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Rev. Stephen V. Sprinkle, Ph.D. Headshot

Gay and Baptist: How an Oxymoron May Save the Church

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An ordained gay Baptist preacher and his life partner who were refused a marriage license in Jefferson County accepted arrest rather than betray their Christian conviction that anti-gay laws are unjust. By implication, the Rev. Maurice "Bojangles" Blanchard and his husband, Dominique James, both members in good standing in a local Baptist congregation, stood in contradiction to the widely held cultural and spiritual assumption that gay people are "abominations" before God, and should have none of the common rights to marriage afforded to all other citizens by the civil state. Despite the shockwaves their non-violent protest is sending throughout evangelical Protestantism and Baptist life in particular, their act of conscience may save the church yet.

The facts of the protest action carried out by the Rev. Bojangles and Dominique are these: on Tuesday, Jan. 22, the couple, wearing crosses on their ski caps, requested a license to marry from the Clerk's Office, and were refused. When asked why she refused them, Sandy Byerly, manager of the license office, said that she was upholding the law of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, which wrote anti-gay discrimination into the state constitution in 2004 by an amendment saying that "only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be a marriage in Kentucky," according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. Further, any clerk who willfully defies state law and issues a marriage license to a same-sex couple anyway will be removed from office and is subject to a year in jail. After the refusal by the clerk, the gay couple staged a peaceful pray-in until they were arrested and charged with trespassing at 5 p.m., when the clerk's office closed for the day. Offered the option of being cited for the offense rather than being arrested, the Baptist preacher and his spouse told the Metro Police officer that they had a "spiritual obligation" to resist the injustice of a law that denied them their civil right to marriage. As the Rev. Bojangles said prior to entering the clerk's office, "If we don't act, we are accomplices in our own discrimination. We have to resist." The couple was led to a waiting patrol car, and were transported to the Metro Corrections Center where they were booked. Jefferson County Clerk Bobbi Holsclaw told reporters that the ordained minister and his spouse were protesting in the wrong place. Instead of disturbing the clerk's office, she said, they should instead have taken their argument up with the state legislature.

Selah (Hebrew for "pause" -- found in the Book of Psalms).

The vast majority of Christians in the United States consider themselves law-abiding citizens, and shy away from public acts that defy law and order. Among ordained ministers, the aversion to any controversial word or deed, inside or outside of the congregation, is particularly high. Preachers, by-and-large, consider the office of prophet to be a historic artifact of First Testament history, not an obligation for modern spiritual shepherds. Prophetic action of the sort the good Reverend took in the county clerk's office is decidedly not a career enhancing choice. Controversy in the ministry can get ministers fired, and their families booted out of the parsonage.

The Rev. Bojangles knew all of that -- but he acted anyway, in obedience to the spiritual dictates of his conscience and in solidarity with LGBTQ people in over thirty states where same-sex marriage has been outlawed by constitutional amendment. As he told the Courier-Journal, he felt anxiety about the prospect of arrest, but he and his spouse of six years were "trusting in God and deeply called to do this." They faced the humiliation and degradation of the refusal in the clerk's office, they said, in order "to stand up for ourselves and countless others."

Selah, again.

Both gay men are members of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, the church that ordained Bojangles in May of last year. Highland's Pastor, the Rev. Joe Phelps, said that Bojangles and Dominique let him know what they were going to do prior to the peaceful protest. Pastor Joe also acknowledged that he understood there would be considerable friction for the church because of what these two Baptists were intending to do. Yet, neither he nor the good Baptists of Highland Church have flinched at the storm of publicity whipped up since their Timothy (a term for a member ordained by a local church to the ministry, harking back to the example of the Apostle Paul's protégé Timothy) and his husband withstood the anti-gay, anti-same-sex marriage law. In a public statement to the church and the world at large, Pastor Joe wrote on Jan. 24, "As for my reaction to Bojangles and Dominique's action: I'm proud to pastor a church where members are willing to put their reputations on the line in order to challenge unjust laws in a manner that is respectful and non-violent."

While Christians and others of good conscience may justly disagree over the specifics of the deeds of Bojangles and Dominique, and in general oppose one another's views on same-sex marriage and the status of LGBTQ people in the church of Jesus Christ, Pastor Joe said he had to stand with his parishioners, and he believed that their sisters and brothers in the faith should, as well. "And I do believe that the laws against same-sex marriage are unjust," he went on to say. "We experienced the consequence of this just last week, when the five-year partner of a man in critical condition in the ER had to wait several hours until a 'legitimate' next-of-kin arrived before being told that he had died on the scene."

Pastor Joe concluded, "There can be debate about whether the arrest is good or bad for the cause of civil rights for LGBT persons, but that they acted with integrity and the convictions of their hearts cannot be debated."

Such words and deeds are rare in any Christian circles these days, on the so-called religious right or progressive left. Matter of fact, putting words like "gay," "ordained Baptist minister" and "civil disobedience" together affirmatively in the same sentence feels like a bald-faced oxymoron: a brain-aching contradiction in terms! But given the damage done to the lives, psyches and families of LGBTQ people in the name of religion, decisive action to reverse the course of prejudice in the faith community looks essential, if the church is to be true to its Savior and its own soul. These days, encounters with such amazing oxymorons may be the only way the church can be awakened to its true role in society: speaking and acting FOR the underdogs of this world, and not against them.

Some might call the stand Pastor Joe, the Rev. Bojangles and Br. Dominique took as action "for the sake of Jesus Christ" as well as for the underdogs of today's world. Professor of New Testament Leander E. Keck wrote in his landmark book, "Who Is Jesus? History in Perfect Tense," that voluntarily becoming despicable in the eyes of society is a powerful characteristic of taking up Jesus' work among the outcast and the despised of every age-in effect, facing the risks "for Jesus' sake." Of such courageous souls, Keck notes, "Such persons usually do not talk of their own suffering but talk of others' for whose sake they are ready to accept what may befall them." In this day and age, these words could have been penned expressly for oxymoronic Baptist preachers and those who cherish them who stand up to the opprobrium heaped on LGBTQ people. "Such voluntarily suffering," Keck wrote, "has two names: one is love, the other is Jesus-in perfect tense."

Will the real Christians of this age please stand up? Some are, apparently, accepting despicable consequences on behalf of the outcasts, and "for Jesus' sake," as well.