When her teenage daughter came out as a lesbian several years ago, one of the first things Caroline Joyce did was to Google, “Can you be gay and be a Christian?”
The family was attending a conservative Southern Baptist church in the Greensboro, North Carolina, area that considered homosexual activity to be sinful.
“We had been taught one thing, but we knew our daughter loved Jesus,” Joyce said. “She was very open with us during her struggle to figure out what was going on with her.”
And Caroline and her husband, Chuck, began their own struggle.
Their daughter and a younger sibling found a gay-friendly church, College Park Baptist Church in Greensboro. They "started attending with our blessing because we knew if she continued attending our church, she’d be totally turned off to God,” Caroline Joyce said.
The College Park church found itself in the news last week when the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee voted to remove it from its rolls because of its “open affirmation, approval and endorsement of homosexual behavior." That action came 23 years after the congregation itself voted to leave the SBC, but according to the Executive Committee, it had remained on its rolls until now.
But the very thing that prompted the Southern Baptists' disapproval is what attracted the Joyces themselves to College Park. The parents eventually followed their children's path and joined the congregation. They even moved from the suburbs to the city of Greensboro to be closer to the College Park church, its activities and the friends they made there.
“It really makes a difference when you hear from the pulpit and hear in the hallway that God loves everybody,” Caroline Joyce said. She said their daughter eventually grew up to become a minister, as is her wife.
The Rev. Michael Usey, the lead pastor, said that Southern Baptist officials actually identified the church's ethos correctly.
"It’s good when people reject you because they understand clearly who you are," he said. “The irony is, they're excluding us for not excluding people.”
The Executive Committee vote didn't take leaders of the congregation completely by surprise.
They'd been receiving registered letters from Southern Baptist officials in recent months, explaining that the church was still listed on its rolls and seeking more information, Usey said.
“At first they were kind of demanding we clarify our position on homosexuality,” Usey said. The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, the Southern Baptists’ state affiliate, sent similar inquiries, he said.
Usey said church leaders decided not to respond, and to let the SBC expel it if that was the decision.
“I just don’t really want to engage in that,” Usey said. “There’s hungry people in Greensboro. This is what God calls us to, to do something for the children who are half a mile from our building who are hungry.”
Southern Baptist churches are self-governing, so the convention can't tell them what to do or believe. But the convention deems churches to be affiliates — in “friendly cooperation" — if they share its beliefs and support its ministries.
The convention “had no record of a request from the (College Park) church to disaffiliate from the SBC,” said a statement Thursday from Linda Cooper, who chairs the SBC’s Credentials Committee. “This church was brought to the attention of the committee. The committee inquired of the church about their desire to disaffiliate and received no response.”
The Credentials Committee then recommended the Executive Committee cut ties with the congregation, which it did.
The convention has in recent years declared a small number of congregations to be not in friendly cooperation if they are LGBTQ-affirming. The denomination's statement of belief, the Baptist Faith and Message, says Christians should oppose “all forms of sexual immorality, including ... homosexuality.” The denomination has similarly cut ties with a small number of churches for failing adequately to address sexual abuse, and last week it also broke with a New Jersey church over “alleged discriminatory behavior.”
College Park Baptist Church voted in 1999 to leave the SBC, shortly after the convention's annual meeting approved a doctrinal statement that a wife should “submit herself graciously” to her husband's authority.
The congregation's website makes clear that College Park is an "LGBTQIA Affirming Baptist Church” that “fully welcomes and affirms all persons without distinction regarding race, ethnicity, national origin, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other human category.”
Usey said the church, with about 400 members, has a progressive legacy. Founded by Southern Baptists in 1906, it supported the civil rights sit-in at the Greensboro Woolworth's in 1960, began ordaining women in the 1980s and became openly LGBTQ-affirming about two decades ago, he said.
While church members were surprised the SBC hadn't removed the church from its roster years ago, the recent action “gives us an opportunity to say we’re not that kind of Baptist,” he said.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.
Peter Smith, The Associated Press