Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Letter to Virginia Baptists

This past week--on National Coming Out Day no less--the Baptist General Association of Virginia made headlines for expelling from its ranks one of its historic churches for ordaining a gay man.  Ginter Park Baptist Church was located just up the street from the seminary I attended and counts among its members friends and faculty from my seminary days.  It's affiliated with the Alliance of Bapti8sts, one of the few Baptist denominational bodies that fully accepts LGBT People.  (In fact, the AOB was hugely influential  in my own process of overcoming homophobia and also introduced me to the United Church of Christ, the denomination in which I now serve.) 

Ginter Park Baptist church has good people in it, so good that they followed the leadership of the Holy Spirit in ordaining a man they felt was qualified to be a minister even though they would face trouble from the state group of Baptists to which they belonged until this week.  The really sad thing is that Virginia Baptists were a part of Baptist life that was considered open-minded--or as the fundamentalists charged them--liberal.  I wouldn't ever call them liberal but rather moderate.  They generally supported women in ministry and didn't use the Bible to beat up people.  It's too bad that when it comes to LGBT people they draw a line.

I left Baptist life behind eleven years ago and am now proud to serve in the United Church of Christ which has taken bold stands for justice, including justice for LGBT people.  I was a little surprised at how the news affected me of Ginter Park's ouster.  I was angry enough to immediately sit down and write a letter to the Virginia Baptist newspaper, The Religious Herald.  (Once upon a time I wrote some articles for the Herald.)  
I was shaped by Baptists and taught about the freedom of the local congregation by them, so it hurts when I see hypocritical actions like this one.  I don't want to be Baptist anymore.  I've moved on and devote my energy to better things than fighting Baptist battles, but I will always bear the hurt of having to leave the tradition that shaped my faith and taught me about God's love in the first place.

Here's a link to the letter as published on the Religious Herald site.

Here's the text of the letter, if you don't feel like following the link:

Dear Virginia Baptists,

It’s been a long time, but I think it is the right time for you to hear from one of your sons who has left the fold. Eleven years ago I stopped being a Baptist because I could no longer remain in a denomination that used bad biblical interpretation to justify discrimination. Despite growing up as a PK in Baptist churches, being a Royal Ambassador and later a faithful youth group member, attending numerous youth Evangelism conferences, graduating from a Baptist college and a Baptist seminary and serving on staff at Virginia Baptist churches, I made the painful decision to leave and become a part of another denomination. I’m not the only one; plenty of my fellow Virginia Baptists whom I went to school with left, too. I left 11 years ago; more sons and daughters are leaving now.

I decided to write to you when I read about the decision of the BGAV leadership to expel Ginter Park Baptist Church for ordaining a gay man. I am saddened but not surprised by this action.  If the BGAV leaders were at the Jerusalem Conference in Acts 15 I feel sure the early church would never have accepted gentiles.

I came of age when Virginia Baptists were learning that the Holy Spirit could make use of divorced people and women as ministers. You taught me that a narrow interpretation of the Bible about divorce or gender was a poor way to read scripture, but for some reason when it comes to gays and lesbians similar narrow readings are okay.

The decision of the BGAV leaders wouldn’t hurt me so much, if I had not learned from Virginia Baptists to read the Bible with compassion rather than a closed heart. That paradox is painful for me; so painful that I needed to leave the tradition that taught me about a loving God in the first place.

Although I still have friends in ministry who serve Baptist churches; I have plenty more who left Baptist life behind. They and I sought out churches that welcome all who come, because we grew up singing Just as I Am and actually believed those words not only applied to us but to all people. Is it any wonder that younger generations are leaving the church in greater numbers than ever? They know what their parents and grandparents refuse to see — a church that rejects its own children is not worth remaining in. I learned about grace from Virginia Baptists; I just wish Virginia Baptists actually practiced it.

Today my wife and I, along with our sons, worship in a church with heterosexual and homosexual members and we experience the blessing of a Christian community that celebrates its diversity. Rarely does a Sunday go by, however, without me wishing I could have found similar joy in the tradition I grew up in.

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