GREENVILLE, S.C. (Christian Examiner) – A new non-discrimination policy at First Baptist Church in Greenville will offer same-sex marriage ceremonies and allow membership, leadership positions, church ordinances, and ordination to openly gay and transgender individuals without telling them their lifestyles contradict biblical teaching.
"It's going to open up a space for evangelical gay people to have a place again," Pastor Jim Dant said of his church's recent consensus to "not discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity."
First Baptist Church of Greenville has a storied history dating back to its 1831 founding when William Bullein Johnson led fundraising efforts to start the church. Johnson later served as the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention upon its organization in 1845. The church was the original home of Furman University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
In 1999, First Baptist Greenville broke ties with the Southern Baptist Convention and aligned itself with the more moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship which hosted a breakout session at its 2015 annual meeting in June in which two CBF pastors presented opposing views on the issue – but agreed leadership did not consider the matter theological.
The policy was enacted following a six-month "discernment process" that began in November 2014 during which more than 200 church members discussed their personal experiences, their interpretations of Scripture, and who they believed they were as Christians and as Baptists, according to Dant.
The congregation reached a consensus that "being open and welcoming to all people is part of the essential nature of our community of faith," Dant said.
He told Greenville Online a crucial step of the process was assuring church members no one would tell them their personal convictions were wrong.
The process did not bring the church to reach a conclusion on whether homosexuality is right or wrong but to instead answer a question: "Can you worship and live with the LGBT community in the church?"
Dant's personally believes the Bible has no family value system for the 21st century. He dismisses Old Testament condemnation of homosexuality as part of Levitical law which Christians no longer practice particularly with regard to regulation of slavery and men treating their wives and daughters as property.
"What we believe about marriage and family is culturally driven, not biblically driven," Dant said.
Although the pastor made no reference to the Romans 1 discussion of homosexual behavior, he found justification for his church's non-discrimination policy in the Acts 8 account of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch.
According to Dant, the man, Ethiopian by birth and a eunuch by choice, was considered unfit for baptism into the Christian faith, but Christ's teachings led the evangelist Philip to dismiss "conventional wisdom" for such exclusion.
Dant sees this biblical narrative as relevant to the debate over whether homosexuals are such by birth or choice.
"It really didn't matter if he was born the way he was or chose the way he was," Dant stated. "Either way, in the eyes of the law, he didn't have a fighting chance to get in. But in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Philip saw no reason he couldn't be baptized or welcomed into the faith," Dant explained.
A majority of the church's members stood to affirm First Baptist Church's official consensus statement during a May worship service. Members who did not stand were then given the opportunity to stand not in opposition to the statement but to stand to express their agreement to remain in fellowship. Eventually, all members stood.
Dant elaborated the church's position in a Greenville Online video:
"If a person comes into the church as a follower of Christ, on their journey, they are welcome to experience and express that journey in any way that any other person in these pews are able to express and live out the rituals of their faith," he said.
"We don't discriminate with ordination, with marriage, with teaching, with serving on committees based on gender identity or sexual orientation . . . We are a diverse people. We sit on pews every Sunday morning with people that have diverse opinions, and we are not united by our agreement on any one issue. We're united by our desire to be followers of Christ in a particular community," he continued.
"We ended up with a consensus statement that essentially says, to put it simply, that we are a diverse people that hold a lot of diverse views of Scripture, but we also want to be a non-discriminatory people because it's really not up to us who the Spirit of God falls on," Dant concluded.
Although he did not elaborate on what the requirements are, Dant said gay and transgender individuals who wish to be married in, ordained by, or hold leadership positions at the church must meet "the same requirements of discernment that heterosexuals are bound to follow."
The CBF makes no official resolutions on social issues, but a CBF blog posted after the Supreme Court's Obergefell v. Hodges decision emphasized unity and placed a greater emphasis on freedom of religion than same-sex marriage.
The SBC has consistently condemned homosexuality as a sin to be repented of in recent years and passed a formal resolution at its June 2015 annual meeting declaring same-sex marriage to be a threat to religious liberty and a weakening force on the natural family unit. The resolution called Southern Baptists to love and respect all people including those who hold differing views of the definition of marriage.
[With additional reporting by Joni B. Hannigan.]