The conversation at First Baptist Church Greenville took place well before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this summer to legalize same-sex marriages.
The dialogue was bold — particularly for one of downtown Greenville’s influential legacy churches that in its earliest years served as a birthplace for revered Southern Baptist institutions.
Would the congregation be willing to allow same-sex couples to marry in the church?
To ordain gay ministers?
To embrace the complexities of gender identity?
In an evangelical church born in the antebellum South? Whose founder more than a century and a half ago served as the inaugural president of the Southern Baptist Convention?
Here, in Greenville?
The answer to each was “yes.”
But the answers didn’t come simply.
“What I heard was, ‘We need to do the right thing, regardless of what anybody thinks or says about us,’” says Jim Dant, the 184-year-old church’s senior minister who led the church through its six-month discernment. “There were a few people who said, ‘Are they going to start calling us the gay church in town?’”
The dialogue culminated into a consensus — the kind that, by the earliest tradition of Baptist discernment, resulted in a public affirmation by each present member.
The call wasn’t to render a verdict on whether homosexuality is right or wrong.
Instead, it was the general agreement of a congregation that it could hold divergent personal beliefs but still come together in a desire to worship and serve.
Now, as churches across the land wrestle with how a secular, Supreme Court decision might impact their religion, First Baptist finds itself in an unlikely leadership position.
It’s not one the church set out to claim — but it’s one Dant says he hopes could bring new hope to those who for years have felt they had to abandon their evangelical heritage.
From humble beginnings, First Baptist emerged as the birthplace of institutions shaping theology, education and politics in the region.
It was one of the original five downtown churches — Christ Church, First Presbyterian, Buncombe Street Methodist, St. Mary’s Catholic, First Baptist — deeded land from the fortune of Vardry McBee, who in the mid-1800s along with his heirs plotted the future of the fledgling town’s identity.
William Bullein Johnson — a preacher who came to Greenville in the 1820s to lead the Greenville Female Academy — served as the chief fundraiser for what would become Greenville First Baptist in 1831, housed in a small building on the corner of Irvine Street and McBee Avenue.
When the Southern Baptist Convention formed in 1845, Johnson served as its first president.
Furman University, a Baptist denominational school, was born under the church’s wing.
The college’s success prompted a move in 1858 to a grand, more spacious home at the corner of West McBee Avenue and River Street, a Greek Revival building designed by famed Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The strength of the church led to the formation of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — today one of the largest Christian seminaries in the world — in the church’s former meeting house.
The church adopted the name First Baptist Church in 1890.
Its congregation swelling by the end of the 1960s, church elders decided it was time to move the church — along with its name — to a new, expansive campus on Cleveland Street.
There, the church has served as a community institution — a vibrant daycare and kindergarten, recreational nucleus and faith home to thousands
Throughout the years, First Baptist has identified itself as a congregation of moderate temperament.
And for years, the LGBT community has worshiped in the church alongside heterosexual peers.
The sentiment throughout much of the church’s recent history, Dant says, was one of general acceptance of the LGBT community, but with an unspoken, de facto “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
When the church recently decided to state its position clearly, it at first was “headed down the road to having a vote with winners and losers.”
Instead, he says, the conversation began as one of discernment with an eye toward reaching a statement of consensus.
Over the course of four Sunday evenings in November, more than 200 people sat in circles of eight and engaged in candid discussions.
Personal convictions varied, Dant says, and members made themselves vulnerable, on all sides, in a spirit of fellowship.
The discussions distilled into a central question: “Can you worship and live with the LGBT community in the church?”
The answer, for the most part, was yes.
The members then affirmed that “being open and welcoming to all people is part of the essential nature of our community of faith.”
The next crucial step, Dant says, was assuring members that no one would try to tell them that their personal convictions were wrong.
The process led to a brief but pointed consensus statement: “In all facets of the life and ministry of our church, including but not limited to membership, baptism, ordination, marriage, teaching and committee/organizational leadership, First Baptist Greenville will not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity.”
In May, members of the congregation during a service were invited to stand to affirm the consensus statement. The vast majority stood. The few who didn’t were then offered the opportunity to stand to agree to remain in fellowship.
By the end, all were standing.
Today, First Baptist can perform same-sex marriages.
And members, no matter their sexual orientation, can serve in leadership roles and can be ordained as ministers.
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