Evangelical churches refine message on gay issues

By Travis Loller

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Jan. 31 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

"I think we were too quick to dismiss the possibility of a genetic predisposition," Jeffress said.

But that hasn't altered his belief the Bible teaches that acting on homosexual desire is sinful, and he feels it is his responsibility to talk about it with his congregation.

"We cannot pick and choose what parts of God's word we are called to share," he said. "God gave it to us, not to hurt people, but to help people."

But Jeffress said he was concerned that some other evangelical pastors were shirking this responsibility.

"My sense is that people are just avoiding the subject, by and large," he said. "They are so bent on trying to add to the numbers of their churches that they don't want to disenfranchise new members or be characterized as unfriendly."

Atlanta pastor the Rev. Louie Giglio seems to have taken that approach. After withdrawing from giving the benediction at president Obama's inauguration ceremony because of controversy over a past sermon in which he said same-sex relationships were sinful, Giglio downplayed the significance of the remarks.

In his withdrawal letter, Giglio did not say he had changed his views on homosexuality, but instead noted how old the sermon was and stated, "Clearly, speaking on this issue has not been in the range of my priorities in the past fifteen years."

David W. Key Sr., director of Baptist Studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, said it is the pastors who are de-emphasizing homosexuality who are attracting more members.

"It's a free-market system," he said, noting that there is no evangelical equivalent of the pope to enforce a certain doctrine.

Groups like the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, are really a loose confederation of independent churches. Although a church could be forced out of the convention, it would not lose its buildings and property, as has been the case with several Episcopal churches that broke with the denomination over the election an openly gay bishop.

And because many evangelical churches are less hierarchical than their mainline Protestant counterparts, changes in attitude or practice can sometimes go under the radar.

"There's never a proclamation. A resolution doesn't pass. It's just that people go silent on the issue," Key said. He said that has happened with everything from slavery to dancing and alcohol consumption.

"The reality is when all of society has moved in a certain direction ... you just have to be silent."

In 2001, the Southern Baptist Convention established a Task Force on Ministry to Homosexuals at the urging of pastor Bob Stith.

In its final report to the denomination in June of last year, task force members wrote, "The challenges we face are exponentially greater than they were ten years ago. ...Homosexuality may well be the number one crisis facing the church in this generation."

Nonetheless, the task force dissolved and Stith's position as National Strategist for Gender Issues was left unfunded. Stith has continued his work, thanks to some private donors.

"This issue is not going to go away," he said. "There are too many people sitting in the pews who are in a lot of pain and don't know what to do with it."

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