The Southern Baptist Convention is hiring a minister specializing in “gender issues” to help churches reach out and minister to homosexuals, without condoning same-sex relationships.
Thirteen years ago Stith began to feel guilty about negative attitudes toward homosexuals coming across in his own preaching. He got involved in Exodus International, a Christian ministry that leads people out of homosexuality, and Living Hope, a non-denominational Exodus referral agency in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.
In 2001 Stith made a motion at the SBC annual meeting to establish a task force “to inform, educate, and encourage our people to be proactive and redemptive in reaching out to those who struggle with unwanted same-sex attractions.”
In response to Stith’s motion LifeWay Christian Resources and the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission formed the Ministry to Homosexuals Task Force. In a report to the convention in 2003, the task force said Southern Baptist churches need to initiate a dual ministry of “speaking the truth” about homosexuality being a sin, while reaching out in redemptive ways to those who struggle with same-sex temptation.
While Stith said he was pleasantly surprised by receptiveness to his idea among SBC leadership, churches have been slower to respond. His new position, funded by start-up money from LifeWay Christian Resources, aims to jumpstart local-church ministries to deal with what Stith views as “perhaps the most critical issue the church is facing.”
One problem, Stith said in an ERLC news story, is that gay-rights activists seeking to normalize homosexuality “knew the only way to get past the evangelical church on this issue was to make it appear the Bible doesn’t speak against homosexual behavior.”
“Many conservative Christians don’t understand how to refute those arguments,” he said. “In fact, people in the pews are beginning to believe homosexuals can’t change and that they are born ‘that way.'”
A new Gallup Poll found that 42 percent of Americans say homosexuality is something a person is born with–compared to 13 percent in 1977–while 35 percent say it is due to factors such as upbringing and environment.
Of those who believe homosexuality is congenital, according to Gallup, 78 percent say it should be considered an acceptable alternative lifestyle.
Today, 57 percent of the American public believes homosexuality should be sanctioned as an acceptable alternative lifestyle–the highest the Gallup Poll has recorded since 1982. Also indicating higher tolerance, 59 percent of Americans believe homosexual relations should be legal.
For the first time in the 21st century, less than a majority of Americans say homosexual relations are morally wrong (49 percent.) Since 2001, the percentage of those who say homosexual relations are morally acceptable has increased from 40 percent to 47 percent.
Stith said if people are born homosexual and cannot change, the Bible must be wrong, because 1 Corinthians 6:9 says there were people in the early church who came out of homosexual lifestyles. Stith said even a tacit embrace of homosexuality as acceptable and normal threatens the authority of Scripture.
Even one SBC leader, Southern Seminary President Albert Mohler, has conceded there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that biological factors may at least contribute to sexual orientation.
But Stith said there is “not a single scientifically replicable study that demonstrates people cannot change.”
Stith told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that no one in his church or family had struggled with homosexuality.
“In all honesty, my preaching about it had been negative, focusing on biblical passages about sin but not redemption,” he said. “Those who heard me preach would never have come to me for help. When I realized that, it broke my heart. This ministry is just something God put on my heart.”
Stith’s softer rhetoric contrasts with earlier statements by Southern Baptists denouncing homosexuality–such as the 1996 Disney boycott that targeted the company for providing domestic-partner benefits to gays–but it doesn’t sway gay-rights groups like Soulforce and the Human Rights Campaign, who believe “ex-gay” outreach ministries do more harm than good.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.