This year the historic Broadway Baptist Church of Fort Worth celebrates its 125th anniversary of ministry in the heart of Fort Worth. This historic moderate Baptist church has a long history of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, loving people, and being a “hands on” witness to its neighborhood and city.
Recently this historic fellowship of believers has found itself plunged into a crisis that has shaken the congregation to its core, and caused some of its leaders to take drastic actions to air their concerns about the direction of the church. Who would have ever thought that something as innocent as an Olan Mills church pictorial directory would have created this kind of controversy? This simple act of taking “family” pictures uncovered a situation within the church that had been there for years, but had not fully been embraced by the membership. The “fly in the ointment” arose when homosexual partners chose to have their pictures taken together as couples so their “families” could be pictured along with all the other families in the church.
Under the leadership of Dr. Bret Younger, Broadway Baptist Church took the position of “welcoming” homosexuals into their fellowship, and I would assume, but do not have personal knowledge of this, that they also accepted them into membership. Two keys words in church life for dealing with accepting people who struggle with various lifestyle issues would be the words “welcoming” and “affirming”. Aaron Weaver, a student at Baylor and the author of the blog “the big daddy weave” did a good job of explaining the significance of these two positions in his recent blogs on this issue.
The nickname of Jesus that gets most of us in trouble these days when we try to immolate it is the nickname: “the friend of sinners and tax-collectors.” When this nickname was hung on Jesus by his critics it was not a complement but rather an accusation against him for being “too soft” on sinners. Jesus was ruining his reputation with the religious establishment by hanging out with the wrong seedy characters. Jesus turned this accusation into a badge of honor, and a benchmark for his followers.
Here is the rub Jesus came preaching about the Kingdom of God. He was seeking to create another religious establishment but rather a movement of God’s people that would revolutionize the world order. He was not about rules and rituals, but rather relationships. He came to help his fallen creation re-establish its relationship with God through his death and resurrection, and re-establish its relationship with each other through love, understanding, and compassion. Church membership rolls, and church directory controversies were not even on the radar as he walked the dusty streets of Galilee followed by his ragtag group of misfits he called apostles.
So how does a band of followers of Jesus called a church embody this value of being a “friend of sinners” and yet hold true to the moral and ethical codes of the New Testament found in the writings of the apostles and in the words of Jesus?
Tony Campolo in his book Speaking My Mind does an excellent job in wrestling with this issue in the chapter entitled “Are Evangelicals Handling the Gay Issue All Wrong?” Campolo confronts strongly the “homophobia” and the “gay bashing” that happen in many of the churches of our land. Homosexuals who represent a very small minority in our land have become an easy target for too many conservative preachers. I totally agree with Campolo on this point. Our mission finds its heart and passion in “saving” people not “condemning” them.
Campolo also aptly points out the distinction between “behavior” and “orientation”. Most conservative Biblical interpreters would note that homosexual “behavior” is considered sinful and unhealthy. However, this behavior is not alone. The Bible confronts a wide variety of sinful behaviors from dishonesty, greed; gossiping, lust, adultery, and gluttony (please say it’s not true!).
Campolo notes that the Bible confronts the sinful behavior of homosexuals, but not their orientation. He argues this position from the perspective that it is unclear and quite mysterious to try to pinpoint the origin of this homosexual orientation. Some researchers argue that it is genetic while others point to it as a byproduct of abuse or dysfunction in a child’s family of origin. Many homosexuals believe God created them this way. On this side of eternity we look through the “glass darkly” so we only know in part, which means our positions on either extreme will be “faith” or “conviction” positions. Campolo takes the historic high ground of “loving the sinner, but hating the sin.” He calls for believers who have a homosexual orientation to live celibate lives of sexual chastity
In my twenty-five years of pastoral ministry I too have had to walk this spiritual mine field. One of my spiritual gifts is mercy so through out my ministry I have been drawn toward people who struggle and hurting people have been drawn to me. I have a number of what I would consider close friends who have a homosexual orientation. In fact a number of years ago when I was a pastor in the DFW area the small community church I served witnessed over ten homosexuals accept Christ as their Lord and Savior over a period of weeks.
Before publicly confessing their faith, each of these individuals asked for a private meeting with me, and they “secretly” confessed their struggles expecting me and the church to reject them, but instead of running from the room in horror, or pointing an angry finger of accusation in their faces I sought to love and accept them in their struggle for freedom and wholeness. Those who darkened the doors of our church were seeking hope and help, and their lifestyle had left them broken. I realize this is a very small sampling of the homosexual community but these are the ones I know and love. As they shared their stories my heart broke for them as they recounted histories of sexual abuse, physical abuse, abandonment issues, and the shame that was like a “black rod” in the core of their souls.
In our efforts to be the family of God for these young men and women, we too chose to “welcome” them into our community and gatherings. We “affirmed” them as people God loved and who held a valued place in our lives, but we decide to not “condone” their sin or unhealthy lifestyle. Like Campolo we took the position that homosexual behavior was sinful and unhealthy and if you were serious about following Jesus you had to lay this behavior behind.
In an effort to help them in this struggle we offered a discipleship support group that met weekly that offered accountability and encouragement but most importantly a community in which they would be loved and accepted for “who” they were in Christ. In my mind, I chose to see them as “David”, “Susan”, “Harry” and “Julie” not as “homosexuals.” These were my friends and family members. Their homosexual orientation did not define who they were to me. The more I came to know them and their story they became my “wounded” brothers and sisters in Christ.
We chose to draw the line in the sand in our corporate environment around the issue of membership. If someone chose to be a member and to be baptized into our fellowship they were choosing to follow Jesus in every area of their lives. For our homosexual friends this meant choosing to leave “the lifestyle” or “behavior.” Therefore if a believer chose to be a part of our fellowship then we had the moral obligation to help them to live holy lives. If it became apparent that one of our members had fallen into sin then in love the leaders of our church sought to restore them. We took this position not only on homosexual issues, but also heterosexual issues. We did not knowingly accept into membership young heterosexual couples who were living together either. We did not believe we were helping others if we “condoned” behaviors the Bible warned against in love. There is no doubt that at some points we were hypocritical in our positions and actions, but we were seeking to do the best we could with the light we had.
As I have read of the struggles of the Broadway Baptist Church and their pastor my heart has gone out to them. I commend them for their efforts to be a “friend of sinners” like their Lord and Savior. Living on this cutting edge is not for the faint of heart. As a community of faith, I would encourage us to rally around this church in prayer, by praying that the Lord will guide them through this storm. Pray they will find reconciliation in their ranks, and that they will cease the public war in the media and on the “world wide web.” It is not a time for us to pick out stones to hurl in condemnation, but rather a time for us to pray for this part of our family that is under siege. I pray the Broadway Baptist Church will continue in its heritage of being the people of God in the heart of Fort Worth for many more years.