Members of Downtown’s biggest church are being required to sign a form agreeing that marriage is between a man and a woman and that a person’s gender is “a fixed matter of human biology, not individual choice.”
First Baptist Church of Jacksonville has told members they have until March 19 to sign the “Statement on Biblical Sexuality.” If they do not, First Baptist will assume they have resigned from the church.
As the deadline approaches, the church’s pastor has announced a public forum at 6 p.m. Sunday in their auditorium at 125 W. Ashley St. so community members can “publicly voice their concerns and questions.” In advance of that, the Rev. Heath Lambert said the statement merely clarifies the church’s position on what he calls “a culture that is pretty aggressive” on issues of human sexuality.
“We have been advised that our highest and best defense if anybody would ever take legal action against us is for every church member to be on the record that this is what we believe about human sexuality,” he said. “We have no legal action against us whatsoever.”
First Baptist Church of Jacksonville was one of the region’s first megachurches and one of the city’s oldest, with origins dating to the 1800s. Ultimately building a large campus between West Church and Union streets, it grew to become one of the largest Southern Baptist Conference congregations in the country under pastors Jerry Vine and Homer Lindsey Jr. in the 1990s. Sunday services saw about 12,000 people, according to Baptist News Global.
In recent years, membership has been “in a freefall,” but that has reversed recently and stands now at about 3,000, Lambert said. The drop-off in membership had led the church to offer much of its property for sale, although the pandemic halted that. Only a few parts of the campus — like two parking garages, a vacant lot and some other unused buildings — have been sold since, he said.
“We are in a very strong and stable position,” Lambert said. “Our church has grown over the last two years, the first time in 25 years that it has happened, and we are in the most stable financial situation we have been in over the past 40 years.”
Church leaders posted a myriad of documents on First Baptist’s website in recent months about the new mandate. One of those describes why the church believes it needs a biblical sexuality statement from its congregants, saying it “summarizes God’s design for gender, marriage and sexuality.” The church’s web page also states that the church equally forbids what it calls other sinful sexual expression such as adultery, pornography, homosexuality, transgenderism and others.
News media have reported complaints in the community since First Baptist posted its sexuality statement. Some, even in the religious community, have criticized what they view as the rejection of homosexual and transgender people. First Coast News, for example, quoted a pastor saying her church welcomes everyone, regardless of gender, race or sexuality.
Lambert said “a handful of people” have expressed concerns within his church. He has heard from hundreds of members, he said, and only a few church members are considering leaving rather than sign the statement. Most say it is important to be clear on the church’s feeling about sexuality “in a world that’s confused,” he said.
Church members who chose not to sign the agreement and leave can return. But they have to go through its membership class process, which includes meeting with a pastor before their return is voted on by the congregation, according to the church’s Frequently Asked Questions web page.
Lambert said the world around us is so aggressive that some people “have to be at war about something.” He added that First Baptist’s message is designed to be loving and not hateful and that there should be no controversy regarding the agreement.
“So at First Baptist, we love each other, we love our city, we love the Bible, we love Jesus; we don’t want to be at war,” he said. “Starbucks and Facebook and the president, government agencies are clarifying what they think about human sexuality. We thought it was a good time to clarify what the Bible says about sexuality.”
Lambert also said there’s no controversy within the congregation over the statement deadline, following a unanimous decision by church pastors, deacons, lay leaders and staff.
“This was a vote that came before the church, and the church unanimously approved it, so this is the church’s will that this happen. This is not being imposed on them by anybody else,” Lambert said. “I would say 98 to 99% of our feedback is, ‘We are so thankful that this has happened. We love this; we are fully supportive of this.'”