Revival of Spirit

University Baptist Grows Despite Controversy

Dr. Larry Bethune, right, of University Baptist
Church, stands with Rev. Sid Hall, a UBC supporter and pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church.
photograph by Jana Birchum

Open the Yellow Pages some time to "Churches - Baptist." Though they are often viewed as a monolithic mass of ardent Bible-thumpers, the fact is that there is great diversity in Baptist ranks. Right there in alphabetical order you'll find Bible Fellowship Baptists and Free Will Baptists, Primitive Baptists and Sovereign Grace Baptists. And while the differences between American and USA Baptists might not seem obvious to outsiders, delicate theological questions lie in the divide between these congregations - a divide bridged only by a handful of denominational tenets. The most basic of these tenets is the "soul freedom" or "soul competency" of the believer, allowing each individual, each church, each Baptist institution to develop autonomous relationships with God. That is, a priesthood of the believer. Yet it is that very belief in independence which creates endless anguish for the Baptist church. Where independence is key, common ground can be hard to come by. While every individual is free to make his own peace with God, every church is free to decide if that person is welcome in its ranks, and every Baptist institution is free to decide if that church meets its Baptist model.

Austin's University Baptist Church (UBC) has learned all too well that autonomy can be a double-edged sword. In February, the church was unceremoniously abandoned by the Baptist General Convention of Texas for taking an autonomous stance on homosexuality. The Convention has no official mechanism to officially expel member churches, but the organization went as far as it could go in actually distancing itself from UBC. And the separation seemed to be the last thing UBC needed. The little church, which has suffered dwindling membership and continuing controversy since its ordination of a homosexual deacon in 1993, has also - like downtown churches all over the nation - faced stiff competition for parishioners from a growing crop of wealthy, suburban worship centers. When UBC unexpectedly found itself defending its choice of a deacon against the objections of city- and state-wide Baptist leaders, the controversy drove even more people from its pews. When the Baptist General Convention suddenly made a move to publicly distance itself from the church four years after the deacon's ordination, it seemed that the never-ending controversy might finish the church off for good.

Instead, UBC is experiencing what its pastor, Dr. Larry Bethune, describes as a revival, with new faces entering the church doors every Sunday since its divorce from the Baptist General Convention became national news. If sinking the church has been the prayer of those who oppose its open policy toward homosexuals, that prayer certainly doesn't seem to have reached God's ear.

In the Beginning

Four years ago, UBC, which sits at the corner of 22nd and Guadalupe streets, stepped right out onto the limb of Baptist theological independence when its congregation voted to ordain Hans Venable as a church deacon. The duties of Baptist deacons vary from church to church, but at UBC the 24 deacons collect the offering, assist in the ceremony of the Eucharist, and counsel "flocks" assigned to their care.

Every three years, a deacon nominating committee chooses a new crop of deacons from among the more active members of the church. The nominees then face approval by a vote of the congregation. At the time of his nomination, Venable had attended UBC for two years, taught Sunday school, and sang in the choir. Later, from his choir-loft vantage high above the congregation every Sunday, Venable watched as his beloved church's congregation slowly dwindled away, silently blaming each empty pew on his own controversial position as deacon. Although he had only discreetly discussed the subject with a few friends at the church, Venable wore a ring on his wedding finger which joined him to his partner and fellow Sunday school teacher, David Stahl. Debate surrounding Venable and Stahl's relationship consisted solely of a few private conversations over whether Venable's nomination by the committee might be controversial.

After all, Venable would not be the first deacon in UBC's history who was homosexual. In fact, he would be the fourth - two of them are still in attendance, but had kept their orientations quiet during their time as deacons, and another died of AIDS after renouncing the risk-taking lifestyle which led to his infection. Yet, intolerance of homosexuals was still alive and well at the church. On the day of Venable's ordination ceremony, a longtime church member in his eighties approached Venable and Stahl and asked: "We've heard this rumor about you, is it true?" When Venable confirmed the rumors, the old man continued, "I need to let you know that I don't approve. I know that you're wonderful Christians but I just don't understand." With that, the man turned and walked out the door, opting out of attending Venable's ordination service that day.

Although that man returned to the church following Venable's ordination, many families and individuals who agreed with the older man's sentiment chose to leave the church for good. Yet, even as frustration mounts among moderate Christians over the continued move toward conservatism in groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention, news of UBC taking a radical stand may have driven hardliners away from the church. As it turns out, however, there were plenty of Christians waiting to take their seats.

The Couple

Venable and Stahl say they are private people - shy, really. "This has given us a spotlight that we certainly never wanted and didn't envision," says Venable. Venable says he never participated in the gay bar scene, or even in gay pride marches. He and Stahl had attended church together since the beginning of their 17-year relationship, just as each of them had during childhood. Keeping their homosexuality closeted at UBC was never a big sacrifice, since privacy was the couple's natural tendency in any case.

That is, until Stahl watched Pat Buchanan speak at the 1992 Republican national convention on the destruction of family values by homosexuals. The speech upset Stahl and made him realize that "if our church was not going to welcome finding out about [our relationship] then maybe we didn't need to be there," Venable recalls. After that, Stahl and Venable decided to come out of the closet, albeit selectively, at church. They first approached several associate ministers, all of whom said they had already realized that the couple was gay and had no problem with it.

Finally, the couple got up the nerve to speak with Bethune personally, and were greatly relieved to find that he, too, welcomed them into the church. The pastor, a thoughtful and scholarly moderate who has led UBC for the past 11 years, even encouraged the couple to help him find a way to discuss the issue with the church as a whole. The couple declined, saying that it was enough to know that Bethune was comfortable with them. Once again, Venable and Stahl retreated into privacy.

But that privacy wouldn't last much longer. Only six months after Venable was ordained as a deacon in 1993, the church's college group erupted over the issue of his homosexuality. By virtue of holding its meetings in a separate building, the department had always been somewhat removed from the rest of the church, especially because it was more conservative. When the college minister "outed" Venable and Stahl and then resigned over the issue, Bethune took to a diligent study of the specific ways that homosexuality is addressed in the Bible [see sidebar]. He then held a church-wide Bible study on the issue, which led to the formation of a permanent study group called Open Circle, which addressed the subject of homosexuality in the Bible. When the students came back after Christmas break that year, the college department's membership had plunged from 50 to a disjointed dozen. And then the real controversy began.

Debate Goes Statewide

According to at least five sources within UBC Church, it was the college minister who brought the controversy into the public view by contacting other churches around Austin and Texas to inform them of Venable's ordination. Soon after the minister's alleged campaign, the Austin Baptist Association contacted UBC and began a 15-month review process which ultimately led to the church being voted out of the association in October 1995.

"It was strictly on the basis that they chose to ordain an openly confessed homosexual man," says Dale Gore, executive director of the association. The ouster, Gore adds, had nothing to do with the church's Open Circle study group or its outreach to homosexuals in general. According to Gore, unlike other acts, such as divorce, which are forbidden in the Bible but not in many moderate churches, homosexuality is uniquely abhorrent to the church. "It is the gay person that makes it different. They will flaunt it. I come to church with my supposed married lover - you're supposed to buy that? It's the same thing as if a drunk came staggering into the church," he explains.

Apparently Gore is not familiar with Venable's modest conduct at UBC. "I didn't see why [the association] felt that this was their business," says Bethune, questioning why Baptist autonomy should not allow UBC to decide, as a church, to ordain Venable. But Gore uses the same principle to defend the association's actions. "They are autonomous, but also the [association] is autonomous," he points out.

"We didn't start out with any kind of agenda with relation to homosexuality," says Bethune, "but it has certainly become our agenda for this church to be a welcoming and safe place for all persons to connect with God."

For three years following its disfellowship from the Austin-based association, the church chose not to send its delegates, called messengers, to the Baptist General Convention of Texas for fear of stirring up controversy. But that out of sight, out of mind strategy only lasted so long. After two and a half years of debate on how to deal with UBC, and lacking a mechanism to officially kick the church out of the group, the Convention voted on Feb. 24 of this year to stop accepting donations from the church, and to ask the church to remove any mark of affiliation with the convention from its website and publications. Although moderate churches like First Baptist and Highland Park Baptist came out in support of UBC - primarily on the basis of the autonomy principle - conservatives in the Convention won out.

UBC's difficulty with the decision is two-fold. Not only is it the only church to be disunited from the Convention in 150 years, but it also was not invited into a conversation with the organization prior to the separation, which would have been in accordance with the principles laid out in the Bible for church censure.

The resulting press frenzy - with coverage everywhere from The New York Times to radio stations in Chapel Hill, North Carolina - came as a surprise to UBC, but perhaps it shouldn't have. It seems the church controversy cropped up at just the right moment to become the rope in a tug-of-war over control of the historically moderate Texas Convention.

Enter Southern Baptist

photograph by John Anderson

Over the past two decades, the national Southern Baptist Convention, of which the Baptist General Convention is a Texas branch, has taken increasingly more conservative doctrinal positions and become a political player. The recent Southern Baptist boycott of Disney over the television show Ellen, to say nothing of its very public alliance with national figures beginning with Ronald Reagan, are only two examples of its very public political agenda.

By contrast, the state's Baptist General Convention has fought hard for its right to autonomy from the Southern Baptists and for what is, in relative terms, the state Convention's moderate stance. Last fall, a conservative splinter group called the Southern Baptists of Texas finally rose up within the Texas Convention to form its own statewide convention, the first meeting of which will be held this coming November 10. And it is worth noting that it was immediately following a nine-hour meeting with this splinter group that the Baptist General Convention finally began its proceedings against UBC.

"Some of these [Convention] guys felt the pressure that if they didn't take some action against UBC, that could be a rallying point" at the Convention's upcoming meeting in November, says the Rev. Roger Painter of First Baptist Church, a supporter of UBC. This year's meeting is set to be a turning point for Texas Baptists, with moderate forces pushing for the ratification of a document which could officially set the Texas Baptists in opposition to the conservatism of the Southern Baptist Convention. Controversy over UBC would have distracted from that moderate cause. Even given the stakes, however, Painter says a group of Austin churches may try to get the church seated at the meeting as "friends of the convention," which will certainly arouse debate.

However, if the national Southern Baptists and the state Convention have grown so conservative that they have become unattractive to many Texas Baptists, why should UBC, or any Texas moderate for that matter, still want to be affiliated with those groups?

"Even as difficult and painful as this Southern Baptist thing has been, to feel that you're on the outside is a grief," Painter says. "Who are you if you were to say that you're not a Southern Baptist?"

While the Southern Baptists do not take issue solely with homosexuality (in fact, the upcoming Southern Baptist Convention will see debate over a document condemning abortion and defining the proper place of women in the church), the founder of the conservative Southern Baptist splinter group, Ronnie Varner, elucidates his view that homosexuality is uniquely condemned in the conservative reading of the Bible.

"We've made it very clear that we love homosexuals and do not in any way condemn homosexuals because Jesus does not condemn them. He loves them with a view toward changing them," says Varner, adding that practicing homosexuals would be welcome to attend worship service at a Southern Baptist church, but they wouldn't be encouraged to become full members, "and for sure not leaders."

Indeed, even some of Bethune's supporters believe that Bethune's interpretations of the passages in the Bible which deal with homosexuality take the most liberal possible reading. However, Bethune says that as a result of opening the doors of the church to homosexuals, "we realize now that our souls have grown. [Homosexuals] have a lot to offer us. We learn a lot by hearing their stories - stories of pain, of shame, of partnership and grace." Following its disfellowship from the Baptist Convention, the church changed its affiliation from the Southern Baptists to the American Baptists, who welcome homosexuals.

Answered Prayers

Many people in Austin seem to agree with Bethune. The Sunday morning following the February 24 expulsion saw the church packed like an Easter morning service, with luminaries such as Mayor Kirk Watson and Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce President Gary Valdez turning out to show their support. An ad campaign which UBC has been pursuing since 1995 set out to respond to the controversy. "We realize we have 15 minutes of fame here, and we wanted to capitalize on that," admits Bethune, although he stresses that "we wouldn't want to imply that the church [ordained Venable] in order to have a basis for new outreach."

The church's ad campaign ("Be Different, For God's Sake!"), however, has got nothing on its press coverage from the expulsion. Church member Heidi Bryant, an advertising professional, estimates that three weeks of television cameras in the church probably amounted to $20,000 worth of advertising for UBC.

Since February, at least 17 families have joined the church. One couple, David and Cindy Bragg, say they felt compelled to move from First Baptist to UBC to support what they felt was UBC's stand over Baptist autonomy. "It wasn't just the fact that it was the homosexual issue. The issue to me was that the Convention as well as the Association and the Southern Baptists and all of them were trying to exclude anyone from attending a Baptist church. It flies in the face of everything you're taught as a Baptist," she says.

Her husband, David, continues. "If I felt that UBC was trying to make a statement about gays and lesbians and that was the reason for what they had done, I wouldn't be attracted to UBC, because that to me is a political issue. What I saw was a church making a statement about Christ which happens to include a belief that Christ is available for everyone," he says.

In addition to what UBC is calling a revival in church membership, there have been other triumphs spiraling out of the publicity surrounding the case. Stahl's father, an active deacon at First Trinity Baptist in San Antonio, heard about the controversy at a Baptist General Convention meeting and waited up one night when Stahl was visiting for Christmas to confront his son.

Stahl had never come out to his parents, in part because he worried they would not accept his homosexuality. Much to his surprise, however, the confrontation led to his parents extending their acceptance not only to him but also to Venable as his partner. Another former deacon who is gay, Anthony Chapple, had a similar experience when his name was splashed across the front page of the daily in Galveston, his hometown, in relation to the UBC story. Finally, the week after the convention expulsion, Venable and Stahl were approached by the same older gentleman who had told them he could not accept their homosexuality four years earlier.

"He grabbed both of our hands," Venable remembers, "and said `I have been dragged kicking and screaming into this, but I am finally with you all the way and I think you're wonderful.' Knowing that people's lives are being changed by a different level of acceptance shows God's work in the lives of people. God is moving through us," Venable says.

UBC's triumph, however, may not help much as other churches struggle to establish policies on homosexuality. "I understand very well that standing up for the Baptist issue [of church autonomy] and not for the gay issue is incredibly disappointing to people in the gay community," says Painter. And he admits that moderate churches like First Baptist may not have "used enough imagination to figure out what to do" about effective outreach to homosexuals.

Chapple points out that there are closeted gay church members all over the country. "Believe me, there are tons more just like me out there, and people need to accept that. They are in the church right now and they are scared to death," he says. Seventy-six-year-old Vera Lee, a longtime UBC member, says that the time will come when every church will have to go through a controversy similar to UBC's. "If you leave one church because of this, you might have to leave another one. The question is, when do you begin accepting things?"

In Venable's own analysis, the test is going to come when other gay and lesbian people who "may not be as quiet" seek a more public place at God's table. "It has taken someone who would be quiet and not be real radical for them to say, `Hey, this will be okay.' We were not promoting an agenda, this agenda was going on around us through people observing the fact that we didn't demand what people consider `special rights,'" he says, adding, "You know, we just want to go to church."

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