The revelation that First Baptist Greenville would marry same-sex couples sparked renouncements and rejoice over the summer — left wing, right wing, casual non-believers, an issue wrapped in tradition and the ripe moment of a cause.
The dust had just begun to settle here in the cradle of conservative Baptist theology, but now another longtime Baptist church on the outskirts of downtown Greenville has aroused interest — and sparked new rounds of praise and condemnation.
Today, Augusta Heights Baptist Church finds itself in a similar position after its pastor officiated a same-sex marriage outside the church.
The blessing of the bond of two gay men has brought with it ultimatums from the Baptist organizations it has long affiliated with.
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Recently, both the Greenville Baptist Association and the larger South Carolina Baptist Convention voted to sever ties with Augusta Heights, demanding repentance in exchange for reunion.
It doesn’t appear that any will see the reconciliation they say they desire.
The church’s pastor, Greg Dover, told The Greenville News that he received permission from his deacons to perform the wedding and that the church itself took no position and has no intention of conducting a formal vote.
Meanwhile, both Baptist organizations told The News that while they are “heartbroken,” the issue of gay marriage is so integral to Southern Baptist theology that disaffiliation is necessary.
In March, Greg Dover answered the call to pastorship at Augusta Heights, a church of about 250 members and a modest fixture on Augusta Road for the past 65 years.
The 32-year-old Greenville High and Furman University grad received his master’s in divinity at Wake Forest University and his doctor of ministry from Drew University and had come from Earle Street Baptist Church as an associate pastor.
He grew up at First Baptist.
For the past 10 years, he says, he has believed and affirmed the sanctity of same-sex marriage.
The expression of that belief first came in May when longtime friends of him and his wife asked if he would perform their wedding at a location they had picked outside the church.
The two men, both teachers, had been together for eight years, engaged for four. They came to Augusta Heights in support of their friend but became members when they realized they felt welcomed by the larger congregation.
Dover told them he would be pleased to do it — but on one condition: He had to talk to his church’s leadership first.
The Baptist faith is known for its autonomy — commonly referred to within its circles as “soul freedom.”
Baptist churches are free to associate how they choose.
“I told them, ‘This is a wedding, there will be pictures, it’ll be on Facebook,’ ” he said.
The deacon leadership told him that if the wedding were to be performed in the church, it would be “a different conversation.” But as it stood, this was a call that he felt God had led him to follow and that they wouldn’t stand in the way.
“Essentially, they gave me the freedom to follow my convictions, which is a very Baptist thing to do,” Dover said. “I did not expect or ask everybody else to agree with me. I did not want to have our church take a vote or take an official position.”
The wedding was performed on Oct. 10.
The next day, Dover said he heard from people who had read the wedding announcement in the newspaper.
The day after that, he received a call from the Greenville Baptist Association and a request for a meeting.
“We’re Christ followers, and Jesus taught that marriage is a sacred relationship between a man and a woman,” Al Phillips, a Southern Baptist pastor and currently Director of Missions for the Greenville Baptist Association, told The News. “Jesus always offered grace, but he always demanded repentance from sin.”
Baptist churches can freely associate, Phillips said, but at an organizational level, they must hold each other accountable.
“There are a lot of things you can agree to disagree on, but this isn’t one of them,” he said.
A few days later, the association, which represents 114 Baptist churches in the Greenville area, met with Dover and discussed concerns.
The association wanted the church to repent and begin discussions to reconnect.
Dover shared that his church didn’t want to disassociate but that it had no policy to repent from and had no plans to vote on one.
On Oct. 22, the association voted unanimously to disassociate.
Three weeks later in its annual meeting, the South Carolina Baptist Convention — a coalition consisting of more than 2,000 Baptist churches in the state — did the same, citing “a burdened heart” and stating that “we cannot seek relevancy by applauding sin.”
“Affiliation is a two-way commitment,” the convention’s interim executive director, Richard Harris, told The News in a prepared statement. “Local churches can choose to affiliate or not to affiliate. Baptist denominations can do so likewise.”
The groups cite the “Baptist Faith and Message 2000,” a testament to Baptist beliefs that states marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
“South Carolina Baptist Convention leaders have expressed heartbreak over the decision, will continue praying for Augusta Heights Baptist Church and have left the door open for church leadership to repent and embrace Biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality, which is expressed in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.”
This is the first time the Greenville Baptist Association has had to disaffiliate over the issue of gay marriage, Phillips said.
“We’re praying that it will be the last,” he said. “Marriage is so holy and so important that it warrants the breaking of fellowship with a church that leaves the Biblical teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman.”
First Baptist Greenville wasn’t a member of the Greenville association, but was a member of the South Carolina convention, which ousted First Baptist over the summer when news arose of the church’s decision.
In that case, a six-month discernment process ended in a public affirmation of a 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.”
The essential message was that members might not agree on the issue of sin related to the LGBT community but that they could agree to worship in fellowship, First Baptist senior pastor Jim Dant told The News over the summer.
It was a bold move.
First Baptist was the birthplace of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — today one of the largest Christian seminaries in the world — and the church’s founding pastor served as the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845, an organization First Baptist left years ago based largely on the convention’s position on ordination of women.
Like Augusta Heights, First Baptist associated itself with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a more-moderate collection of churches, though the organization’s policy doesn’t allow it to spend funds on churches “that condone, advocate or affirm homosexual practice.”
Augusta Heights remains affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention — though Dover said he doesn’t know for how long.
Any break won’t come from the church, he said.
There are longtime Augusta Heights members who grew up in the evangelical tradition of the Southern church and consider affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention part of their identity, Dover said.
Still, he said, “we’re not going to be sitting by the phone. We’re going to continue doing what we’ve done.”
The church, Dover says, hasn’t lost any members as a result of his participation in the same-sex ceremony.
“This has become more of a galvanizing thing for our church,” he says.
Augusta Heights has always stirred the concern of its more-conservative affiliates.
In the 1960s, the church would marry divorcees. Women were allowed deacon positions in the 1970s. Today, a woman serves as associate pastor, and Dover figures the church might have been disassociated for that if a woman were called to lead the church.
Beliefs on same-sex marriage range within the church, he says.
There are some who believe homosexuality is a sin. Others don’t know if it’s a sin but don’t agree with gay marriage. Then there are those who believe that gay people are born the way God intended them and should have the same access to marital rites.
Dover says he is concerned that there exists a culture within the Baptist faith that is ashamed of a nuanced belief.
“I feel like there’s still this culture of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell' within the church,” he says.
Still, Augusta Heights won’t be asked by Dover to state a position, though he would lead the process for such a statement if desired by the congregation.
“I just don’t think that’s the healthy thing to do,” he said, “not for our church, not unless there was 100 percent consensus.”
For his part — and speaking only for himself — Dover says that he believes the Bible doesn’t condemn the monogamous union of two gay people. Jesus, he says, never spoke on the subject, and study of scripture must always take into account context, such as how words translated from various languages apply.
Slavery, the separation of races and the denial of women in leadership roles were all sanctioned by the Bible in clear language.
“The Bible has been very clear about a lot of things that we have since changed our minds about,” Dover says. “We have to interpret the Bible to make sense of what meaning it has, not only within the text itself, but for our lives. We have to interpret the Bible for our culture, for our day.”
The disaffiliation is unfortunate, he says, because “there’s a lot more that we have in common and we can work together on for good than we disagree on here.”
“I don’t know what lies ahead,” he says, “but if I’m going to be damned for anything, it’s going to be for including someone who God might exclude rather than excluding someone who God would include.”