Practicing a Theology of Love — A Baptist Church Votes on Whether to Become “Welcoming and Affirming”

[Note: All personal names, geographic locations, and names of churches or other organizations in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of study participants.]


A definite theme emerges when Pastor Pat Taylor talks about her ministry at First Baptist Church.

“I know I keep repeating myself,” she says, laughing, “but everyone is welcome here, whether we like it or not. Everyone is welcome, and how we do that—love God and love the person right in front of you. I think it all flows from there. It can get more theological than that, but I think that’s what it really boils down to.”

She points to a passage in First John as being key to her ministry in the American Baptist congregation: “We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”1

Taylor explains, “I think our ministry is this very immediate one— it really hits the road right here. It’s easy to love those folks over there, but what about your neighbor who never turns down their stereo? Can you really love them? How do you really live with the people you live with? I’m not talking about the face you put on for a certain number of hours every day or a week, but when you let all that go, how are you then? And then maybe conversely, as a community, what does it mean to be a house of prayer for all people, because that’s harder than you think … and it’s richer too.”

What does it mean to be committed to a theology of love in light of some of today’s contemporary issues? Taylor challenged the people of First Baptist to wrestle with their own faith and commitment by examining questions of inclusion and human sexuality.

In her first year at this church in the Great Lakes region, she urged the congregation to vote on whether it would join the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. She knew that some members would find it challenging to openly welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people to the church, but for her taking such a stance was a natural part of following Jesus.

“My understanding of Jesus is that he practiced such radical hospitality, and I think if we only do that, we’re doing something very well. That idea that you are to love God with everything you have and love the person right in front of you. Even if we don’t get anything else, if we can take that practice very seriously, we’ll go a long way toward creating the realm that God intends for us to create. And I think that, at its best, that’s what we do in church—we don’t, obviously, always get it right, but we aim for that.”

Homosexuality wasn’t a new issue at First Baptist: Taylor’s predecessor had started a productive conversation within the church’s Christian Education program, including inviting members of PFLAG (formerly called Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays) to speak. When Taylor interviewed for the role of solo pastor, she mentioned “out” churches in her candidating sermon, and she noticed that members of the congregation responded positively to the idea.

Still, it was risky. Many church members seemed uncertain about the change—she didn’t know which families might leave the church, taking their financial support with them. Taylor thought the issue was important, though, for both her integrity and the congregation’s.

“I felt like we couldn’t stay where we were. We couldn’t stay where we were and expect to continue to grow in meaningful ways. I couldn’t in good faith represent a place where people known and loved and related to me couldn’t fully come. I couldn’t go out into the community and say, “Yeah, really, you can come here—except for that part [of you], no, not that.’”

Some of the worries evaporated after the vote passed. “One couple left, but we have had so many more people come,” Taylor says. “I think part of the concern was that we would be this big gay church. And, I think to the surprise of many people, it was straight families who came, who wanted to raise their children where everyone was welcome, because you never know who their uncle is or who their daughter is.

Gortner church music

“It was interesting also that a number of the people who were initially resistant had their own adult children come out to [them] within a year of the church making that decision. This wasn’t a surprise to me; it had a positive effect. And we were able to do this in part based on the history of the church—to say we’ve made decisions in the past that we’re very proud of that seemed very risky at the time.”

Being a welcoming and affirming congregation has been challenging in other ways. Members who felt secure in their acceptance of gays and lesbians have admitted to her that they sometimes feel uncomfortable around transgender people who attend the church. Also, Taylor says, some liberal members of the church were unprepared to meet LGBTQ people who were theologically conservative.

“I think there was this mistaken idea that if someone is gay they are liberal, which is wrong, because if they were, they would go join a different kind of church. But they come to a queer-friendly Baptist church because they want to hear about Jesus—and they want to hear it out of the King James if you will do that. And this church certainly has a continuum theologically and politically, but I would say their left-turn signal is on, and they tend to fall on that side of things. It has been surprising to them that the LGBT folks who’ve come here maybe in their prior history were pretty fundamentalist.”

“It’s been a real struggle on all sides of that,” Taylor continues, “for the queer folks in our community who are used to a different kind of reading of scripture, a different interpretation and application, and then the people who have been more established here who can’t believe what comes out of other people’s mouths. So Sunday school has gotten very lively. And the challenge is for us to say, ‘If you are a place of welcome for all people, that’s what this means. It can’t [just] be the ones that agree with you.’”

As conversations about matters sexual, political, and theological continued at First Baptist, the pastor found she sometimes had to bite her tongue to keep from interjecting her own strong opinions in ways that might be dismissive of other people.

“If I shut my mouth and listen, I can learn a lot,” she explains. “I think my discipline is to do that and to try to articulate that, ’cause sometimes we can’t hear one another. Sometimes it’s just enough to say ‘What I hear you saying is this’ and to tie that in with what someone else is saying—make it palatable or even appealing in some ways to each other … to open people as resources to one another, not as someone to shut down.

“And just to remind people that if we’re serious about being a church, if we’re trying to have this piece of heaven on earth—and heaven isn’t just who we pick, and it’s going to be pretty broad and all-encompassing, God willing— if we can’t do this here, where we say that we love each other, then why are we surprised when things are happening in some of the big cities around here and in Washington D.C., where people are rabidly tearing one another apart? So we have to start to practice that here. And of course it isn’t easy or we would do it with ease.

“My role is to help us to hear each other, I think, and to want to hear each other, which is a bigger piece of work than it sounds like.”



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1 1 John 4: 19–21 (New Revised Standard Version)