One of the qualities I treasure about Providence—indeed, one of the qualities that drew me here in the first place—is our stubborn willingness to love one another in spite of our differences of opinions across all sorts of spectrums. As someone told me early on in my time as your pastor, “Providence cares about people more than issues.”
In our angrily polarized American society, this quality presents us with the opportunity to offer the world a Christian alternative to the “us versus them” culture wars that have made civil discourse seemingly a thing of the past.
With that in mind, then, let me share some Baptist news with you. Two weeks ago, the Governing Board of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) voted to revise the Fellowship’s hiring policy. This policy has no bearing on local churches because, in the Baptist tradition, each congregation is autonomous and self-governing.
So, why does this policy change matter to Providence?
The first reason is that CBF is the Baptist organization with which we’ve chosen to partner for the purposes of supporting Christ-centered missions and ministries around the world. Among all the various Baptist denominations, conventions, and alliances, CBF is the one with priorities most closely aligned with ours. That said, then, when CBF makes decisions that affect the people whose missions and ministries we support with our prayers and our dollars, it ought to matter to us.
The second reason is that the hiring policy revision focused largely on the question of whether participation in a same-sex relationship should be a barrier to service within CBF. This is a question that has divided a number of Christian denominations in this country over the past decade or so—often in bitter, angry, and hurtful ways. I hope that CBF will not go down this road. As members of one of the largest and most prominent Cooperative Baptist churches in North Carolina, though, we need to be aware of the potential for bitterness, anger, and hurt that this decision has created—and be prepared to respond appropriately as Christians determined to follow a Lord who is both demanding and gracious.
Now, some context. Two years ago, at the CBF’s general assembly in Greensboro, a task force was created to consider revising the Fellowship’s hiring policy, adopted in 2000, which prohibited “practicing homosexuals” from serving either as CBF staff members or as missionaries. This task force spent 18 months talking with leaders and lay members of CBF churches, as well as with representatives of CBF’s ministry partners around the world in order to ascertain where Cooperative Baptists and their partners stood on—and felt about—the question of whether openly LBGTQ Christians in committed relationships should serve within CBF. The task force submitted its report to the CBF Governing Board on February 9. (To read the full report, go to www.illuminationproject.org).
The report contained two specific recommendations: That the hiring policy eliminate the aforementioned reference to sexuality, and that this revised policy be implemented by hiring only missionaries and ministry leaders who “practice celibacy in singleness” or “faithfulness in marriage between a woman and a man.” The Governing Board adopted both recommendations.
The initial responses to these changes have been blistering from CBF people whose convictions place them on opposite sides of this issue. Those who believe that this is a justice issue are hurt and angered by the restrictions spelled out in the implementation procedure. Those who believe that this is a sin issue are incredulous and angered by the relaxation of the hiring policy. Words like heresy and hatred, discrimination and disobedience have been lobbed back and forth on social media like hand grenades between fellow Christians with strong convictions, generating a great deal of heat but very little light.
I am hopeful that, at the local level—which, for Baptists, is the most significant level of church life—fellow Christians with strong convictions can model a better, more generous way of living together under the lordship of Jesus. As a local church with no shortage of Christians with strong convictions and diverse opinions, Providence, I believe, can be a leading light and a sign of grace at a time in our history when both are in short supply.
There is no consensus among Providence people on the question of same sex relationships. This lack of consensus makes us different from a number of other Baptist churches in Charlotte that have come to a conclusion and resolutely planted their flags there. We haven’t. For some of us, this is purely a sin issue. For some of us, this is purely a justice issue. For most of us, I suspect, this is, to a greater or lesser degree, a mixture of both. As is usually the case when free and faithful Baptists must listen to—and obey—their individual, Spirit-led consciences, we stand in many different places on this issue. I’m glad there is room for that kind of freedom here at Providence.
Let us, however, be very clear about where there is consensus among us: We are the church because we all claim the same Lord, Jesus Christ, who saves us from our sins and invites us to new lives in union with God and our fellow believers. “In Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ,” writes the apostle Paul in Ephesians 2:13-14. “For he is our peace; in his flesh, he has … broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Paul calls this a mystery because it is certainly beyond our capacity to understand how Jesus can take people who are so different in so many ways and unite them by the power of his love, but it happens again and again throughout the New Testament—and it happens every time we make the deliberate choice to believe the best about one another’s intentions because, together, we believe that Christ alone is the way, the truth, and the life.
All of us are trying our best to live faithfully in the light of God’s love as we are given eyes to see that light. As your pastor, I urge you to remember that. Even the people you think are dead wrong: we’ve got to believe that they’re trying their best, and then encourage them in their efforts to be faithful followers of Jesus. Right now, none of us knows anything in full. We know onlyin part (1 Corinthians 13:12).
One thing’s for sure, though, writes Paul to the famously fractious Corinthian church: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
For the sake of a world—and a Fellowship—needing to see that, in Christ, it’s possible for fellow believers with strong convictions to disagree and still work together for good, let us continue doing our best to love one another like Jesus loves us. That is a stand we can all, in good conscience, make together. May the peace of Christ be with you!