By BRANDON PORTER
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP) – A well-known Florida church is navigating the cultural tides as it requires members to sign a statement defining biblical sexuality.
“We believe in a sexually confused culture, it is important for our church to be united and to be clear about a matter like this which is a closely held religious conviction held by every member in our congregation,” Heath Lambert, pastor of First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, wrote in emailed correspondence.
The statement reads: “As a member of First Baptist Church, I believe that God creates people in his image as either male or female, and that this creation is a fixed matter of human biology, not individual choice. I believe marriage is instituted by God, not government, is between one man and one woman, and is the only context for sexual desire and expression.”
A motion approved by the church in a meeting Oct. 9, 2022, gives members until March 19 to sign the statement.
If a member doesn’t sign it, “…you will be considered to have resigned your membership from First Baptist. But you can always join again by going through our membership process – attending the membership class, meeting with a pastor, and being voted on by the congregation,” according to an FAQ posted on the church’s website.
“This was actually a decision that comes from the church and was unanimously voted on by the church so it couldn’t have happened without enthusiastic church support,” Lambert told Baptist Press.
He says taking a stand has made a difference in the church, but not the one many people may expect.
“We have also noted record new membership requests since this requirement was announced, which is very encouraging to us,” he said.
The church posted a video Sept. 21, 2022, where Lambert presented what he called prophetic, legal and pastoral reasons for the statement.
“The sexual revolution is not neutral. They’ve proven that they’re willing to fight against anyone who refuses to endorse their confusion,” Lambert said in the video.
The Jacksonville City Council passed an ordinance on Feb. 14, 2017, that ordered sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) be included in all equal opportunity, fair housing and public accommodation laws. Religious organizations were given an exemption in the bill.
“Protecting our church legally means that we must do everything possible to communicate that our biblical beliefs about gender are a core conviction, absolutely central to who we are as a church of Jesus Christ,” Lambert said in the video.
Lambert began serving at the church in 2016 and became senior pastor in September 2017.
In October 2020, the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and Alliance Defending Freedom published a handbook to help churches as they face SOGI laws on local, state and federal levels.
It chronicles a 2014 ordinance in Houston, Texas, that did not give churches an exemption, opening the door for people to use public restrooms based on their gender identity.
After much public outcry, the Houston ordinance was reversed.
In a pastoral blog post of the FBC Jacksonville’s website, Lambert wrote, “Throughout the history of redemption, God’s people have always faced issues that have tested their faithfulness. In our culture, one of those issues is our massive sexual confusion. We cannot be silent where our culture is most confused.”
He believes taking a clear stance on sexuality is one of the most loving things a local church can do.
“Christians are the only ones who know what sin is and are the only ones who know the solution to that sin is found in Christ alone,” he wrote. “That means a culture that is drowning in sexual sin will only hear about it and can only know that they must repent if they hear about it from us.”
The pastor said the response from those outside the church has been mixed.
“There are many, of course, in our secular society that are deeply opposed to anything like this. On the other hand, we have received overwhelming support from many circles, including other pastors, Christians and people of conviction in the city,” he said in an email to Baptist Press.
The church hosted an open-mic public forum on Sunday evening, Jan. 29. The event lasted for nearly an hour and 20 minutes.
Lambert opened the forum by saying that neither the statement’s contents nor the requirement for members’ agreement with it are unusual for Christian churches.
“Every faithful church and even lots of faithless churches ask their members to believe things,” he told the audience. “It’s a 2,000-year-old reality in the Church to have confessions, to have statements of faith that express what we believe.
“It is not strange or new to have a statement of faith that a church would vote on to ask its members to agree with.”
He added that many, if not most, organizations have standards for members.
“Facebook has community standards,” he said. “Twitter has community standards. If you go to the Kiwanis Club or a gym or a school, there are community standards. Of course, our church can, should and does have a community standard, and those community standards come from the Bible. That is good, right, appropriate, typical and far from novel.”
Before opening the floor to questions, Lambert answered the question he said he’s been asked the most regarding the statement: Why now?
“You think now is not the time to talk about sexuality?” he asked. “Everybody’s talking about sexuality. … Disney has a stated view on sexuality. Starbucks has as stated view on sexuality. Why should not the Church of Jesus Christ have a stated view on sexuality?
“The most effective statements of faith in the history of Christianity have been the statements of faith that apply directly to something current, something controversial at the time. …
“When there is a whole lot of confusion about sexuality, it’s good and right that we express God’s mind on what that is.”
In an interaction between an unidentified questioner and the pastor, Lambert said the goal of the statement is not to single out any one group, but to lead the church to a healthy understanding of biblical sexuality.
“Our mission at First Baptist Church is to reach all of Jacksonville with all of Jesus for all of life,” he told BP. “Everything we do is accomplished with that mission in mind and so our intention is that God will use the proclamation of his truth and his son to build his church in his city.”