Southern Baptists New Challenge

“This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh.” Genesis 2:24

“If a man sleeps with a man as with a woman, they have both committed an abomination.” Leviticus 20:13

“Males committed shameless acts with males and received in their own persons the appropriate penalty for their perversion.” Romans 1:27

“In the same way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them committed sexual immorality and practiced perversions.” Jude vs. 7

“Mr. Mohler [Southern Baptist Theological Seminary] this week met with Matthew Vines, an openly gay Christian author who argues the Bible doesn’t prohibit lifelong same-sex marriage.” Tamara Audi

Editor’s note: Not only does the Bible speak to the subject of homosexuality, but the science of Biology also speaks to it. And if that isn’t enough for the serious thinker what about Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative—Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. Defenders of homosexuality have three strikes against them before they come to bat.

Southern Baptists, Gay Community Break Bread at Conference

Baptists Strike New Tone on Homosexuality From the Pulpit, in Private

Amanda Jackson and Becca Harris sing before the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission 2014 Conference morning session in Nashville, Tenn. About 1400 people attended the conference.

Amanda Jackson and Becca Harris sing before the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission 2014 Conference morning session in Nashville, Tenn. About 1400 people attended the conference. JOE BUGLEWICZ

Tamara Audi, “Southern Baptists,” The Wall Street Journal, October 31, 2014, p. A 6

NASHVILLE, Tenn.—A gathering of Southern Baptists here opened this week with Albert Mohler, stalwart head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, apologizing for “denying the reality of sexual orientation,” but saying orientation “can change.”

It closed with a pastor saying “no one goes to hell for being homosexual,” but he added Christians must remind gay friends and family members that “the day of judgment is coming.”

The statements from the largest and one of the most conservative Protestant denominations made waves in the religious and gay communities. Some praised the Southern Baptist Convention for softening its tone and message when discussing homosexuals. Critics complained that nothing really had changed.

But others who attended said a shift was taking place. In private meetings and one-on-one encounters during the week, Southern Baptists and gay-rights advocates said they established relationships they hope will carry both sides through a time of deep cultural change, particularly as the church navigates issues such as the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage.

Southern Baptists remain firmly opposed to homosexuality, citing Biblical authority, and see the legalization of gay marriage as proof of the deterioration of Christian values. Some evangelicals and Baptists outside the SBC have begun advocating change—raising questions about interpretations of Biblical prohibitions, and supporting Christians in same-sex relationships. Though SBC pastors this week, while suggesting greater engagement with gays, reiterated the practice of homosexuality is a sin.

Southern Baptists and gay-rights supporters had clashed before this week, in print and online, but rarely had direct personal contact.

“Everyone’s talking about each other. We needed to start talking to each other,” said Andrew Walker, director of policy studies for the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which hosted the three-day conference.

Though gay-rights advocates and Christians who back same-sex marriage weren’t invited to speak, a small group attended to observe and meet informally with Southern Baptists, including Mr. Walker.

“What’s significant is not the content of the meetings, but that there were meetings at all,” said Justin Lee, executive director of The Gay Christian Network. “It allowed us to humanize one another and form relationships.”

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Justin Lee prays before the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission 2014 Conference. The conference addressed themes related to “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage.”JOE BUGLEWICZ

Both groups noted that each side faces pressure from its constituents, who may see such meetings as paving the way for an accommodation they don’t support. “No one ceded their ground” on any issue,” Mr. Walker said. “Neither side was brandishing the white flag.”

One night, Mr. Walker and more than a dozen Southern Baptists and gay-rights advocates gathered in a suite away from the ballroom where more than 1,300 attendees met for the public portion of the conference.

The two groups met tentatively over a dessert platter, bottled water and Cokes for nearly three hours, those involved said. To avoid public pressure, they agreed to keep the meeting small, and the topics of discussion secret. The idea, participants from both sides said, was to get to know each other and air grievances face-to-face. Soon, conversation was flowing, those involved said.

Mr. Walker said there was so much to discuss, he had to ask the group to leave as the meeting stretched past midnight.

The meeting “exceeded both sides’ expectations as far as cheerfulness, friendliness and authenticity of the conversation,” Mr. Walker said. “There’s greater respect all around. We disagreed, but we disagreed very well.”

Southern Baptists have complained they are often portrayed unfairly by gay-rights supporters as bigots, out of touch with modern culture. The personal meetings “help defy caricature,” Mr. Walker said.

What’s significant is not the content of the meetings, but that there were meetings at all.’ —Justin Lee, Executive Director of The Gay Christian Network

Some gay-rights advocates at the conference—especially Christian ones—said their greatest worry is for teens growing up in strict evangelical households who may be shunned by their families for coming out as gay.

While the private meetings offered hope, advocates said, they were disappointed by speech in some public sessions, including from Christians who described themselves as “struggling with same-sex attraction.”

Rev. Jeff Hood and Brandan Robertson converse with conference attendees. Mr. Hood is a Minister of Social Justice at Cathedral of Hope United Church of Christ in Dallas and Mr. Robertson is the spokesman for Evangelicals for Marriage Equality.

Rev. Jeff Hood and Brandan Robertson converse with conference attendees. Mr. Hood is a Minister of Social Justice at Cathedral of Hope United Church of Christ in Dallas and Mr. Robertson is the spokesman for Evangelicals for Marriage Equality. JOE BUGLEWICZ

But many SBC pastors and leaders encouraged Baptists not to shun gay, lesbian and transgender—or LGBT—people, as well as gay family members.

In a sign of the practical struggles Baptists face, some of the conference focused on advice. “What if you get invited to a same-sex wedding ceremony?” Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, was asked. “In that case, I would not attend the wedding. I would attend the reception,” he said. In that way, he said, a Baptist could say, “I love you and I’m here with you. I disagree with you, but I love you.”

When Mr. Moore was asked what do to if a “family member in a lesbian relationship wants to come visit for the holidays,” he said, “You should not cut yourselves off from relatives or friends who are lost or in situations you do not agree with.”

Mr. Mohler, head of the theological seminary, said he hoped the conference would make Christians “motivated to be unafraid to engage with LGBT persons.”

Mr. Mohler this week met with Matthew Vines, an openly gay Christian author who argues the Bible doesn’t prohibit lifelong same-sex marriage. Mr. Mohler wrote a response to Mr. Vines’ book, “God and the Gay Christian.”

“It was a gracious, honest conversation. I think all evangelical Christians are having to learn anew how to discuss these issues,” Mr. Mohler said.

The pair agreed to keep in touch over email, and alert each other if one ever felt wrongly portrayed by the other.

“This was an amazing event,” said Mr. Vines. “Not for the public sessions but for the private meetings. It’s not like anyone is suddenly pro-gay,” said Mr. Vines. But, he added, “it feels like a new era.”

Write to Tamara Audi at tammy.audi@wsj.com

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