September 6th, 2013
We haven’t heard much from the Southern Baptist Convention lately. Onetime players in the Culture Wars, over the past year or so the SBC has pulled back from a political response to the changes in social acceptance of homosexuality and has refocused on its religious response. They decided to treat gay couples much like they would treat heterosexuals who are not living in agreement with the Convention’s sexual teachings.
This is both a pragmatic response to a shifting culture and a theologically sound position. It places the emphasis back where the Epistles held it, within the body, and reminds Southern Baptists that Scripture talks about one’s own failings, not that of one’s neighbor. (And as anyone who has lived in the Bible Belt can attest, Southern Baptists need all the reminding they can get).
But that is not to suggest that the denomination has changed its position. And new guidelines issued to SBC chaplains by the SBC’s North American Mission Board illustrate the extent to which Baptists still continue to theologically oppose homosexuality and gay marriage. (As an aside, I sincerely hope that NAMB does not have branch offices in Louisiana or Los Angeles).
In addition to direction on pastoral care in pluralistic setting, the NAMB placed some pretty severe restrictions on its chaplains, which make up about 15% of Military chaplains. (Baptist Press)
Restrictions — The guidelines state that “NAMB-endorsed chaplains will not conduct or attend a wedding ceremony for any same-sex couple, bless such a union or perform counseling in support of such a union, assist or support paid contractors or volunteers leading same-sex relational events, nor offer any kind of relationship training or retreat, on or off of a military installation, that would give the appearance of accepting the homosexual lifestyle or sexual wrongdoing. This biblical prohibition remains in effect irrespective of any civil law authorizing same-sex marriage or benefits to the contrary.” Chaplains also are prohibited from participating in jointly-led worship services “with a chaplain, contractor or volunteer who personally practices a homosexual lifestyle or affirms a homosexual lifestyle or such conduct.”
No doubt the mission board thinks that these are reasonable restrictions, but in practice I think this will be hard to live by and increasingly so in upcoming months. I suspect that chaplains in the field will either come to ignore these rules or perhaps find other affiliation.
What this says, in effect, is that a chaplain is restricted from offering any relationship counseling to men and women whom they know and work with, and whom they respect and care about. It says that they cannot affirm monogamy, advise consideration for the other partner’s concerns, or present tips and tools for successful negotiation of a relationship. Further, it says that they cannot personally attend the celebrations of a chaplain’s friends.
These are personal restrictions that, while cumbersome, may be understood to be a sacrifice for their stance. However, there are also professional restrictions that may prove to be disastrous to a chaplain’s career, relationships with fellow chaplains, or even ability to perform their duties.
The new restrictions disallow a chaplain to conduct marriage retreats that include same-sex couples. As any such retreats sponsored by the US Military will not allow discrimination, these rules remove an SBC chaplain from conducting or participating in all group relationship training or retreats other than strictly sectarian retreats sponsored by outside groups.
And, though I suspect they did not intend it, the most difficult rule to observe will likely be the restriction on jointly-led worship services. Far far more chaplains – and denominations – “affirm a homosexual lifestyle” than the SBC may consider. If not at this exact moment, then quite soon the vast majority of United Methodist chaplains, United Church of Christ chaplains, Episcopal chaplains, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America chaplains, Presbyterian Church (USA) chaplains, as well as many others will encourage the establishment and maintenance of committed same-sex relationships. They will celebrate, or at least counsel, same-sex marriages. And the restrictions state that SBC chaplains cannot jointly lead worship with them.
This is probably more consequential than many readers realize. To refuse joint worship is to not “be in fellowship” with fellow believers. It is to say that this doctrinal difference is so severe that it severs the body of Christ. It’s a very big deal.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. A demand that SBC chaplains snub their fellow ministers may prove to be a fatal flaw in that denomination’s missionary effort.
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