Members of Wake Forest Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., gather during a social before their 2005 Magnolia Dinner on the campus of Wake Forest University.
WINSTON-SALEM — A progressive Baptist church once formally affiliated with Wake Forest University and kicked out of the Baptist Convention of North Carolina for its LGBT-inclusive practices is now protesting the anti-gay policies of a moderate Baptist association.
The historically progressive Wake Forest Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., founded in 1956 upon the move of Wake Forest College to the Twin City, is no stranger to inclusive spirituality or the controversy it causes. In their early years, the church opened its membership to African-Americans — before its affiliated university integrated its admissions policies in 1961.
(Ed. Note — This writer is a member of Wake Forest Baptist Church.)
Since the mid-1990s, the congregation has continuously debated and progressed on issues of LGBT inclusion in church life.
In 1997, a lesbian couple who were members of the church requested to use Wait Chapel, the campus’ sanctuary, for a commitment ceremony. As the church battled campus politics in order to have the commitment ceremony held in the historic chapel, national attention was drawn to the controversy by the Rev. Fred Phelps, founder of the “God Hates Fags” website and Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. Wake Forest University students rallied around the church and started their own push to have sexual orientation added as a protected category in the school’s non-discrimination policies. Because of their stands, the church was booted from their local Baptist association and the State Baptist Convention of North Carolina.
When the ceremony was finally held in 2000, the controversy made headlines across the nation. The uproar also caused hard feelings between the North Carolina Convention and Wake Forest University. A few years later, the school severed its ties with the religious body.
The documentary “A Union in Wait,” was made the same year and released in 2001.
Later, the church hired one of the lesbian women, Susan Parker, as their associate pastor. The church still meets in Wait Chapel on Wake Forest University’s Reynolda Campus.
The church is now protesting the anti-gay hiring policies of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, an association of Baptists usually seen as more moderate than the conservative Southern Baptist Convention. The protest, in the form of a reduction in the congregation’s annual contribution to the group, was explained in a letter from the church’s pastor to the Fellowship’s executive coordinator.
On June 23, 2008, Wake Forest Baptist’s pastor, Dr. Richard Groves, sent a letter to Daniel Vestal, the executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Along with the letter was a check for $100, an unusually low sum when compared to the past $1,500 annual contributions to the group from the congregation.
Groves explained the contribution reduction was in response to the Fellowship’s decision to prohibit the employment of LGBT individuals.
“At the present time, approximately one out of six members of Wake Forest Baptist Church is gay or lesbian,” wrote Groves. “We could not justify continuing to support in a major way (major for our congregation) an organization that on principle would discriminate against 15% of the members of our church on the basis of their sexuality.”
Groves also explained his personal protest of the group. “I have not attended a meeting of the CBF since the policy was approved,” he wrote. “The desire to appeal to the broad middle of the moderate movement that has been present since the beginning of the CBF is not one that our congregation has chosen to embrace, nor is it one I have chosen to embrace in my own ministry.”
During the week of July 13, Vestal responded to Wake Forest Baptist’s letter.
“I understand and appreciate where you and Wake Forest Baptist Church differ with our funding and hiring policy regarding homosexuals,” Vestal wrote. “This is an issue where Baptists have differences of conscience and convictions. I respect the protest of your congregation just as I respect the Fellowship’s decision to implement this policy.”
Vestal also thanked Groves for his “support and encouragement” during the early years of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s development. “I treasure your friendship and thank God for your ministry,” Vestal concluded.
Wake Forest’s Associate Pastor, Rev. Susan Parker said that the Fellowship, to her knowledge, had never discriminated against an entire congregation for their inclusive worship practices. The hiring policy prohibiting LGBT employees, however, is “something they’ve known has been a probelm for a long time,” Parker told Q-Notes.
“CBF does not have the same kind of organizational structure as the Southern Baptist Convention,” she said. “It really is more of a netowrk that connects congregations rather than a denominational set-up.”
Parker said that, despite the differences on the hiring policy, “it is important for congregations…to work together even if they don’t agree with everything. Otherwise, you stay so polarized that nothing can get done. That is one of the problems with our political system right now. That just ends up with nothing getting done.”
Lance Wallace, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s media coordinator, said his organization often hears concerns from Baptists on all sides of the issue.
“The policy strictly relates to CBF organizations and CBF, the corporation, if you will,” he said. “[The hiring policy] is not an official position and not in any way something enforced on individuals or churches in the fellowship.”
Wallace said the CBF respects traditional Baptist principles of soul competence and church autonomy.
“We feel like it is our Baptist principles that prevent us from making a stronger statement [on the issue],” he told Q-Notes. “It is a difficult document from that standpoint. It is certainly not a litmus test for membership in the CBF.”
Wake Forest Baptist Church is also a member of the Alliance of Baptists, a moderate-to-progressive association whose majority of members welcome and affirm LGBT worshipers.
Alliance of Baptists churches and their often progressive and inclusive approaches to church life and spirituality aren’t uncommon in the Carolinas. Other Alliance churches in the Carolinas include Asheville’s First Baptist and Circle of Mercy, Chapel Hill’s Binkley Memorial, Greensboro’s College Park, Mars Hill Baptist, Charlotte’s Myers Park, Raleigh’s Pullen Memorial and Winston-Salem’s Knollwood Baptist.
Among the Alliance communities in South Carolina are Greenville’s First Baptist, Greenwood’s First Baptist and New Heights Baptist in Gaffney.
Founded in 1987, the Alliance of Baptists’ mission statement calls churches to, among other tasks, “make the worship of God primary in all our gatherings, create places of refuge and renewal for those who are wounded or ignored by the church, side with those who are poor, pursue justice with and for those who are oppressed, and hold ourselves accountable for equity, collegiality, and diversity.”
On April 17, 2004, the Alliance of Baptists passed a statement opposing federal and state constitutional amendments banning recognition of same-sex relationships.
At a glance: CBF and homosexuality
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) “Organizational Policy on Homosexual Behavior Related to Personnel and Funding” was adopted by the organization in 2000.
The policy reads:
“As Baptist Christians, we believe that the foundation of a Christian sexual ethic is faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman and celibacy in singleness. We also believe in the love and grace of God for all people, both for those who live by this understanding of the biblical standard and those who do not. We treasure the freedom of individual conscience and the autonomy of the local church, and we also believe that congregational leaders should be persons of moral integrity whose lives exemplify the highest standards of Christian conduct and character.
“Because of this organizational value, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship does not allow for the expenditure of funds for organizations or causes that condone, advocate or affirm homosexual practice. Neither does this CBF organizational value allow for the purposeful hiring of a staff person or the sending of a missionary who is a practicing homosexual.”
According to CBF, the policy is not binding on local churches or individual church members and acts only as an internal policy for hiring and funding for the organization.
“We feel like it is our Baptist principles that prevent us from making a stronger statement [on the issue],” CBF Media Coordinator Lance Wallace told Q-Notes. “It is a difficult document fromm that standpoint. It is certainly not a litmus test for membership in the CBF.”
The Baptist principles listed in the statement include: Soul Freedom, or “the freedom and responsibility of every person to relate directly to God without the imposition of creed or the control of clergy or government;” Bible Freedom, or “the freedom and right of every Christian to interpret and apply scripture under the leadership of the Holy Spirit;” Church Freedom, or the autonomy of the local church; and Religious Freedom, or the belief “in freedom of religion, freedom for religion, and freedom from religion,” and support for the separation of church and state.”