the body? FBC Greenville said no, and agreed to hold differing views of sexuality while participating in community together.
Third, they didn’t worry about what other churches would say. Some in the congregation worried that they would become known as the gay church in town, yet they still decided that “we need to do the right thing, regardless of what anybody thinks or says about us.” As Christians, it is sometimes difficult to resist defending our image among other Christians, lest we become labeled a ‘backslider’ or ‘watering down the gospel.’
These accusations will probably come to congregations that fully accept LGBTQ people into community and welcome various sexual ethics within Christianity, but the benefits far outweigh the risk. The Christian community will not be whole until the church makes itself vulnerable enough to include LGBTQ people and create a new vision for the future together.
The story of FBC Greenville is inspiring because it represents the movement of a church from an exclusively conservative stance on sexual and gender identity to one that allows space for discussion and disagreement. The magic is not found in everyone's sudden and complete switch to a progressive sexual ethic, but in the thoughtful and caring action of a congregation.