New lines on Baptist map in Texas?

Once again, we enter the complex and confusing world of the people called "Baptists," that diverse crew that ranges from the Rev. Bill Moyers to the Rev. Pat Robertson. One of America's most outspoken Baptists, the Rev. James M. Dunn, once told me that one of the strengths of Baptist life, and even Southern Baptist life, is that it is almost impossible to be thrown all the way out of fellowship.

First of all, Baptists define themselves at the congregational level. Then there is the regional association level. Then there is the state convention (and today, there may be more than one). Then there are the national bodies, including some "moderate" bodies that do not require their members to pull completely out of the giant Southern Baptist Convention. The last Baptist congregation that I attended was, in the early 1980s, both American and Southern Baptist. The pulpit was, functionally, Unitarian some days, Episcopal others and, on a few memorable occasions, Buddhist.

This brings us to the Dallas Morning News coverage of a complex and interesting event in a high-profile Baptist flock. Here's the top of the story:

The Baptist General Convention of Texas is distancing itself from longtime affiliate Royal Lane Baptist Church of Dallas, which recently changed its Web site to reflect an affirmation of gay members.

The BGCT's long-held position is that homosexuality is a sin.

The Dallas-based BGCT has decided to place in escrow any funds sent from Royal Lane. It also has asked Royal Lane to remove from church publications any reference to BGCT affiliation.

Randel Everett, executive director of the BGCT, said those conditions will remain until the church says it agrees with the stance on homosexuality.

"It is my prayer that Royal Lane Baptist Church will take the appropriate action to return to these Texas Baptist values and restore its fellowship with the BGCT," Everett said in a prepared statement.

Now, there are several fascinating things about this situation. While reporter Sam Hodges is very skilled in covering Baptist affairs -- he'd better be, in Dallas -- the framing for the doctrinal issue is still wrong. According to the story, the "BGCT's long-held position is that homosexuality is a sin."

Actually, I am sure that the convention would say that it's stance is that all sex outside of marriage is a sin. Is the mysterious orientation called "homosexuality" -- or how about bisexuality -- automatically a sin? I am sure that the BGCT, while it may have taken stands on issues linked to homosexuality, would not state the ancient doctrine in Christian moral theology in this way.

However, it is also appropriate to ask this question: What the heckfire are "Texas Baptist values" and what body gets to vote to determine what is what? Since when would this kind of vague statement trump the local congregation's right to make its own decision? I know that some bodies have, in fact, held votes on these kinds of issues. However, this is not something that happens very often on the Baptist left.

In yet another "It's a small world after all" connection, the pastor at the heart of this story was my college pastor in Waco, at Seventh & James Baptist Church. That was back in the safer days before Baptists were in open warfare over basic Christian doctrines.

Now, Matthews is caught in a very hot spot -- even though this 500-member church (which isn't very big in Texas) has been known as a gay-friendly place for many, many years.

Royal Lane's pastor, the Rev. David Matthews, did not return calls for comment. Earlier, Matthews said deacons overwhelmingly approved changing the church Web site to say Royal Lane is "a vibrant mosaic of varied racial identities, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and denominational backgrounds."

He noted that the church had not changed its bylaws or taken an official vote on homosexuality but said the new Web site language reflected publicly the church's long practice of welcoming gays and lesbians, including ordaining some as deacons. ...

Matthews earlier said that Royal Lane hoped to remain in the BGCT, which is a vehicle by which churches collaborate for evangelism, relief work, support of Baptist colleges, and other purposes.

But here is the detail in this Hodges report that cuts to the heart of the matter. My question: Should this information have been higher in the story?

The stakes are raised in Royal Lane's case because its membership includes BGCT employees and a BGCT executive board member. BGCT employees must belong to an affiliated church, so a split with Royal Lane could force some to choose between workplace and worship place.

In other words, Royal Lane is not that far out of the BGCT mainstream. It has insider status.

Here is the bottom line: To what degree does the BGCT want to openly proclaim itself as an association that includes churches that are, functionally, in the mainstream of liberal mainline Protestant life? Are the leaders of the convention divided over basic doctrines of moral theology, something that could lead to a split within a split?

Another Hodges report digs even deeper into the basic issues about doctrine and shows the degree to which Royal Lane is already invested in its stance. The vice chair of the church's board of deacons is named Ruth May.

May, a lesbian, said that when she joined the church in 1994 it already had a reputation for welcoming gays and lesbians. Longtime members include Bruce Lowe, a 94-year-old retired Baptist pastor whose essay "A Letter to Louise: A Biblical Affirmation of Homosexuality" is widely circulated on the Internet and argues that the verses generally cited as condemning homosexuality have been misunderstood and taken out context.

Matthews, who became Royal Lane's pastor last year, said the Bible "understood through the prism of Jesus" calls for full acceptance of gays and lesbians. The thought of Jesus being unaccepting of somebody because of their sexual orientation -- not their choice, but their orientation -- that's unthinkable to me," he said.

Stay tuned. This work by Hodges is solid, it would help if he actually framed the debate wider -- including more views inside the BGCT. I guarantee you, there is diversity in there. This one is going to get complicated. The key: Cover this as a debate about doctrine, not politics.

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