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:

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United Methodists fighting over gay marriage — period?

Maybe it’s because I covered religion in Colorado during the 1980s, but I find it so, so amusing that people are writing about the conflicts in the United Methodist Church as if they are brand new, or that the current uptick in ecclesiastical hostilities is unprecedented.

People, people, the United Methodists have been caught up in a doctrinal civil war, to one degree or another, ever since the Rev. Julian Rush of Denver came out of the closet in about 1982. A story that doesn’t include the larger time element is simply incomplete.

This is not hard to do. The activists on both sides know the history. Consider this chunk of a recent Associated Press report:

Since 2011, Methodist advocates for gay marriage have been recruiting clergy to openly officiate at same-sex ceremonies in protest of church policy. In response, theological conservatives have sought formal complaints against the defiant clergy, which could lead to church trials. One scholar has warned that Methodists are “retreating into our various camps” instead of seeking a resolution over an issue the church has formally debated since the 1970s.

“At this point, we have kind of come to the place where we know what the brute facts are,” said Matt Berryman, executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, which advocates for gay and lesbian Methodists. “Most folks, after 40 years of trying legislative solutions, realize they won’t work. The way forward is to claim what we know to be true. And we’re going to continue doing it in an aggressive way.”

Note the embedded “40 years” reference. Also, later in the story, there is this crucial reference to time:

Since 1972, the Book of Discipline has called same-gender relationships “incompatible with Christian teaching” and has banned clergy from taking actions contrary to that position. … The church has also declared itself “dedicated to a ministry of Christ-like hospitality and compassion to persons of all sexual orientations” and has committed to supporting “certain basic human rights and civil liberties for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation.”

Theological conservatives see no inconsistencies among those positions. Advocates for gays and lesbians do. They have debated at every national legislative meeting, or General Conference, for four decades with the same result: the “incompatible” language — and the related prohibitions — have stayed.

This story also does a solid job of explaining the the regional and global angles of this conflict, which has affected the outcome. The growing segments of the American church are in the Sunbelt and more theologically conservative. The more liberal elements of the church, in the far West, the upper Midwest and the Northeast, are in statistical decline.

Meanwhile, more conservative churches in Africa and the Global South are experiencing rapid growth and, thus, their power in the United Methodist system is on the rise. This is a truly global church and that is a key element of the story.

So what is missing?

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Journalists editing Pope Francis: Who are we to judge?

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Sometimes, in this tricky world of media criticism, it’s hard to pay attention to what someone said without focusing too much on which person, from what group, did the alleged media criticism.

So in this case, let’s read some of the words in a specific op-ed essay before we get to the issue of who wrote them.

This is a short piece, so we can actually parse most of the actual contents. Let’s begin at the beginning:

Not a day goes by without a pundit or editorial writer opining on what Pope Francis said about some controversial issue. While every pope, as well as every religious and secular leader, properly has his remarks subjected to scrutiny, Pope Francis is having his words sliced and diced far beyond anything his predecessors were accustomed to. Quite frankly, the goal of many commentators is to make the pope’s statements appear to underscore their own ideological agenda.

Frankly, there is a lot of that going on out there. This is almost as big a problem on the right, when dealing with papal statements on, oh, capitalism (hello, Rush Limbaugh) as it is on the left (hello college of cardinals at The New York Times editorial pages). However, since the Times is much more important than Limbaugh, when talking about mainstream journalism, let’s proceed on that tact.

Nothing excites the passions of those on the left today more than gay rights. Their obsession is shown with Pope Francis’ comment, made over the summer, “Who am I to judge?” …

What Francis said was, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” The difference between what he is quoted as saying, and what he actually said, is not minor. Those who parse his words agree, which is why they parse them. It is important to note that the pope did not offer two sentences: his one sentence was chopped to alter his message.

We will get to the full papal transcript in just a minute. However, based on my own reading of waves of coverage of this pope and this statement in particular, I believe that this is an accurate statement about how this one papal phrase is being yanked out of context.

Yes, the statement is important and, yes, the tone of the statement is important. But so is the content of the full quote.

Here is the paragraph of this op-ed that I thought would most interest GetReligion readers, especially those working in mainstream newsrooms:

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Francis the homophile

With but a few exceptions, the “Francis is nicer than Benedict” meme continues to entrance the Anglophone press.

It appears that many who were once hostile to the Catholic Church have been encouraged to see in the new pontiff a reflection of their own social and political desires. Some of these assertions about what the pope believes and what he will do as head of the Catholic Church have bordered on the fantastic.

In choosing the pope as its “person of the year”, Time magazine’s editor Nancy Gibb wrote Francis had:

done something remarkable: he has not changed the words, but he’s changed the music.

The new pope was a kinder, gentler man, Time believed, who had rejected “church dogma.” He was teaching a softer, more inclusive Catholicism, noting his:

focus on compassion, along with a general aura of merriment not always associated with princes of the church, has made Francis something of a rock star.

This is rather mild compared to some liberal paeans to the pontiff. The Guardian‘s Jonathan Freedland quipped “Francis could replace Obama as the pin-up on every liberal and leftist wall.”

When the gay-lifestyle magazine, The Advocate, named Francis its “person of the year”, it explained its choice by stating:

Pope Francis’s stark change in rhetoric from his two predecessors — both who were at one time or another among The Advocate‘s annual Phobie Awards — makes what he’s done in 2013 all the more daring. First there’s Pope John Paul II, who gay rights activists protested during a highly publicized visit to the United States in 1987 because of what had become known as the “Rat Letter” — an unprecedented damning of homosexuality as “intrinsically evil.” It was written by one of his cardinals, Joseph Ratzinger, who went on to become Pope Benedict XVI. Since 1978, one of those two men had commanded the influence of the Vatican — until this year. …

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Pod people: Time’s betrayal of liberalism

Time magazine’s exercise in gay agitprop was the focus of  Thursday’s Get Religion’s Crossroads podcast. This extraordinarily unprofessional and illiberal article violated just about all of the standards of professional journalism — without resorting to alliteration, I enumerated its failings in my story “Time takes sides in India’s sex wars” as:

unbalanced, excessive adjectives and adverbs, open support of one side of an argument, short of key facts, lacking context, and stylistically flat.

But Lutheran Public Radio’s Todd Wilken and I are likely to disappoint our audience as we did not discuss the underlying issue: decriminalizing same-sex carnal relations in India. We kept the focus of our discussion on journalism and political theory. I grant you a discussion of the importance of Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination to modern reporting will not set the SEO world aflame as would a talk about the moral rights and wrongs of sodomy, but for those who value journalism and its importance to culture — this is hot stuff.

Julia Duin – one of the stars of the religion beat at Washington Times for many years and now a professor of journalism — commented on the original post that the Time story would not have seen the light of day at the Washington Times. “It’s so depressing to see this” sort of story in a quality publication, she wrote.

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That oh-so-predictable CNN article on ducks and doctrine

So color me confused.

At the moment, CNN is hailing this article — “Does Phil Robertson get the Bible wrong?” — as the “best, fairest, article on Christians and homosexuality you’ll ever read. Fact.”

Of course, we are talking about the Duck Dynasty doctrine wars and the GQ interview with duck patriarch Phil Robertson. Thus, the crucial passage of the CNN religion-blog post:

Robertson, 67, … paraphrases a Bible passage from the New Testament: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers – they won’t inherit the kingdom of God.”

That’s a pretty close citation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, which is a letter from Paul, often called the father of Christianity theology, to a fledging Christian community in Corinth, Greece. Here’s what Paul’s passage says, as rendered in the New International Version, by far the most popular translation among evangelicals and conservative Christians such as Robertson:

“Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

Evangelicals, who make up about a quarter of the U.S. population, tend to take that passage at face value.

Uh, and among traditional Christians, precisely who doesn’t take that passage seriously when it comes to talking about the reality of sin in this fallen world? Catholics? The Eastern Orthodox? Most of the world’s Lutherans and Anglicans? Pentecostal believers (the fastest growing flock in worldwide Christianity)?

Pretty quickly, CNN sets this up as a rather typical battle between a country-fried preacher (or two) and a real biblical scholar. Yes, that is ONE biblical scholar, from one seminary. The hero of the piece is introduced in this manner:

But other Bible experts said the Scripture Robertson cited isn’t quite clear about homosexuality.

“A lot of people misread this text because it’s so complicated,” said O. Wesley Allen Jr., an associate professor at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky.

Now, what pray tell is the theological orientation of this seminary?

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Duck czar: World-class sinner who has been there, done that

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A long, long time ago — pre-World Wide Web — I wrote a column for the Scripps Howard News Service (RIP) and The Rocky Mountain News (RIP) that tried to explain why a very charismatic evangelical leader of national renown insisted on saying that homosexual acts were sinful.

The leader was University of Colorado head football coach Bill McCartney, who went on to lead the national Promise Keepers movement. During a 1992 press conference, he was asked about his links to Colorado for Family Values, a network that had taken conservative stands on issues linked to homosexuality (specifically whether homosexuals should be granted special group-status protection, equal to race and gender, under civil rights laws).

The coach was wearing a shirt with a CU logo. Later, he acknowledged that he was wrong to have answered this question while wearing that shirt. Nevertheless, he responded by saying — in part — that homosexuality was “an abomination of almighty God.”

Reactions were rather intense in the city that Colorado folks have long called “The People’s Republic of Boulder.” A Chicago Tribune piece at that time noted:

BOULDER, COLO. – The peace of the Colorado campus, in all its winter splendor, was shattered last February by the sudden appearance of handbills with side-by-side pictures of Adolf Hitler and Bill McCartney, the school’s football coach.

Underneath the pictures were the words, “Twins, separated at birth.”

As you would expect, McCartney’s use of “abomination” language quickly evolved into claims that he was, for example, a bigot who would apply Old Testament punishments (references to stones were popular) to homosexuals and others whose actions he condemned.

McCartney was also quoted as saying: “I did nothing more than call a sin a sin.”

What was missing from the coverage? Well, for starters, people missed that McCartney was well aware that Leviticus 18 called a number of sins “abominations” and the coach, himself, consistently referred to racism as an “abomination” before God.

Most importantly, I kept reminding other journalists, McCartney had — in the press conference that started it all — stated that “my own sins” are an abomination before God and just as horrible as the sins of anyone else. However, he was clearly saying that homosexual acts were sinful and as sinful as x, y and z in any biblical list of sinful behaviors.

What he said was clearly offensive. However, I argued that it was crucial to stress that it wasn’t fair or, in the best sense of the word, “accurate” to give readers the impression that McCartney had singled gays out for unique censure and had, in fact, stressed that his own sins were just as abominable to God. The coach stressed that he was a sinner in the eyes of God and needed to repent and be forgiven, just like everybody else.

McCartney’s words were, of course, offensive to many readers no matter how they were parsed. People had every right to protest. However, I argued, if anyone actually wanted to understand what the coach had said they would need to see his words in context, including his judgments on his own sins.

This brings us, of course, to Phil Robertson and his coarse, offensive and highly anti-evangelical (in the sense of serving as effective evangelism) GQ words on homosexual behavior.

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On Pope Francis: What matters most is, ‘Who am I to judge?’

Pope Francis has been warned. The powers that be at Time magazine have named him the Person of the Year, but they are watching him carefully to make sure he measures up to their expectations.

This magisterial cover story, as readers would expect, covers a tremendous amount of ground as it moves from the pope’s roots in the slums and decaying power structures of Argentina to the often troubled halls of power inside the Vatican. Over and over readers are reminded — appropriately so — of the degree to which the humble Pope Francis has tried to walk the talk when ministering to the poor and needy.

The lovely opening anecdote describes the annual visits — via ordinary mass transit and shoe leather — of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to a parish in one of the darkest and most dangerous neighborhoods in greater Buenos Aires.

Traveling alone, he would transfer onto a graffiti-blasted tram to Mariano Acosta, reaching where the subways do not go. He finished the journey on foot, moving heavily in his bulky black orthopedic shoes along Pasaje C. On other days, there were other journeys to barrios throughout the city — so many in need of so much, but none too poor or too filthy for a visit from this itinerant prince of the church. Reza por mí, he asked almost everyone he met. Pray for me.

When, on March 13, Bergoglio inherited the throne of St. Peter — keeper of the keys to the kingdom of heaven — he made the same request of the world. Pray for me.

This is the overarching theme of the piece: Pope Francis covets the prayers of ordinary people as he bravely attempts to make changes in an ancient bureaucracy. He is pictured — accurately, according to many who know him — as a pragmatic pastor who is more interested in actions than mere words. He wants to change structures as well as how the Catholic church is perceived. He wants to reach out to marginalized people, rather than focusing primarily on winning policy fights in the public square.

In other words, saith the lords of Time:

… (This) new Pope may have found a way out of the 20th century culture wars, which have left the church moribund in much of Western Europe and on the defensive from Dublin to Los Angeles. But the paradox of the papacy is that each new man’s success is burdened by the astonishing successes of Popes past. The weight of history, of doctrines and dogmas woven intricately century by century, genius by genius, is both the source and the limitation of papal power. It radiates from every statue, crypt and hand-painted vellum text in Rome — and in churches, libraries, hospitals, universities and museums around the globe. A Pope sets his own course only if he can conform it to paths already chosen.

And so Francis signals great change while giving the same answers to the uncomfortable questions. On the question of female priests: “We need to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman.” Which means: no. No to abortion, because an individual life begins at conception. No to gay marriage, because the male-female bond is established by God. “The teaching of the church … is clear,” he has said, “and I am a son of the church, but” — and here he adds his prayer for himself — “it is not necessary to talk about those issues all the time.”

And what? “And here he adds his prayer for himself?”

The key to this cover story, which has a sobering tone than many readers might expect, is that the editors of Time make it clear that it is ultimately not up to Pope Francis to end the culture wars, in Rome or anywhere else. The bottom line is that the Catholic church is divided and, no matter what the pope says, the church’s “progressive” wing will also need to wave the fight flag if there is going to be a declaration of peace.

Yes, this pope is asking people on both sides of the Catholic divide to quit bickering and to roll of their sleeves and get to work helping the poor and the lost. That would be nice, suggests this piece, but everyone really knows that other issues are more important. What are the key issues for Time?

That is made perfectly clear in this lengthy passage that is at the heart of the essay:

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