A Church Divided

Despite increasing public acceptance, homosexuality and same-sex marriage are divisive issues within the Baptist Church. November 11, following its adoption of a resolution supporting LGBT rights, Crescent Hill Baptist Church was ousted from the Kentucky Baptist Convention (KBC). While the KBC feels that the “authority” of the Bible demands they separate themselves from churches like Crescent Hill Baptist, after months of rigorous study, including examination of scripture translations from the original Greek, Crescent Hill Baptist pastor Jason Crosby is confident in his decision to accept gay members into the congregation and perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.

 

Crescent Hill Baptist Church, 2800 Frankfort Ave., and the Kentucky Baptist Convention, 13420 Eastpoint Centre Drive, are located only about 15 miles from each other, but when it comes to spiritual matters, the two organizations couldn’t be further apart. The wedge began in June 2013, when the Crescent Hill Baptist Church congregation adopted a resolution that sexual orientation and gender identity should not be a factor in how it relates to any individual. The church also joined the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, a group of Baptist churches that advocates for LBGT rights. The Kentucky Baptist Convention (KBC) responded to these actions by ousting the church from its association.

On Nov. 11, the “messengers” of the KBC voted overwhelmingly to “disfellowship” Crescent Hill Baptist Church. Greg Faulls, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Owensboro and vice chairman of the KBC’s Committee on Credentials, said his organization had no choice but to sever ties with Crescent Hill Baptist if it wanted to maintain a strict biblical interpretation of homosexuality.  

“Our churches are clear on this: We call sin ‘sin’ rather than choosing to affirm it,” Faulls said at KBC’s annual meeting at the Living Hope Baptist Church in Bowling Green. “To give approval to what the Bible clearly states is sin is not only an offense to the scripture, it is an unloving act toward sinners, an act that leaves them in danger of God’s judgment. And we love sinners, including those who practice homosexuality, too much to allow them to live in danger of God’s judgment without even preaching the truth as it is detailed in the scripture.”

Jason Crosby, co-pastor of Crescent Hill Baptist Church, said he was not surprised by his church’s ouster from the KBC, but he hopes the two bodies will one day continue their association despite differing views on homosexuality. “As Baptists, we churches can disagree on some matters, but we still have a lot of common ground,” Crosby said. “However, we feel it’s important to remind folks that there are Baptists out there who believe in the full inclusion and identification of gay and lesbian people in the church. We are aware that we do not agree with most folks in the Kentucky Baptist Convention on this issue.”

The break between KBC and Crescent Hill Baptist Church is indicative of the situation facing religious institutions all over the nation. According to the nonprofit, non-partisan Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), “Nearly 7 in 10 (69 percent) young adults (age 18 to 29) favor same-sex marriage, compared to only one-third (33 percent) of seniors (age 65 and older).” PRRI research director Daniel Cox said the data points to the eventual national acceptance of same-sex marriage. He called this shift in public opinion over the last decade unprecedented. 

“We are past the tipping point on same-sex marriage,” Cox said. “Even people that are opposed to it think it’s going to happen. Among supporters of same-sex marriage, the issue has shifted from abstract to ‘my friend, child or relative is gay.’ Most people in our study cited a personal relationship that took the issue from the abstract to the personal. But religious institutions tend to take the longest time to change.”

Cox attributed the positive swing in public opinion to millennials who have grown up around openly gay people and seen positive images of gays on television. He suggested that the situation could lead to a long-term crisis for churches as more potential members are turned off by traditional views on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. In 2013, the Pew Research Center found that the percentage of Americans who say they “seldom” or “never” attend religious services had risen in the past decade to 29 percent. PPRI found that 1 in 3 young people who left the church of their youth cited its views on homosexuality. 

“Most millennials do not view homosexuality as an issue,” Cox said. “This puts churches in a bind. In some cases, ministers have to choose between traditional-minded members who helped build the institution and the young people that are needed to keep it going. This is a problem that is not going away.”

Same-sex marriage is legal in 33 states and banned by constitution or state law in 17 others. A recent decision by the Sixth Circuit Appeals Court upheld bans on same-sex marriages in Kentucky and Michigan and on recognition of same-sex marriages in Ohio and Tennessee. This broke a string of court victories for proponents of gay marriage. 

There were actually two Kentucky cases before the court. One involved gay couples who wanted to get married, and another involved concerned couples who had married in other states and wanted their marriage recognized. Rev. Maurice “Bojangles” Blanchard and his partner, Dominique James, were defendants in the first case. The couple married unofficially eight years ago at the First Unitarian Church, with Blanchard’s father performing the ceremony. They caused a stir last year after they were arrested while attempting to secure an official marriage certificate from the Jefferson County Clerk’s Office. The clerk refused to issue one to them because the Commonwealth of Kentucky does not recognize same-sex marriage.

Until a recent decision of the Sixth Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court had refused to accept same-sex marriage cases because all the lower courts seemed united in their support of the legality of same-sex marriage. 

“We’re going to appeal and pray the Supreme Court takes the case up in this session,” Blanchard said. “Tradition and fear have held us back for too long.” Just this week, it seems Blanchard’s prayers were answered, as the case has been appealed to the Supreme Court.

Blanchard, 36, is a deacon at Highland Baptist Church, which voluntarily left KBC two years ago because of its acceptance of homosexuality. Highland’s pastor, Joe Phelps, said the condemnation of gays is based on a “sloppy and convenient reading of scripture.” However, he also said supporting this non-traditional view of the scripture comes with its own challenges.

“I would never encourage any church to embrace this position just to attract young people,” Phelps said. “You embrace an issue because it is true. It does open the door to bring more young people into the church. But you also have to acknowledge that it will alienate the older generation, which has built the church and sustained the church for many years.”

Differing biblical interpretations

There are six passages in the Bible that directly reference homosexuality. The most often cited is Leviticus 20:13, which in the King James translation reads, “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” For centuries, this has been interpreted as a condemnation of homosexuality. But some modern biblical scholars contend the passage refers only to the ritual cleanliness of ancient Jews living among Egyptians and Canaanites. It does not apply to gentiles or modern Christians. 

Another popular touchstone among anti-gay activists is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Book of Genesis, from which we derive the term “sodomite.” Two angels were sent to Sodom and Gomorrah to investigate the city. They were greeted with hospitality by Lot, the nephew of Abraham. But a group of local men surrounded the house and demanded that Lot turn the visitors over so they could have sex with them. This was considered the cause of the destruction of the city, but Crescent Hill Baptist’s Crosby has another perspective on the story.

“That passage is not about equitable, convent relationships between two individuals,” he said. “It’s about a powerful group using sexual violence to exploit and intimidate an outsider who possesses less power. That does not look like most homosexual and lesbian relationships that I see.”

Crosby, 35, was raised in Covington but was born in Louisville, where his father attended the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Crosby graduated from Vanderbilt University Divinity School. He has shared pastoral duties at Crescent Hill Baptist with Andrea Woolley for the last three years. 

The conversation about homosexuality and same-sex marriage began at Crescent Hill Baptist Church in 2012. The church had several openly gay members in prominent positions over the years, and some church members wanted to clarify the congregation’s position on the issues. In spring 2013, the church began a two-month process of Bible study and internal debate. Crosby said the congregation looked at the biblical passages involving homosexuality in context, even going so far as to look at the original Greek. In June 2013, the resolution announcing the acceptance of homosexual members and same-sex marriage was posted on Crescent Hill Baptist’s website. That is when KBC got involved. 

In June 2014, Crosby said KBC contacted his church about the statement on its website. The church was given the choice of walking away from the convention or being kicked out. “We had some more conversation here about what we should do,” Crosby reported. “Should we step away or should we express an interest in staying in fellowship with them? If the convention wanted to dismiss us, that was something they would have to do.”

In August of this year, Crescent Hill Baptist officials met with representatives from KBC and the Long Run Baptist Association, a network of over 160 autonomous Baptist churches in Bullitt, Jefferson, Oldham and Spencer counties. After the discussions failed to produce an accord, Long Run and then KBC ousted the church. 

Crosby admits that Crescent Hill Baptist Church has been at the liberal end of KBC and Long Run for decades. Although he regrets the loss of institutional and personal bonds, Crosby believes Crescent Hill Baptist is on the right side of history. “It has not been a part of our identity for many years, but many people in this church — including myself — grew up in what is now the KBC,” Crosby said. “This place has a history of being willing to make prophetic statements and to push the boundaries. This church was a leading voice for civil rights in the ’60s. This church led the way for full inclusion of women in ministry and church leadership in the ’80s. 

“We are a people at Crescent Hill Baptist who take the Bible seriously because we were taught to do so. We have studied and prayed over it. We are a people who take our Baptist history and its lessons seriously. And we also are a people who have seen our gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual Christians faithfully serving Christ and being in life-giving mutual relationships with one another.”

KBC executive director Paul Chitwood has no regrets about the split with Crescent Hill Baptist or any church that supports same-sex marriage. “There have been a number of churches that were formerly affiliated with KBC that have gone in this direction,” Chitwood said. “However, Kentucky Baptists, by and large, are people of the book. We believe the Bible speaks the truth and we adhere to its teachings. We have separated ourselves from churches that differ on this issue because if you listen to the authority of scripture, that is what is required.”

The hardline that most Baptist churches take on homosexuality has left gays who want to have a relationship with God searching for new sanctuaries. Joey Grubbs is a 29-year-old speech therapist in Louisville. He grew up in a conservative Missionary Baptist church in Hopkinsville, where women were required to wear dresses and not allowed to be leaders in the congregation. Grubbs, who is gay, said he was constantly hearing that homosexuality was a sin that would be rewarded with eternal damnation and hellfire.

As a student at Western Kentucky University, Grubbs avoided religion. But when he was a graduate student in Louisville, he began feeling the need for something more in his life than work and partying. Grubbs found the Open Door Community Fellowship on Southern Parkway, a majority gay congregation where even the pastor is a lesbian. 

“Growing up the way I did turned me away from the church,” he said. “It makes you feel unworthy of God’s love. I’m comfortable at Open Door because I’m surrounded by people who have had the same struggle as me.”

As attitudes towards homosexuality continue to change, there might not be a need for gay-oriented churches in the future. Crescent Hill Baptist Church will host its first same-sex marriage in the coming weeks. Although it is the beginning of a new era, Crosby likes to think Crescent Hill Baptist is in tune with the past, where Baptists were important crusaders for the separation of church and state and freedom of religion. “Baptists believe in believer’s baptism,” he said. “It is contingent on a person relationship with Christ, which anybody can experience. The hurdles for participation are low in that regard.”