A pastor arrested last week in a homosexual sting operation has resigned from his church and from leadership positions with the Oklahoma and Southern Baptist conventions.

Lonnie Latham, 59, senior pastor of South Tulsa Baptist Church, was arrested late Tuesday for allegedly offering to perform a lewd act on an undercover police officer in an area of Oklahoma City under stakeout because of complaints about male prostitutes trying to flag down drivers.

Latham initially claimed innocence and reportedly desired to remain at the church. In a resignation letter on the church Web site, however, Latham thanked the congregation for “love and encouragement you have shown us not only before this incident but also after.”

A statement by church leadership called Latham’s resignation “an important first step” toward allowing the church “to begin a period of healing and reconciliation.”

Latham also resigned as recording secretary and member of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma board of directors, citing “personal reasons.”

He also stepped down from the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, a key leadership board responsible for setting policy of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

The SBC is long on record as being against homosexuality, most recently by support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, Georgia Baptists severing ties with Mercer University over a student-led gay-rights organization and North Carolina Baptists developing a policy aimed at churches that “knowingly” affirm, approve or endorse homosexual behavior.

Morris Chapman, president and CEO of the Nashville, Tenn.,-based Executive Committee, said in a statement that while he is “saddened” by Latham’s behavior and arrest, “we also are faced with the truth of God’s Word that disobeying God always brings consequences.”

Chapman said Latham did the proper thing in resigning from his church and denominational positions.

“In spite of his denials soon after his arrest, he now acknowledges that the incident did happen and that he needs help,” Chapman said. “We have been praying that Lonnie would understand the importance of acknowledging his moral failure, the need for repentance, the consequences of his sin and a willingness to seek help. Already God has begun to answer our prayers and we are grateful.”

Anthony Jordan, executive director of the 1,600-church Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, preached Sunday’s sermon at the South Tulsa Baptist Church. Describing Latham as “a very close friend,” Jordan said his arrest reveals that preachers “do not get a free pass” from sin.

“We are all just one decision away from disaster when it comes to sin and temptation,” he said, according to an article in the Tulsa World, pointing out the sin of some of the Bible’s leading figures, including Abraham, Moses, Samson and David.

Jordan predicted the church will survive the scandal. “This church may have experienced a serious blow from Satan,” he said, “but its foundation is as secure as it was last Sunday, because the foundation is Jesus Christ.”

Chapman said news articles mentioning Latham was a member of the Executive Committee “brought negative attention” to Southern Baptists and “opened the door for those who seem to relish the failure of any Christian.” He criticized “those who will seize the moment to mock the Christian heritage.”

“Among 16 million Southern Baptists there will be moral lapses,” Chapman said…. “The failure of one does not negate the witness of many faithful Christians to the power of Jesus Christ in their lives. The hypocrisy of a messenger does not compromise the integrity of the message.”

While leaving jail after posting $500 bond, Latham said he was set up and abused by police. He said was in the sting area because he was conducting a prayer ministry.

Latham’s arrest took place in the parking lot of the Habana Inn, billed on a Web site as “the Southwest’s largest gay resort hotel.” He had been in the area before, receiving a traffic ticket for failure to stop at a stop sign at an intersection two blocks away in 1998.

While Latham reportedly supported official SBC proclamations on homosexuality, including recent attempts by the denomination to minister to gays through “reparative” therapy aimed at changing their sexual orientation, some leaders in the gay community were slow to label him a hypocrite.

“No one should have to come out via an undercover sting operation,” said Mel White, founder of Soulforce and frequent critic of the SBC’s anti-gay stance. “Until the Southern Baptist Convention ends their spiritual violence against gay and lesbian people, tragedies like this will continue.”

Matt Foreman of the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force said while he normally would react with smugness at a hypocrite getting what he deserved, he felt nothing but sadness for Latham and his family.

“This is just another example of people who are the most viciously homophobic and at the same time are clearly gay,” Foreman told the homosexual Web site Gay.com. He said he suspects the same is true for many anti-gay leaders.

“It’s nearly impossible to explain the irrational hatred of our opponents, other than to think they have internal conflicts about their own sexuality,” Foreman said.

Latham’s arrest was on a lewdness charge, and not prostitution, police said, because there was no mention of exchange of money. Oklahoma City’s lewdness and prostitution ordinances are combined, however, and carry the same misdemeanor penalty, up to a year in jail and a fine of $2,500.

According to the Tulsa World, Oklahoma City’s District Attorney’s Office hasn’t yet decided whether to file charges. While the act allegedly mentioned by Latham isn’t illegal, police said he was arrested because he made the proposition in a public place.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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