By R. Albert Mohler Jr., www.albertmohler.com
The historic First Baptist Church of Greenville, South Carolina, announced in May that it would declare itself be “open and welcoming” to all people and that it would allow same-sex marriage and ordain openly homosexual ministers.
The move came after the church had undergone a “discernment” process under the leadership of a “LGBT Discernment Team.” That team brought a report to the church’s deacons, who then forwarded it to the congregation. The church then approved the statement by standing vote.
The statement is very clear: “In all facets of the life and ministry of our church, including but not limited to membership, baptism, ordination, marriage, teaching and committee/organizational leadership, First Baptist Greenville will not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity.”
The Greenville News told of the congregation’s discernment process and then introduced its news story like this:
“Would the congregation be willing to allow same-sex couples to marry in the church? To ordain gay ministers? To embrace the complexities of gender identity? In an evangelical church born in the antebellum South? Whose founder more than a century and a half ago served as the inaugural president of the Southern Baptist Convention? Here, in Greenville? The answer to each was ‘yes.’”
The congregation, now more than 180 years old, is one of the most historic churches in the South. It participated in the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845 and its pastor, William Bullein Johnson, became the SBC’s first president. The church was largely responsible for the birth of Furman University and its old “church house” became the first home of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1859. Few churches in the South can match its historical record.
Nevertheless, First Baptist Greenville and the Southern Baptist Convention had moved in very different theological directions in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The church was moving steadily in a more liberal direction and the Southern Baptist Convention was moving to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture and a far more confessional understanding of its identity.
The church and the denomination were set on a collision course, and the congregation voted to withdraw from the Southern Baptist Convention in 1999. If that had not happened, the SBC would have moved to withdraw fellowship on the basis of the church’s announcement in May. The denomination has adopted a policy of withdrawing fellowship from any church that affirms or endorses homosexuality.
By the early 1990s, it was clear that the historic church and the denomination it helped to establish were operating in different theological worlds. The Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention met stiff opposition from many old-line churches like First Baptist Church in Greenville. The Greenville church included many faculty members from nearby Furman University, which also separated itself from the South Carolina Baptist Convention.
The central issue of dispute was the inerrancy of the Bible.