The Dallas Morning News is reporting that The Baptist General Convention of Texas has disfellowshipped Royal Lane Baptist Church over the church's stance regarding homosexuality. Royal Lane has apparently acquiesced to the BGCT's further request that the church cease to identify itself on its website and in publications as a BGCT-affiliated congregation.
This is a very positive step that ought to be celebrated. The disfellowshipping of congregations should be a matter accomplished at the associational level (and the Dallas Baptist Association has taken action alongside the BGCT) and then allowed to percolate up through state convention and national convention tiers. As more local associations and state conventions begin to take responsibility for these cases, the health of Southern Baptist churches will increase.
As positive a step as it is, it still remains, however, just a step and not the whole journey.
Royal Lane BC came under the BGCT microscope earlier this year when the Dallas Morning News put the church's espousal of homosexuality onto the public record. In this way, Royal Lane's situation is strikingly parallel to that of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, which the SBC disfellowshipped at last summer's annual meeting, but which remains within the BGCT. Broadway also gained widespread attention from a news media report about its stance regarding homosexuality—in its case for its ultimately abandoned attempt to photograph homosexual couples in its church directory.
The similarities between the two cases include:
- Both churches have been growing increasingly affirming of homosexuality for several years.
- Neither church has made any official change to the church's statement of faith regarding human sexuality (or, at least, no such change has been mentioned in the public record in either case, as far as I can find).
- Both churches have several openly homosexual individuals who not only attend but also are church members.
- Both churches have placed openly homosexual individuals into leadership positions within the church.
- Both churches have historically been influential churches in the life of the BGCT, having members employed by Baptist entities and having contributed several people to BGCT boards and committees through the years.
In the light of these similarities, it is curious to see the different manner in which the BGCT has handled these two cases. The BGCT did not disfellowship Broadway, but instead employed the church's failure to send messengers to the 2009 Annual Meeting as an excuse to do nothing at present. Today's action regarding Royal Lane clearly demonstrates what careful students have known all along—that Baptist cooperative bodies can indeed take disciplinary action to withdraw fellowship from member churches even apart from refusing to seat messengers from those churches.
Why the differences in the treatment of the two churches? According to the news report, the BGCT seems to have treated Royal Lane more harshly because the North Dallas church has taken the additional step of having ordained two openly homosexual individuals as deacons. Both the BGCT's statements and the rebuttal by Doug Washington, Royal Lane member and BGCT Executive Board member, suggest that the two homosexual deacons constituted the major point of contention in the discussion.
The BGCT's apparent position, divined from the respective treatment of these two churches, seems to be that BGCT churches may welcome openly unrepentant and ongoing homosexuals into membership and may promote those individuals into leadership, but those churches may not ordain those individuals into service as deacons or pastors, lest they be disfellowshipped from the BGCT. Ordination has become the BGCT line in the sand.
It seems to me a difficult thing to support this position biblically. The Bible certainly does propose to us a set of standards to qualify deacons and overseers, but none of them suggests that ordination is the point at which previously embraced homosexuality is no longer to be permitted. Indeed, although homosexuality is roundly condemned in Testaments New and Old, and although Jesus Himself in the gospels presents marriage as the union of man and woman, the concept of homosexuality is nowhere broached as a matter that pertains to service as pastor or deacon rather than as a matter that pertains to the basic sexual morality expected by God of all the redeemed.
So, whatever it is that the Bible says about homosexuality, it says it not to "the ordained" alone, but to all Christians. If any difference is made between deacons and pastors on the one hand and lay people on the other hand with regard to homosexuality, it cannot be a difference in what the Bible commands but can only be a difference in how seriously we expect Christians to take biblical commandments with regard to their own behavior.
Ironically, to draw the line at homosexual ordination is to do violence to the Baptist distinctive of the priesthood of all believers. To draw the line at homosexual ordination is to make two classes of believers in the church—a class of ordained "clergy" and "deacons" for whom obedience to biblical sexual standards matters, and a class of unordained "laity" who can be prominent and leading members of the congregation—celebrated members, even—for whom obedience to biblical sexual standards does not matter.
Any such system of distinction must be entirely a creation of human tradition. According to the New Testament, every Christian is a believer-priest and each Christian is called equally to holiness, for alongside the royal priesthood we are named as a holy nation in 1 Peter 2. Clearly, no biblical warrant exists for toleration of homosexuality up to the bright line of ordination.
Perhaps this lack of biblical foundation is why so many denominations, once they have decided to permit homosexuality except among the ordained, have inexorably kowtowed at that restriction as well. Refusal to ordain homosexuals who are otherwise welcome to belong and serve in a congregation has never constituted a destination, but always has been a mere waypoint.
The question before the BGCT today is simply which direction the denomination is going from this waypoint—which destination lies before them. My differences with the BGCT on other matters notwithstanding, I'm hopeful that the remaining conservatives within the BGCT are finding their backbone and that the direction of movement is toward a thoroughly consistent BGCT policy toward BGCT churches that abandon the biblical position on the question of homosexuality. Perhaps some of my readers will speculate to the contrary that the BGCT will eventually follow the trail blazed by the Episcopalians and so many others toward an entire embrace of homosexuality.
This much is certain: We'll know the answer to that question based upon what happens to Broadway Baptist Church's affiliation with the BGCT.