When Just Being a Church Gets Labeled ‘Politics’ and ‘Culture Wars’

By Tom Gilson Published on February 2, 2023

First Baptist Church of Jacksonville is requiring all members to sign a statement of agreement with biblical doctrines on sex, sexuality, and marriage. Reactions from the left have been predictable. How should Christians react to those reactions, though?

MSN’s “LGBTQNation” titled its article, “Megachurch forces all members to sign statement opposing LGBTQ+ rights.” The same harsh language of “forcing” appears, surprisingly, in a headline at My Christian Daily.

Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson writes, “The megachurch’s effort to oust LGBTQ members is the latest manifestation of a reactionary zeitgeist now gripping Florida. … Despite centering the culture war in his church, [Senior Pastor Heath] Lambert insists: ‘I’m not a politician. I am a Christian.'”

Dickinson asks,

Why has First Baptist made ‘biblical sexuality’ a litmus test? Pressed on why a simple love for Jesus isn’t enough to attend his church, Lambert asserts that the ‘biblical sexuality’ pledge doesn’t bar queer Floridians from attending First Baptist.”

“This is a statement for membership,” Lambert says. He doesn’t ban anyone from the pews. The Christian Post quotes “Katie,” a self-identified queer woman, complaining,

The decision to have your members sign any form of contract to attend turns your church into an organization, a club. This church is no longer a religious place of worship welcome to all. These sexuality oaths are drawing a clear line in the sand, showing us who you truly welcome, which is by no means all.

There’s more going on here than meets the eye.

This is Not Culture War

It feels like culture war. That’s how critics see it, and that’s how they’re playing it. They can’t help it: It’s all they know.

Sometimes churches get involved in culture wars, and if they do it in truth and love, I have no problem with that. That’s not what this church is doing, however. It made a strong statement, but not a culture war statement.

The difference is subtle, and it’s likely to be lost on everyone outside the Christian fold. They’ll see it the way they see it, and there may not be much we can do about it. We dare not lose sight of these distinctions within the Church, however.

What Membership Means

Let’s start with a view of the Church that’s familiar to all believing Protestants. Catholics and Orthodox Christians may see some of this differently, but no matter, at least for present purposes: Unbelievers will still misunderstand us all equally on what it means to be part of the Church.

The Church at large — the global body of Christ — is the fellowship of believers in Jesus Christ. Sometimes it’s described as a “mystical” or invisible body, meaning simply that its members are connected to one another through Christ, not through any visible organizational unit. Membership in the body is pretty much synonymous with being a born-again Christian.

It feels like culture war. That’s how critics see it, and that’s how they’re playing it. They can’t help it: It’s all they know.

Local churches are (ideally) visible reflections of the global body of Christ, with a visible structure: people serving as pastors, priests, ministers, staff members, elders, deacons, lay leaders, committee heads, volunteers, members, and attendees. (The terms differ from church to church.)

Attendance in virtually every church is open to anyone who wants to come, as long as he doesn’t disrupt proceedings, commit open sin, or try to teach or lead inappropriately. To be an attendee generally requires no other commitment and carries no other expectations.

Membership is different. Typically it is limited to those who confess a personal belief in Jesus Christ, which includes agreement with core Christian doctrines. It makes no sense to say one believes in Jesus as the living Word of God while disagreeing with, say, the Trinity, His virgin birth, or the future resurrection of the body.

No ‘Forcing’ Here

No church “forces” anyone to be a member, and no church “forces” anyone to believe. (Don’t bother telling me about exceptions — they’re on the fringe, and I’ll agree they’re wrong to try it.) Therefore no church “forces” anyone to sign any statements. Every church worth the name does require its members to agree with a set of core doctrines and expectations — if they want to be members, that is. The term “member” has to mean something, and this is part of what it means.

Doctrines on sex and sexuality are part of Christianity’s essential core. You won’t find them in the earliest church creedal confessions, but that’s explained by the history of the Creeds. They were born of conflict as the Church’s official answer to controversies of the day. Sex and marriage weren’t controversial, and it surely didn’t occur to the Church Fathers that 16 or 17 centuries later they would be. They didn’t write those beliefs into the Creeds because it never occurred to them that they needed to. It would have been stating the obvious.

Go back a couple more centuries, though, and you’ll find sex and sexuality looming large in Christian doctrinal requirements. Acts 15 relates the controversy over accepting Gentiles into the faith. The apostles’ decision was a definite yes, with very few restrictions. Abstaining from sexual immorality was one of them.

Observing What Once Was Obvious

Controversies don’t drive doctrines, but they do drive what needs communicating. First Baptist Church of Jacksonville has done absolutely nothing new with this requirement except to communicate it more clearly. Membership in the local church has always required agreement with core doctrines, and sexual morality has always been a core doctrine, so all this church is doing is saying what it has always believed.

In previous decades — centuries, actually — it was unnecessary to say these things. Nothing has changed since then, except today’s controversies have made it necessary to speak the obvious.

Or in other words, this church is doing nothing but being a church, as churches have always been churches. Thus Tim Dickinson’s question, “Why has First Baptist made ‘biblical morality’ a litmus test?” has an easy answer. Membership has always had requirements. This has always been one of them. This church is just communicating it more explicitly now.

The World Can’t Help Seeing It Wrong

Dickinson’s call for a “simple love for Jesus” is worse: It’s simplistic itself, but not in any good way, displaying naivete, ignorance, or (worse yet) manipulation of Jesus’ own words. Christ Himself said (John 14:21, 23), “Whoever has My commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me,” and “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word.” He’s in charge. We love Him by obeying His commands.

This church isn’t doing politics with this statement, and it isn’t fighting culture wars. It’s just being a church, seeking to encourage, support, and affirm friendship with our loving God who is head over all.

That probably doesn’t make sense to Dickinson, but then, he probably can’t help it. It only makes sense if you know Jesus possesses both perfect authority and perfect love. Nevertheless Dickinson should at least know that it comes straight from Jesus’ lips. No one can honestly speak of “simple love for Jesus” without taking it properly into account. Most people who use the “simple love” formula are actually loving the spirit of this age instead.

Katie, the woman quoted in The Christian Post, got it exactly backwards, too. This isn’t “any form of contract” being put forth to church members. It’s a question, and a fair one: Do you agree with what this church believes or not? If not, you’re still welcome to attend, but you shouldn’t identify yourself as a member, and we won’t identify you as one, either.

Not a Culture War

So this isn’t about culture wars, and it’s not about politics. Culture wars are a recent thing; Christian doctrines on sexuality go back to the beginning. Culture wars happen at the frontier, the point of contact between church and culture, whereas this is an internal statement, defining what it is to be part of the church. That frontier may seem fuzzy and blurry. Many who are in or near the church have doubts and questions about what it means to believe in Christ. But that need not keep a church from clarifying what it means to be part of the church.

Where Katie gets it most upside-down and backwards is her claim that this requirement “turns the church into an organization, a club.” Does she imagine that churches exist without beliefs? Besides that, the world already sees churches as clubs, or even as political organizations. Few secularists have any clue of the history of the Church, how it was established or for what purpose. They certainly don’t recognize local churches as local manifestations of the global body of Christ, He of whom Paul wrote,

He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. And He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything He might be preeminent. For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross.

Katie wonders who is welcome in this church. That’s not actually a decision for any church to make, It’s Jesus Christ’s alone. He is the “head of the body, the church.” He sets the terms. He who said (John 15:15), “No longer do I call you servants … but I have called you friends” first said (John 15:14), “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” He is God, He loves us, He died for us, and He established the Church. He has every authority to call the shots there.

How to Respond

In sum, this church in Jacksonville isn’t doing politics with this statement, and it isn’t fighting culture wars. It’s just being a church, seeking to encourage, support, and affirm friendship with our loving God who is head over all. It’s what all real churches have done since Pentecost.

The world won’t understand it. We can’t force them to. We’re not forcing anything on anyone. Membership definitely means something, but no one has to be a member.

I started here by asking how we should react to others’ reactions. The answer turns out to be simple. Local churches should keep on setting reasonable expectations for members, just as they have always done. They should keep looking to God’s Word to define those expectations.

The world won’t understand. They’ll call it politics. They’ll accuse us of weaponizing “biblical doctrine” (those are their scare quotes, not mine) for culture wars. All we can do with that is keep on trying to communicate the plain truth — and keep on pointing to Jesus Christ, not only as our Friend but also as our Head.

 

Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.

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