The Southern Baptist Convention Tuesday launched a new program encouraging churches to reach out to persons who “struggle with unwanted same-sex attractions.”

A 2-year-old Task Force on Ministry to Homosexuals, formed jointly by the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and LifeWay Christian Resources, developed the new ministry, titled “The Way Out.”

“Homosexuals can find freedom from this sinful, destructive lifestyle,” said Richard Land, president of the SBC’s moral concerns agency. “They can be redeemed. They can be liberated.”

The new focus urges Southern Baptist churches to be more welcoming of gays. While it appears to soften some of the SBC’s harsher anti-gay rhetoric, leaders insist the initiative doesn’t change their belief that acting on a homosexual orientation is a sin.

It also puts the SBC on a continuum between liberal Christians, who welcome out-of-the-closet gays into all areas of church life and leadership, and extremists like fundamentalist preacher Fred Phelps, whose “God Hates Fags” protests around the country have earned his small church the reputation as a hate group.

Phelps, an independent Baptist from Topeka, Kan., often pickets the SBC, which he derides as being “kissy-pooh” in its preaching about God’s love for homosexuals. Phelps, who didn’t show up at this year’s meeting in Phoenix, says he believes homosexuals are beyond redemption and that sodomy should be a crime punishable by death, in accordance with Leviticus.

SBC leaders emphasized to journalists that Phelps isn’t a Southern Baptist and doesn’t speak for the denomination’s attitude toward gays.

“Fred Phelps nauseates me,” Jimmy Draper, president of the Southern Baptist publishing house, told a group of reporters. “That does not reflect our spirit at all,” Draper said, according to the Nashville Tennessean.

But Southern Baptists aren’t much closer to fellow Baptists who are more open to gays. Roger Moran, a member of the SBC Executive Committee and research director for the fundamentalist Missouri Baptist Laymen’s Association, has frequently attacked the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship for accommodating individuals holding “extreme views” on homosexuality.

The SBC has taken a hard line against homosexuality in its annual meetings, most famously in its Disney boycott, which singled out the company for extending spousal employment benefits to same-sex couples.

Baptist churches that condone homosexual behavior are barred from membership in the national convention. An SBC-affiliated state convention in Tennessee recently removed a church for hiring a lesbian as associate pastor and a church in North Carolina was disfellowshipped by its association for baptizing two gay men.

The day after launching “The Way Out,” the convention on Wednesday passed a resolution opposing same-sex marriage. It is the 11th non-binding SBC statement against homosexuality since 1980. The newest resolution criticizes the news and entertainment media and public schools for trying to “mainstream homosexual unions in the eyes of our children.”

The Baptist Faith and Message, as amended in 2000, describes homosexuality as a form of “sexual immorality.”

Land said the new ministry effort doesn’t change Southern Baptist beliefs or philosophy about homosexuals, but it encourages churches to reach out to them in redemptive ways, according to the Dallas Morning News.

A spokesperson for Soulforce, a gay-rights group that has picketed the SBC for four straight years, said she doubted homosexuals would welcome the message that gays can be saved from their sexual orientation.

“We believe God loves gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people just as they are,” Laura Montgomery Rutt told the Houston Chronicle. Rutt said the SBC may not preach hatred of gays like Phelps does, but “the effect is the same.”

A spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, another gay-rights organization, said the SBC, which claims 42,000 churches, would be the largest denomination ever to align with the “ex-gay” movement, which teaches that homosexuals can change. “They’re promoting ‘love the sinner, hate the sin,’ but they’re really saying that gay people are bad, and that gives license to violence,” said the HRC’s David Smith, quoted by the Associated Press.

Disagreement over homosexuality has divided many Christian denominations. Mainline groups including the United Methodists and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are currently embroiled in disputes over gay ordination and the blessing of same-sex unions.

With their local-church autonomy and congregational polity, Baptists are all over the map on the issue.

The Alliance of Baptists, the first major group to split with the SBC in 1986, is one of the few religious groups in the United States with a “welcoming and affirming” stance toward gays. A 1995 Alliance report on human sexuality urged churches to “welcome all persons without regard to sexual orientation” and to challenge couples—whether heterosexual or same-sex—to “express sexual intimacy within the covenant context of a committed, monogamous relationship.”

While openly gay persons are embraced by the Alliance, other moderate and centrist Baptists have taken more of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to the subject, neither condoning same-sex relationships nor condemning homosexuals for what they do in the privacy of their bedroom.

The American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. is a diverse denomination that has attempted to leave the matter up to local churches. The denomination’s General Board passed a non-binding resolution in 1992 declaring homosexual practice “incompatible with Christian teaching.” A subsequent resolution the following year called for dialogue, acknowledging “a variety of understandings” throughout the denomination on homosexuality.

Some regional ABCUSA bodies, however, have removed churches aligned with the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, a group of about 50 pro-gay congregations and other organizations, mostly affiliated with American Baptists.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a breakaway group from the Southern Baptist Convention that formed in 1991, adopted an internal policy two years ago that leader Daniel Vestal described as “welcoming but not affirming” of homosexuals. The policy didn’t exclude gays from CBF membership but said the organization wouldn’t hire them as employees and denied funding for partner organizations that “condone, advocate or affirm homosexual practice.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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