NASHVILLE, Tenn. — More than a thousand evangelical pastors and others — gathered for a three-day conference to steel the resolve of Christians who preach that gay relationships are sinful — were asked a simple question: How many live in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage?
Hands rose all across the convention hall.
"This moral revolution is happening at warp speed," said the Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. "This is a real challenge to us on biblical authority."
Speakers at the event said they understood they were on the losing end of the culture war on marriage. But they were prepared to be the voice of a moral minority because gay marriage is a "rejection of God's law," according to Mohler. He said evangelicals needed to have "a lot of agonizing conversations" about how to move forward.
The conference, called "The Gospel, Homosexuality and the Future of Marriage," is taking place not only against the backdrop of expanding gay marriage, but also amid a small but vocal movement of evangelicals who publicly advocate greater acceptance of gays. Several of the advocates attended the conference and held behind-the-scenes meetings with evangelical leaders to seek common ground.
"My goal here is to meet as many people as I can who disagree with me and talk over coffee," said Justin Lee, founder of the Gay Christian Network, during a break at the opening session Monday. His organization brings together Christians who differ over whether gays faithful to the Bible should remain celibate or can have same-sex relationships.
Southern Baptist leaders said they would be expressing their views in a way that was humble and compassionate, but rooted in the theological belief that marriage is only between a man and a woman. Each participant was given a bagful of books and pamphlets, with titles such as, "Love Into Light: The Gospel, The Homosexual and The Church," and "Loving My (LGBT) Neighbor," meant to help pastors articulate their stand against same-sex relationships.
Mohler, the most prominent Southern Baptist intellectual, said from the stage that he was wrong years ago when he said same-sex attraction could be changed. The Rev. Russell Moore, director of the Southern Baptist's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which organized the conference, drew applause when he condemned anti-gay bullying and called on Christians to address the problem of homelessness for gay and lesbian youth as "a human dignity issue." He said parents shouldn't shun their gay children.
"You've been given a mission of reconciliation," Moore told the audience. "Jesus is not afraid to speak the truth, but Jesus is not shocked by people or disgusted by people."
However, some speakers took a harder line. Erik Stanley of the Alliance Defending Freedom, the law firm defending Christian business owners and others who refuse to serve gay weddings, said it was a myth that the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, was a hate crime. He argued gays wanted "unfettered sexual liberty" while silencing all dissent.
Most of the morning sessions Tuesday featured Christians such as Rosaria Butterfield who had been attracted to members of the same-sex but say they were now married to someone of the opposite sex or had overcome their attractions. Butterfield said evangelicals need to "repent of anti-gay rhetoric," and befriend gays and lesbians instead of trying to "fix" them. (Moore said Southern Baptists do not support "reparative therapy" for gays based on psychological counseling and do not believe people can necessarily eliminate same-sex attraction. But he said the denomination believes Gospel teaching can help people live chastely while being attracted to people of the same gender.)
Matthew Vines, author of "God and the Gay Christian," has drawn more than 800,000 views on YouTube for his lecture challenging the theology that drives evangelical opposition to same-gender relationships. He said he was encouraged that some speakers have been "approaching the conversation with more respect and sensitivity than has often been the case in the past." But he said their stand on gay relationships still "causes serious harm to LGBT people."
Vines met privately with Mohler, who had written an e-book response to Vines, titled "God and the Gay Christian?" Both men said the meeting was a cordial discussion of Scripture and they planned to stay in touch. Separately, about two dozen Christian advocates for gay acceptance and evangelical leaders who participated in the conference also met privately Monday night. Participants agreed they would not comment afterward.
In an interview, Mohler said he expected to see some evangelical churches splitting off to accept gay relationships in years ahead. Evangelicals in the millennial generation, ages 18-33, are twice as likely as their elders to support same-sex marriage, according to a survey released in February by the Public Religion Research Institute. Southern Baptists last month cut ties with a California congregation, New Heart Community Church, whose pastor accepted same-sex marriage after his son came out as gay. But Moore believes only a small minority of evangelicals will come to accept same-sex relationships as they struggle with expressing their opposition in the current climate.
"I'm not worried about churches in our tradition conforming to the culture. I'm worried about them not effectively engaging the culture," Moore said in an interview. "We have to be able to speak with conviction about what we believe. We have to speak to people."