Will Southern Baptists’ Softer Tone On Gays Reach Beyond Nashville Conference?

Russell Moore was named president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in 2013. His predecessor, Richard Land, struck a much more partisan on topics like homosexuality. Credit: ERLC via Flickr

Russell Moore was named president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in 2013. His predecessor, Richard Land, struck a much more partisan on topics like homosexuality. Credit: ERLC via Flickr

The largest protestant denomination in the U.S. says it has no plans to drop its opposition to gay marriage and homosexuality. But Southern Baptists are softening the way they talk about it. Last week’s summit on human sexuality signaled a shift – less yelling, more loving.

About 200 pastors from around the country huddled up at the Southern Baptist Convention headquarters in Nashville. It’s a small number considering the SBC has 46,000 churches. And millennial ministers, wearing beards and skinny jeans, were probably over-represented for such an aging denomination. So the convicting lines preached from the stage may have been directed at the white-haired pastors who didn’t bother to make the trip.

“If you spent 20 years and you’ve never said anything about divorce in the church culture, then shut up about gay marriage. You need to first fix some things in the house before you come Mr. Culture Warrior Man.” – Kevin Smith, preacher and professor from Louisville

In fact, one pastor who took the stage for a panel discussion said the culture war is over on gay marriage, and Baptists have lost.

Baptists can now be a “prophetic minority,” says Russell Moore. He’s the new head of the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who effectively acts as the head theologian for Southern Baptists. In a session live-streamed around the world, he told pastors to tone it down on gay marriage.

“When I hear people who are simply screaming in outrage right now, let me tell you what I hear, I hear losers,” he said.

This is a night-and-day difference between Moore and his flame-throwing predecessor, Richard Land. This month, Land called gay activists a “lynch mob.” He declined to be interviewed for this story, even though some comments during sessions seemed directed squarely at him, like a claim he made this month while guest hosting the radio program Washington Watch.

“I know that the dirty little secret that nobody wants to talk about is that a high percentage of adult male homosexuals in America were sexually molested when they were children.” – Richard Land

“Just make sure you know what you’re talking about before you say it,” said pastor J.D. Greear of Raleigh-Durham, regarding falsehoods like the abuse clam.

“Or how about this one,” Greear told pastors as he worked his way through a slide presentation. “Saved homosexuals become heterosexuals. That’s not always true.”

Greear says he has members of his church who’ve chosen celibacy, which he counsels gay people to do.

A Rural/Urban Divide

Jimmy Scroggins of West Palm Beach says committed gay couples even attend his church and bring their kids to participate in children’s programs. While he says he draws the line at attending gay weddings or condoning adoptions, he says Baptists have to change the way they talk about gay people. No more jokes like, “it was Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve.”

“What we want to do is talk about these things in a sensitive way, in a kind way,” Scroggins says in an interview. “These are actual people that we care about sitting there listening to what we’re saying.”

But Scroggins church, with its openly gay attendees, may be in the minority for Southern Baptist congregations. Most, particularly outside major metropolitan areas, don’t have openly gay couples sitting in the pews.

Pastory Greg Belser of Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Miss., says the message of being more welcoming will “take some time to get to the piney woods of Southeast United States.”

Belser’s own church has a gay outreach program. He says much of the struggle has become parents dealing with a child who has come out as gay.

“There’s no suggestion in this meeting this week that we are embracing membership for people who are living in open, rebellious sin,” Belser tells WPLN. “But we are saying we can have relationships, we can have genuine relationships. We can be true friends.”

The Response

This more moderate position coming under the SBC’s Russell Moore is drawing arrows from both sides.

Christian talk radio hosts like Janet Mefferd are cuing up clips of Moore from the summit and accusing him of becoming “soft” and “mealymouthed” on homosexuality.

“It makes me feel – and I’m sure it makes some of my colleagues feel – like we’re a bigger problem for him [Moore] than somebody who professes to be a Christian and supports gay marriage,” Mefferd said Friday.

Some gay people are recognizing the shift as noteworthy, even if it’s just an attitude adjustment.

Still, Emilie Townes, dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, says it’s not that meaningful to her as a gay person.

“If the only thing you’re saying is let’s not be so harsh, then the attitude that’s still behind it of judging and un-acceptance and damnation will still come out,” she says.

Townes says the Baptist view of homosexuality is a major reason its membership continues to slide. The denomination says not so, even as the count drops below 16 million. But leaders are spending an increasing amount of time on the topic. There’s an even bigger conference on homosexuality scheduled for the fall.

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