Tuesday, August 29, 2017
I was saddened to learn of the Mississippi Baptist Convention’s recent decision to remove Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson from its membership over a “difference in philosophy.”
While the decision is disheartening, I argue that this separation comes not over a difference in philosophy but a difference in theology—namely the understanding that God’s unconditional love and grace is extended to everyone, and Jesus’ command to love your neighbor. There is nothing loving about booting a congregation from your fellowship simply because they practice Biblical hospitality and offer an unconditional welcome to all.
As a Christian and former pastor, this kind of rejection also offends me because it runs counter to everything revealed about God through Jesus.
There’s a powerful story from Matthew’s gospel about an encounter Jesus has with someone different from him. While many find it troubling, the account reveals a significant shift in Jesus’ ministry as he discovers faith in an expected place, in an unanticipated person.
In chapter 15, Jesus is traveling in a region filled with gentiles, or non-Jewish people. It was there that a Canaanite woman approached him imploring him to heal her daughter. And while Jesus didn’t answer her at first, he eventually responded to her shouts, saying, “I was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). And even when she kneels before him pleading for his help, he argues, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26). In other words, you don’t belong, you’re not welcome.
But not content with his response, she replies, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Matthew 15:27).
And in the moment, Jesus changes and his ministry expands as he finds faith outside of his tradition, in a gentile woman who doesn’t look like him, who doesn’t follow his customs and doesn’t even worship in the same manner. “Woman, great is your faith!” he says as his heart and mind are opened and changed. “Let it be done for you as you wish” (Matthew 15:28). And her daughter was healed instantly. No longer an outsider to him, she would now be a sister to him.
Again, many find this passage to be initially troubling, but it reveals so much. From this point on, in fact, Jesus goes about inviting those who are on the outside to come inside. Even more, he reveals that in God’s kingdom, there is no inside or outside, but one community in which we are all sisters and brothers.
Read the JFP's award-winning coverage of the tough fight for LGBT rights in Mississippi.
I write all that to say that if Jesus can offer this kind of radical and wonderful inclusion and find faith beyond his tradition and among diverse people, then surely the Mississippi Baptist Convention can do likewise.
For nine years, I had the privilege of serving as pastor at Broadmeadow United Methodist Church in Jackson, not far from Northminster Baptist Church. Throughout my time there, I witnessed hearts and minds change as this congregation offered welcome to members of the LGBTQ community. Our congregation expanded, not only in size, but in our understanding and acceptance. There was no inside or outside but one community in which we are all sisters and brothers.
Even more, this congregation welcomed me, not just as their pastor, but as a gay man. Even though I was serving in a denomination which prohibits openly gay and lesbian people from serving as clergy, I found refuge there. With so many in the congregation, I experienced God’s unconditional love through their acceptance and the freedom to be my authentic self.
My experience at Broadmeadow and the witness of Northminster are examples of when the church and other faith communities are at our best—not when we’re weeding out and segregating those whom we perceive as different, but when we discover that there is no inside or outside, and all are welcome.
This is also when the larger society is at our best: when we work to ensure that everyone has equal rights and that there is no inside or outside, and all are safe and welcome in our communities
I’m grateful for a church like Northminster Baptist and the many other faith communities who embody God’s unconditional love and acceptance, and who are working to create sacred spaces of hospitality and inclusion.
At HRC Mississippi, we are working each day to make sure that Mississippi truly becomes the hospitality state. We welcome the partnership of faith leaders and others around our state in this important endeavor. If churches endeavor to truly welcome all, they must start practicing what they preach.
Rob Hill is the Mississippi state director for HRC.