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Unsafe Harbors

North Carolina Baptists have trumped Missourians over who can exclude whom. A few weeks ago, the Missouri Baptist Convention dismissed 19 churches from its ranks for not being exclusively (singly) aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention.

Meanwhile, the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, meeting under the convention theme of “Cast a Wider Net,” ironically decided to expel from its ranks any churches that harbor homosexual members. So after a year’s study they amended their governing documents to give them the most punitive powers of any Baptist group on this issue.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Especially targeted are the 16 North Carolina Baptist churches identified with The Alliance of Baptists, a national Baptist group that welcomes gays and lesbians as members.
 
It is worth noting that while the amendment passed easily, there were plenty of persons who voted in opposition to its adoption. Questions were raised about how this fits with the long-held belief in the autonomy of the local church as well as with the general issue of sexual orientation and behavior, a topic on which Christians don’t see eye-to-eye.
 
The process of exclusion will begin when a church is reported as being out of compliance (condoning “practicing homosexuals”) by at least two sources. A convention committee will conduct an investigation with the possibility the church will be censured by the convention itself. But how is one to know for sure? Just what is a practicing homosexual? Is that the same as a practicing heterosexual, only different? If people keep their sexuality private as most folks do, how would anyone know?
 
I have a suggestion:  If Superman could tell <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Lois Lane what color undies she was wearing with his X-ray vision, perhaps the SBC could somehow invent a detection system that would go off whenever a practicing homosexual entered the church. Such a system needs a name. How about the Practicing Homosexual Detection System (PHDS)? In order to protect the system from cheap knock-offs from Taiwan, it should bear the official seal of the SBC to signify its exclusive status.
 
They could issue these to all 42,000-plus churches of the Southern Baptist Convention (not limited to North Carolinians, mind you, because once one state gets this, they’ll all have to have them or risk being accused of being soft on sin).
 
So what happens when a church’s SBC-issued PHDS goes off, and the church leaders, in a quandary over what to do, do nothing?
 
The problem comes up whenever a church struggles in their soul when one of their own kids turns up gay. When a bright, shining kid from the youth group, who’s been actively involved, spiritually attuned and fervent in his faith for Jesus, turns up gay and the SBC-issued PHDS goes off revealing him to be a practicing homosexual, the church must then make a moral decision about what to do.
 
On that day the church must figure out whether to throw him out of the church or risk their allegiance (and membership) to a convention founded 161 years ago on the idea it was spiritually acceptable that its members could own African slaves and exploit them for the sake of accumulating personal wealth.
 
Worse, what if that kid is the deacon chair’s kid? Or how about the preacher’s kid? What if that kid has been what the whole church considered the model kid they wished their own kids were like? What then?
 
To put it bluntly, what church doesn’t have a practicing homosexual in its midst? On the day every church in the convention activates its PHDS, there will be alarms sounded in every SBC church across America. A mass panic could ensue across this land because the community will think they are under attack by terrorists.
 
Why? Because every church I’ve been a member of has had “practicing homosexuals.” They’re there because they’ve held onto the faint hope that the pastor means what he or she says when they’ve preached the good news that God loves us all. They’re there because they have a need for Christian community just like everyone else. They’re there because they love God as much as their heterosexual friends and believe the love of God has been offered to them without reserve in Christ Jesus. They’re there because they struggle with their sins as much as any other person and realize they’re in need of God’s generous gift of forgiveness.
 
What kind of gospel is it that causes a person to say, “Yes, it’s true I’m gay, but I’m not a practicing homosexual. Will you love me or not?” Buried in that question lurks the larger question, “Will God love me if I act honestly like the person I was born to be?”
 
This strange obsession is more telling about those who condemn it than those who practice it. The so-called good news in their single-issue gospel has a strange caveat: Confess your sin and pray God will change you.
 
A forced heterosexuality means that gay Christians are bullied into becoming asexual or else forced to live a lie about their sexual orientation in order for the church to accept them.
 
Never mind that conversion (reparative) therapies that attempt to re-orient their native sexual orientation are incredibly unsuccessful and damaging to the soul. Regression in such repression is common.
 
Never mind this creates a single-issue type of faith and ignores or minimizes other more devious ways of unethical living. The final alternative gays are forced to consider is to take the church’s horrifying invitation and leave. Thus there are untold numbers of gay Christians who live like refugees banned from the assembly of worship by a homophobic church.
 
Which is sadder? Ted Haggard’s repressed secret life or his inability to fully accept himself grateful to God for a love generous enough to accept him as he is? If we believe the love of God is initiated in God alone, we conclude there are no conditions to that love. Or do we really believe something else?
 
As a pastor who believes the grace of God is offered to all persons in equal measure and who doubts that your sins are any worse than mine, I am occasionally asked by inquisitive persons interested in our church, “Is this a safe place?”
 
In that sense, the homophobic hatred of gays and policies that diminish the anguish of believers who are shunned from the Christian community steal God’s good grace by offering it conditionally rather than as free as it’s been received by the gatekeepers who won’t let them in.
 
Keith D. Herron is senior pastor at Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.