Recently the Baptist General Convention of Texas moved to disfellowship two member churches: Wilshire Baptist Church of Dallas and the First Baptist Church of Austin (story from The Baptist Standard). After more than a century of affiliation with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, my church is no longer a part of that convention and belongs instead to the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. In some way, this dispute pertains to other people's networks and affiliations and is none of my business.
There are other ways, however, in which the impasse among the BGCT, FBC Austin, and Wilshire are subjects upon which I ought to comment, not so much as a pastor of an SBTC-related church but rather as a student of Baptist denominational polity.
Both FBC Austin and Wilshire Baptist have alleged that the BGCT has violated their autonomy as local churches. Such accusations are pretty much boilerplate language when churches find themselves disfellowshipped from conventions or associations. Actually, the mechanism of disfellowshipping preserves rather than denudes the autonomy of local churches. All of the other local churches affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas possess the autonomous right to determine whether they do or do not wish to be affiliated with FBC Austin and Wilshire Baptist. They have made their choice. FBC Austin and Wilshire Baptist do not have the right to drag the other BGCT churches into the world of welcoming and affirming homosexuality. After all, the other churches of the BGCT are not taking away these two churches' property or terminating the churches' pastors or editing the churches' statements of faith (which all would be actual violations of local church autonomy). They are simply acknowledging that two autonomous churches have freely adopted beliefs that put them outside the parameters of affiliation with the other dozens of churches who pointedly disagree with these two churches. I think that the churches of the BGCT had good reasons for moving to disfellowship these two churches, but whether conventions and associations disfellowship for good reasons or bad ones, when they do so, the majority of churches in the convention are exercising their own autonomy, not depriving the disfellowshipped churches of their autonomy. This is a reliable general principle.
However, that general principle notwithstanding, there is something peculiar about the situation over at the BGCT, and although it is not a violation of the principle of local church autonomy, it does run contrary to the typical Southern Baptist veneration of the local church as the pinnacle of Baptist organizational structures. The disfellowshipping of FBC Austin and Wilshire Baptist Church represents a sort of selective enforcement of sexual orthodoxy at the BGCT by which churches are shown the door for doing things that other entities in the BGCT family can do without the least consequence.
FBC Austin Pastor Dr. Griff Martin comes by his affirmation of homosexuality honestly. He holds four degrees from BGCT-related educational institutions (two from Baylor University and two from Baylor's Truett Seminary). I was a student in Baylor's religion department from 1988-1991, and already at that time professors like Dan McGee were telling us students that homosexual sex was not sinful. Martin's entire course of theological education has come directly from the BGCT through related educational institutions. His wife is also a Baylor grad. His ministerial experience consists preponderantly of service in large and influential BGCT churches.
When it comes to the BGCT, Dr. Griff Martin signed up for the full course, all the way through to a terminal degree.
There's little wonder that after this educational program Martin claims that his church's disregard of what Jesus said about marriage and repudiation of every biblical statement about homosexuality are (rather than the capitulation to culture that we all know this to be) the fruit of "diligent theological work, being guided by the Spirit, meditating on sacred scripture, and hearing the stories and struggles of our own members" (source). I recognize that sentiment, and it isn't difficult to trace. That's what Baylor University's Department of Religion tried to teach me (and failed) back in the 1980s. With Dr. Griff Martin, they succeeded. It's as simple as that.
George Mason has been associated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas for years. He has preached the convention sermon for the BGCT. The Baptist Standard, the newsmagazine of the BGCT, highlighted Mason in its "Deep in the Hearts of Texas" feature just a few months ago. When asked to name the people who have been most influential in his life, he identified key names in recent BGCT history such as Charles Wade and Suzii Paynter. His degrees from pre-Conservative-Resurgence SWBTS hearken back to a time when the the BGCT felt itself much closer to SWBTS than when, just a few years later, the convention pledged to block contributing churches' funds from going to SWBTS (the occasion of our church's departure from the BGCT). Mason is, like Martin, someone whose life story is distinctively woven into the warp and woof of the BGCT. Now the man whose biography was featured just months ago in the BGCT's newspaper has been ousted from the BGCT.
So, although I do not agree with Martin's and Mason's sexual ethics, I do sympathize with their joint bewilderment. These men have done nothing more than to go where BGCT-supported institutions have led them to go. Once they arrived, the BGCT has ostracized them. So, what shall we make of this?
A church affirms homosexuality, and the BGCT disfellowships them. A university affirms homosexuality, and the BGCT moves heaven and earth to keep their funding relationships with those institutions. Considering these two realities, I ask you this question: Which is more important to the BGCT, affiliations with local churches or affiliations with universities?
Keep in mind the following realities about Baylor University:
- The university changed their student conduct code just last year to remove language explicitly making homosexual sex a violation of the student code of conduct (Washington Post, Texas Tribune).
- Although the university claimed that the alteration of the code amounted to mere wordsmithing rather than any actual change in policy, just a year beforehand Brittney Griner revealed that she had openly identified herself as a lesbian to Baylor before she was ever recruited to the university to play basketball and that the only admonitions that she ever received while playing basketball at Baylor was to keep her lesbianism quiet.
- Baylor's student newspaper published a full newspaper article about homosexual life at Baylor, naming such students as Adam Short and identifying them as gay. After appearing in national publications as a gay Baylor student and pushing for the university to grant official recognition to the Sexual Identity Forum for three years, Short graduated from Baylor in 2014.
- When Baylor amended the student code of conduct, they also dropped "sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and sexual assault" from the list of explicitly identified sexual sins that are contrary to the code. This year, Baylor has faced the ongoing scandal of rampant sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and sexual assault on campus (timeline of the scandal as it relates to the Baylor athletic department)
- As I mentioned previously, at least some Baylor religion professors all the way back in the 80s were welcoming and affirming homosexuality and advocating that perspective in the classroom.
- Even the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a secular newspaper that is not at all what you would call prudish or parochial, called for the BGCT to distance itself from Baylor, but to no avail.
- In the comments on this post by Rachel Held Evans, a number of Truett Seminary alumna give us some insight into the climate there, including one's observation that "the students and faculty [emphasis mine] are constantly and thoughtfully raising the [question of whether the Truett student conduct code should sanction homosexuality]."
So I ask you, if a BGCT-related CHURCH were revising their church covenant to remove all specific references to homosexuality, recruiting lesbian staff members, admitting members who proclaimed their homosexuality in articles in national newspapers, fending off sexual misconduct scandals, and openly teaching from a welcoming-and-affirming perspective, what would the BGCT do? I think Griff Martin and George Mason can answer that question for you. But what happens when a BGCT-related UNIVERSITY does such things? In that case, even if the secular media starts to clamor for the BGCT to take disciplinary action against the institution, the BGCT does nary a thing.
Martin suggested in his letter that personnel at the BGCT had mentioned withheld funding, not theological scruples, as their entire rationale for the disciplinary action. I don't doubt that this was a factor, but I cannot allege that greed is the root of the issues. The fundamental problem at the BGCT remains unchanged: At the BGCT, the tail wags the dog and the institutions, not the local churches, come first. Griff Martin and George Mason are wrong about Christian sexuality and they are wrong about local church autonomy, but they are 100% right that something is wrong with the way that the BGCT relates to its affiliated churches, especially as compared to the way that they relate to their supported institutions.
If member churches of the BGCT are concerned about the direction of the convention, next year they should introduce motions to call their related universities and other entities to operate within the confines of The Baptist Faith & Message (in its most recent revision). If they do not do that, or something like it, they will soon discover how little and late are their attempts to compel the forthcoming graduates from the BGCT's theological institutions to set aside upon entering ministry in BGCT churches everything that the BGCT paid for them to be taught.