The great divide: Is Baptist opposition to the LGBT community softening?

Jessica Merriman (l) and Sara Cunningham (r) at the Baptist Convention event, "The Gospel, Sexuality & the Church." (Photo by Robin Dorner)

by Rob Howard
Associate Editor

At the end of the recent Baptist General Conference of Oklahoma’s (BGCO) conference on “The Gospel, Sexuality and The Church,” Sara Cunningham, the mother of a gay son, encountered her former pastor. “He asked me what I thought about the conference, and I said ‘This has been really heavy.’” He responded, “This year’s conference was much better than last year’s,” and said he was prepared to leave if “it was as brutal [as last year’s].”

There has long existed a “great divide” between the Southern Baptist church and the LGBT community. Could it be that their stance is changing? Since the entire conference is on the BGCO website (, I watched some of the sermons and workshop presentations. And indeed, the tone has changed from what many in the LGBT community hear as harsh and judgmental, to one of what was described as “convictional kindness.” Convictional kindness means Baptists should embrace Biblical standards, but be kind and open to those who are around them, even though they may disagree.

Brian Hobbs, the Communications Director of the BGCO, described the purpose of the conference: “The Gospel and Sexuality Conference was designed to equip Baptist pastors and other Christians to address sexual issues in the culture with kindness and conviction. To do this, we brought in two of the foremost leaders from the Southern Baptist Convention, Dr. Albert Mohler and Dr. Russell Moore, to address what the Bible says about sexual brokenness and how to speak about those issues.

“One of the leading issues in the culture that was covered at the event relates to homosexuality. Dr. Moore and other presenters encouraged attendees to treat homosexuals as neighbors and not as enemies, as we hold to our Christian convictions on marriage and sexuality, while recognizing everyone is made in the image of God. We welcome anyone to view videos from the conference on our website,”

Baptists, and other conservative Christians, are clearly concerned about the conflict between their beliefs, and the sexual nature of our society. That conflict is familiar to Sara Cunningham. When her son Parker came out to her at 17, she was highly conflicted. She relates that was the last good night’s sleep she got for the next five years as she struggled to reconcile her love for Parker with her fear of his eternal damnation. She came to a new understanding of Biblical scriptures that allowed the love and compassion of Jesus to count for everyone, gay people included. Cunningham wrote a book, How We Sleep At Night, about her experience and transformation, and has become a great ally and activist.

So in that vein, she and a transgender friend of hers decided to attend the BGCO’s conference in March. Despite the effort of Baptist leaders to set a different tone, Cunningham said she only heard three positive comments. One was “that it’s okay to get to know your gay and lesbian neighbors. Another was ‘Let’s change our verbiage a bit, don’t use words like sin.’”

Perhaps the most encouraging to Cunningham was an admonition to parents of gay or transgender children, in the opening sermon. Dr. Russell Moore, the President of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission said, “I had someone tell me not long ago, who works with homeless teenagers, about how many homeless gay and lesbian and transgender teenagers he comes across who are thrown out on the street by Christian parents. Brothers and sisters that ought to be a scandal to us. The scripture does not call us to throw our children out on the streets….”

He called that response to a child’s coming out one “with a force that is not Biblical. Let’s confess that for what it is – pride, conceit, selfish ambition.”

Troy Stevenson, Executive Director of Freedom Oklahoma, when asked his take on the conference, said, “They are talking about loving their children, that is progress. That’s not where they were two years ago.”

Despite the efforts of the leaders, Cunningham described the general feel of the conference as one of oppression. “The atmosphere was very heavy, there were tons of judgement. I think they were just reiterating their stance now that same-sex marriage had been legalized. They were just firm in their convictions.” She described it as “borderline arrogance. A way to be cordial, they were just changing their words, not their beliefs or approach.”

And in some of the workshops, presenters used phrases that are likely to drive LGBT people crazy, such as “Confessing that they are gay,” or “It’s the kindness of the Lord that leads us to repent.” To many in our community, phrases like that are ‘dog whistles’ since the churches we attend have gotten past hurtful phrases, or have a different interpretation of what Christianity is. (And doubly so to those of us who are non-believers.)

Cunningham is dead on in her observation. Make no mistake about it, the Southern Baptist Church is not changing its views that LGBT sexual behavior is a sin, and that gay marriage is immoral. And they want to reach out to people to “save them from their sin.”

The change in tone may have several reasons. One is that the harsh rhetoric of the past turns people off, and that if you approach people with kindness and respect, you are much more likely to be able to start a dialogue. That gives Baptists an opportunity to share their interpretation of the Bible’s message, and their goal of salvation and eternal life.

According to Stevenson, another reason they are changing their language is that “they are losing a lot of youthful members. People under 35 just will not tolerate this kind of language. A lot has to do with a strong sense of vitriol directed at the LGBT community.”

Moore realizes that their comments on sexuality are misinterpreted. “When it comes to these issues of sexuality, especially in the climate we are in now, they assume that for us these are political issues, or they are moral issues, or they are virtue issues, and the reason they sometimes assume that is that sometimes we act like that, as though that’s what’s most important.

“But these are gospel issues and in order to…see people reconciled before God, we have to tell people the truth, and the truth is that all of us are existing in a world where all of us are fallen and broken….” That is fundamental doctrine to Southern Baptists.

Many other denominations have followed different paths in addressing the issue of LGBT acceptance. Notably, the United Church of Christ has ordained gay ministers since the 70’s, welcomes LGBT members, and has over 1000 congregations that have become “Open and Affirming.” Others adopting a welcoming nature are the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Unitarians.

The Baptists aren’t budging, so there is still a “great divide” between them and the LGBT community. Perhaps the change in tone will allow further conversations to take place. Stevenson said, “I hope they do evolve. I don’t want to miss the little bit of progress that they have made. They want to help the young people living in those households, that they not turn them out. I hope that they will soon make a strong statement about conversion therapy.”

The Gayly – May 12, 2015 @ 11:20am.