NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Christian Examiner) – Nearly two months after a conference on "The Gospel, Homosexuality and the Future of Marriage," the president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee clarified fellow leaders' remarks on homosexuality that were widely reported in the mainstream media. But two experts offered more corrective comments.
In the December edition of SBC Life, the news journal of Southern Baptists, Frank Page, president of the SBC's Executive Committee, the national entity with administrative and fiduciary responsibilities for the denomination, sought to lessen any confusion created by R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Russell Moore, Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission president – and host of the conference, and Jimmy Scroggins, a Florida pastor and 2012 chairman of the SBC Resolutions Committee, an annually-appointed policy writing panel.
Peter Sprigg with the Family Research Council and Bob Stith, the former national strategist on gender issues for the Southern Baptist Convention, were present at the meeting and agreed with Page's assessment about the tone of the conversation. Both, however, were more critical in their analyses.
According to the Huffington Post, Mohler said he got it "wrong" early in the controversy "to deny anything like sexual orientation."
"I repent of that," Mohler declared, adding that sexuality is "far more deeply rooted that just the 'will,' if that were so easy."
The writer's takeaway was that Mohler said people do not choose to be gay and church leaders were wrong ever to assert they did.
While Mohler addressed orientation, Moore made assertions about a conversion treatment called reparative therapy – a psychological process he distinguishes from Christian counseling. The Religion News Service headline proclaimed "Evangelical leader Russell Moore denounces ex-gay therapy."
"The utopian idea if you come to Christ and if you go through our program, you're going to be immediately set free from attraction or anything you're struggling with, I don't think that's a Christian idea," Moore told a group of journalists that included Sarah Pulliam Bailey, a national correspondent for RNS, and an editor for Christianity Today. "Faithfulness to Christ means obedience to Christ. It does not necessarily mean that someone's attractions are going to change."
A seasoned Christian writer, Pulliam surmised Moore was saying reparative therapy has been "severely counterproductive."
Scroggins, meanwhile, made a sweeping statement about a presumably prevalent attitude among Christians toward homosexuals.
"I just think we have to reject redneck theology in all of its forms," MSNBC.com reported Scroggins as saying. "Let's stop telling Adam and Steve jokes."
The mainstream media outlet noted the comments "lit up social media," adding that some speculated about a "major shift in what's been a traditional cut-and-dry part of Baptist doctrine" -- but that Scroggins said he was stressing the "need to set a different kind of tone."
Page, for his part, explained that the comments at the ERLC conference did not reflect a softening of the denomination's stance regarding homosexual, just the tone of the discussion and in this regard "did a wonderful job of helping change" the rhetoric.
"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."
In their observations below, Sprigg and Stith share that, like Page, they appreciated the civility of the conference. But their comments also show that, unlike him, they have issues with Mohler's imprecision, Moore's apparent lack of awareness, and Scroggins' strawman depiction of others.
Sprigg is FRC's senior fellow for policy studies and has written research and policy papers on human sexuality referenced broadly by the evangelical community. Christian Examiner communicated with him through electronic mail.
Stith, meanwhile, has 20 years of experience in intentional ministry to homosexuals which bracket his time leading the Southern Baptist Convention on gender issues during a time of social, political and religious controversy on human sexuality issues, including same-sex marriage. He since has founded the Family and Gender Issues Ministry in Southlake, Texas. He provided his inputs during a telephone interview.
Sprigg said that "sexual orientation" continues to be problematic because of definitions. "It can be used to describe a person's sexual attractions, behavior, self-identification, or some combination of the three," he explained.
He said Mohler might have been "repenting" of holding to the belief that "homosexuality is a choice" and explained that while sexual attraction is not a "choice" it also is not inborn.
Sexual conduct and self-identification "are clearly choices (acts of 'will'), for which we can be held morally accountable," he said. Although sexual attraction may not be a choice, it could be a "result from experiences of developmental forces in childhood" he added – meaning that it is "neither innate (i.e. genetic or biological) nor 'chosen.'"
Sprigg said a handful of well-publicized studies in the early 1990s "seemed to hint at a biological origin for homosexual attractions."
Despite years of research since then, studies have failed to find an actual genetic link or biological determinant for homosexuality.
Stith largely agreed with Sprigg's overall views, saying that "causes of homosexuality are not clear other than the fact that we're born into sin."
"I do not believe in sexual predetermination and I do believe in sexual predisposition—that comes by Paul saying we are all, by nature, children of wrath and it manifests itself in different ways," he told the Examiner. "But predisposition does not mean predetermination."
Stith stressed that—in his experience—same-sex attractions occur because of environmental factors. "The majority of testimonies I've heard, they acknowledge some type of sexual abuse."
But he cautioned that sexual abuse does not automatically lead to same-sex attractions, depending on the emotional makeup—or predisposition—of the person. For others, he said—such as a "sensitive child"—experiencing hard physical or verbal abuse, not sexual in nature, could trigger a response that develops into same-sex attractions. "That goes back to the nature, the disposition, and what that child's tendencies may be, and again, though, that does not excuse choice," he said.
REPARATIVE THERAPY & CHANGE
"People can clearly change," according to Sprigg.
"There are many people who have testified to a significant change in one, two or all three elements of their sexual orientation (attractions, behavior and self-identification)," he explained.
"Some people change as a result of [reparative] therapy, some as a result of a spiritual transformation, some through a combination, and some spontaneously (such as Chirlane McCray, a former lesbian who is the wife of the current mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio). And clearly, celibacy is not the only option," he said.
Sprigg offered that Moore may have been concerned about Christians "over-selling" reorientation therapy in terms of "quick, complete and permanent change." But he stressed "if a person goes from experiencing same-sex attractions strongly and exclusively to experiencing them only fleetingly and occasionally, that is a highly significant change. And even if a former homosexual continues to experience same-sex attractions, but is able to live a fulfilled and faithful life while abstaining from homosexual conduct, that person has still changed in a meaningful way."
"I think it would be helpful for Dr. Moore and others unfamiliar with the details of sexual reorientation therapy to meet with some therapists and their clients to become more familiar with what is and is not involved in the actual process of therapy, and how it can serve as a complement to spiritual transformation," Sprigg advised.
Stith said that "there is no question" that change happens, but the question should be "What does that change look like?"
"It's going to be different for different people," Stith continued. "I know guys and girls that when they came to Christ, they very quickly moved through whatever they needed to move through—whether it was group meetings, group meetings and therapy, therapy, or whatever—and they never looked back.
"I know others who said, 'Yeah, I still have that temptation sometimes, but I know that is not what I want. That is not who I am. So, I just turn and go on so it's not a big thing in my life,'" he said. "And then some of these, then, likely are also attracted to women, they grow an attraction for women, or in case of women, for men. I do know some who have married, not because they had a strong sexual desire, but because they loved a particular woman and they wanted to establish a home."
The bottom line, he said, is "whatever it looks like, it will free you from the power of domination from the same-sex attraction."
Both men said that Scroggins' comments were perhaps well-intentioned but not reflective of the general attitudes of the wide range of Christians they have met across the country.
Stith addressed the remarks in context of his extensive travels.
"The state that has been most open to me coming in—and our groups coming in—and doing seminars [on homosexuality], believe it or not, is Mississippi," Stith offered. If there was that kind of prevalent attitude among Christians, he would have expected to see it there he said. "I've spoken all over Mississippi," he offered and not seen that kind of "hardness and condemnation."
But he stressed the importance of being aware that there may be people in the church, maybe visitors or even long-time members, who are afraid to get help with same-sex attractions because of fear of what may be said.
"If there's someone there, and also if someone is coming for the first time, a gay person or homosexual, and deciding to look into this, they are extremely sensitive to what's going on," he counseled, adding that Believers need to take an approach that "doesn't come across in a pejorative sense."
Sprigg said the spirit of the ERLC conference overwhelmingly was framed in the context of reaching out in love to those who self-identify as gay or lesbian.
However, he suggested Scroggins may have overreached with his "redneck theology" comment.
"There is no need to repent of things we have not actually done," he said.
"In my experience, most churches, pastors, and people in the pews are not obsessed with the sin of homosexuality," Sprigg observed. "On the contrary, they mostly avoid preaching or talking about it."
"We must not be afraid to speak the truth in love," he emphasized. "For some, this will mean they need to move from hostility to love. But for many, this will mean a need to move from silence to truth-telling."