How a Bible-Belt Evangelical Church Embraced Gay Rights
When Dale Wigden went to services at Grace Pointe Evangelical Church in Franklin, Tennesee, for the first time around two years ago, he wasn’t expecting much. Since coming out as gay in his 20s, he’d had a complicated relationship with organized religion.
Wigden, who is now 40, grew up in a very religious Independent Baptist family just outside Rochester, New York. His mother and much of his family still go to the same church they always have—a community Wigden says he finds “insular and closed-minded.” After he told his family he was gay, they tried to stage interventions, and he rebuffed their efforts outright. By the time he moved to Nashville in 2012, all the rejection meant Wigden was “not in the religious frame of mind.”
The uncommon spelling of the word “pointe” in Grace Pointe’s name made him think it was probably some sort of “boutique church,” so he was skeptical. He’d attended a gay-friendly church while living in Chicago, but “it just seemed like anything goes.” Even though he knew his own lifestyle wasn’t considered moral by many people’s standards, the style of worship there “bugged me,” Wigden says.
“Where is the place where I can be gay and Christian?” he wondered.
That first day at Grace Pointe, an interdenominational church with a membership of about 1,500, the pastors were leading an old-fashioned hymn sing. When they got to “Amazing Grace,” Pastor Melissa Greene said something that “hit me right square between the eyes,” Wigden says. Speaking about the line “that saved a wretch like me,” Greene said the church didn’t agree with the word “wretch.”
“It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or who you are, you were born beloved by God,” Wigden says she told the congregation. According these pastors, God didn’t want to punish him. From that moment on, he says, he was “hooked on Grace Pointe.”
While the Grace Pointe leadership, staff, and congregation emphasize love and encourage people to ask questions and voice doubts, this is no hotbed of progressive activism. The town of Franklin is in what Greene calls “the buckle of the Bible Belt.” Half an hour outside Nashville, Franklin is affluent, overwhelmingly conservative, and about 85 percent white. With a population of around 68,000 people, it’s also the home of the World Christian Broadcasting company.
There are strong lines drawn between right and wrong at Grace Pointe Church. “Everyone has sin in their lives,” Greene told TakePart. However, not everyone at Grace Pointe agrees on what actions are sinful. Despite some opposition from within the congregation, this Bible Belt church is now making a religious argument for gay rights.
More than 70 percent of Americans know a gay or lesbian person. Following stunning legal victories for gay marriage over the past four years, gay rights have moved from the fringe to the mainstream. Antigay attitudes haven’t disappeared, but even some of the most conservative corners of the country have started to advocate for a tempered version of gay rights. On Tuesday, the Mormon Church leadership issued a statement in support of an LGBT anti-discrimination law in Utah. Though the state law includes a wide exemption for religious freedom, the Mormon Church’s statement suggests that conservative circles can no longer ignore the presence of out gay people.
Many deeply religious Christian communities are often assumed to condemn same-sex relations. But the truth is, evangelical churches are diverse and evolving quickly on the question of how to include LGBT members. In a 2014 poll by Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group, 42 percent of millennial evangelical Christians surveyed said they support same-sex marriage.
Just outside Seattle earlier this month, Eastlake Community Church—a megachurch that holds 13 services a week across six locations—announced it would become LGBT-inclusive. Last year in Los Angeles, a pastor named Danny Cortez was dismissed from the Southern Baptist Convention after he began speaking out in support of same-sex marriage.
Behind the scenes for Cortez’s decision was Brandan Robertson, the spokesperson for Evangelicals for Marriage Equality, a Washington, D.C.–based group that will bring a petition with more than 1,179 signatures of faithful evangelicals who support same-sex marriage rights to the Ethics and Religious Liberty conference in October. The ERLC has been adamant that marriage is a “union between one man and one woman.”
A counterculture within evangelical Christianity seems determined to challenge this idea. At this year’s Gay Christian Network Conference, Robertson spoke to a room of 150 evangelicals who support LGBT rights. He told them it’s “vital” that they stay in their evangelical communities and “not join liberal churches or LGBT churches.”
Change begins “in the pews,” Robertson says. Though he believes the movement for LGBT acceptance in more conservative churches is gaining momentum, he acknowledges that LGBT evangelicals “have a long way to go.”
Wigden was always open about the fact that he’s gay. When he first started attending services at Grace Pointe in 2012, LGBT people were part of the congregation but weren’t allowed to hold leadership roles or have weddings in the church.
The leaders were telling the congregation everyone was welcome, but “we weren’t a place where everyone is welcome here and has equal benefits,” says Greene.
Greene is the pastor of worship and arts at Grace Pointe, and for the past six years she’s led the music every Sunday and curated the services from top to bottom. She knows most of the people who come to church on Sunday and believes that around 15 percent of them identify as LGBT. In June 2012, close to the time Widen moved to Nashville and started attending services, country singer and Grace Pointe member Carrie Underwood came out in support of gay marriage and told a U.K. newspaper that the church was “gay friendly.”
In many ways, it was. Everyone knew out members like Wigden. He felt accepted and had plenty of friends in the congregation, even though he didn’t have equal rights there. But the virulently antigay Westboro Baptist Church heard Underwood’s comments and called to ask about the church’s stance on gay inclusion. When Westboro announced it was going to picket Grace Pointe, “we felt like this is a good pitch for us to bring this dialogue to the forefront,” Greene says.
In order to broach the subject more openly, in August 2012 Pastor Stan Mitchell devoted five services to a detailed interrogation of the biblical arguments against homosexuality—the passages that are often called “clobber texts” and cited as proof that same-sex desires are against God.
Dressed in jeans and a striped polo shirt, Mitchell told the congregation that though the church needs to deal with the question of same-sex marriage, the Bible does not explicitly prohibit loving, consensual same-sex relationships. “The evil desires of those men in Sodom and Gomorrah had nothing to do with the problem of whether genuine love can be expressed between consenting adults of the same sex—zero,” he said.
Though Mitchell wasn’t changing policies, just digging into scripture, Greene estimates that Grace Pointe lost about 20 percent of its membership as a result of the service.
Still, the church kept inching toward wider acceptance, always with the question of whether the Bible condemns same-sex desire. After this meticulous analysis of the “clobber texts,” Greene says the leadership was more convinced than ever: “LGBT inclusion is the beautiful byproduct of what we believe the Gospel says.”
Then, on Jan. 11, after more than two years of deliberation, Mitchell announced that Grace Pointe would allow LGBT people to take leadership roles, have baby dedications, and, yes, get married.
Some jumped to their feet at the news and began applauding. Wigden says he was “thrilled.” He’d known the conversations were taking place but didn’t expect the announcement to happen that day. Others were less than enthusiastic and sat quietly, absorbing the news. “I understand why the people who cheered, cheered,” says one congregant, who wanted to remain anonymous because he still isn’t sure how he feels about the decision. “I just wish the victory they felt could have been amongst themselves, somewhere else.”
Though Greene says the recent decision to fully accept LGBT members represents “God’s heart, as far as we can tell,” she thinks the church will lose hundreds of members and take a financial hit as a result. Sunday attendance declined from an average 800 to 1,000 to 482 two weeks after the sermon, and January giving dropped by almost 50 percent.
The congregant who is struggling to accept the new policies but is still a member of the church tells TakePart that the applause after Mitchell’s announcement made Grace Pointe “seem divided.”
“Of course, it is divided,” he continues. “But I didn’t want to see a victory lap from anybody. I wanted them to be reverent and respectful.”
Many of the congregants at Grace Pointe were raised in more conservative religious communities that were uncompromising in their condemnation of homosexuality. A spirit of inclusion is in conflict with the history of exclusion both at Grace Pointe and in evangelical churches across the region.
Right now, congregants are paying close attention to the way church leaders address such politically charged differences among the congregation. Wigden’s reaction to the church’s validation of LGBT people reveals a great deal about the narrow line that many walk when trying to live as evangelical and gay.
Before he moved to Nashville in 2012, Wigden and a man he was in a relationship with lived in Chattanooga. They had friends in the city’s gay neighborhood, but the couple chose to live in a largely heterosexual, conservative suburb. “The focus, in my mind,” Wigden says, “is integration.” He says he and his partner lived there mainly to prove to straight, suburban people that “we were just like them.”
Eventually the couple broke up, and Wigden moved to Nashville for work, but he still keeps in touch with many of his old neighbors on Facebook. “That, to me, is changing people’s minds about being gay. It’s not always about the pride parade or drag show.”
Wigden is excited about the new church policy. He feels bad that other congregants are leaving the church over the decision after investing “their blood sweat and tears” in the congregation. But he’s also scared about the potential influx of more politically vocal LGBT congregants.
“The last thing you want is for a church to do something like this and then other gay people come in being very militant about stuff and demanding things,” he says. Though he cried with happiness when Mitchell announced Grace Pointe would marry gay couples, he’s nervous that these changes will make it seem like “gay church.”
“I don’t want Grace Pointe to have a booth at the [gay] pride festival,” Wigden says. “That’s not the way this church is.”