For gays and lesbians it’s an all too familiar scenario: upon revealing their sexual orientation to their family, they are unceremoniously shown the door – kicked out of their homes and disowned. Ironically, it’s the same fate that recently befell two Baptist churches in Georgia. Virginia-Highland Baptist Church and Oakhurst Baptist Church were both kicked out of the Georgia Baptist Convention for welcoming gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians into their congregations.
“One of the leaders of the convention used the analogy of how painful it was to do this but, like with their own, children the punishment was necessary and it would hurt them more than it did us,” said Rev. Tim Shirley, Senior Pastor of Virginia-Highlands.
Even though Virginia-Highland was a nominal member of the convention and had not financially supported the GBC for nearly a decade, being kicked out was still a painful experience.
“No matter how many problems we had with mom and dad, they are still mom and dad,” Rev. Shirley emphasized. “Those denominational roots run deep. When you are excluded there is this dirty feeling you have no matter how right you feel your stand is. You’re still made to feel second class.”
What Oakhurst’s Senior Pastor, Rev. Lanny Peters, found most painful about their expulsion is that the convention never tried to dialogue with the church about their differences over homosexuality.
“If you take their analogy of kicking out a child who won’t follow the family rules, how many people would kick a child out without having a face to face conversation with them? There was no genuine effort to try to resolve our differences.”
It wasn’t for lack of trying on Oakhurst’s part. Before the vote to expel both congregations Rev. Peters made a motion to open a dialogue on the subject between the convention and its churches. Members of the Oakhurst congregation even volunteered to take on the job of visiting any church in the state that wanted to enter into genuine dialogue. The motion was overwhelmingly rejected.
Fear and Loathing in Macon
Prior to the vote on expulsion both Rev. Shirley and Rev. Peters addressed the November 16, 1999 convention in Macon, Georgia, to try to explain why their congregations were welcoming GLBT Christians, but to no avail. The GBC “withdrew fellowship” from the churches because they violated Article II, Section 1, which states:
This body shall be composed of messengers from cooperating Baptist churches. A cooperating church is one that is in harmony and cooperation with the work and purpose of this Convention. A cooperating church does not include a church which knowingly takes, or has taken, any action to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior.
The evidence against both churches was strong. About 20 to 30 percent of Oakhurst’s congregation are gay or lesbian and the assistant pastor, Rev. Christ Copeland, is gay. Rev. Shirley estimates that 30 to 40 percent of Virginia-Highland’s membership are gay or lesbian. Virginia-Highland allowed a pastor to use the church for a holy union between a same-sex couple though its own ministers took no part in the ceremony. Both Oakhurst and Virginia-Highland have gay deacons.
In the end, the convention voted, by a wide margin, to make these two churches the first to be expelled in the convention’s 177-year history:
Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, Georgia
Yes – 2086 [88.84%]
No – 262 [11.16%]
Virginia-Highland in Atlanta, Georgia
Yes – 2111 [90.25%]
No – 228 [9.75%]
Rev. Shirley was surprised, and pleased, that they got nearly 10% support from members of the convention, but doesn’t see it as very telling on the issue of homosexuality itself. “What it says is that even in these very rigid churches there are some people who just don’t see the issues the same way. Some of the support was a vote for Baptist autonomy more than it was a vote embracing what we embrace.”
However, the overwhelming vote to “withdraw fellowship” from the congregations indicates to Rev. Shirley just how divisive the issue is within the convention. “It represents the amount of fear and ignorance out there over this issue,” he said. “I’ve gotten letters from people saying the decisions by our church are signs of the coming of the end times. That’s the level of hysteria that surrounds this issue. For many, like a man said at the convention, `this is a line in the sand drawn in blood.’ This is the one you die for.”
With such strong rhetoric coming from the floor of the convention, both Rev. Shirley and Rev. Peters were advised by a friendly pastor to have security escort them to their cars after the vote. Rev. Peters declined, saying he had felt no animosity from convention members. He had even been engaged in friendly chats with many pastors after the vote for expulsion. Rev. Shirley did leave the convention through a back door instead of going through the main convention hall, but said also he had felt no animosity from convention members, and had not been directly threatened by anyone.
Hope for the Future
Despite their expulsion from the convention, Rev. Peters still hopes one day for reconciliation.
“If people’s families don’t speak to them anymore then you still keep sending a Christmas card each year just to let them know you’re still around,” Rev. Peters advised. “I feel like we have closure. I’ll probably send a Christmas card and say we’re still here and if they want to reconcile they can give us a call.”
While neither church is holding out hope for that to happen any time in the near future, they are not dwelling on the subject either. Both congregations are moving on, and welcoming quite a few visitors and new members now that they’ve been outcast by the convention.
“The beautiful thing about all this is we’re no longer the best kept secret in Atlanta,” Rev. Shirley chuckled.
The city of Atlanta responded to the news of the expulsions by presenting the pastors with a proclamation, signed by all 16 council members, honoring the spirit of inclusion that both churches have exhibited. But, even in that supportive atmosphere, detractors were present in the form of an African-American man who accosted Rev. Peters as he was leaving city hall.
“He said, `That plaque is not going to get you into the kingdom. The GBC did the right thing,'” Rev. Peters recalled.
He took the criticism in stride.
“My response was to shake his hand and say, `I agree with you on the first and disagree with you on the second.’ Part of what we were standing up for is his right to say that. As a congregation we have a right to read the scripture and decide what it is we believe as an autonomous congregation but I’ll argue the right of someone else to come to a different conclusion after studying the scriptures.”
History of Conflict
Controversy is nothing new to either Oakhurst or Virginia-Highland. Oakhurst has long been years ahead of its convention brethren in such controversial matters as ordaining women and racial integration.
“We lost two-thirds of our members when we racially integrated,” said Rev. Peters. In fact, membership plunged from 1,700 to 500 when they began welcoming people of color in 1968.
In 1972 the congregation made another unheard of move within the Baptist church. They elected and installed two female deacons and ordained a woman into the ministry in 1974.
Oakhurst remains part of the Southern Baptist Convention, but sends only a dollar year in financial support. “It’s a bit like the Christmas card,” he said. “We’re just telling them we’re still here.”
Virginia-Highland, for their part, pulled out of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1992. “That was before we became an inclusive congregation,” Rev. Shirley remarked. “The issue then was over the role of women and erosion of basic Baptist principles.”
But with conflict comes opportunity. Virginia-Highland could have gone quietly into that good night and left the GBC without a fight. However, they wanted the opportunity to have their voices heard, and forced the convention to kick them out.
“If we didn’t think there would be some positive impact, if not now at least down the road, we wouldn’t have gone through this,” Rev. Shirley said. “This provided opportunities for us to articulate our theologies and have a forum about how we approach the Bible. It allowed us to put into the record what we believe and why we believe it. We hope these writings will somehow be helpful. If one person has a shift, it’s worth it.”
The reasoning was a little different across town at Oakhurst. Denominational ties with GBC ran deep for members of the congregation there. “We were founded as a GBC church,” Rev. Peters related. “It was very important to individuals in our church who were strongly connected to GBC. We were still sending money to the GBC and had done major projects with them.”
It was painful to be forced out of the convention, to feel mom and dad’s rejection, as the door to their former home slammed shut. But Oakhurst has no regrets.
“I don’t know that anyone will look back,” Rev. Peters concluded. “We did what we did, experienced what we experienced, and there’s no reason to look back. God has blessed us through the process.”
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.