Dave Farmer during a rally in Washington D.C. earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of Dave Farmer)
Dave Farmer during a rally in Washington D.C. earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of Dave Farmer)

Baptist out to 'reform' homophobia

A Virginia man believes his Baptist Christian faith and passion for the Bible will help his participation in the national Reformation Project to convince gays and straights that God loves and accepts homosexuals — and that the church should, too.

By Jeff Brumley

A gay, married man in Springfield, Va., believes his childhood Baptist roots and conservative Christian upbringing will help him convince homosexuals estranged from the church that the Bible isn’t out to get them.

Dave Farmer says his faith, past and present, also will give him the credibility needed to convince gay-friendly and homophobic Christians alike there is a biblical foundation for loving and accepting homosexuals as full members of God’s family.

Farmer will be testing those beliefs in the coming months and years as a participant in the newly launched Reformation Project. Founded this year by gay Christian activist Matthew Vines, the nonprofit organization seeks to recruit, train and empower gay Christians to transform biblical teaching on homosexuality.

“By the end of this decade we can train thousands of Christian leaders worldwide to eradicate homophobia through the preaching and teaching of the Bible,” Vines says in a video on the Reformation Project website.

Farmer, 55, is a member of the initial group of 50 “reformers” chosen to start that preaching and teaching — which they are scheduled to begin later this month after a group meeting in Kansas City.

The timing and scope of the campaign, Farmer said, convinces him he has been called by God to leverage his passion for Scripture and his lifelong faith to share the good news that Christianity isn’t for straights only.

“I am convinced this is a part of God’s plan for me,” said Farmer, who serves on the leadership team at Ravensworth Baptist Church in Annandale, Va. “This country really needs some healing on this issue.”

‘Did not walk away from God’

However, there would definitely have been a time when Farmer felt such words were impossible to apply to him.

Growing up, he and his family first attended Baptist churches before switching to the Christian Church and ultimately the Church of Christ.

For a while everything was fine as Farmer grew active in his churches, including singing in the choir. But as he aged, his growing awareness of his attraction to other males began to conflict with the repeated message that such attractions are damned. In 1980 he quit church life.

“I heard so many sermons condemning me to hell that I walked away from organized religion for many years,” he said. “But I did not walk away from God.”

He met a special man — a Southern Baptist — in 1992 and in 2008 they were legally married in California before Proposition 8 temporarily halted the practice.

A year after that, Farmer said he read an inspiring article about a gay Baptist in The Advocate, a national gay news magazine, which opened his mind to the possibility of being at peace with being gay and Baptist.

In 2010, Farmer and his partner attended a service at Ravensworth after learning it was a member of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists.

“When I entered the church it felt like I had come home,” he said.

‘The only gay Christian’

The feeling of estrangement and homecoming is one familiar to many gay, lesbian, transgender and bi-sexual Christians, Vines says on the Reformation Project homepage and in a story published last year by The New York Times.

“Last year I felt like the only gay Christian,” Vines, then 22, said in the Times story, referencing the moment when he was forced to leave his Kansas City church for claiming homosexuality is not a sin. After a video of him sharing his plight went viral, "I suddenly have hundreds of Facebook friends who are gay Christians.”

In fact, gay Christians — especially those estranged from their churches and those feeling conflicted between sexuality and faith — are one of the demographics the Reformation Project seeks to reach.

“The targets here are not just those who are very judgmental and closed-minded, but young people who maybe are gay and trying to understand themselves,” said Steve Hyde, the pastor at Ravensworth, an Alliance of Baptists congregation that also belongs to the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists.

Hyde, a heterosexual, said it took him quite some time to understand also that many of those gays who left, or were forced to leave, their churches remained believing Christians afterward. He noted that many of them feel berated by the hellfire preaching of their youth and by non-believing gays who see religious faith as capitulation to bigotry.

“It’s very powerful — and it’s sad when you think of what the church has missed out on by its blindness,” said Hyde, a former Southern Baptist.

The Reformation Project “looks like a very Baptist approach” to combatting bigotry because of its emphasis on Scripture, dialogue and the conscience of the believer, Hyde added.

‘Steeped in scripture’

And Farmer’s past and present as a Baptist makes him ideal for undertaking his new role, which includes holding small-group studies, Bible studies and spreading the word to the four corners of the culture.

“It really brings something genuine to the dialogue when someone like Dave is so informed and so prepared and biblically grounded,” Hyde said.

Farmer said he isn’t the only Baptist and knows of at least a couple others along with a mix of other denominations including Anglicans, Catholics, Pentecostals and Presbyterians. Vines is a Presbyterian.

But being a gay Baptist Christian does give him an inside track to promoting the Bible as a source for homosexual acceptance rather than as a document to be avoided.

“It helps that Baptists are steeped in scripture and that congregants have the ability to interpret scripture,” he said. “It’s that ... understanding that Scripture is my responsibility, that really stuck with me.”

‘The ultimate goal’

That will help present biblical concepts even to gay-friendly churches and Christians who are less familiar with the Bible, he said.

And while he doesn’t hold out for convincing the most strident conservatives, Farmer said he senses there are evangelicals who are becoming disenchanted with the hellfire-and-brimstone approach.

“There are a lot who see how people are being ostracized, they see young teens committing suicide, and I think a lot of conservative Christians are really in pain over that.”

A recent Baylor University study provides some evidence that is happening.

Released in August, the study found a “messy middle” in evangelicalism in which some conservative Christians oppose homosexuality on moral grounds but support equal rights for gays, including civil unions.

“As a moral issue, we predict the opposition to gay civil rights will not have the same staying power as the abortion debate,” study co-author Brandon Martinez, a sociology researcher at Baylor, said in a university news release.

Farmer said he finds such news encouraging.

“It would be great to see some of these more ultra-conservative people come around a little bit,” he said. “That would be the ultimate goal.”

‘Welcoming and affirming’

The Reformation Project approach is to dig into the historical and cultural contexts that informed those biblical passages typically used to condemn homosexuality.

Farmer and his 49 fellow “reformers” will also dissect key terms in scripture to argue their multiple meanings historically misunderstood and misused by generations of Christians.

Another demographic much in need of that kind of study are welcoming and affirming Christians who may feel their acceptance of homosexuality in the church violates the Bible, but who do so anyway.

“This is so they can understand why they are welcoming and affirming from a biblical perspective,” Farmer said.