Editor’s note: Jeffrey Pennington, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Smyrna, has been active in recent months in a debate over the possible establishment of a non-discrimination ordinance in Cobb County.
Let Their Ships Break Upon the Rock of Truth: An Open Letter to Pastors
Jeffrey D. Pennington, Ph.D.
Sr. Pastor, First Baptist Church, Smyrna
For several months, I have been surprised how the distant has drawn near. In April, when I heard fellow pastors contemplating touchless temperature checks for every Sunday worshipper, I thought, “How dystopic.” When I learned of the feared risks of a gathered choir, or the threat of sitting too closely to someone else in a pew, my quick retort was, “Not in my church.”
Weeks later, when we could finally worship again, we embraced this new normal. We check everyone’s temperature. Our choir is on hold. Everyone worships in masks and at a safe distance.
The pandemic has caused these changes to be necessary. Based on where we live and the level of threat our community faces, some of us must change more than others. But I want to write of a cultural shift we are navigating in Smyrna that we will all travel.
In April, city leaders whom I sincerely love began to discuss the need for a Non-Discrimination Ordinance (NDO) (See info on the ordinance here.). They sought to be the first municipality to adopt such an ordinance in Cobb County and also become one of the first seven within the state. Our former mayor, tenured longer than any mayor in this part of the country, would not entertain the discussion. New leadership felt the need to bring the issue forward.
Thankfully, I had already researched these ordinances on a cursory level. For a long time, I have understood that the real battle for religious freedom and cultural change happens at the local level in ways that cable news rarely speaks into. I also knew that my engagement would not leave me unscathed. After understanding the ordinance’s language, I did my best, with the help of the Alliance Defending Freedom and [Georgia Baptist Public Affairs representative] Mike Griffin, to write articles countering its point of view (See the first of three articles here.).
No longer are the challenges of First Amendment rights only being waged in the far-off bakeries of Colorado, women’s shelters in Alaska, or floral shops in Washington State. Now, they are here. And leaders I deeply respect are inviting them.
I asked our city leaders to delay the public town hall meeting discussion of the NDO until after the pandemic had lifted. I reasoned that through waiting, others from Smyrna’s faith community could safely attend.
Our mayor and council acknowledged my concern, but then proceeded anyway. The city published the draft of the ordinance a day before the meeting. I did my best to craft my words to make the most of my three-minute response.
At the meeting, masked and socially distanced, I waited my turn and read my response. I was thankful for the courage of a fellow pastor and two of my faithful deacons. They too shared publicly from the same perspective and we were able to encourage each other. We all stayed the length of the meeting and our position was collectively voiced in less than 15 minutes. Frankly, it is hard to recall if I have ever felt as much like an outsider as I did that night.
Pastor, please don’t read my story and conclude that this only happens in Atlanta. Remember how this letter begins: the distant is being brought near. It will not be long before all us will navigate these same waters.
The challenge of the debate is in its nuance. Invidious discrimination has no place in our cities. If we are not responding with sensitivity and love to the collective outcry from many of our fellow image-bearers, we, who love and cling to the gospel, should be ashamed.
Many who are drafting NDOs are sincerely trying to help. They are not the enemy, for Ephesians 6:12 makes that perfectly clear. And yet, local leaders who are seeking to come to the aid of the injured are finding solutions that are sure to be injurious to others. If these ordinances are not carefully challenged, the church that possesses the true remedy to the world’s brokenness will lose its freedom to declare these life-changing, reconciling truths. Yes, unto our dying breath, we will still be called to share these truths, but the challenge to do so will heighten.
I write these matters to you because we all are wearied after five months of pandemic. Yet, please remain vigilant. Don’t grow weary in doing good (Gal. 6:9). Trust in God’s promises, that those who stand against the gospel will find that their ships break upon the rock of Truth.
Be quicker to engage with your city leaders than I have been. Lead your church by educating your members in how to pray and what action steps to take so that the body of Christ’s united voice will be heard. As you live out the gospel in word and deed, strive to earn the right to be heard. When the opportunity comes your way, and it will, the more relational capital you build with city leaders will help you be a voice of reason and change. Frankly, I deeply wish I would have had more.
You may go, rather quickly, from a beloved pastor to the whole community to being a source of consternation. And yet, let us follow Christ into the safe harbor of wisdom and obedience.