Real people. Up with people. People, people, people. Death, terminal illness, divorce, drug abuse, financial difficulties or gay marriage. What do all of these have in common? They involve people. Regardless of the issue, churches and pastors minister to real people.
A recent article, written by a Baptist pastor from Georgia, was titled, “With marriage debate, remember real people are involved.” No argument there. Real people are always involved in ministry. But, what if I told you that the pastor was a graduate of Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology and that his opinion piece was published by Associated Baptist Press? Would you need three guesses to figure out the conclusion that this pastor comes to regarding ministering to real people in the (gay) marriage debate? I didn’t think so.
In what is becoming an increasing trend within some Baptist circles, there is a movement toward not just welcoming homosexuals into the public worship services of a church, but affirming their lifestyle as compatible with Christianity. This struggle, as it has done with Episcopals, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and others, will eventually lead to schism within moderate Baptist churches or fellowships. Churches and individual Christians cannot remain neutral on this issue.
In a recent post, “Moderate Baptists: The Road Less Traveled,” I observed that a positive view of women serving as senior pastors, while not heretical, sometimes leads to more aberrant doctrinal beliefs, such as affirmation of homosexuality and a denial of faith in Jesus being the only way to heaven. For even mentioning this as a possible doctrinal trajectory, I was castigated by one commenter for linking these three beliefs. I am aware of others who have been similarly rebuked for the same “offense.”
How does one come to the belief that practicing homosexuals should be welcomed and affirmed within the church or that there are alternative roads apart from faith in Jesus Christ that lead to salvation? By relying upon our own opinions instead of the Word of God! Our opinions, more often than we would care to admit, are less than reliable. However, God-breathed Scripture is always reliable and trustworthy.
Whether one believes that the Bible is divinely inspired and without error (inerrant) or believes that the Bible “has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter (1963 BF&M), there is no question that God’s Word is an infinitely more perfect source for our faith and for putting our faith into practice.
But, there is the rub. What is our faith and how do we put into practice this faith that we have in Jesus? I suppose that depends on who you ask. The issue of gay marriage and the church’s response illustrates, even more clearly than the issue of women pastors, what we believe, not just about homosexuality, but about the Gospel message, salvation, and redemption. We can afford to get the women in ministry issue wrong because it is not a matter of salvation. If we are wrong on what it means to be “saved,” then that becomes a matter of life and death, not just physical, but spiritual as well.
Joe LaGuardia, the Baptist pastor, writes:
In my own work as a pastor, I have realized that policies can change over time, but the needs of people never change. People need God’s salvation, compassionate embraces, enriching relationships, tear-absorbent shoulders and attentive ears. People need to feel safe and welcome. People need to have the opportunity to hear the gospel, experience God’s love and walk with God in the midst of humanity’s limits and failures.
I’m not sure there are many Baptists or other Christians who would disagree with the above statement. People do need the Lord. Regardless of the spiritual baggage that people bring with them (and most will not bring homosexuality), our churches need to be places that openly welcome and embrace sinners of all stripes and varieties. If we need to transform our churches into faith communities that are more welcoming to sinners in need of God’s grace, love, and forgiveness, then we must by all means make any changes needed to that end.
In risking our reputations in our local communities, we must be obedient, joy-filled, and humble in serving “the least of these,” notably same-sex couples who are looking for sacred and safe places to grow in Christ.
I’m not sure that Jesus had in mind gay couples when he taught about “the least of these.” But, for the sake of argument, assuming that Jesus did mean to include same-sex couples in this group, I believe that churches who will risk their reputations in the community will be those who continue to speak the truth in love to those who are struggling with sexual sin and brokenness in all its forms, including homosexuality, adultery, pre-marital sex, pornography, etc.
This starts by transforming our holy places of worship from being merely “welcoming” churches to becoming “embracing” communities of faith. We are not like a local restaurant I frequent, which has employees shout, “Welcome!” when people enter the doors only to have those same consumers eat at separate tables, segregated by families or cliques. Rather, we are to be communities of faith that welcome and embrace every one of God’s children, inviting them to the table of fellowship and friendship.
People do need sacred and safe places to grow in Christ. But those places must continue to speak the truth in love, welcoming sinners just as they are, without embracing them to stay just as they are. Our churches do not need to be as concerned with our transformation as much as we need to be concerned about sharing a Gospel message that is radically transforming. By all means, welcome people into your place of worship. Remember that they are all real people with real struggles. And remember what really matters is not our opinions, but a real Savior offering real forgiveness and real transformation for real sinners. That’s truth that will really set you free!