Florida Megachurch Moves to Expel LGBTQ Members
A Jacksonville megachurch is requiring members to sign a new, anti-LGBTQ pledge committing to adhere to “biblical sexuality” — or leave the church. Describing the oath as “an exercise in clarity… in a sexually confused world,” First Baptist Church has given members and their families until March to comply.
The pledge compels members to renounce LGBTQ sexual- and gender- expression in favor or “God’s standard for human sexuality,” which the Florida church insists means there are only two genders, as well as that the only morally acceptable sexual “desire and expression” occurs within a marriage between one man and one woman. Unveiled last week, the mandatory pledge reads:
As a member of First Baptist Church, I believe that God creates people in his image as either male or female, and that this creation is a fixed matter of human biology, not individual choice. I believe marriage is instituted by God, not government, is between one man and one woman, and is the only context for sexual desire and expression.
Refusing to sign the pledge does not ban an individual from attending the house of worship, but it is a prerequisite membership, senior pastor Heath Lambert tells Rolling Stone.
In information accompanying the pledge, the church warns: “Your signature and updated contact information on this document is required by March 19, 2023, and will ensure your membership at First Baptist Church continues without any interruption.”
The megachurch’s effort to oust LGBTQ members is the latest manifestation of a reactionary zeitgeist now gripping Florida, one that Governor Ron DeSantis insists is making the Sunshine State the place where “woke goes to die.” The state government recently passed “Don’t Say Gay” legislation effectively outlawing LGBTQ education in public schools; it has also targeted racial minorities by banning the instruction of “critical race theory” and even blocking enrollment in a Black Studies Advanced Placement course. Despite centering the culture war in his church, Lambert insists: “I’m not a politician. I am a Christian.”
The historic First Baptist Church was founded 1838; an institution in Jacksonville, it grew to become largest church in the Southern Baptist Convention in the early 2000s, with a reported membership of 28,000. The megachurch has since lost some of that mega-cred — but still counts more than 3,500 members.
The new anti-LGTBQ document has been in development for months. Teasing it in a YouTube video last year, Lambert couched it as a reaction against “the secular warriors of our culture’s sexual revolution” whom he blamed for bringing “confusion and pain brought into our society” by “destroying lives and families with their false teaching on gender and sexuality.”
In the video, Lambert targeted the mainstreaming of trans rights in particular. He railed against a legal system he alleged was sentencing fathers “to jail for failing to support the sex change operation of their teenage daughters.” He also blasted pediatricians he claimed are pushing “hormone-suppressing drugs to grade-schoolers”; schools that “allow men to undercut women by competing against them in sports”; and city councils that “victimize women by allowing men into their restrooms.”
Speaking to the camera, Lambert insisted that the effort to expel queer members who disagree with the First Baptist’s views on sex and sexuality was motivated by love. “We love you and God does too,” Lambert said, adding: “It’s that love which drives us to share truth that may be hard for you to hear.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone on Monday, Lambert attempted to soften his message, somewhat. He insisted the pledge doesn’t just target queer church members. “It does rule out the LGBTQ array of sins,” he says, but insists the impact is even broader: “Rape, incest, polygamy — all sorts of things are ruled out just as much as homosexuality.”
Why has First Baptist made “biblical sexuality” a litmus test? Lambert has described it, in part, as a legal strategy — to lay down a marker that “our biblical beliefs about gender are a core conviction” and thereby “protect against those who would take us to court to require us to change our policies.”
Lambert tells Rolling Stone he views a 2017 Jacksonville city “bathroom ordinance” as a threat. That law gives trans individuals the right to use the bathroom of their choice — though it presently exempts churches. “We wanted to be on record,” Lambert says. “We want to be able to say, ‘Hey, everybody in our church believes that male is a biological reality; female is a biological reality.’ And that has to do with decisions we make about who uses the bathrooms, and who gets fired, and who can serve as a pastor,” he adds. “We want to function as an authentically Christian organization.”
Asked how he sees this anti-LGBTQ effort fitting into larger state politics, Lambert insists, “I don’t have any relationship with the DeSantis administration.” But he says the conservative state government “has a role” to play in making sure the LGBTQ movement does not have “the freedom to change the way local churches operate.”
Pressed on why a simple love for Jesus isn’t enough to attend his church, Lambert asserts that the “biblical sexuality” pledge doesn’t bar queer Floridians from attending First Baptist. “This is a statement for membership,” he says, and doesn’t ban anyone from the pews.
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“Everybody,” Lambert says, “is welcome at our church.”
Or perhaps just welcome to leave.