KENNESAW, Ga. – Two weeks after being kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention, Towne View Baptist Church celebrated its 32nd anniversary by formally accepting members the SBC said they should have turned away.
One by one, Pastor Jim Conrad introduced seven new members, which in the Baptist tradition have to be approved by a majority of the congregation. He didn’t mention that Brockton Bates and his partner, Skyler, were gay nor that another new member was transgender. He didn’t have to. His church knew who they were and had spent the past two years coming to terms with the fact that inclusion for Towne View had to look different from what was required to remain in the SBC, whose bylaws say, “Churches which act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior would be deemed not to be in cooperation with the Convention.”
On Feb. 23, the SBC Executive Committee voted to remove Towne View for affirming LGBTQ members, the culmination of a two-year inquiry.
“Essentially, the SBC has decided that because we welcomed these folks into our family that we’re no longer welcome in their family, and we’re OK with that,” Conrad said. “What we decided is that when we say everybody’s welcome, that means everybody.”
The journey to oppose the nation’s largest Baptist convention was an arduous one that cost the church members and financial contributions. Its exclusion from the SBC has sparked wider conversations about what it means to be a Southern Baptist in modern America.
For Bates, a lifelong Baptist who as a child was pushed toward faith-based conversion therapy to “literally try to pray the gay away,” Towne View took a meaningful stand. After he and his partner took the stage March 7, the church “exploded” with applause and approval. For the first time in his life, he fully celebrated his Baptist faith without hiding his sexuality.
It was different than any other experience of joining a church,” Bates said. “I could authentically be who God created me to be and I didn’t have to hide it.
“To see that happen for us means it can happen for other people as well.”
‘Global responsibility’:Christians mark another pandemic Easter as pope pleads for equity in vaccine rollout
The email that changed a church
In 1992, the SBC amended its bylaws to include language opposing LGBTQ members. That year, the SBC used the rules to remove two North Carolina churches, said Curtis Freeman, director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School.
It’s a contested issue that goes back a number of years,” Freeman said. “Since then, a number of churches have been removed.”
Conrad never imagined it was a rule he would have to contend with.
That changed in May 2019 when he received an email from John Reynolds, a hospital administrator from Indiana who had just moved to Dallas, Georgia, with his partner, John McClanahan, and their three adopted boys.
His basic question was ‘Would my family be welcomed in your church?’ I’d never had anyone ask me that question before,” Conrad said.
Conrad was aware of the bylaws. As a teenager, he had forged his faith in a conservative Baptist church in Stuart, Florida, when the state Legislature was working to prohibit adoptions for gay parents. He began to reexamine the church’s teachings after the shooting in 2016 that killed 45 people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, but he admits he “wrestled with how someone could be gay and a believer.”
“Growing up in a conservative Baptist church, the message of homosexuality was that it was sinful. Period. End of story,” Conrad said.
Conrad connected to Reynolds’ story. Reynolds had spent most of his life attending Baptist sermons despite “living a double life” to avoid ostracization. When he met his partner, they stopped attending because they knew their relationship would not be welcomed. They spent Sundays at home and sent their sons to church with Reynolds’ parents. For a short spell, the couple attended an inclusive Disciples of Christ church in Nebraska – the first church they attended where they could be open about their relationship – but they hadn’t found an inclusive church that “felt like home.”
“There’s a lot about the Baptist faith that we value,” Reynolds said. “When we adopted three boys, we wanted that faith to be part of their life.”
After moving to the Bible Belt, Reynolds scoured Baptist church websites for signs of LGBTQ opposition. He sent 15 or so emails to those that didn’t show red flags. Conrad, whose church was 35 minutes away in the Atlanta suburb of Kennesaw, was one of only “two or three” to respond.
“I was like, I can either tell this guy ‘No’ or say something kinder and say we’re not ready for that,” Conrad said. “And if I’d told him either of those answers, we wouldn’t have had any controversy; nobody would have left and nobody would have known. But I couldn’t have slept at night.”
The family began attending, and in the fall of 2019, Reynolds and McClanahan became the first gay members approved by the church body. Reynolds said the vote was “nerve wracking,” but 70% of the almost 200-person congregation approved their membership after a recommendation from Conrad and the church deacons – who had varied opinions on the matter.
“There was just a huge sense of relief that these relationships that we had formed, that they were real and not just people being nice,” Reynolds said.
Conrad lost a third of his congregation to other churches after some members organized a walkout. Fewer worshippers meant Towne View lost 40% of its revenue, and Conrad was forced to cut some staff. An anonymous report was submitted to the SBC, which notified Towne View that its actions were being reviewed.
“One man came up to me. I had baptized him, performed his wedding, baptized his children, done the funeral for his mother. He said ‘Thank you for everything you’ve done for my family but we won’t be back,’” Conrad said. “We lost some good friends, some good leaders, a good bit of income, but we felt it was the right thing for us to do.”
Reynolds said he and his partner hadn’t gone to Towne View looking to change a church: “We weren’t even looking for one to affirm everything about us and love us. Just a place where sermons wouldn’t tell us our lifestyles were wrong or that we were living in sin.”
Reynolds and McClanahan moved to Indiana to be closer to family during the pandemic.
After the SBC decision, Conrad called them to thank them for moving the church in the right direction.
Towne View has eight LGBTQ members and five who worship regularly but have not joined.
It’s a direction Reynolds said more Southern Baptist churches need to go.
“I feel like most people know or are related to someone who is LGBT, so when you say this group of people is not welcome to be part of our faith tradition, you’re closing yourself off to a very large cross section of the country,” Reynolds said.
What can I do if I’m vaccinated against COVID-19, but my child isn’t? Here are activities health experts say are safe