Kentucky Baptist children’s agency faces ‘ethical dilemma’

By Paul Chitwood
Nov 18, 2013

Bill Smithwick serves as the president of Sunrise Children’s Services, a Kentucky Baptist agency that has cared for hurting children for more than 150 years. The agency has always fought to retain a commitment to biblical hiring standards, meaning that open and avowed homosexuals were not eligible for employment. However, in a shocking about-face, Smithwick argued in a letter to churches of the Kentucky Baptist Convention that Sunrise enacting an anti-discrimination policy and hiring homosexuals as caregivers would be for the “greater good.” Citing the likelihood that the government will eventually require such a policy, he asked, “Do we walk away from the pain, suffering, loneliness and brokenness of the kids we serve over our hiring practice or continue ministering to young children who desperately need someone to show them God’s love?”

The phrase “ethical dilemma” is often used to denote the quandary we face when choosing between moral imperatives. The choice can be paradoxical, where rational people could make a logical defense of each choice to make either seem the “right” thing to do.

Consider the quandary for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Should they bow and worship King Nebuchadnezzar’s image of gold to maintain their positions or face the fiery furnace? Surely their compromise could be justified if they bowed down. They could help many of the hurting Israelite refugees in Babylon from their positions as administrators of the government’s wealth and relief programs. What good could they do the world from the ash pile? What about the first two of the Ten Commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me…and you shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exod. 20)?

Likewise, Peter and John faced their ethical dilemma as they stood before the Sanhedrin and were commanded “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). With imprisonment or even martyrdom waiting in the wings, surely their fellow believers would understand a concession. Moving forward, they could transition from a preaching ministry to support roles. Or they could be a part of a social ministry that would still find them being helpful to the poor and hurting. Did not the Lord himself endorse soup kitchens and clothes closets in his Parable of the Sheep and the Goats? Unlike Daniel’s friends, they weren’t being asked to commit idolatry. Or, were they? Is disobedience to the Lord’s Great Commission in order to obey the laws of man an idolatrous act?

Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Peter, John and a host of other biblical figures faced their ethical dilemmas. For choosing to obey God rather than man, some found their lives cut short. Today, under the altar of Heaven, they impatiently wait for justice (Rev. 6:9-11). The encouragement they receive from the Spirit of God has an ominous ring for Christians alive today: “They were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.” Ethical dilemmas can be serious business. Deadly serious.

While ethical dilemmas often have been deadly serious for people of the Christian faith, that rarely has been true for American Christians, at least those who live in America. Growing hostility toward biblical Christianity in America could cause us to question how long tolerance will be extended to the religion that once dominated our land; but for now, we are blessed with freedom.

Acceptance, however, is another matter. For example, Catholic Charities in Illinois was once a willing partner in the state’s efforts to provide foster and adoptive families to children removed from homes due to abuse or neglect. Catholic views on homosexuality are no longer acceptable. When the state required the Catholics to jettison their views and begin serving as an adoption and foster care agency to persons who unrepentantly practice homosexual acts, or any other sexual activities forbidden by Scripture, they chose to abandon state contracts rather than abandon their beliefs. Some criticized them for abandoning the children; but those children are still cared for by the state, and Catholics in Illinois still use their resources to minister to hurting kids. However, they no longer use the government’s money.

After an outcry from Baptist churches all across Kentucky, the Sunrise board of trustees rejected Smithwick’s recommendation. While the government is not currently demanding Sunrise change its hiring policies, the day may come. At that time, the organization will be faced with a real ethical dilemma rather than an envisioned one: Give gospel-centered care to as many kids as possible with church funds, or continue to be a steward of government money even when it means compromising God’s word.

Seemingly complex problems often have simple solutions. Peter said it best, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Dilemma solved. Biblical ethics don’t evolve.

Further Learning

Learn more about: Culture, Family, Sexual Purity, Homosexuality, Citizenship,


1 On Nov 18, 2013, at 1:43pm, Matt Webster wrote:

I am having a hard time agreeing with this article. No where that I’ve seen has Mr. Smithwick changed his stance on the Biblical view of marriage or his view of homosexuality. Sin is sin. I also haven’t read the Scripture that tells us to disassociate with “sinners”. Seems Jesus did exactly the opposite.

I have two issues with this situation.
1) Where is the Church? There are orphans all over the place, but the State is providing the majority of funding and care for them?! Perhaps we should be encouraging the Church to step up to this task rather than take a theological stand against those who want to.
2) We, as the Church, must not fear association with sinners. If Christ never associated with us, we would be in quite a quandry.

2 On Nov 18, 2013, at 7:47pm, Paul Chitwood wrote:

That churches & denominations are funding orphanages & promoting adoption & foster parenting is evidence the Church is at work. Meeting every need? No. Should churches be doing more? Yes! The reason governments partner w/agencies like Sunrise is that churches & denominations of churches ARE in the business of caring for hurting kids. Sunrise is the largest provider in Ky. If it weren’t for the investment of our churches, Sunrise would not exist. We have done such a good job the gov has placed 100s of kids with us & w/each kid comes government $. The state isn’t providing the care, only the $.

Most churches don’t fear association w/sinners. They know that is their assignment & aggressively undertake it, w/result being sinners are repenting, believing the gospel & being saved. Should the church, however, hire an unrepentant adulterer as pastor? A person practicing & promoting formication or homosexuality to take care of children? I don’t think so

3 On Nov 18, 2013, at 9:16pm, Rick Hardison wrote:

Matt, Dr. Chitwood didn’t ask the church not to associate with sinners.  He asked the church not to place unrepentant sinners in leadership positions in a Christian organization.  Big difference.

4 On Nov 19, 2013, at 8:55am, Matt Webster wrote:

Dr. Chitwood, thanks for your comment. Perhaps the Church cannot compete with the state for $. I understand your point. However, I don’t think hiring an unrepentant sinner in this scenario is a bad thing. A church should most definitely not hire an unrepentant pastor, but is Sunrise a church? Should Sunrise also change their hiring policies to exclude the lustful, the angry, the greedy?

As you would agree, I believe that homosexuals are as much as our neighbor as anyone. To say to them that they cannot work at a place with us, that is not a church, is to say to them that they are below us. Is their sin somehow greater than others. I am not a liberal Christian and most definitely believe homosexuality is a sin, however, the way we approach the lost can either be by drawing lines in the sand like this situation is doing and not allowing specific sinners to cross, or taking them into our communities and showing them the love of Christ in action as we proclaim the gospel to them in word.

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