Is a Southern Baptist megachurch now affirming same-sex relationships?

Southern Baptist churchgoer Joe Mills (L) of Orlando, Florida, says he wed his longtime same-sex partner, Mario (R) on December 4, 2021, to protect their finances.
Southern Baptist churchgoer Joe Mills (L) of Orlando, Florida, says he wed his longtime same-sex partner, Mario (R) on December 4, 2021, to protect their finances. | Facebook/Joe Mills

As Florida business owner Joe Mills remembers it, all the questions about whether the 14,000-memberFirst Baptist Church Orlando is now affirming same-sex relationships began after he started a Bible study group on Facebook with two of his gay friends called The Gospel Gathering while actively participating at the church.

The group, which describes itself as a gathering “of Christian believers who want to worship God in a safe and nonjudgmental environment where all are welcome,” has 98 members. It was launched in May 2021 by Mills and his friends, Kevin Copley and David Speight. All three men are gay but Mills, 65, insists that the Gospel Gathering is not a “gay group.”

“We're all friends,” he told The Christian Post in a recent interview. “But if you look also at our webpage (launched in February), you'll see … we also provide food.”

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Since the group’s founding in 2021, it has evolved into a nonprofit bearing the same name, which hosts Bible studies, provides help for Orlando’s homeless population, and celebrates affirming churches.

Danny De Armas (R), senior associate pastor at First Baptist Orlando baptizes Joe Mills (L). Behind Mills is Chris Bacon, a youth minister at First Baptist Orlando.
Danny De Armas (R), senior associate pastor at First Baptist Orlando baptizes Joe Mills (L). Behind Mills is Chris Bacon, a youth minister at First Baptist Orlando. | Facebook/Joe Mills

One photo posted on the group’s page on Aug. 17, 2022, shows Mills at First Baptist Orlando apparently assisting with a baptism. This was just months after Mills proudly got married on Dec. 4, 2021, to his same-sex partner.

In a separate photo from April 15, 2022, Mills is shown serving in ministry with his “brothers and sisters from First Orlando.” In August 2021, Copley revealed in a post on the group’s page that Danny De Armas, senior associate pastor at First Baptist Orlando, met with the group, which also regularly meets up at the church on Sunday mornings.

In a photo he posted on his personal Facebook page in May 2022, de Armas is shown baptizing Mills in the ocean, while Chris Bacon, a youth minister from First Baptist Orlando, was also present at the event. Mills explained to CP, however, that he was baptized by de Armas well before the date that it was posted.

“I love our new name First Orlando. I’m so proud to serve and be a member of that congregation. For at the foot of the cross we are all equal in the eyes of God,” he wrote on The Gospel Gathering’s page in response to the church removing "Baptist" from its name.

Mills’ relationship with First Orlando and The Gospel Gathering as well as his sexuality have sparked multiple headlines on Christian conservative websites such as Protestia and The Dissenter. He has also attracted attention from podcasters like Justin Peters Ministries, which Mills blames for starting the controversy after going public about his Bible study. The attention spurred a complaint against the church to the SBC's Credentials Committee questioning whether the church was in friendly cooperation with the convention. 

Mills, who told CP he was raised Southern Baptist and had been baptized as a youth in Tennessee at a church in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, makes it clear that he isn’t in agreement with the SBC’s stance on barring practicing homosexuals from membership in the denomination.

In a post on The Gospel Gathering’s page in June, he praised Towne View Baptist Church in Kennesaw, Georgia, which was disfellowshiped in 2021 for affirming homosexuality

“This is a church that was affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention but they are no longer invited to be part of that denomination because they have said that they accept gay men and women into their church as full members of the body of Christ so we’re very proud of them and the work that they are doing,” he said.

Joe Mills says he decided to get married to his longtime partner to protect their finances.
Joe Mills says he decided to get married to his longtime partner to protect their finances. | Screenshot/Facebook/Joe Mills

The complaint

In October, Jim Cummings, senior pastor at Dotson Memorial Baptist Church revealed on X that he complained about First Orlando to the SBC Credentials Committee, which is tasked with “forming an opinion regarding whether or not a church should be considered to be in friendly cooperation with the Convention as described in SBC Constitution Article III.”

“The following is what I received today from the Credentials Committee, even though I gave them a very specific example of a man at FBC Orlando, who was baptized, and is literally married to another man,” wrote Cummings on X on Oct. 2.

Cummings did not respond to an interview request from CP. But in the Credentials Committee’s response to Cummings, stating that SBC officials concluded that First Orlando is still in friendly cooperation with the denomination.

“Specifically, we were asked to consider whether the church acts to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior. We have reviewed your submission and have conducted an inquiry of the church in question. Based on the information available to us, our committee has formed the opinion that, at this time, First Baptist Church of Orlando should continue to be considered a cooperating church with the Southern Baptist Convention,” officials said. “Therefore, we decline further consideration and have removed the church from inquiry.”

Danny de Armas is senior associate pastor at First Baptist Orlando.
Danny de Armas is senior associate pastor at First Baptist Orlando. | YouTube/First Orlando

When asked by CP to provide additional details on their inquiry into Cummings’ complaint against First Orlando, the SBC group said, “Our committee is committed to keeping in confidence the details of inquiries.”

The Credentials Committee also noted that they have no ability to investigate inquiries they undertake beyond what they are told by churches.

“We have no investigative ability, though we may inquire of a church when questions arise. The Credentials Committee has no authority to remove a church,” the committee told CP in an email. “Our role is to make a recommendation to the Executive Committee when we form the opinion that a church no longer closely identifies with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith. For questions regarding the faith and practice of a particular church, those are more appropriately addressed to the church in question.”

First Orlando did not respond to questions posed by CP surrounding the allegations that the church is LGBT affirming. On its website, the church firmly presents its doctrine on human sexuality.

“We teach that the family is an institution created by God. God’s vision for the family is the uniting of one man and one woman in the covenant of marriage for a lifetime. Human sexuality is a gift created for expression within the boundaries of marriage,” church states.

David Uth is senior pastor of First Baptist Orlando.
David Uth is senior pastor of First Baptist Orlando. | YouTube/First Orlando

In a video clip posted on YouTube from a message by de Armas to the Florida congregation, he said the congregation is diverse and includes people who are gay and trans-identifying who contribute to the ministry.

“We have transgender, LGBTQ, straight, single, married, divorced and cohabitating people. These same people attend listen, serve, grow and give,” de Armas said.
“And in the midst of all of this, we have one of the most beautiful worship experiences you can possibly imagine. Because all of us gather around the good news of Jesus and the one who is changing us and the one who unifies us and we celebrate how he has set us all free from our bondage to sin and given us eternal life. Jose, we are first Orlando.”

In his message, de Armas insisted that First Orlando has always had a policy to welcome everyone, but they are expected to change.

“Here at First Orlando, everybody is invited. Everybody's invited, no matter who you are, no matter what your background is, no matter who your parents are, where you were raised, what language you speak, no matter anything else about you. Everybody's invited to come here and to meet Jesus, and to become who Jesus has created us to be,” he said.

“And while it's beautifully true, that all of us are welcome here, it's also true that none of us are welcome to stay the way we are. All of us, everyone, everyone here, me included, David included, all of us are on our journey with Jesus. And we don't stay the way we are,” he explained.

De Armas added: “We love but give truth as well. It just doesn't have to be mean and harsh. And we don't have to be a bad mood about it. Hard truth can be communicated gently and compassionately, and Jesus was great about that. Jesus said some of the toughest things in a gentle way, he was not harsh and critical and angry.”

Addressing the allegations

In an extensive interview with CP, Mills dismissed allegations that First Orlando is affirming. He said even though he regularly attends the church and pays his tithes every week, he was never given membership at the church despite him stating he is a church member on social media.

He said he is “very friendly” with de Armas and isn’t happy that he, along with First Orlando Senior Pastor David Uth, are being branded as “affirming” when they are not.

“I've seen this. A lot of things have been put out about me, and a lot of them, they sort of insinuate that Pastor David is, and he's not affirming. Danny de Armas, he's not affirming. And I consider Danny a friend of mine. We're very friendly,” he said.

“I think they're very accepting of me as a person, like they are accepting of everyone. Everybody assumes I'm the only gay person there. I'm not, you know, but there's quite a few people who go to that church that maybe they go like I do. I love listening to the pastor. I love the music. I love the message.”

He also denies baptizing anyone despite statements he made on social media that he had.

“I did not baptize anyone,” he said. “None of that's true. I'm not a member of the church. And I did not baptize anyone. The policy of the church is if you have been part of their walk with God and brought them (convert) to the Lord, you're allowed to be in the water when they are baptized. Not only me, but everybody else. There's a lot of times, almost every Sunday, somebody is being baptized, and they may have somebody, a friend or whatever, and we are allowed to stand beside them. I did not baptize anyone.”

Mills said he began attending First Orlando a little over two years ago as the country began emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he had become tired of participating in church online. Even though he doesn’t agree with all of the Southern Baptist theology, he said he decided to attend First Baptist Orlando because it's close to his house. He was also raised as a Southern Baptist in Tennessee.

“I was a Christian for many, many years [in the SBC],” he said. “I grew up at a Southern Baptist Church. So I said, ‘You know what? Let me give it a shot.’ It was about the third or fourth Sunday, I just felt like the Lord really spoke to me and said, I think this is where you need to stay, and that's where I've stayed.”

Mills said after he made that decision, he requested a meeting with de Armas and eventually revealed he is gay. He said de Armas told him he was welcome to attend the church, but he would not be given membership.

“We talked a lot about my background in the Southern Baptist church. He knew nothing about me. And then about halfway through the conversation, I said, ‘Well, Danny, I need to let you know, I'm gay.’ And he said, ‘Well, you need to understand we're not an affirming church, Joe.’ And I said, ‘I understand that,’” Mills recalled.

The Florida businessman has no intention of walking away from his relationship with his husband, Mario, because he does not believe his homosexuality is a choice and disagrees with the traditional biblical teaching that one cannot be a practicing gay Christian.

“I was born gay. This is not a decision that I made later in life. I think that's where we disagree within the church. With a lot of people, they think that being gay is something that you choose. And believe me, with everything that I've been through, and my journey with Christ, this is definitely nothing someone would choose,” he explained.

“Some people disagree with that and I give them the freedom to disagree. But I'm the one who's had to live this. I'm the one who's been this way ever since I knew. I was 4 years old.

“People say, ‘Oh, this is a choice,’ you also mentioned the word lifestyle. Let me tell you a little bit about my lifestyle. My lifestyle is, I own a company. I go to work. I have 26 employees. I take care of my home. I raise chickens. I have a garden. That's my lifestyle. Our country as a whole, we keep bringing up this thing about lifestyle, but, you know, I'm married. I've been in a relationship for 28 years.”

When asked why he chose to marry his same-sex partner in 2021 while attending a church that doesn't endorse same-sex marriage, Mills said they only got married to protect their assets.

“The reason we got married is because of financial reasons. Because he [Mario] had COVID, he was in the hospital, he was in ICU. We did not know if he was going to make it or not,” he recalled.

“When he was in the hospital, we had family members who were going, ‘Well, is that house in both of your names?’ It scared us financially because we were not protected. So I'm going to lose half of everything I own to a family member that doesn't even know us after everything we've worked for? That's when we decided. We talked to our attorney, and our attorney said, ‘Well, you can have a Will, but a Will can be contested.’ He said what will really put everything in a place that can't be contested [is] If you get married.”

Casey Butner, senior pastor of Beulah Baptist Church in Winter Garden, Florida, who has long been a critic of what he sees as a doctrinal slide in the SBC over the last decade, questions Mills’ claim that he was never a member at First Orlando.

He said he has friends and family members at First Orlando who allege that Mills was essentially operating as a member of the church based on how church leaders embraced his participation in the life of the congregation.

“Basically, Joe Mills was a member [of First Orlando], and they removed his membership [when the questions started]. What do you consider as a member for churches? One [who] is obviously adhering to the doctrinal statement of the church and then participating, serving, then giving in every way,” Butner told CP. “Joe may not [currently] be officially on paper as a member, because he doesn't agree with the Southern Baptist doctrine of marriage, but he certainly is doing and participating in every way at First Baptist Church as a fully blown member would be afforded.”

Butner alleges that Mills has been involved with the church’s greeting team, he has prayed for people after services and is “able to interact and be around the inner circle of the church, in a way as if he was a trusted Christian.”

“He's in the baptismal [pool] baptizing people, and though he would say I didn't, the video footage shows that he did,” Butner, who said his church left the SBC earlier this year, asserted.

“David Uth, the senior pastor, is just simply acting more like a chameleon. And whatever pragmatically works best to try and be the largest church in Central Florida. Numbers are the end goal, and they are very slick in being able to ease in a liberal, progressive agenda with their methods. They would keep things a bit ambiguous so that they can flip it to the left or to the right, in whichever conversation is most advantageous for them,” Butner said.

“I asked David Uth personally how it is that they baptized homosexuals and feel like that is OK. And he simply said that they believe that sanctification starts after baptism. The Bible clearly supports that one is regenerate before baptism, not post. So nevertheless, again, abandoning the Scriptures and doing whatever they want in a simple and pragmatic move to include all that they possibly can,” Butner contends.

A plague in America

Butner further said First Baptist Orlando was not the only large SBC church in Florida that had tailored its message to attract more people to the pews while failing to inspire true repentance or change.

“There's definitely very few pastors that are willing to stand up and put their neck out on a line like this for fear of getting fired from their own church over lawsuits. I mean, it literally changes your life. And it gets all the way down to not only your paycheck, but your neck as well,” he said.

“I'm definitely an Ezekiel 33 type guy who believes with all of my heart that I will be blood guilty before God if I did not warn, and so part of the faithful job description of a pastor, according to Titus 1:9 is not only to speak sound doctrine, and hope to live, but also to refute those who contradict it. And I just see it as being faithful,” he added in his critique of what he sees as a selling out of the Gospel by First Orlando.

“We have a plague in America. American Christianity is no Christianity at all. We're too comfortable. We have our tax ID statuses and we have freedom of religion or freedom of speech. In the New Testament, We need New Testament Christianity, not American Christianity.”

Contact: Follow Leonardo Blair on Twitter: @leoblair Follow Leonardo Blair on Facebook: LeoBlairChristianPost

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