Pastor Mike Baker stands on a large stage at Eastview Christian Church that serves as a pulpit. He is dressed casually in a summer suit, open collar shirt, and loafers with no socks. Behind him, lit up in stage lights, are the letters: S E X.
“I am going to present for you the plan for sex God had for you. God wants you to have sex, God made you sexual beings. Sex is cool with Jesus," Baker announced.
He cautioned congregation members that some in the community might construe his remarks as disrespectful.
“The reality is, we’re not haters. Hatin’ rhymes with Satan, and we don’t hate here,” he said to the congregation’s laughter and applause.
Members of the LGBT community, a local women’s group, a Bloomington City Council member, and members of other Christian churches said they found Baker’s sermon "hateful" and "offensive," particularly to LGBT people and non-traditional families.
Baker asserted that homosexuality is a choice, and also seemed to suggest that non-traditional families aren’t as effective as a families that include a father and mother.
GLT News asked Baker to comment on his sermon. He replied through a church official that he was leaving on a retreat to write a book and would not be available. Baker has been at Eastview since 1995, and served as senior pastor since 2007. He is the author of several books on faith, including "How Teens Do Church."
— Eastview Church (@eastviewchurch) August 28, 2017
Baker's remarks reflect the teaching at most evangelical Christian churches as well as some mainline Protestant churches and the Catholic Church. In his sermon, he cited the second chapter of the Book of Genesis, adding his own take on why he believes sexual relations are only proper between a man and a woman.
“God made man’s penis to fit a woman’s vagina. They become one flesh. The physical side of this is fascinating in God’s creation," he preached.
As Baker spoke, about 25 protesters from a group calling itself Humans for the Advancement of Religious Equality, gathered outside the church. They held signs they said reflected their interpretation of Christian Scripture.
The signs bore messages such as, “God Doesn’t Make Mistakes” and “You Are Beautifully And Wonderfully Made.”
The controversy surrounding Baker's sermon underscores the kinds of longstanding disputes that exist between Christian churches over sexual matters. These disputes usually take place more quietly inside church halls or at denominational conferences.
The swift, negative response represents a growing issue for churches like Eastview that make extensive use of video, websites, Twitter and other social media. Those media venues leave the comments of pastors open to far greater public scrutiny than ever before.
In additional to homosexuality and the traditional family, Baker's sermon touched on a variety of subjects, including pornography, masturbation and sex outside of marriage, but the remarks on homosexuality and the family drew the most criticism.
Jackie Gunderson organized the protest outside Eastview.
“I am the leader of a small group of Christians. Some of us are LGBTQ Christians and some of us are allies, but all of us have witnessed or experienced the hurt Christians have caused,” Gunderson said.
Gunderson cited Eastview’s prominence as one of the largest churches in McLean County, with more than 5,000 members—about a third of them under the age of 29. Eastview even rented a billboard along Veterans Parkway to announce Baker’s sermon on sex.
“We are not arguing with Mike Baker’s (Biblical) interpretation. That is his interpretation," Gunderson said.
"What we were there for is to show love to those who left confused, hurt or unsure of what they heard, because we have all felt that. I have felt that."
She noted that Eastview heavily promoted the sermon on social media leading up to last Sunday's service.
“They used the billboard and Facebook posts and spreading that message on Twitter. We were really hoping that as they attracted more people on top of the thousands they connect with every Sunday that they would use that platform to be loving rather than exclusive and gas-lighting a group of individuals," Gunderson said.
Gunderson said she has been married to her same-sex partner for two years and is a member of Hope Methodist Church, which describes itself as an inclusive faith community. She said Baker contacted her by email earlier this week, seeking a future dialogue with her religious equality group.
Bloomington City Council member Scott Black listened to the sermon on YouTube. At a council meeting last Monday, he said he felt compelled to respond.
“I fully support freedom of religion and people can have whatever beliefs that they have, but I believe it’s my duty to stand up for those who are in the minority," Black told GLT.
At Monday's council meeting, he asked for time at the end to respond to the sermon. “I was really disappointed in that piece to hear a lot of hate toward the LGBT community … It really bugged me," he said.
Born This Way?
In the sermon, Baker said homosexuality is an identity people choose, and not one they are born with.
“Saying I was born this way is not Biblically founded. Here is what’s interesting, it’s not been scientifically found either,” he said.
Baker quoted from a study he said was done by a University of Michigan psychology professor. He said the study supports the view that “it’s not been proven in a scientific lab that people have a genetic for sexuality.”
Baker’s sermon included an interview with author Eric Elder, an Eastview member, who said he entered into homosexual relationships as a 19-year-old, but later married a woman and fathered six children.
“Deep down I always knew I wanted to have a wife and kids.” Elder said he prayed to change his sexual orientation, and his prayers were answered.
Elder’s book “Loving God and Loving Gays: What’s a Christian To Do?" is recommended on Eastview’s website and sold in its bookstore.
Gunderson of the religious equality group said she was particularly concerned about the message Baker and Elder were sending to young gays who might still be coming to terms with their sexual identity.
“Suicide attempts are four times higher for LGBT youth. Forty percent of transgender adults reported suicide attempts before the age of 25. And this one is the reason I stood outside of Eastview on Sunday: LGBT children from rejecting homes are 8.4 times more likely to commit suicide."
Baker spent a portion of his sermon advocating for the traditional family.
“The best community, the most nurturing community is Mom and Dad,' he said.
One of the most stinging criticisms of the sermon came from a women’s rights group called FIST, Feminists Instigating Social Transformation.
An essay on FIST’s Facebook page said, “FIST refuses to sit quietly by while members of our community are having people in fancy suits with multi-million dollar pulpits preaching intolerance, hatred and bigotry with a smile."
Melle Hany, a single mother, co-authored the essay with her sister.
“Specifically pointing out that families need a mother and a father because women are kind and soft and men are strong and disciplinarians, it just perpetuates that single families are not enough and they have a lot of guilt about not being able to provide the other parent. That also targets LGBT families because they feel they are doing something wrong in raising their children,” Hany said.
The comments on family also provoked Bloomington Council member Black, whose parents are divorced.
“My mother did a great job raising me. My Dad was involved in my life too," Black said.
"To suggest people who come from homes described as broken without a mother and father together is really offensive and deeply troubling. It’s never a good thing to tell young people they can’t do something because of their circumstances. I think we should lift people up.”
Hany of the FIST women’s group says she has heard from people who attend Eastview and don’t ascribe to the church’s teaching on sexuality. She says there are gay members at the church who afraid to speak up.
“It’s a very us versus them mentality that I wish didn’t exist," she said.
Bob Ryder is co-pastor of New Covenant Community Church in Normal, which describes itself as “inclusive.” Ryder says some church leaders in Bloomington-Normal would agree with Baker. But that is beginning to change.
“Human sexuality is a lot more nuanced and complex than we have known up until last number of years and last couple of decades. The more we find out about sexuality, the more we hopefully will come to realize there are many valid and beautiful and legitimate expressions of sexuality," Ryder said.
"I think more and more Christians and people of all religious faiths are beginning to understand that from a more informed scientific and biological point of view, rather than a strictly 2,000-year-old perspective in which the Bible was written," Ryder added.
Baker admonished his congregation members not to engage in debates—especially on social media—with others who might not ascribe to Eastview’s teachings on sexuality. He also gave them this advice:
"Ask them to tell you their story. Ask them to share with you what they think about their sexuality. Get into their lives and then hopefully there will be an opportunity when you can do this last thing: point to Jesus.”
Baker also acknowledged that Jesus never speaks directly about homosexuality in the New Testament.
"Jesus never spoke about it, but it’s more proper to say we don’t have reported words of Jesus on everything," he told the congregation.
Gunderson said she believes the New Testament message of Jesus is clear.
“Show love to another. You are a Christian – your job is to love others."
Hany of the FIST women’s group said people who are divorced, gay, transgender and once felt marginalized by churches are now less likely to simply walk away.
"I would love to see people be able to be themselves and be able to follow whatever faith they choose whether Christianity, or Buddhism, or Judaism," Hany said.
"I would love for people to stay and to fight and make sure people see them not as flawed human beings going to hell, but actual human beings worthy of respect and human rights and dignity."
That day, Hany adds, is not here yet.
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