“If three to five percent of the population – somehow in God’s wisdom – is not straight or cisgender, then we should celebrate them as they are and invite them to follow Jesus and join us in this journey,” Pastor Jim Conrad of Towne View Baptist Church told Project Q Atlanta.
The conflict surfaced in 2019 when a gay couple asked Conrad, who has led Towne View since 1994, if they would be welcome at the church.
“They had both grown up in Baptist churches and were looking for a church where their three adopted sons could have the same kinds of experiences that they had had,” he said.
Conrad encouraged the couple to get involved in the church while he spent “a summer of reading and prayer and conversations.” The church council later approved Conrad’s recommendation to accept LGBTQ members.
“We recognize there are a variety of understandings of human sexuality, but as a church, anyone who professes faith in Jesus regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity will be welcomed as members of Towne View,” he said.
The church suffered a 30 percent drop in membership due to the new policy.
“But that 70 percent that remained was excited that we would be this kind of church and this kind of community,” Conrad said.
In December, the Southern Baptist Convention notified the church it was under investigation for its acceptance of LGBTQ members. The SBC, which has over 50,000 churches in its ranks nationwide, opposes homosexuality and marriage equality.
In February, Conrad got a letter from SBC’s Credentials Committee. The committee recommended Towne View’s disfellowship for “church actions that affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior,” according to the letter.
On Feb. 23, the committee disfellowshipped Town View and St. Matthews Baptist Church, Louisville, Ky., for affirming homosexuality, according to the Baptist Press. The committee also dropped two other churches at the same time: A Tennessee congregation employed a pastor who confessed to statutory rape, and a Pennsylvania church hired a registered sex offender as a pastor.
The decision means Towne View can’t send messengers to the SBC’s annual convention. Messengers elect officers and vote on SBC issues to decide the direction of the group, according to Conrad.
LGBTQ church members praise ‘boldness’
The SBC’s decision did not surprise Conrad.
“It would have really been news if they had not recommended our dismissal,” he said. “This decision was expected and is closing a chapter for us and now we can open a new chapter.”
Towne View will not appeal the SBC’s decision and is exploring joining an organization that supports its pro-LGBTQ stance. Emails, texts, calls and letters have flooded in praising the church.
“Folks sharing with us very personal stories, sometimes very painful stories of hurt and exclusion,” Conrad said. “That’s been very sobering. Folks saying I wish that I knew there was a church like yours wherever I am.”
Brockton Bates and his boyfriend Skyler Randleman began attending Towne View in November after hearing about its inclusive stance. They became members of the church on Sunday.
“We are super excited to be a part of a people that are committed to investing in us and helping us grow together and in our walk with God,” Bates told Project Q.
“It means the world to me that they have stood with boldness, but they’ve also stood with compassion. There are no ill feelings, they’re not angry at anybody and that’s a testimony in itself. They’re like look, this is our stance, we’re going to walk along this road with Jesus and love people,” he added.
A transgender woman in the early stages of her transition also began attending Towne View last summer, Conrad said.
“Her first public appearance in her new self dressed as a female she wanted to come to church,” he said. “I was greatly blessed by that that she felt she could come here and know she was among friends and knew it would be safe to take that next step.”
The Atlanta Metro Baptist Association ended its 110-year relationship with the First Baptist Church of Decatur over the church’s decision to perform same-sex marriages and appoint LGBTQ members to leadership positions in 2020.
This story is made possible by a grant from Google News Initiative’s Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.