Michigan church, pastor in crossfire of gay nature versus nuture debate

by Vanessa Garcia Rodriguez, |
A small crowd gathered outside of the First Baptist Church in Zeeland, Michigan, on March 15 protests comments on homosexuality made by the church's pastor in a March 1 sermon. | WZZM TV (ABC)/screen capture

ZEELAND, Mich. (Christian Examiner) -- Community outrage, online threats and angry phone calls have forced a Michigan pastor to clarify a sermon delivered March 1 that stated American culture treats sexuality as a guiding compass.

First Baptist Church in Zeeland, Michigan, Pastor Clint Echols told the Zeeland City Counsel in a March 16 public comment session that media took his message out of context and was further distorted by the misleading acts of former church member, Daniel VanderLey who attended FBCZ 15 years ago.

After listening to the sermon online, VanderLey, now a Detroit resident, staged a protest outside the Zeeland church March 8 and March 15 where he and a group of supporters protested under the guise of Westboro Baptist Church, a Topeka, Kansas, group widely considered a hate group.

"I pretended to be Westboro Baptist Church; this was to demonstrate to people the hate and vitriol that is coming out of Zeeland First Baptist Church," VanderLey told ABC affiliate WZZM 13.

First Baptist Church Zeeland pastor Clint Echols preached a sermon March 1 he claims media twisted and reported on out of context. The pastor now faces an outlash of online bullying and telephone threats. | FBCZ Facebook

The church responded to the protest with a statement to the media explaining VanderLey's group was not affiliated with the 85-year-old Zeeland congregation.

Echols later appealed directly to area residents asking them to listen to his sermon in its entirety to better understand his intended message concerning sexuality in this age.

The message, which could be classified as common ideology of a conservative church, expressed one side of a common debate whether people are born gay or choose to be so. A recent study from the Pew Research Center shows Americans remain divided on this issue which landed Echols and his church in a community crossfire.

"My point in that particular comment was to emphasize that truth is not determined by man. It can be experienced by man, it can be believed by man, it can be falsified by man, but it is not created by man," the Holland Sentinel reported Echols as saying.

He also emphasized that the parallel he made [about an ax murderer] was intentionally preposterous to demonstrate his point.

"I used an absurd suggestion of waking up to my inner compass, or personal truth detector, imaginary, of course, in order to demonstrate that truth cannot be relative but must be objective and that truth comes from God."

He also explained the sermon was to educate his congregation in advance of a March 22 vote to amend the church constitution to state "explicitly" what "the church for 86 years" has believed "implicitly" by incorporating an "article of faith on biblical marriage and sexuality."

A Facebook group called "Stand for Equality Zeeland," with more than 200 likes, vows to prevent First Baptist Church of Zeeland to "not codify homophobia and discrimination into their creed of faith and instead support the values of equality, tolerance, and love for all people and families."

"We have now received countless angry, mean-spirited emails, angry phone calls and threatening electronic communications," Echols told the city council. "My children have been approached, in my home, by the media. In fact, the media has quoted me and suggested they have met with me. I have not given the media any permission to represent me or my church in any way."

First Baptist Church Zealand told Christian Examiner Echols was unavailable for comment and indicated the church did not wish to give any statement to the media to avoid any further misrepresentation.