Three Days In Nashville Talking To Southern Baptists About Homosexuality

Every session at the ERLC conference opened with praise music. CREDIT: ERLC

NASHVILLE, TN — The Southern Baptist Convention is the U.S.’s largest Christian denomination after the Catholic Church, with some 16 million members and over 45,000 congregations, concentrated mostly in the South. This week in Nashville, the Convention’s public policy arm, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), hosted its first-ever national conference, focusing on “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage,” and ThinkProgress was there.

The Convention’s theology on homosexuality has not changed. The Bible, as they read it, declares homosexual behavior to be sexual immorality, and there was no debate about this tenet among any of the religious leaders who spoke at the conference. But the world has changed in its understanding and acceptance of people with same-sex orientations, and the Convention has been affected by these changes. The conversations this week indicated new ways that these evangelical Christians are working to negotiate their beliefs.

If someone only watched the live stream of the conference, they would have heard what sounded like a variety of mixed messages, but all of which obeyed this theology and sounded similar to familiar anti-gay and anti-transgender rhetoric. But among the 1,200 attendees, who were almost all pastors themselves (and as a result, almost all men), there were much more complex conversations being had about not just how best to uphold the theology, but also how to do genuinely do right by LGBT people. And even onstage, there were a few distinct signs of change even within the bounds of that theology.

“I Repent Of That,” But Not Of That

Albert Mohler speaking at #ERLC2014. CREDIT: ERLC

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, opened the conference with an example of such progress. “Early in this controversy, I felt it quite necessary, in order to make clear of the Gospel, to deny anything like a sexual orientation,” he admitted, saying that he got that “wrong” — “I repent of that.” He went on to explain, “I believe that a Biblical theological understanding, a robust Biblical theology, would point to us that human sexual affective profiles — that who we are sexually — is far more deeply rooted than just the ‘will,’ if that were so easy.” In other words, people don’t choose to be gay, and church leaders were wrong to ever assert that they did. That’s a pretty significant admission, and it wasn’t the only shift heard at the conference.

But Mohler immediately went on to address the “revisionists,” advocates like Matthew Vines who do not believe the Bible condemns homosexuality and are encouraging others to similarly rethink their theology. “If the revisionist arguments are right, then we’ve got to join them,” Mohler said. “I don’t believe for a minute they are right.”

Some of those revisionists were in attendance, including Vines, though none were invited to speak. A group known as the Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists (AWAB) launched a campaign inviting supporters to sign a statement challenging the Convention’s theological stance. In addition, AWAB, which boasts 98 churches in its membership, held its own press conference in Nashville to counter the messages of the ERLC conference, encouraging church leaders not to treat LGBT people as “issues” or “cultural phenomenons,” but as “fellow human beings.”

AWAB also joined other local groups, including PFLAG of Nashville, the Tennessee Equality Project, and Vanderbilt Divinity School, in a candlelight vigil outside the conference center Monday night. Their simple message was that “God is Love” and that LGBT people should not have to reject who they are in this life for a promise of redemption in the next. So long as the theology is not open to debate, churches can not truly be welcoming to LGBT people.

Brandan Robertson, spokesperson for Evangelicals for Marriage Equality, echoed these sentiments in an interview with the Christian Post, explaining, “Christians should be able to disagree about these sorts of issues without having their salvation called into question by other Christians.”

There’s More Than One Way To Translate Theology To Ministry

Members of Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists and Vanderbilt Divinity School holding vigil outside #ERLC2014. CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Zack Ford

Questions like these were apparent among the pastors in attendance as well. Though they didn’t doubt the theology that homosexuality is a sin, neither were they convinced that such a belief painted a clear path to ministering on the issue. Speakers who emphasized positive ways to show support to LGBT people, like Focus on the Family’s Glenn Stanton (“Loving My (LGBT) Neighbor”) and Jim Daly (“Reconcilable Differences: Building Bridges With Those Who Disagree About Marriage”), seemed to resonate with them more than those that were more critical on the topic.

The pastors who talked to ThinkProgress preferred they not be quoted by name, but spoke openly about the way they wrestle with the issue of homosexuality in their own ministries. They felt torn between what their faith tells them is true and what they hear from LGBT people about the negative way those messages are received. Rather than needing reinforcement about what the Scripture tells them, they were focused on learning how to improve their tone to be more loving and respectful, how to truly treat LGBT people as more than just their identities, and how they might reconsider how much to emphasize the sin of homosexuality. “We’re all sinners” was a common mantra among speakers and attendees alike — a bit ironic for a conference dedicated to discussing one particular sin.

And some in attendance even had different thoughts about what limitations the theology placed on how they interact with LGBT people. One young man, who is helping plant a new church in a big city, told ThinkProgress that the issues at the conference were personal for him because he has a close family member who is gay. If that family member invited him to his same-sex wedding, he said that he probably would attend the ceremony because his beliefs about homosexuality did not compromise the love he had for his relative. Incidentally, during a session the next day, ERLC president Russell Moore told the conference that they should not attend a same-sex wedding, because all witnesses to a marriage ceremony are condoning that union. (Receptions and showers are okay, though.)

Inconsistencies And Strange Bedfellows

“Unlikely Convert” Rosaria Butterfield speaking with Dr. Russell Moore at #ERLC2014. CREDIT: ERLC

The theology condemning homosexuality may have been consistent, but even the conference’s official speakers disagreed about its implications. Moore notably disavowed ex-gay therapy, but other speakers like Rosaria Butterfield spoke of their own journey out of homosexuality, and others like closing speaker J.D. Greear suggested that change in orientation is possible beyond just a commitment to celibacy. Several speakers also discouraged the use of language like “sexual orientation,” because it validates individuals defining themselves by their sexuality.

Additionally, some speakers delved into transgender issues in ways that sounded much less compassionate than how issues of sexual orientation were largely discussed. The Southern Baptist Convention already adheres to fairly strict notions of gender just in terms of men and women; only men are allowed to serve in pastoral office and “a wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.” Attempting to assert these norms translated into significant rejection of the existence of transgender people — not unlike the same claims about sexual orientation that Mohler repented of.

The conference’s overall “love thy neighbor” theme was also compromised by some of the bedfellows invited to participate. Most notably, lawyers from the Alliance Defending Freedom trumpeted their call for “religious liberty” and the idea that Christians should be able to refuse to do business that might involve a service provided for a same-sex wedding. Barronelle Stutzman, the Washington florist fighting for the right to not sell flowers for a same-sex ceremony, also spoke briefly, garnering an enthusiastic standing ovation from all in attendance. Despite all the rhetoric used at the conference, that ovation was the one moment that made this openly gay reporter feel particularly unsafe at an otherwise hospitable conference.

The Glory Days Have Passed

#ERLC2014 attendees standing in prayer. CREDIT: ERLC

The Convention itself recognizes that its influence over society is waning. Mohler was the first of many to use the phrase “moral minority,” signalling that the days of the “Moral Majority” are over. “The disappearance of cultural Christianity, like a morning mist,” he said in his opening remarks, “is a reminder to us that it was cultural and not Christianity… We are accustomed to ministry from the top side of the culture, not from the underside. We are accustomed to speaking from a position of strength and respect and credibility, and now we’re going to be facing the reality that we are already, in much of America, speaking from a position of a loss of credibility, speaking from the underside, speaking from the wrong side of the moral equation.”

Nevertheless, the reach of the Southern Baptist Convention remains wide, not only among its member churches but among the many independent evangelical churches who might still look to it for guidance. Understanding how these church leaders are discussing LGBT issues is essential to the ongoing work of increasing LGBT acceptance in society, not only under the law, but culturally. In a series of posts, ThinkProgress will take a discerning look at how the ERLC conference revealed the struggle in evangelical Christianity to address LGBT issues and the gap between the love with which they are ministering and the hate they are perceived as reinforcing.


Four more ThinkProgress posts examine the conference in greater detail: