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Ministering in a Changing Culture comment (0)

January 16, 2014

By Bob Terry

Ministering in a Changing Culture

Who would have imagined that Alabama Baptist churches would be considering how to involve openly gay couples in active congregational life? Even though it is not politically correct, most Alabama Baptists believe Romans 1:21–26 where the apostle Paul calls homosexual relationships a “perversion” and says the practice demonstrates what happens when people claim to be “wise” but behave as “fools.”

That understanding is expressed in the most recent Baptist Faith and Message Statement of Faith where Article XV states, in part, “Christians should oppose racism, every form of greed, selfishness and vice, and all forms of sexual immorality including adultery, homosexuality and pornography.”

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) constitution goes even further. Article III, Section 1, says, in part, “Among churches not in cooperation with the convention are churches which act to affirm, approve or endorse homosexual behavior.” Some understand Article III, Section 1 to mean that churches that accept openly gay members are excluded from SBC membership. 

With such policies, one would expect little reason for cooperating churches to consider the role of openly gay couples in the ongoing life of a cooperating Baptist church. 

But that changed in 2013 and promises to change more in the days ahead.

The June 26, 2013, U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a major portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act was a giant step toward changing the culture of marriage in the United States. By a 5–4 decision, the court ruled that same-sex couples are entitled to the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples. As a result of that decision major companies in Alabama and across the nation have changed their benefits policies to provide marriage benefits for same-sex couples. 

Since that Supreme Court decision, various federal courts have ruled same-sex “marriage” legal in California, New Jersey, New Mexico and Utah and state Legislatures approved the concept in Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois and Minnesota. These recent moves amount to a lot of historic change in only a six-month time period. 

That is why Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, Calif., recently sponsored a conference on Ministering in the New Marriage Culture. And that is why Alabama Baptist pastors openly shared about ministering to homosexuals who are already participating in the congregational life of numerous Alabama Baptist churches. 

Baptist leaders at the New Marriage Culture conference and those interviewed by this publication were unanimous that churches must respond with humility to homosexuals because none of us live life as Jesus wants. The leaders counseled that churches must respond with grace because Jesus responded with grace to us in our sin. They said same-sex couples should be welcomed to worship just as any other person who genuinely desired to worship God through faith in Jesus Christ (see the Jan. 9 issue of The Alabama Baptist, page 1). 

Such counsel seems to create a dilemma. How can a church demonstrate humility and grace to same-sex couples and at the same time hold to its understanding of biblical teaching that condemns homosexual behavior? 

Perhaps a more basic question is why Southern Baptists singled out the sin of homosexuality in its constitution but did not include any of the other sins grouped with homosexuality in Scripture in its statement of faith. 

The answer to that question might provide guidance. If a church seeks to minister to the greedy, the slanderers, those with alcohol problems, those caught up in adultery, vice or dishonest behavior, then why would a church not be open to those living a homosexual lifestyle (1 Cor. 6:9)? The apostle Paul also reminds us that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). 

But is participation in a local Baptist church the same as membership in that church?

In many churches the two are equated. So strong is the goal of growing the membership in these churches that they do not even have orientation classes for new members. Some churches leave the membership question entirely to participants and accept all who seek membership without ever voting as a local church body. 

In the early days of Baptist life, and still among some Baptist bodies, the church placed claims on the lives of its members. Members were expected to regularly participate in worship, to evidence a growing faith, to support the church financially, to participate in missions and service and to share their faith with others. 

These commitments were expressed through a church covenant and members were held accountable for living up to their covenant promises. The purpose of the covenant was to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24–25) in order that the “body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4:11–12). 

Participation in the church, its activities and programs, was open to all but members were held to a higher standard expressed in the church covenant. This allowed the local church opportunity to help people caught up in publically recognized sinful behaviors to repent and return to a lifestyle consistent with biblical standards. 

Over time that system collapsed under the weight of pettiness and abuse but misuse in the past should not prevent looking again at the values of the concept. Today covenant membership may provide an opportunity for a church to be welcoming to all while holding true to its doctrinal commitments and biblical understandings. Covenant membership may provide an opportunity to change the focus from recruiting members for the church to making Christian disciples. 

The idea of placing doctrinal and ethical commitments on members will not be popular with those committed to making homosexual practices as acceptable as a heterosexual lifestyle. Others will hesitate because we are all uncomfortable becoming “judge” of another’s behavior. 

Yet there is general understanding that violation of basic Baptist understandings of faith and practice places limits on involvement — even in a local church. As the secular “marriage culture” changes in this nation, it is incumbent on the church that it find ways to communicate the love of God for all people in grace and humility while holding true to its understandings of what the Bible teaches. Covenant church membership might offer such an opportunity. 

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