LOUISVILLE, Ky. (Christian Examiner) -- At least one church affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship had reason to celebrate after Friday's landmark decision by the Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states.
Joe Phelps, pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky – a church not far from the campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary – recently gave their blessing for congregants David and Steven to be married in the church.
"It wasn't an abstract question, it wasn't an ideological question about same-sex marriage, it was about people and their lives, their commitment to Christ and the church's commitment to them," said Phelps in a workshop about homosexuality at the CBF's annual meeting in Dallas June 18.
Just days earlier, messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Columbus, Ohio, the denomination from which CBF splintered 25 years ago, clearly declared opposition to same-sex marriage through a resolution. SBC presidents for the past three decades also issued a joint-statement announcing concerns about dangers to biblical marriage and religious liberty if same-sex marriage were made legal.
At the CBF gathering, Phelps presented one view in a panel, "LGBTQ and the Church: A Panel Discussion on Pastoral Responses," while Houston's Steve Wells, pastor at South Main Street Baptist Church, presented another. There were no questions allowed of the panel during the workshop, and the issue was not discussed in any of the business or plenary sessions at the two-day meeting.
The men are friends, they said, but have agreed to disagree homosexuality is a theological issue Wells says is peripheral, and Phelps says is not.
Wells, whose Texas church has baptized a gay man, but refused to dedicate the baby of a gay couple, said the church did not want to appear to endorse same-sex marriage.
Phelps said his church takes the Bible and the "interpretation" of it seriously – and in the same way many in the CBF earlier on had conversations about the role of women as deacons and ministers. "We've done the same things with sexuality," he said.
"We put these questions in the larger context," Phelps said. "We can't just say, 'The Bible says it and I believe it;' it's just not that simple. And for us it's not peripheral because it has to do with all God's children."
"For us it leads us into the harder questions about what it means to be Baptist and to have liberty of conscience," Phelps said. "But if we baptize you, what about your faith ... we have to welcome your life, your walk."
Phelps said speaking "our truth" to people is important.
"We have to work towards unity, not unanimity, or not uniformity – uniformity is often a form of violence – it forces people to perform," he said. "Unity is abut taking our diversity and seeing what God in love can do with us together."
The Louisville pastor said within CBF "it is increasingly important that theological uniformity not be the basis of our fellowship. If that is the case, than the fundamentalists have really won."
On homosexuality, Phelps said, "we are a fellowship of diversity that can honor each other and learn from each other ... and trust that if love wins, as many of us believe, that God will win in this issue, as God has won in many other issues."
In 2000 the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship adopted a policy refusing to hire gays and lesbians. Then executive director Daniel Vestal told Associated Baptist Press in 2012, "Except for a small handful of Baptist churches, the vast majority of churches that partner within CBF will not call/hire/ordain a practicing gay/lesbian Christian as pastor or ministering staff member."
That same year, Jerry Carlisle, then president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas and pastor of First Baptist Church in Plano, said it would be important to build bridges and unite, in order to maintain the support of the CBF-affiliated churches west of the Mississippi – those primarily in Texas.
"[I]f lightning rod-issues drive us, then we won't be a viable missions organization," he said.
BGCT Executive Director David Hardage affirmed that the state organization, reorganized this year, "has a very strong biblical policy" regarding homosexual behavior. In 2007, messengers to the BGCT annual meeting approved a report declaring, "premarital, extramarital or homosexual" sexual behavior "are contrary to God's purpose and thus sinful."
A longtime CBF supporter with insight into the organization told Christian Examiner at the Dallas meeting June 19 that CBF leadership has for years ignored a groundswell of support from many of its churches to bring the issue into the open for fear of losing the financial support of many Texas Baptist churches.
In Columbus, at the Baptist21 luncheon in conjunction with the June 16-17 SBC annual meeting panelists R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Russell Moore, president of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, addressed declines the denomination might face – even while standing resolute contending for "religious freedom" over sexuality and gender.
"The insinuation made in the secular media is that it is our position on sexual morality that will cost us cultural traction and cost us many members," Mohler said. "Our response to that is, 'Probably, exactly right.'"
Mohler said he anticipates a loss in membership as a result of Southern Baptists' stance against homosexuality – but also that Christians should expect "to adjust to be more Gospel-centered and Scripture-dependent, but there's a limited amount of adjustment we can do."
Moore said Southern Baptists should be champions of religious liberty for all, something to which Mohler later said many younger evangelicals may fail to appreciate – especially when it comes to "freedom of the pulpit."
"We have to be back in touch with our heritage as Baptists with religious liberty, which was a heritage of looking out for everybody and it was making alliances with people issue by issue," Moore said. "And one critically important thing for us to do is to work for religious liberty and tell the difference between persecution and insult."
In 2011, Mohler had raised eyebrows among some Southern Baptists when he said they needed to repent of a "form of homophobia" that could keep some gays and lesbians from attending church.
Jonathan Merritt, a well-known commentator, had quoted Mohler in a March 24 Christian Science Monitor article as saying, ""We've lied about the nature of homosexuality and have practiced what can only be described as a form of homophobia," and "We've used the choice language when it is clear that sexual orientation is a deep inner struggle and not merely a matter of choice."
Mohler said at that SBC annual meeting in Phoenix, and since, that he has been clear on what the Bible teaches about homosexuality, but his remarks were intended to demonstrate "that Christian churches have not done well on this issue."
"We have said to people that homosexuality is just a choice," Mohler said. "It's clear that it's more than a choice. That doesn't mean it's any less sinful, but it does mean it's not something people can just turn on and turn off. We are not a Gospel people unless we understand that only the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ gives a homosexual person any hope of release from homosexuality."
Six months after Mohler's statements, another prominent leader spoke out on the issue of homosexuality – offering an apology for Exodus' International slogan, "Change Is Possible."
Alan Chambers, then president of Exodus International, in an address to Gay Christian Network, said 99.9 percent of the people he met had not experienced a change in their "orientation" and that conversion therapy was potentially harmful.
Chamber's remarks were explosive and came at the same time the board at Exodus underwent a radical change, with his Orlando-Florida pastor serving as Exodus International board chairman. Clark Whitten that year authored Pure Grace – a book which he proclaims "is changing the current religious landscape in a profound way."
Exodus International was listed as a resource on materials developed by Southern Baptists' task force on ministry to homosexuals, in response to a resolution passed in 2001. The task force eventually gave reports during annual SBC meetings and featured panel discussions.
LifeWay Christian Resources and the ERLC developed ministry materials related to the task force, according to James T. Draper Jr., former LifeWay president.
A year later, in 2013 Exodus International board of directors announced it was closing after Chambers repudiated a key part of its purpose at its annual meeting: "I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative therapies about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents," he said.
THE LAST TWO YEARS
Following Mohler's remarks about "choice" and Chambers' denunciation of reparative therapy – in his first year as ERLC president, Moore hosted a national conference, "The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage," which caused some national news outlets and religious reporters to wonder if SBC leaders were softening in their approach to homosexuality or gay marriage.
Frank Page, president of the SBC's Executive Committee, said there was no change to the denomination's stance on homosexuality – just the tone of the discussion.
"The ERLC conference demonstrated that while the ways in which we as Southern Baptists engage the culture may change as culture itself changes," he said, "our fundamental commitment to biblical ethics in regard to human sexuality has not, and will not, change."
SBC and CBF
Draper said the growing confusion is partly the result of Soutehrn Baptist national leaders losing interest in the issue.
At the SBC annual meeting in Columbus, he told Christian Examiner, Southern Baptists are being "forced to deal with it" now, because "nobody wanted to deal with it back then" when funding ran out for the task force on ministry to homosexuals, and, Exodus International disintegrated.
Chambers, Draper asserted, "made some very confusing statements and some of them could be considered to be lenient and compromising toward the issue itself and so that didn't help," he said.
"I think that was a blow because Exodus was the flagship organization to deal with this issue," Draper said. "It appears that Alan was saying there is no such thing as your life being changed -- it's who you are. I think that's a problem."
Since that time, Draper said there have been a few statements and resolutions, but not much more – even though he said LifeWay previously put a lot of financial resources into the issue.
"We have not been really willing to equip churches to deal with this and the homosexuals don't only want acceptance, they want approval and we can't do that," Draper said.
Churches have a hard time knowing the difference between acceptance and approval, he said. "We do what we should have been doing all along. We ought to be dealing with homosexuality and doing it in a loving way -- having a safe atmosphere in our churches."
"I think more than us going soft on it, we just ignored it, we didn't want to deal with it," he said. "We were not willing to do anything. Now we are forced to do it. That's a good reminder to us. If we don't address things that are clearly anti-biblical sooner or later than we will have to."
As a former SBC president, Draper signed a statement warning of the danger to biblical marriage and religious liberty if the Supreme Court took the step it did Friday in legalizing same sex marriage.
In Columbus, he affirmed the idea that churches will find it more difficult than ever before to hold to a biblical stance.
"We can't ignore it anymore," Draper said.
CBF released a statement Friday citing the panel at the Dallas meeting as an example of unity, even among "differences and disagreements."
"For nearly 25 years, Cooperative Baptists have found it unifying to celebrate our autonomy in Christ while inviting collaboration. We cling tightly to and defend historic Baptist principles of soul freedom, Bible freedom, church freedom and religious freedom — our core values," the statement reads.
Maurice "Bojangles" Blanchard, the homosexual minister who was ordained at Highland Baptist in Louisville – and sued the state of Kentucky to be married to his partner – told Baptist News Global the couple was "elated" by Friday's Supreme Court decision.
"God led us each step of this long journey as we used the methods and teachings of Christ, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. to bring change where it seemed impossible," Blanchard said. "[We are] so thankful for all the other plaintiffs and their journeys as well. Love wins!"