The conversation at First Baptist Church Greenville took place well before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this summer to legalize same-sex marriages.
The dialogue was bold — particularly for one of downtown Greenville’s influential legacy churches that in its earliest years served as a birthplace for revered Southern Baptist institutions.
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.”
But the answers didn’t come simply.
“What I heard was, ‘We need to do the right thing, regardless of what anybody thinks or says about us,’” says Jim Dant, the 184-year-old church’s senior minister who led the church through its six-month discernment. “There were a few people who said, ‘Are they going to start calling us the gay church in town?’”
The dialogue culminated into a consensus — the kind that, by the earliest tradition of Baptist discernment, resulted in a public affirmation by each present member.
The call wasn’t to render a verdict on whether homosexuality is right or wrong.
Instead, it was the general agreement of a congregation that it could hold divergent personal beliefs but still come together in a desire to worship and serve.
Now, as churches across the land wrestle with how a secular, Supreme Court decision might impact their religion, First Baptist finds itself in an unlikely leadership position.
It’s not one the church set out to claim — but it’s one Dant says he hopes could bring new hope to those who for years have felt they had to abandon their evangelical heritage.
From humble beginnings, First Baptist emerged as the birthplace of institutions shaping theology, education and politics in the region.
It was one of the original five downtown churches — Christ Church, First Presbyterian, Buncombe Street Methodist, St. Mary’s Catholic, First Baptist — deeded land from the fortune of Vardry McBee, who in the mid-1800s along with his heirs plotted the future of the fledgling town’s identity.
William Bullein Johnson — a preacher who came to Greenville in the 1820s to lead the Greenville Female Academy — served as the chief fundraiser for what would become Greenville First Baptist in 1831, housed in a small building on the corner of Irvine Street and McBee Avenue.
When the Southern Baptist Convention formed in 1845, Johnson served as its first president.
Furman University, a Baptist denominational school, was born under the church’s wing.
The college’s success prompted a move in 1858 to a grand, more spacious home at the corner of West McBee Avenue and River Street, a Greek Revival building designed by famed Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The strength of the church led to the formation of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — today one of the largest Christian seminaries in the world — in the church’s former meeting house.
The church adopted the name First Baptist Church in 1890.
Its congregation swelling by the end of the 1960s, church elders decided it was time to move the church — along with its name — to a new, expansive campus on Cleveland Street.
There, the church has served as a community institution — a vibrant daycare and kindergarten, recreational nucleus and faith home to thousands
Throughout the years, First Baptist has identified itself as a congregation of moderate temperament.
And for years, the LGBT community has worshiped in the church alongside heterosexual peers.
The sentiment throughout much of the church’s recent history, Dant says, was one of general acceptance of the LGBT community, but with an unspoken, de facto “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
When the church recently decided to state its position clearly, it at first was “headed down the road to having a vote with winners and losers.”
Instead, he says, the conversation began as one of discernment with an eye toward reaching a statement of consensus.
Over the course of four Sunday evenings in November, more than 200 people sat in circles of eight and engaged in candid discussions.
Personal convictions varied, Dant says, and members made themselves vulnerable, on all sides, in a spirit of fellowship.
The discussions distilled into a central question: “Can you worship and live with the LGBT community in the church?”
The answer, for the most part, was yes.
The members then affirmed that “being open and welcoming to all people is part of the essential nature of our community of faith.”
The next crucial step, Dant says, was assuring members that no one would try to tell them that their personal convictions were wrong.
The process led to a brief but pointed consensus statement: “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.”
In May, members of the congregation during a service were invited to stand to affirm the consensus statement. The vast majority stood. The few who didn’t were then offered the opportunity to stand to agree to remain in fellowship.
By the end, all were standing.
Today, First Baptist can perform same-sex marriages.
And members, no matter their sexual orientation, can serve in leadership roles and can be ordained as ministers.
This isn’t the first time the church has found itself examining anew what it means to be Baptist — and found itself embarking on a journey largely on its own.
In 1999, First Baptist disassociated itself from the Southern Baptist Convention — the second-largest Christian organization in America behind the Catholic Church — amid concerns that the coalition had become too rigid and too tied to a hierarchical creed.
For decades, the Southern Baptist Convention has condemned homosexuality as a sin and has called on followers to encourage repentance.
The week before the Supreme Court’s June 26 decision, the SBC affirmed in a resolution that same-sex marriage “will continue to weaken the institution of the natural family unit and erode the religious liberty and rights of conscience of all who remain faithful to the idea of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife.”
The resolution also put forth that “Southern Baptists love our neighbors and extend respect in Christ’s name to all people, including those who may disagree with us about the definition of marriage and the public good.”
The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Albert Mohler Jr., issued a statement calling the court’s decision “a central assault upon marriage as the conjugal union of a man and a woman.”
After it broke from the SBC, First Baptist affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, an umbrella coalition of moderate Baptist churches that broke away from the SBC in 1991.
The CBF consists of nearly 2,000 Baptist congregations that choose to associate but with no delegations and no hierarchical resolutions nor proclamations about social issues.
However, the CBF as an organization hasn’t endorsed same-sex marriage nor LGBT ordination and leadership.
In its “organizational policy on homosexual behavior related to personnel and funding,” the CBF states that while it honors the autonomy of each individual church, “the foundation of a Christian sexual ethic is faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman and celibacy in singleness.”
This “organizational value does not allow for the expenditure of funds for organizations or causes that condone, advocate or affirm homosexual practice,” the CBF states, nor does it “allow for the purposeful hiring of a staff person or the sending of a missionary who is a practicing homosexual.”
The National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. — an organization made up of 31,000 predominantly African-American Baptist churches — stands by a position it took in 2012, the convention’s president, Jerry Young, said in a statement.
The NBC took the stance that, recognizing the autonomy of each local church, it doesn’t dictate to constituent churches what position to take, but that marriage is a “sacred Biblical covenant between a man and a woman.”
“The Supreme Court’s decision today does not alter nor change our Convention’s position as it relates to our commitment to what we believe to be a clear mandate, in light of Biblical theology, to the church on the institution of marriage,” Young said.
On the question of whether same-sex marriage is wrong, First Baptist took no position, Dant says, except that members are entitled to their personal convictions.
But throughout its discussions, the church examined scripture and the common arguments made in the debate over the legitimacy of homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
One question that arose was whether Christians are bound to Old Testament Levitical law, which states that a man “shall not lie with a man as with a woman.”
However, Levitical law also allows for husbands to treat their wives and daughters as property, Dant says. Other sections encourage slavery, he says.
“There’s no family value system in the Bible that we would lay into the 21st century,” he says. “We don’t have two wives and sleep with our maids and have a bunch of children and that be fine. What we believe about marriage and family is culturally driven, not biblically driven.”
In the New Testament, Dant points to a story in the Acts of the Apostles, which recounts Philip speaking to an Ethiopian eunuch, who under Old Testament law would have been considered an outcast among Jews.
The eunuch was an Ethiopian by birth, a eunuch by choice. In either case, the conventional belief was that he wasn’t fit to be baptized into the Christian faith.
But, under the teachings of Jesus Christ, Philip saw no reason for him to be excluded.
The story, Dant says, speaks to whether its relevant that someone is born gay or chooses to be.
“It really didn’t matter if he was born the way he was or chose the way he was,” Dant says. “Either way, in the eyes of the law, he didn’t have a fighting chance to get in. But in the gospel of Jesus Christ, Philip saw no reason he couldn’t be baptized or welcomed into the faith — whether he was born the way he was or chose the way he was.”
First Baptist issued no press release upon its decision.
The conversation was “a beautiful, internal discussion,” Dant says, not undertaken with an eye toward its impact on the community.
But the decision has the potential to reverberate beyond the sanctuary and Bible study halls into the community.
For years, gay Christians raised in the evangelical tradition have worshiped in evangelical churches, though under a veil of secrecy, Dant says.
Not every gay Christian wants to have a home that requires him or her to join the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) or follow an Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, both denominations whose higher leadership has endorsed gay marriage.
The right to be married, take a leadership role or be ordained in the church, Dant says, will come with the same requirements of discernment that heterosexuals are bound to follow.
“In some ways, it’s going to open up a space for evangelical gay people to have a place again,” he says. “There will be a voice of biblical interpretation in the evangelical world that says the way this has been interpreted by the average preacher on AM radio every Sunday is not the only way that evangelicals read biblical literature.”