How does a church respond when it is “thrust into a maelstrom of hate and disinformation,” in the words of Denny Burk, as First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Florida was last week? FBC Jacksonville announced an open mic night, where quite literally anyone was welcome to come and say quite literally anything. Burk, who is president of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and professor of biblical studies at Boyce College, called the event “one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen.” For more than an hour, Senior Pastor Health Lambert dialogued winsomely with church members and community members alike.
The origins of the controversy date back to October, when the members of FBC Jacksonville unanimously voted to adopt a statement on biblical sexuality, which they “added to the church’s doctrinal statement as a requirement for membership,” Burk explained. The statement didn’t make news because it was “old news,” he said. It simply set forth the classic Christian position based on the classic Christian scriptures:
As a member of First Baptist Church, I believe that God creates people in his image as either male or female, and that this creation is a fixed matter of human biology, not individual choice. I believe marriage is instituted by God, not government, is between one man and one woman, and is the only context for sexual desire and expression. Genesis 1:27; 2:24; Matthew 19:5; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11
Church members have until March 19 to sign the addition to the church’s doctrinal statement to remain in membership.
Local media somehow uncovered the development last week — and were none too pleased. According to press reports, the statement has caused “controversy,” “created backlash,” and “makes clear that LGBTQ freedoms are not welcome in the church.” One reporter quoted a community member’s plea for inclusivity, “We need to love on one another and embrace one another. Not to judge, not to separate.” Another reporter quoted the pastor of a local PCUSA church, “We don’t think that anything other than faith in Christ should be what determines membership.”
Then, when the church held an open mic night to address community confusion, a “queer”-identifying woman named Katie walked through the door — and up to a microphone. Katie’s statement was angry and erroneous at times, but it stands out for its uncanny perceptiveness; this church opponent understood church better than many churchgoers do.
“The decision to have your members sign any form of contract to attend turns your church into an organization, a club,” said Katie. “This church is no longer a religious place of worship welcome to all. These sexuality oaths are drawing a clear line in the sand, showing us who you truly welcome, which is by no means all.”
These comments deserve at least a grade of “A-” because they are nearly spot-on. First, a Christian church is not a place at all. The Greek word translated church is “ecclesia,” which means assembly or congregation. A church is a group of Christians gathered together. In fact, the members of FBC Jacksonville recently voted to conform their practice to this definition by consolidating their campuses into a single meeting location.
Second, a church has (or should have) membership, which designates who is out and who is in. Like an organization or a club, Christians are “members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19) and “members of the body” of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12).
Third, a church’s covenant and doctrinal statements make its membership exclusive. By signing them, members affirm their shared beliefs and agree, by God’s grace, to live accordingly. The New Testament teaches that those who believe in Jesus will lead radically transformed lives, and a church devoted to advancing the message of the gospel serves neither Christians nor non-Christians by blurring that distinction. In fact, Jesus commanded the church to treat outsiders and insiders differently, and even put out of membership any professing Christians who persist in unrepentant sin (Matthew 18:17).
The only flaw in Katie’s statement is where she suggests, as a corollary to these truths, that not all people are welcome at such a church. The most obvious refutation is the way FBC Jacksonville treated her. Even as she called their biblical sexuality statement “disgusting,” “abhorrently homophobic,” and “an action driven by bigotry,” the entire church listened politely to this outsider in their midst. No one interrupted her. Once she had finished, the pastor calmly and carefully responded to her concerns. While unbelievers are excluded from a church’s membership, they are welcome at a church’s gatherings. This is because a Christian, like his Lord, “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). What better place to hear the truth than at a gathering of saints?
Katie also correctly asserted that the reaffirmation of biblical sexuality “just adds to the mountains of resentment that LGBTQ+ people already have for the church at large.” First, it’s true that people who identify as LGBTQ+ often resent the church. This is merely a particular application of a general truth. Jesus told his disciples, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19). The very distinction between the church and the world that the church is called to highlight will incite the world’s hatred.
Second, when the church reaffirms the Bible’s teaching on sexuality and marriage (or on any other topic), it adds to the animosity of those who live in rebellion to that teaching — particularly if they live it out. Proximity to both holy teaching and holy living bring sinners an unpleasant conviction of sin. Regarding holy teaching, Jesus said, “Everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:20). Peter added that unbelievers “are surprised when you [believers] do not join them in the same flood of debauchery [including ‘sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry’], and they malign you” (1 Peter 4:4).
Yet Katie sometimes swung wide of the mark. She once referred to God as “she,” giving evidence she does not know him, unfortunately. She also suggested that faithful obedience to the Bible’s teaching on sexuality is “not what God would want.” Yet God, for our benefit, has written down and preserved a record of what he wants, so that we don’t have to live in doubt. Paul wrote, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “This is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God …” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5).
Most of Katie’s objections boiled down to a single premise: “Members of the LGBTQ+ community do not choose this way of life.” She returned to this theme continually, suggesting that people who identify as LGBT experience discrimination “for simply being who we are” and because they don’t “hide who we are.” By this logic, FBC Jacksonville’s biblical sexuality statement “says we don’t exist,” “erasing our existence,” and “ignoring the reality of the queer community.”
Instead, Katie insisted, “It is your religion that is a choice. You are not born Baptist. You chose it.”
It is true that no one is born Baptist, but for the same reason it is false that members of the LGBTQ+ community do not choose their lifestyle. The truth is that “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:3). Our natural state is one of willful rebellion against God. Everyone has chosen to reject God and pursue their own sinful desires. Those with homosexual desires choose to indulge those desires in defiance of God’s natural order. Those with heterosexual desires also choose to indulge their desires contrary to God’s ordinance of marriage. Those who are proud, greedy, covetous, ambitious, jealous, selfish, envious, and impatient also choose rebellion against God to satisfy their ungodly desires. As Pastor Lambert put it, “Anybody in the LGBTQ+ community is indicted by the sin, the same way anyone else is when they lust in their heart.”
The marvelous truth of the gospel is that God not only pardons rebels against his righteous rule, but that he himself bore the punishment for their sin. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This salvation is offered freely to all sinners, no matter how much they have sinned or how. Homosexuality is not a special category of sin that slips through the net of God’s forgiveness. But those who are saved must “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Lambert made this point in his response when he quoted 1 Corinthians 6:9-11:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
Just like every other sinner, those who practice homosexuality can be washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. So, of course Christians want people who identify as LGBT to come to a church gathering and hear the gospel!
Still, Katie’s statement remains a sticking point, “Members of the LGBTQ+ community do not choose this way of life.” It’s a claim more often made than substantiated, because its scientific proof comes up short. Nevertheless, it’s hard to form a response because the claim is often not scientific at all; it’s a claim of identity. “What we’ve got here is a disagreement,” said Lambert. “The folks who are so upset about this — they have a source of authority. And that source of authority is their own heart. … It’s about, ‘I get to decide what is right for me.’ As Christians, we have had to say, ‘I don’t get to decide what’s right for me. I have to do what the Lord tells me to do.’”
Ultimately, the identity of someone enslaved to their own sinful desires will not be transformed by mere persuasion. Such radical transformation is only possible when the Spirit of God works to convict and renew their heart. Thankfully, God has made a practice of saving even the most wretched sinners, ever since he blinded Persecutor Numero Uno on the road to Damascus and transformed him into his most zealous, relentless apostle. Whenever God does something humanly impossible, then he gets the glory.
It seems humanly impossible that Katie, who encouraged members to leave FBC Jacksonville over its biblical sexuality statement, would submit her heart to the authority of Scripture and confess Jesus as Lord. Yet, “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). She might resent Christians and love her sin, but her heart isn’t beyond the reach of God. What a great testimony it would be to God’s transforming grace if this brave and intelligent woman devoted her life to advancing the kingdom of God!
So, instead of subtly and silently judging her for her sin (which is God’s role anyway), let’s pray that Katie would find salvation instead.