First, let me commend the Southern Baptist Convention for passing resolutions this week to raise awareness regarding the complexities of mental illness and to call on pastors and church leaders to enact better policies related to child abuse. There is still much to be done on both of these fronts, particularly in regard to the troubling support of Sovereign Grace Ministries by some SBC leaders in spite of the organization’s apparent systemic sex abuse cover-up. But these seem to be good steps made in good faith which I trust will be followed by concrete actions within individual church communities. I’m sure it can be frustrating for folks who spend days at such conventions working and praying through these resolutions to face criticism afterward, so I want to say at the outset that I trust these decisions are made with the best of intentions.
That said, I think members of the SBC made a serious error in judgment this week by passing a resolution to officially condemn the leadership of Boy Scouts of America for their recent decision to accept openly gay boys into membership. While stopping short of recommending that Southern Baptists drop ties with the Scouts, the SBC encouraged churches that choose to sever the relationship to expand their Royal Ambassador ministry, a Southern Baptist version of the Boy Scouts that would presumably ban gay participants.
[You can read the full resolution here.]
I’m thankful that the SBC recognized the autonomy of its individual churches in making decisions on this matter. (This is what makes them Baptist, and it’s a good thing!) My comments should therefore be read as something of a plea to the members of churches from a variety of denominations who will, in the months to come, make decisions about whether to stop sponsoring Boy Scout troops as a result of the organization’s policies. I speak not as a Southern Baptist or a “gay activist,” but as a fellow Christian concerned about our witness to the world and our care for the most marginalized among us.
While the resolution expresses “love in Christ for all young people regardless of their perceived sexual orientation,” its condemnation of the Scouts only serves to further alienate those outside the Church from the gospel and to perpetuate the already dysfunctional and unhealthy culture of secrecy, fear, and shame within the conservative evangelical church as it relates to homosexuality.
The fact is, boy scouts are already forbidden from engaging in sexual activity—heterosexual or homosexual—and so the change in policy simply addresses sexual orientation. In other words, being attracted to the same sex does not automatically disqualify a boy from becoming a scout.
Is this really a move to condemn? Would a Southern Baptist Church forbid a child from attending Sunday School based solely on his or her sexual orientation? Even among those who count homosexual behavior as a sin, there is usually at least some room in the fellowship for people attracted to the same sex. So why hold the Boy Scouts to more legalistic standards than many SBC churches? This resolution goes beyond the typical condemnation by the SBC of homosexual behavior to condemn homosexual orientation.
It also raises some important questions: Does the SBC plan to disassociate from any group that might have gay members? Will Alcoholics Anonymous be banned from meeting in the church basement because some of its members might be gay? Will children be asked about their sexual orientation or the sexual orientation of their parents before being enrolled in Vacation Bible School? Will churches drop all partnerships with community nonprofits that don't discriminate based on race, gender, or sexual orientation?
What disassociation from the Scouts would communicate to a community, (perhaps inadvertently), is that people with same-sex attraction are under no circumstances welcome in a Southern Baptist church, even if it’s through a separate community organization like the Boy Scouts. Churches that choose to break from the Scouts simply because there may be gay boys among them will send a clear message to their respective communities that LGBT folks—even teenagers— are not welcome anywhere near their churches; the doors are officially closed to them.
If that’s the message you want your church to send, then send it. But if it’s not, please reconsider embracing this resolution or disassociating from the Scouts.
Furthermore, what all of this communicates to kids already in the church is that if they find themselves attracted to the same sex, (or in falling in any way outside sexual “norms”), they better keep their attractions, thoughts, and feelings a secret or else they will be ostracized, maybe even kicked out.
In response to the Scouts’ decision, the SBC has been promoting its Royal Ambassadors program, a sort of Christianized version of the Boy Scouts that provides the classic “retreat” option for those interested in “protecting” their families from the outside world. But what happens to the kid in Royal Ambassadors who is gay? What happens to the boy who finally musters the courage to tell his parents or a trusted church leader he is attracted to other guys? Will he be kicked out of Royal Ambassadors? Will he be kicked out of the church?
I once met a young man at a Christian college who told me that to be gay in a Southern Baptist Church is like living every day in hell. He told me he woke up every morning and went to bed every night with a heavy, palpable fear in his chest. He was burdened by the shame of carrying around a secret he knew he could never tell anyone. As a kid, he was teased by the other boys, and little was done to stop it. The church, he said, was the worst place in the world to be gay, the last place he would ever choose to come out. As soon as he got the chance, he ran as far away from that unreachable white steeple as his legs would carry him. The fact that he remains a committed follower of Jesus, despite the hateful response he has received from many Christians because of his sexuality, astounds and challenges me.
His is not an unusual story.
It’s the story of thousands of young people who are both Christian and gay. They are told they have to choose between the two, and when they can’t, they often leave the church or, tragically, choose to leave this earth for good. We cannot continue down this path. It has created too many atheists, too many grave markers, too many grieving families, too many broken hearts.
Our churches should be the safest places in which to come out, not the most dangerous.
My guess is that most Southern Baptists would agree with me. My guess is that most just haven’t thought through the implications of this resolution, the implications of potentially disassociating from the Boy Scout troops in their community, or the implications of consistently fighting this culture war against homosexuality.
So if your church is in the process of making such a decision, I encourage you think about it, pray about it, talk with your fellow church members about it, and talk with your gay friends, neighbors, and relatives about it. I also recommend checking out the book Torn by Justin Lee, a young man who was raised in a Southern Baptist church and who is gay.
Regardless of where one stands on the politics of gay marriage, or even the morality of same sex relationships, the message that a person has to become straight before becoming a part of the Kingdom is dangerous, untrue, and contrary to the Gospel.
When God wrapped himself in flesh, strapped on sandals, and set up his tabernacle among us, he made a beeline for the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the despised, the sinners, the misfits, and the minorities. He ate with them and drank with them, and despite warnings from the religious leaders, he made them his disciples and friends.
(And before someone jumps in with a friendly reminder that Jesus told those he healed to “go and sin no more,” let’s remember that no one actually went and sinned no more—not the first disciples, not us, not anybody. We aren't welcomed into the Kingdom on account of our worthiness, but on account of Christ’s worthiness.)
When we demand that people conform to a list of requirements before welcoming them into our churches we effectively “shut the door to the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces,” just as Jesus warned against.
In fact, I'm beginning to wonder if what makes the Gospel offensive is not who it keeps out, but who it lets in. Samaritans. Gentiles. Women. Tax collectors. Prostitutes. The poor. The merciful. Peacemakers. Drunks. Addicts. The sick. The uneducated. The persecuted. Slaves. Prisoners. The naked. The hungry. The marginalized. The troublemakers. The oppressed. The misfits. The powerless. Children. A self-important, undisciplined cynic like me. An ethnic and sexual minority who, though the BIble forbade him from even entering a temple on account of his sexuality, turned to Philip and said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”
Though Philip's mind may have raced - "you're a Gentile! you're a eunuch! you know very little about Jesus! - he responded only by following the Ethiopian eunuch to the water and baptizing him in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Look, here is water: The Church is water. The whole world is water.
What will we let stand in the way?
Love need not agree or understand or have it all figured out.
But love always opens the door.
I pray my brothers and sisters in the Southern Baptist Church will not shut it in any more faces.
Be sure to check out Torn: Rescuing Christians From the Gays vs. Christians Debate by Justin Lee. You can also check out his Web site here.
If you are a Christian and gay, check out the Gay Christian Network.
And for scout troops looking for a new home, The United Methodist Church has opened its doors to those dropped by SBC churches.