THE BLOG
10/31/2014 07:50 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2014

Is the Southern Baptist Church Having an Identity Crisis, or Am I?

Yesterday I returned from the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in Nashville convinced that it's only a matter of time before the Southern Baptist Convention changes how it relates to the LGBT community. The question is whether that change will be simply a kinder, gentler spin on "love the sinner, hate the sin," a softer rhetoric toward some and a harsher one toward others, or the beginning of a deeper journey toward understanding.

But one thing is clear: The survival of the Southern Baptist denominational identity and its mission in the world is at stake. They know this, and I think some of the contradictory messages we heard at the ERLC meeting suggest a full-on identity crisis.

We went to the meeting with deep suspicion, knowing all too well that the SBC has a long history of hostility toward the LGBT community. Yet what we found were people -- many people -- eager for conversations.

Many of us recall the days when evangelicals blamed us for HIV/AIDS, the attacks of 9/11, and just about every national disaster to have happened in the last 30 years. We remember when we were accused of being sexual predators ready to corrupt children and destroy society. And we don't have to look far back for examples of SBC's anti-LGBT policies and practices -- for example, pressuring World Vision to reverse its decision to hire Christians who are married to same-sex spouses, and, even more recently, the unanimous passage of a resolution at the SBC Annual Meeting in June that denied the existence of transgender people. And at this very conference, we heard yet more disturbing rhetoric about transgender people that attempted to build a theological framework for the SBC's misguided positions.

Even within this reality, the Southern Baptists we met were gracious and hospitable. They organized a behind-the-scenes conversation with an LGBT-affirming contingent that lasted well into the night; when we offered comments, they seemed genuinely pleased; they thanked us for coming and called us brave for showing up; they even retweeted our tweets without irony.

A number of them made incremental steps forward in a few key areas:

  • Leaders acknowledged the pain they have inflicted on gays and lesbians. Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention, stated in his keynote address that he "repent[ed] denying that homosexuality was legitimate." He and several other speakers also expressed regret over past depictions of gay people as the worst of all sinners.
  • They revised some of their longstanding messaging about gay youth. While they still depicted LGBT children as something negative, speakers stated emphatically that it is wrong to blame bad parenting for the sexual orientation of children. The president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), Russell Moore, even went so far as to say that "gay and lesbian homelessness is an issue that the Christian church ought to care about."
  • They addressed their public image problem often in honest and self-reflective ways. Russell Moore told the group in his closing sermon that the best way to stop "seeming like a bigot" is to stop being a bigot.

And yet, like all identity crises, they also backtracked in surprising ways that suggested that they had not learned from their own history. Many still roundly condemned expressions of same-sex desire as sinful, and while Moore renounced reparative therapy for lesbians and gay men as "severely counterproductive," others supported the practice. For lesbian and gay evangelicals who wish to remain in good standing with their church, the recommendation was celibacy.

Most reprehensible were their positions on transgender people. Albert Mohler stated that "the [gender] identity issue is scarier than the [same-sex] behavior issue. We are entering a time of confusion ... when there is a revolt against the fixity of gender." Sadly, instead of embracing a language of repentance when it came to transgender people, they continued to build out a theology that denies the legitimacy of transgender identities, which went against everything we know as advocates for transgender equality and everything that medical establishments have made clear time and again.

Among the affirming Baptists in attendance, the rhetoric about transgender people was especially concerning, particularly given the staggering suicide rates among transgender youth and adults.

As Rev. Robin Lunn, Executive Director of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, expressed to me:

The softening of some within the SBC toward the lesbian and gay community was met powerfully by a call to deny any validity to the transgender community. This absolutist rhetoric will continue to cause great harm to transgender individuals from within and outside the church. Because of this the SBC should think seriously about the lives that are being lost in the name of their gospel of exclusion, patriarchy and privilege. I am grateful for those who are opening their hearts but I remain deeply disturbed by the harm that continues to be done in the name of the Gospel.

While affirming Baptists like Lunn were welcomed to the conference, they were excluded from leading these conversations. There were no affirming speakers, and dissident voices were often lumped into categories like "the world" or "the culture" rather than being presented as fellow believers.

So where do we go from here? It's hard to prognosticate about the future in the middle of an identity crisis.

Was this event a PR stunt? Possibly. Was it a strategic attempt to speak to disgruntled millennials who are leaving the church? Almost certainly. But was it also a heartfelt attempt to address a contentious topic that has caused pain for Southern Baptists, evangelicals, and their families? I believe -- and hope -- so.

But even if it is heartfelt, it all seems far too little and far too late. Yet, as Rev. Canon Susan Russell reminded me, quoting a line from theologian Diana Butler Bass, "When it comes to God's justice, all of us move too slow, too late."

The SBC is a powerful organization that has been an unrelenting oppositional force in the culture wars, so I can't help but listen with interest when their theological leader Albert Mohler states, "We are accustomed to thinking from a position of respect and credibility, and now we are facing the reality that, to much of America, we are speaking from a position of loss of credibility, from the underside."

This recognition of a loss of credibility may show the kind of real humility that will make it possible for some of us to take a leap of faith that a genuine relationship can be possible. I, for one, long to see what it might look like to travel into the unknown terrain on the other side of the culture wars. We have a very long way to go, but there were signs at this conference -- amidst confusing, contradictory and even harmful messages -- that we might be heading in that direction.