Monday, February 16, 2015

Thaptology: Use of Church Buildings UPDATED

  • In January 2015 New Hope Ministries of Lakewood, Colorado required removal of a funeral from their facilities because a video "collage" showed the decedent kissing her lesbian partner.
  • In late July 2014, New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa, Florida refused the use of their building for the funeral of a man who had lived a homosexual life and was "married" to a partner.
  • In 2008 Second Baptist Church in Rockmart, Georgia would not host the funeral of a member because the family insisted that two women read Scripture at the service.

Use of Church Buildings

The availability and use of church facilities (or not) have been the source of recent funeral disputes, and are likely to be a continuing source of disputes.   Some folks may think that a dispute over building use for funerals and memorial services is a new breed of organism. While new issues arise in our evolving society (e.g., debate over funerals displaying the wares of same-sex cohabitation), the fact of such disputes are nothing new. Consider a rural Texas church in the early 1900s. 

At the end of the 19th century, Texas Baptists of the "missionary" persuasion suffered an angry and awkward division. Two organizations – the BGCT and the BMAT – vied for dominance. Much bitterness resulted. One church incident exhibits that bitterness. The accelerant was the death of a popular young preacher. He grew up, was licensed and ordained in a BMAT church. He attended Jacksonville College (BMAT) but finished his education at Baylor (BGCT). He soon became a rising star in the churches of the rival BGCT. In January of 1912 death came calling, and this young man met his appointment. After his burial some of the family and community wanted to have a memorial service for him in his natal community at the BMAT church’s building, but with a pastor from the BGCT invited to give the message. This was finally allowed in April, but not until much wrangling, rancor and animosity had disturbed the church and community. The general disallowing of "outsider" funerals continued until nearly 30 years later when the church voted that “the doors of this church was (sic) opened to anyone wishing to hold a funeral in the house.”

Church buildings are a modern convenience not available in New Testament times. Accordingly, there are no biblical records of “building use” as a pattern for us. New Testament orthopraxy and biblical ecclesiology should be introduced to guide us. Based on church autonomy, each church has the right to determine how her building will be used – which includes banning any funeral service for any reason.  But what would be scriptural reasons for doing so? What about the funerals we agree to officiate? Should some be excluded because of the person’s lifestyle or beliefs?  Should we approach it as an opportunity to preach the gospel to unbelievers?

Situations of and solutions used by various churches include:

  • Don't own a building
  • Don't use the church building for any funerals
  • Limit use of church building to members only
  • Selectively allow use of the building with discretion (this would be something such as allowing use to those who meet certain guidelines and stipulations)
  • Allow use of the building by the community without discretion

If a congregation does not have a building, they stand aloof from “building use” issues. Others must determine how to best use their buildings in line with biblical principles.

A theological and practical matter is who is allowed into the church’s pulpit, what some call “pulpit affiliation” (i.e., allowing persons who are not of "like faith and order" to preach or conduct services).  Some apply this to any and all services conducted in the church facility, while others would it to their gatherings as a church (i.e., not applicable to weddings, funerals, etc.).  

Some churches have detailed policies governing the use of their buildings (e.g. weddings and funerals). Many of the policies are based on practical and emotional concerns, but with no guiding philosophy based on theological considerations. Now is high time for churches and pastors to consider the funerary process theologically and govern their actions accordingly.

No comments: