WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (BP)–An oft-quoted Baptist historian has become an advocate for the admission of homosexuals into Wake Forest University’s divinity school, which is affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
“I’ll die on this floor of non-discriminatory admissions,” said Bill Leonard, dean of the Wake Forest divinity school, defending the school’s admission of a lesbian student in its inaugural class last fall. Leonard’s statements came in response to a question asked during a meeting of so-called “mainstream” Baptists April 25 in Atlanta.
Messengers to the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina’s annual meeting last fall began a process for ending constitutional ties to Wake Forest over its sale of alcohol on campus and its permission for a same-sex marriage-like ceremony on campus. The university’s ties with the CBF, however, are not in jeopardy.
In an interview with Baptist Press May 8, Leonard expounded on his statements, likening the homosexual issue to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
“The university has a policy against discrimination, and that includes race, creed, sexual orientation or other factors,” Leonard also said. “We needn’t be afraid of homosexuals.”
During the April 25 Atlanta meeting, Leonard defended the admissions policy by saying, “In a divinity school setting everyone must come to terms with their ideas and who they are. The exchange between students who are of varying opinions on this position [homosexuality] can have great power. I believe in the power of the classroom to change our lives. We should be willing to talk about this issue with the people that we used to keep out of our schools.”
Asked whether he considers homosexuality a sin, Leonard initially declined comment to Baptist Press, saying, “I don’t think we need to talk about that.” However, Leonard relented and voiced the following explanation: “Is homosexuality a sin? That’s for everyone to sort out individually.”
The Wake Forest divinity school, which describes itself as “Christian by tradition, ecumenical in outlook, Baptist in heritage,” is one of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s recommended schools of theology. Daniel Vestal, coordinator of the organization of dissident Baptist moderates, told Baptist Press the CBF will continue to support the divinity school.
“We consider Wake Forest as a valued partner in leadership development for our future,” Vestal said. “As I understand the Wake Forest situation, the admission of homosexuals is part of the university policy which is mandated by law. We are not prepared to sever our relationship based on an open admission policy.”
Vestal stressed that the CBF’s support of the divinity school is not an endorsement of the homosexual lifestyle. “I want to be very clear that the CBF is not an advocate of the gay and lesbian lifestyle,” he said. “We are often accused of that but it is not true. I believe homosexuality is wrong and contrary to Scripture. I believe marriage is holy before God and I’m not going to do anything that will undermine the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman.” Vestal’s personal stance, however, has never been echoed by any official CBF vote or action.
“Now if the Wake Forest divinity school were to take an advocacy role concerning homosexuality, the CBF would have a problem,” Vestal said. “But CBF does not interpret [the divinity school’s] position as an advocacy for the gay/lesbian lifestyle,” Vestal said.
However, there apparently isn’t a problem with CBF churches which advocate homosexual lifestyles. Vestal confirmed there are at least three or four churches that send money to the CBF and have some kind of homosexual advocacy. He said the CBF nevertheless accepts donations from these churches.
“We have not made that [homosexual issue] a litmus test for participation,” Vestal said. “That does not mean that the CBF as an organization agrees with their positions.”
Vestal said he does not see a problem with accepting money from churches that openly endorse the homosexual lifestyle. “I’d also say there are partners with us that do other things we don’t agree with,” he said. “There are churches that give money to the CBF that show racial prejudice and spiritual lukewarmness.”
Two of the churches with links to the CBF “church networking resource” posted on the Internet are Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., and Virginia-Highland Baptist Church in Atlanta. Messengers to the Georgia Baptist Convention in November 1999 voted overwhelmingly to “withdraw fellowship” from the two congregations over their policies and practices concerning homosexuality.
Both churches allow homosexual and lesbian members to hold positions of leadership, while a commitment service for two homosexuals at Virginia Highland was deemed “out of keeping with who we are as Georgia Baptists.”
Leonard said it’s time to have an open dialogue about homosexuality, and the best place to do that is in a divinity school. “The divinity school should be a place where issues that are dividing the church should be discussed,” he said. “And from my point of view, this is a pastoral issue [homosexuality]. If we trust the gospel and we trust the power of the gospel, then we shouldn’t be afraid of it.”
Leonard, a former Southern Baptist Theological Seminary faculty member, said the seminary years ago would not admit African Americans, women or divorced people. “Baptists have been on the wrong side of most cultural issues,” he asserted to Baptist Press. The SBC’s stance on homosexuality, he said, is reminiscent of its stand on slavery and the Civil Rights movement. “I don’t see a lot of white churches calling black pastors,” Leonard stated. “Look at how many things the Southern Baptist Convention has had to repent for: slavery, civil rights, women. Southern Baptists were at the forefront of saying a pope would be in the White House if we elected a Catholic to office. We were wrong about these things,” Leonard declared.
Vestal agreed with Leonard’s assessment. “I believe that history would show that the only right side we’ve been on as Baptists has been religious liberty,” Vestal claimed.
Leonard argued that the issue of allowing homosexuals into a divinity school is not about right or wrong; it’s about having a voice. “I think that underneath this is a debate about whether we can speak as Baptists about these issues,” he said. “I’m not going to tell a church where they should stand on this issue. But there should be a place where they can discuss these issues.”
But is it fair to equate the Civil Rights movement with the homosexual agenda? Leonard declined to respond to the question.
“This is not about choosing sides,” Leonard said. “This is about voice and who gets to speak. And I think that homosexuals have a voice in the church. We are hearing their voices.”