Scroll to bottom for an update – Ed.
On January 26th of 2019 J.D. Greear preached a sermon titled “How the Fall Affects Us All” at the church he pastors, Summit Church of North Carolina. In that sermon Greear made multiple points addressing homosexual attraction and how the church should relate to those who experience same sex attraction that raised major questions about how the sitting President of our church’s denomination understands sexual and civic issues connected with the topic of sexuality.
Assuming further clarification would be forthcoming, I watched in distress as others raised questions similar to my own via social media while Greear remained silent. Eventually the questions I had and continued to see on social media began to present themselves in questions from members of my own church. As the months ticked on there were still no further public statements from either Greear or Summit Church.
As winter drew to a close and summer approached – along with the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention – and still no word from Greear I decided to take more direct action to have my questions answered. I drafted the letter below in the hopes that Greear would see the need to address the ambiguities raised by his sermon directly – a need arising (with lesser significance) from his prominence as the President of the Southern Baptist Convention and (more importantly) as a pastor of a local church.
I sent one copy of the letter in May of 2019 to Greear via the Summit Church mailing address and another to him care of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention. Thus far I have seen no response, publicly or privately. However, on August 28th Greear published a blog post via the Summit Church website restating a considerable amount of material from the sermon I had asked about in my letter. Considering that Greear is continuing the public conversation on this subject and another quarter of the year has passed since I sent my letter (along with nearly 9 months since he first preached “How the Fall Affects Us All”) I have decided to publish my letter publicly as well, hoping that it will lead, in some fashion, to Greear realizing the need his sermon and writing have created for further clarity on the position he takes in regards to human sexuality, God’s design, and how the church cares for those experiencing same sex attraction within her community and without.
Pastor, Summit Church of Raleigh-Durham, NC
2335 Presidential Drive
Durham, NC 27703
Hello sir and thank you for taking the time to read my letter. I am writing as a fellow Southern Baptist Pastor with a request and, just as a note, I plan to send a copy of this letter in sealed envelope to both your church and the Executive Committee mailing address because I am not sure which will be more likely to reach you. To put all my cards on the table up front I have some disquieting questions about your sermon “How the Fall Affects Us All” from January 26th of 2019 but, considering that we live in a day of social media trolls and long-distance, anonymous criticism I hoped that a letter might better communicate my desire to present my request as a co-laborer in Christ and a fellow believer eager to believe the best rather than to leap toward criticism of a fellow Christian.
I am sure you already anticipate my questions but, in order to be specific, I will list the items that raised my questions. I suppose I should also note that while I have listened to the audio of the sermon it would be better for me to use the text of the sermon transcript your church provides on the website.
The question of greatest importance comes from the section where you said:
When you realize that, you’ll cease being a Pharisaic teacher of the law and you’ll become a gospel witness. You’ll start loving your neighbor as someone made in the image of God and feeling compassion for them in their weakness. And you’ll treat them first and foremost like people who deserve compassion, not scorn or judgment or a political voting bloc to be marginalized. One of the reasons that we stand against any discrimination or bullying and will count ourselves among the fiercest advocates for the preservation of their dignity and rights –because we recognize gay and lesbian people are just like us– made in the image of God like us and deserving of all the dignity and respect we desire. They are not “them,” they are “we.” You should see in the face of every sinner a reflection of the corruption that afflicts your own heart; the fruit of the rebellion you have participated in.
I know my approval is not ultimately a concern of yours but I would like to note that I join you in what I take to be the general meaning of this section – that those who experience same sex attraction and also participate in homosexual activity are bearers of God’s image and worthy of respect. The question I have, however, is what you mean by your assertion that being a gospel witness, loving our neighbors, and treating the homosexual community with compassion will bear itself out in part by advocating for the preservation of their rights.
I raise this question of clarity because I think it possible that you are referencing something like the legal reality under the Islamic State or Saudi Arabian government that homosexual behavior can be punishable by death. On the other hand, since you were addressing an American audience and capital punishment for homosexual behavior is not a reality for that audience it seems possible (although I do not believe this to be true as I write) that you are referring to the fight within the United States to legally recognize homosexual unions as marriages that culminated in the Obergefell vs. Hodges Decision of 2015.
My request here is that you take the time to publicly clarify what rights you were referencing in the section of your sermon I quoted above. I ask that because I have received questions about your meaning in my own circles and I would love to have a public statement from you to reference as an answer.
My second question comes from a point earlier in the sermon where you quote Jen Wilkins:
Jen Wilkin says we should whisper about what the Bible whispers about and shout about what it shouts about. The Bible appears more to whisper on sexual sin compared to its shouts about materialism and religious pride. And we see Jesus demonstrating great sympathy for those in sexual sin and great animosity toward the religiously proud. Jesus never said it was hard for the same-sex attracted to go to heaven; he did say it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle then for a religiously proud or materially wealthy person to get there. This is not to say it’s not sinful –just to say we often present it differently than the Bible does.
Again, to put all my cards on the table, I believe this section comes across unhelpfully vague in the context not only of our current cultural moment but also after the publication of the Houston Chronicle “Abuse of Faith” report. For my part, I believe that in this section you are encouraging your congregation not to allow cultural forces to push the sins of homosexual activity into a unique category of wickedness.
Having said that, I personally do not understand how to whisper about either the destructive effects of the sexual sins of child (and adult) abuse within our denomination or the consequences of judgment for those who persist unrepentantly in homosexual behavior. As someone associated with the denomination you lead and, again, having gotten questions about your intended meaning from people within my circles, I would appreciate you giving further elaboration on this point. Specifically, how we think about talking and acting publicly in regards to sexual sins of abuse or homosexual behavior consistently with the importance Scripture assigns to those matters (as you understand Scripture to weigh each form of sexual sin respectively). Since this sermon aimed more specifically at the subject of homosexual conduct I take it you could mean that homosexual activity calls for a more whispered response than sexual abuse of minors (comparable to your delineation between homosexual activity and materialism). If that is the case I would also request that you give public clarity as to how you delineate between those sins in terms of the appropriate public action as you understand Scripture to call for. Of course, all of my questions here could reflect a complete missing of your aims. As a result I personally would benefit from this elaboration and trust I am not alone on that front.
Lastly, in the latter portion of your sermon you address those in your congregation who have made use of the abortion industry as well as those who work within it:
I realize that many of you struggle with this … I know we have women who have had abortions or who are currently experiencing an unplanned pregnancy , and I know that you are hurting. I don’t want to make this any harder than it is … we are here for you. We have some even work in these places, and you entered that profession to serve, and I understand why you are conflicted… But I want you to think of this: The most important question we have to consider in abortion is this: Is the baby inside the womb a human life, made in the image of God? And, if so, is it ever right to willfully take innocent human life?
This last question I have is of lesser importance practically, I think, than the previous two but since I am writing a letter in regards to the sermon I hope you might consider answering this question as well. When you say “we have some who even work in these places, and you entered that profession to serve, and I understand why you are conflicted…” are you indicating that you have church members who are employed in the abortion industry? Again, I assume not and you meant that people working in that industry attend Summit services or ministries. I would appreciate clarification on that point, though, specifically on the likelihood that people who observe your ministry with admiration will find themselves deciding if they can accept abortion industry workers into the membership of their churches in good conscience.
To close, I hope that you will find this letter offered in a sincere spirit of brotherhood and an effort to believe the best. I also trust that you can see that ambiguity (inadvertent, I am sure) on these points has the potential to bring difficulty into the lives of your fellow Southern Baptists who might perhaps have questions similar to my own or, even more likely, have these questions raised to them.
Thank you again for taking the time to read this. Thank you, too, for the strong commitment to the pro-life cause I heard in this sermon. I know that the needs of your family, your congregation, and the denomination – particularly as you lead on the matter of protecting the innocent from abuse within our denomination – must be a pressing load and thus I do appreciate your time and labor for the Lord. I look forward to hearing more from you, Lord willing, on the request for further clarification I mentioned above.
Midway Baptist Church
What I hope is clear now is that I mean no ill-will toward Greear. I hope it is also clear that I think certain ambiguities in his sermon, and now his blog post, remain in need of further clarification.
Updated, January 29, 2020
As you may know, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Jason Allen recently said publicly that he was confident personal letter sent to SBC leaders would receive a response (my paraphrase). After Dr. Allen’s comment I heard from a member of J.D. Greear’s staff on the subject of speaking with someone on Greear’s team. That ultimately culminating in my speaking last week with a member of J.D.’s staff, Todd Unzicker, at length over the phone. First off, I should note I was contacted by Todd’s assistant as soon as their team became aware of my letter (via social media) and was glad to hear that the delayed response was a product of accident rather than intentional silence. Todd offered a sincere apology for the long delay and I was glad to accept it.
Second, I appreciate how much time this staff member gave me and the opportunity for back-and-forth conversation it afforded me. Third, I was glad to be reminded of J.D.’s lengthy track record of faithful commitment to the Biblical vision of human sexuality, expressed through things like his signing of The Nashville Statement.
For my part, I tried to be clear that I believed J.D.’s use of the whispers-about / shouts-about paradigm for describing how the Bible talks about sexual sins was and inaccurate imposition on the text, led to a lack of clarity on the subject of human sexuality on J.D.’s part, undermined his good work in opposing abuse in our denomination, and stands in great need of further public clarification.
I left the phone call with two impressions:
One, that my view of J.D.’s sermon did not match the view held by his office in the specific areas I mentioned above.
Two, and perhaps more importantly, I believe an honest opportunity to be heard and receive a reply was afforded to me. I also believe others who take a similar path to mine in reaching out to J.D.’s office in writing would receive a similarly hospitable response to the one I received.
While I think there are is an outstanding disagreement on the shouts-about / whispers-about paradigm I also believe my concerns have been heard and responded to. For that I am thankful.