Kentucky Baptists threaten to kick out churches that think it's OK to hire 'practicing homosexuals'
Southern Baptists have long opposed same-sex marriage and ordaining gay ministers, arguing that the Bible unequivocally rejects homosexuality as sinful and perverted.
The Louisville-based Kentucky Baptist Convention hasn't left that position to interpretation. The powerful Southern Baptist group, which has 2,400 churches and 750,000 members across the state, has ousted congregations that bless gay unions and welcome people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender as pastors and missionaries.
That's why discussions on dropping a ban against hiring gay and transgender people by a more liberal group of affiliated churches, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, has threatened to trigger an even larger rift.
Paul Chitwood, executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, said that if the fellowship's leaders soften their rule against hiring “practicing homosexuals,” it would be a perilous step in the wrong direction. In essence, they're "redefining sin," he said.
In mid-November, a Kentucky Baptist Convention committee voted in Louisville to “monitor” the fellowship's moves and indicated that the convention might expel churches aligned with the fellowship if it lifts the ban.
"We were surprised by this action. We didn't have any discussions with them about it," said Chris Sanders, a lawyer who is serving as interim executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Kentucky.
“We would have much rather talked with them in advance,” Sanders said.
In the Baptist faith, church autonomy is key, and congregations choose how to worship. Many have multiple affiliations. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship formed in the early 1990s after conservative leaders gained national control of the Southern Baptists.
Some churches, such as St. Matthews Baptist Church, joined the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship but stayed affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention.
The LGBT issue flared after the fellowship’s leaders in Georgia offered prayers for the victims of a shooting massacre in Orlando, in which 49 people were killed at the gay nightclub Pulse.
Louisville’s Maurice “Bojangles” Blanchard, an ordained minister and volunteer who leads an LGBT ministry at Highland Baptist Church, thought the gesture was hypocritical in light of the fellowship's ban on gay employees.
But Blanchard, who was one of the Kentucky plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage, has joined a chorus asking fellowship leaders to end their discriminatory practices.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship “needs to drop this homophobic policy,” Blanchard said. "It’s past time."
Baptists aren't the only Christian denomination struggling with how to handle matters of sexuality. Many congregations are debating whether to perform same-sex marriages, ordain gay ministers and welcome transgender people.
R. Albert Mohler, who is the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a recognized scholar of Baptist theology, said in an interview that he's not surprised that a conflict of this sort is erupting within the Fellowship ranks.
"This has been an issue we can only describe as inevitable and explosive ... they clearly have a huge division" where younger leaders on the left may gain the upper hand, Mohler said, adding that he questions whether the smaller group has "the doctrinal stability to normalize LGBT persons."
The watchful approach by the state convention isn't surprising because "a church that endorses homosexuality is no longer cooperating with the Kentucky Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention," he said.
At the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a committee called the Illumination Project has met for months with church members and leaders in several states. The group is scheduled to recommend changes in February.
Chitwood, executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, said his group has become concerned that the fellowship is ready to change course.
The fellowship "has always held the same position as Southern Baptists have held,” Chitwood said. To drop the gay ban is akin to “redefining 2,000 years of Christian teachings.”
Blanchard sees it the opposite way. It’s not biblical to ban LGBT people but he knows fellowship leaders also are trying to avoid alienating the large churches that provide financial support.
He’s disappointed that the Illumination committee has no gay members. “They’re discussing our inclusion without including us,” Blanchard said.
To the Rev. Dwight Moody, a Baptist minister and retired professor of theology at Georgetown College who attends a fellowship-affiliated church in Lexington, the state convention's tactics are unfair and unnecessary if each church is truly free to set its own course.
If the Kentucky Baptist Convention ultimately splits with the fellowship, he said, “it’s punishing local churches for the actions” of national leaders, which would be a "new wrinkle."
Chitwood thinks many of the fellowship churches won’t go along with sanctioning LGBT clergy or missionaries anyway because most members believe the Scriptures clearly define gay life as un-Christian.
“I don’t think it will have a big impact,” he said
Grace Schneider: 502-582-4082; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @gesinfk. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: www.courier-journal.com/graces