Greetings in the Name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! Recently, I learned of your public protest against the leadership of Dr. Forrest Harris, President of American Baptist College of Nashville, and his decision to invite Bishop Yvette Flunder, Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak and myself as speakers for the Garnett-Nabrit Lecture Series.
As the Senior Pastor of an active, voting member church of the National Baptist Convention, USA Incorporated, I feel compelled to provide a response to your concerns given the nature of the assumptions advanced in your press release. This response is my own, and was not solicited by Dr. Harris, Bishop Flunder, or anyone else. But since your campaign alleges that our participation as speakers for the lecture series is “a scandal and travesty of the highest order, and a great disservice and injustice to the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc.,” I want to make sure my perspective is registered for posterity as an NBCUSA pastor.
This is a critical time for the Black Church…and the philosophical perspectives advanced in your missive have the potential to further divide the church and prevent us from making the kind of strides necessary for building a beloved community. I welcome the opportunity to have more in depth dialogue with any of you at any time if you so desire. This is a critical time for the Black Church and the communities we serve, and the philosophical perspectives advanced in your missive have the potential to further divide the church and prevent us from making the kind of strides necessary for building a beloved community.
There are several things I find disconcerting about the positions advanced in your communication. First, the grounds upon which you are seeking some form of reprisal against Dr. Harris and to have Bishop Flunder disinvited as a speaker seem to be a departure from Baptist heritage, practice, and beliefs, and seem contrary to what one would expect from an institution of higher learning that seeks to encourage the free exchange of ideas.
To my knowledge, the National Baptist Convention USA, Incorporated has never sought to impose the theological views of any group of clergy on other pastors or affiliated institutions and organizations; whether the views involved perspectives on Christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, soteriology, the nature of Biblical authority, the ordination of women in ministry or the diaconate, ministry to same-gender-loving people, etc.
The reason for this is that Baptists have historically affirmed four “freedoms” as distinctive and characteristic of Baptist heritage and faith. Those freedoms are: Religious Freedom, Church Freedom, Bible Freedom, and Soul Freedom (or freedom of conscience). Baptists have historically sought to protect the right of individual churches, pastors, and laypeople to discern God’s Will for their lives and their congregations.
As such, there are within our convention a range of views on all of these issues. Baptists have maintained fellowship and preserved the associational principle not by imposing a majority opinion, on any of these issues, but by affirming the autonomy of the local church and the priesthood of the believer to interpret scripture and discern God’s will.
To accept the range of theological views and doctrinal practice and belief on every other doctrinal issue except perspectives on human sexuality is a disturbing contradiction that hints of bias. There are a range of views in our convention on speaking in tongues for example, on whether women can be deacons or ordained to preach, on the return of Christ, on whether there should be Baptist bishops, the list goes on and on.
Baptists have historically, and even in the present day in our convention, responded to these issues by affirming the principle of local autonomy which is at the heart of the “four freedoms” mentioned above. It is what I hold so dear about being Baptist; that we are able to affirm the great and rich diversity that is at the heart of our unity; that we don’t have to have theological or doctrinal uniformity in order to be unified; and that we can discuss our theological, doctrinal, and interpretive differences without demonizing those who hold a different perspective. It is what I hold so dear about being Baptist; that we are able to affirm the great and rich diversity that is at the heart of our unity.
It is my hope that leaders of the convention will respond to perspectives on human sexuality, as controversial as they may be for some, by likewise affirming the right of individual Baptist/Christian churches, pastors, and laypeople to prayerfully discern God’s will and interpret scripture for themselves. To do otherwise, to attempt to selectively impose the views of some (even if they are in the majority) upon others is in my opinion a very dangerous precedent for the Christian Church and our denomination.
My second concern about your campaign has to do with the appearance of selective outrage embedded in your organizational efforts. Your stated goal, as I understand it, is to protect family, the church, and “a biblical worldview.” As such, you request among other things that (1) Dr. Harris inform all NBC churches, parents, and trustees of Bishop Flunder’s marital status, (2) Bishop Flunder’s invitation be rescinded, and (3) if she is not disinvited, that she not be allowed to speak in facilities owned by NBCUSA, Inc.
What disturbs me about these requests is that they are not made for clergy leaders who commit a host of other “sins” believed to undermine marriage, family, the Bible, and the Church. For example, I have never heard similar demands made about clergy who commit adultery, have been divorced, or who have been remarried multiple times; to say nothing of the other “sins”…like gluttony, pride, drunkedness condemned in scripture.
Because I have recently been on the receiving end of clergy reprisals in another organization for my support of marriage equality, I find it interesting that clergy leaders do not exhibit the same kind of moral outrage against pastors who have extramarital affairs, or who engage in a host of behaviors supposedly prohibited by scripture.
I have yet to see clergy establish a campaign to disinvite adulterous, divorced or remarried pastors, or to propose denying the right to speak and preach in their church and facilities. I have yet to see a movement of clergy seeking to deny equal treatment under the law to adulterers, fornicators, drunkards, or those who have been divorced under the auspices of protecting marriage, family, and the Bible. This kind of selective outrage opens the church up to the charge of hypocrisy and undermines the ability of clergy leaders to minister with integrity and honesty.
Thirdly, your press release implies that your view of ‘homosexuality’ is THE evangelical perspective for “all Bible believing ministries that are proffering biblical, Spirit-led solutions to the ills of our nation.” The veiled implication here is that those who hold a different view of this issue are in some way not Bible believing Christians.
My unapologetic support for gay and lesbian Christians is not despite my view of Scripture, but because of it. I want it to be very clear that I regard myself as an evangelical pastor who believes in the authority of Scripture. As such, my unapologetic support for gay and lesbian Christians is not despite my view of Scripture, but because of it.
As a believer and Bible scholar, my careful and close reading of the Old and New Testaments in their original languages leads me to very different conclusions about what the scriptures commonly used to condemn gays and lesbians are actually referencing. While space does not allow for an in-depth exploration of these texts, I think it is important to understand that faithful, Spirit-filled Christians can read these very same texts and arrive at very different conclusions than your own.
Rather than engaging in ad hominem attacks, and discouraging dialogue, I think the Church could be better served by modeling a culture wherein believers can have open-minded conversation about these texts and their contexts, rather than taking their meanings for granted.
Fourth, regardless of one’s view of Scripture, the issue of marriage equality is decidedly a matter of civil law. As you well know, the principle of “separation of church and state” is a deeply held tenet of Baptist heritage and belief.
The public policy debate about “same-sex marriage” is about the right of gay and lesbian couples to receive a civil marriage license issued by the State. While every religious institution has the right to define the religious rite of marriage in accordance with its own beliefs and practices, the State has a duty to protect the rights of all its citizens.
For me, what makes our country great is that people have freedom “of” and “from” religion. My unapologetic support of marriage equality is based upon my view that we ought to protect the public square from the imposition of religious dogma in matters of public policy. For me, what makes our country great is that people have freedom “of” and “from” religion.
We see internationally what happens when perhaps sincere people attempt to use their religion as a basis for governing. It leads to conflict, violence, and war. When it comes to marriage, the State has always allowed those whom many churches would never marry to receive a civil marriage license. For example, many churches would never marry an atheist seeking to wed a Satanist, and yet those two people, whose union may not be recognized by many religious institutions, have the right in our democratic society to be married by the state.
Even as a person of faith, I could not be married in some other religious institutions because I do not subscribe to their religious beliefs and practices. The religious rite of marriage is distinct and separate from the civil right of marriage accorded by the state. In a free pluralistic democracy, we do not want people to deny fellow Americans equal treatment under the law based upon their religious beliefs.
In the past, we have seen how dangerous this kind of thinking can be, and it would be a very dangerous precedent for the world in which we live today. It would take this country back to a time when discrimination is codified as a matter of law, but under the guise of religion.
Lastly, permit me to say something about your avowed attempts to “curb the downward moral tide of our nation.” What concerns me when I listen to the debate in the church about morality is that quite often there appears to be a great deal of righteous indignation about matters of personal morality, but relative silence and indifference on matters of corporate “sin” and social morality.
The family and the Black community are impacted as much if not more by what is taking place in corporate boardrooms than they are with what is happening in people’s bedrooms. When Wall Street, K Street, Congress, and the White House were colluding in the ‘90’s to deregulate the banking industry, the church and clergy leaders were silent, and as a result we have seen the largest loss of Black wealth in history during the global financial crisis.
The Black community and the Black family are suffering today because of the church’s total disregard for such systemic injustices. While conservative think tanks were trying to figure out ways to gut the Voting Rights Act, to advance voter suppression strategies, and to undermine our democracy with the Citizens United case, the church and clergy leaders were relatively silent. As the Right organizes to reverse the advances of the Civil Rights Movement, the church still seems anemic.
We suffer today because our notions of morality and theology have been restricted to notions of personal piety and individual salvation. The witness of Scripture and the legacy of the Black Church suggest that the best of our faith is grounded in the conviction that morality is as much corporate in nature as it is private, and seeks to address systemic sin and social injustice in the world.
The Church has endured the test of time because it has recognized the rich and great diversity in the Christian communion without regarding that theological diversity as a threat to the Good News of Jesus Christ. It is for these reasons that Bishop Flunder, Dr. Boesak, and my presence at the lecture series is far from “irresponsible, scandalous, non-biblical, and certainly displeasing to God,” as you state.
There may indeed be strongly held perspectives on all sides, but the witness of Scripture is that the Christian Church has endured the test of time because it has recognized the rich and great diversity in the Christian communion without regarding that theological diversity as a threat to the Good News of Jesus Christ.
I humbly submit this response in hopes that it will engender open dialogue and reflection, rather than professional reprisal and retaliation. In a world that is fractured by religious war and strife, let us model a culture of compassionate faith seeking understanding.
I provide this response in a spirit of brotherly love, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss these matters further if you so desire.
Rev. Delman Coates, Ph.D., Senior Pastor
Mt. Ennon Baptist Church
This letter was originally published by Mt. Ennon Baptist Church and has been modified for this post.