Baptists ‘unofficially’ changing doctrine on homosexuality?

Southern Baptist leaders are seeking a “softer approach on homosexuality,” reports National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”

While noting that “the country’s largest protestant (sic) group … still preaches that marriage can only be between one man and one woman,” NPR points to a recent, vaguely identified meeting of pastors to back up its headline:

The Southern Baptist Convention held a gathering of pastors at its Nashville headquarters in April. For an organization that has previously used opposition to gay marriage as a rallying point, statements here from church leaders, like Kevin Smith of Kentucky, shocked the auditorium of pastors into silence.

“If you spent 20 years and you’ve never said anything about divorce in the church culture, then shut up about gay marriage,” Smith said.

Pastor Jimmy Scroggins of Florida went even further.

“We’re all in agreement that the cultural war is over when it comes to homosexuality, especially when it comes to gay marriage,” Scroggins told the pastors.

A quick aside: As noted previously by GetReligion, Southern Baptists passed a resolution in 2010 on “The Scandal of Southern Baptist Divorce,” so Smith isn’t exactly the first Baptist to bring up that subject.

Another quick aside: Did all those “silenced” pastors lose their voices for as long as Zechariah? Otherwise, it would have been nice to hear their direct reaction to what was said.

But back to the main point: Hang on to your keyboards, tablets and smartphones and swallow any coffee or other hot liquids before considering this next broad statement of fact by NPR:

Officially, Southern Baptists aren’t backing down from their belief that homosexuality is sinful. Gays and lesbians are still barred from church membership without first repenting. But Scroggins says they’re sitting in his pews and shouldn’t be the butt of preacher humor. He calls that “redneck theology.”

Officially!?

Does that mean that “unofficially,” Southern Baptists are backing down from their belief that homosexuality in sinful? Seriously, NPR? This story certainly provides no evidence of that dramatic change in doctrine. (I have written about a similar effort in my own fellowship — Churches of Christ — that aims to change approach, not doctrine.)

If Southern Baptist pastors were to tout a more loving approach toward Christian men who struggle with viewing images of naked women online, would NPR write, “Officially, Southern Baptists aren’t backing down from their belief that pornography is sinful.” Or would the difference in tone and doctrine be clear?

Let’s keep reading:

This kind of approach is different from what gay people who were raised Southern Baptist used to hear on Sunday mornings.

“The belief was always that this was a choice people made and something that Christians needed to stand up against,” says Justin Lee, of Raleigh, N.C., who had to leave the church because he is openly gay. “So that was how I saw it growing up.”

Lee now leads the Gay Christian Network, and applauds what he’s hearing from Baptist leaders.

“I think it’s a wonderful step forward,” he says. “I don’t think that it is where we want to end up.”

Lee says he wouldn’t expect Baptists to suddenly change the way they’ve always read the Bible on homosexuality.

Then a critic:

Still, what Lee sees as progress, religious conservatives view as backsliding. Radio host Janet Mefferd of Dallas has taken to the airwaves on her syndicated talk show.

“You see more pastors caving and muddling and getting more and more mealy mouthed about the issue, and ‘Oh, let’s have a dialogue. Let’s have a conversation,’ ” Mefferd said. “It is a time of rapid loss of courage.”

What’s missing from this story (besides a basic understanding of doctrine)?

The NPR piece lacks any kind of reasonable voice in the middle — a Baptist leader or scholar who believes homosexuality is a sin but also believes Baptists could be more loving toward those they consider sinners. The report makes a lot of overreaching statements and assumptions and fails to provide the kind of nuance desperately needed.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • gigi4747

    If a pastor or whoever hasn’t spoken about heterosexual divorce, then he needs to “shut up” on the issue of redefining marriage now? Why? Because two wrongs make a right? Because negligence is okay as long it’s equally applied to all situations?

    If there were any truth or substance to the idea that “marriage” can mean something other than the union of one man and one woman, then people who support or defend redefining marriage wouldn’t need to bring up examples of heterosexual failures, eg, divorce, in order to make their alternative definitions of marriage seem okay. I’m surprised they didn’t raise other false comparisons like brittney spears’ 55-hr “marriage” in Las Vegas.

    As a Catholic, I have to say that I appreciate the Catholic Church’s more nuanced approach to this issue, ie, that while homosexual behavior is wrong, homosexuals are to be respected, etc, but the idea that pastors should be silent on this issue is unjust and ultimately I believe self-defeating.

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Thanks for reading GR and taking the time to comment. But as I said to Trent, GetReligion is a journalism website focused on media coverage of religion. We invite comments that address journalism and media coverage of religion. But we don’t encourage comments that debate the issues (for example, whether homosexuality is wrong, for example, and how churches should approach it). We believe there are plenty of other websites for those kinds of debates, just not this one. Hope that makes sense.

  • Trent Wheeler

    Bobby, I always appreciate the way you approach these topics. I may well be marked as hateful for my response, but I have some concerns with the dialog concerning a “softer approach.” While I am sure NPR is probably making this much bigger than it is – there is dialog in the Baptist church and our fellowship that is not only for softening our approach, but softening our stance on sin. I am beginning to hear more and more the label of “cultural teaching” applied to topics like homosexuality. A few points of reference: 1) Teaching on issues like divorce and pornography are being addressed (especially the porn issue). I know many churches who are addressing these topics straight up in a godly and loving way; 2) Opponents of Biblical teaching often present a red herring (divorce or porn) to try to derail the argument. Even if we have been negligent on a Bible topic, it does not automatically make another sinful behavior justified (i.e. we all sin differently, therefore we should be more tolerant). Even Jesus in taking a softer approach to the woman caught in adultery instructed her to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11) 3) Finally, there is the strategic advantage of siting a minority on a position and extrapolate that out through a group or fellowship (i.e. because a few Baptist ministers want to change the church position, the church as a whole is moving that direction). This strategy is used to gain adherents who sitting on the fence or waiting to see which way the wind blows. Great post – keep up the excellent work. I so appreciate your respectful approach to sensitive topics.

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Trent, thanks much for reading the post and for your kind words. I should point out that GetReligion is a journalism website focused on media coverage of religion. We invite comments that address journalism and media coverage of religion. But we don’t encourage comments that debate the issues (for example, whether homosexuality is wrong, for example, and how churches should approach it). We believe there are plenty of other websites for those kinds of debates, just not this one. Hope that makes sense.

      • Trent Wheeler

        Thanks for the heads up – I will take that into account on future posts and keep within the context of the website’s guidelines. Thanks for clarifying that for me.

        • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

          Thanks, Trent! And again, thanks for reading!

  • bullschuck

    Bobby, I have always appreciated your work. You have always been big on allowing all sides to have their say. But I think your criticism here (besides the absence of understanding the doctrine, NPR dropped the ball on that one) misses the mark. Without understanding the full context of Rev. Smith’s and Rev. Scroggin’s quotes (I’m assuming that they are ordained, which should have been spelled out in the article, strike 2 NPR) we really don’t know where these two pastors fall on the spectrum between pro and con. And the very notion that there is a middle ground is also a bit of a stretch. I happen to share that middle ground and it seems something that I would have included, were I a decent journalist instead of a mediocre engineer. But that would have been *me* putting my slant in the piece. And this blog is rife with examples of journalists doing that and doing it wrong. Better to let the principals speak for themselves, which NPR should have done more of, and then include some other voices of praise or criticism, than to try and create a third way or propose a compromise.

    I’ll close with a quote from the SBC’s position statement on their webpage:

    “We affirm God’s plan for marriage and sexual intimacy – one man, and one
    woman, for life. Homosexuality is not a “valid alternative lifestyle.”
    The Bible condemns it as sin. It is not, however, unforgivable sin. The
    same redemption available to all sinners is available to homosexuals.
    They, too, may become new creations in Christ.”

    Note that the wording is vague on whether it’s homosexuality that’s condemned or the “valid alternative lifestyle.”

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      bullschuck, I appreciate the kind words about my work and certainly don’t mind you disagreeing with my angle. Although I’m not entirely certain where and how you’re taking issue with what I said, I would definitely agree that this piece needed a whole lot more context and understanding of where the various players stand. That’s why I criticized “overreaching statements and assumptions.”

      • bullschuck

        I guess I’m picking at the second to last point, that the “piece lacks any kind of reasonable voice in the middle — a Baptist
        leader or scholar who believes homosexual is a sin but also believes
        Baptists could be more loving toward those they consider sinners.”

        I don’t disagree that the piece has that (although Rev. Scroggin’s “redneck theology” might imply that he’s close), I disagree that the piece needs that, and that even looking for that perspective implies a bias towards that “voice in the middle’s” theology. The quote I included was to reinforce the fact that the “love the person, hate the action” perspective isn’t quite spelled out in the SBC’s position statement.

        • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

          OK, gotcha. Thanks for the clarification.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    Typo:

    “a Baptist leader or scholar who believes homosexual[sic] is a sin”

    See the Religion Style Book : http://religionstylebook.com/entries/homosexual

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Typo fixed. Thanks.

      • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

        Though I certainly don’t think homosexuality is a sin, I agree that I often find NPR’s obvious agenda nauseating — even when I agree with the agenda. It is intellectually offensive, deceptive and not conducive to the society I’d like to live in. That said, I listen to NPR a lot and like much of their programming though I have to listen carefully to not let their agenda slip through.

        • tmatt

          Of course, the doctrine being discussed is that homosexual acts are sinful, not that the orientation itself is sinful. So saying that “homosexuality is a sin” is not a relevant statement, in this case.

          • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

            Ah, good point — fine distinction, but that is what good journalism is about.

            So I should have said, “Though like moderate Chrisitians on the homesexuality issue, I don’t think homosexuality is a sin, I also don’t think that homosexual acts are sinful.”

            Is that better?

          • bullschuck

            tmatt, as I quoted earlier, that distinction is not so finely put by the SBC, even in their current position statement. Many of their resolutions over the years have focused on the orientation being sin. That may look like bad grammar, but that’s the gist of the resolutions.

  • robert chacon

    “If you spent 20 years and you’ve never said anything about divorce in
    the church culture, then shut up about gay marriage,” Smith said.

    That is simply not logical. You dont have to be silent homosexuality simply because you have failed to address divorce properly. They are both part of the same issue. The world desires to undermine the sanctity of marriage as a unique institution , a sacrament , for the purpose of raising children.

    • deann47

      It’s the same logic behind the notion that everyone who isn’t helping women struggling with unwanted pregnancy should “shut up” about the evils of aborticide. I may not be marching on Earth Day, but I don’t see that makes me ill-qualified to hold my belief that we should be wise stewards of God’s creation.

  • Howard

    Actually, the qualifier “officially” is valid in this context, because the Southern Baptists are not Catholics, and they don’t have a CDF. The closest they have to a Catechism is “The Baptist Faith and Message” (if they still use that), which, though longer than a creed, is still very brief. It does contain the traditional understanding of marriage, but I’m not sure adherence to that is considered mandatory to be a Southern Baptist; they’re sola Scriptura, and it is not the Bible.

    So whereas some Baptist churches refuse to host second marriages for those who have divorced, others will host the ceremony. I worked with a man who married a divorced woman in her Baptist church and then went on to become a deacon in the local Baptist church.

    • wlinden

      So I guess the ones who don’t countenance “remarriages” ARE entitled to speak against “gay marriage”?

      • Howard

        I think they would be in a better position to do so, but that was not my point. My point was that Southern Baptists are a loose confederation with very little central authority. Not only do they not have a Pope, they don’t even have bishops. Aside from a general outline, they have no “official” theology to begin with.

  • FW Ken

    My journalism question is whether Baptists have actually been hearing a lot about same-sex issues at church. Now, I haven’t been a Baptist in 40+ years, but Catholics often talk about how we don’t hear much about the New York Times’ obsessions. I’ve never heard a sermon on contraception, for example. So is this really a change in the Baptists’ approach, or just sloppy writing?

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Excellent point, FW Ken.


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