Meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, last week, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission stood firm on their belief that marriage, as defined by God in the Bible, is reserved for a union of one man and one woman. At the same time, the ERLC and other Baptist leaders made overtures to opponents, meeting privately with several key pro-gay marriage evangelicals.
The three-day conference, “The Gospel, Homosexuality and the Future of Marriage,” brought more than 1,000 Southern Baptist pastors and leaders together, the Associated Press reported.
“This moral revolution is happening at warp speed,” the Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said, according to the AP account. The news service noted Mohler “said from the stage that he was wrong years ago when he said same-sex attraction could be changed,” which critics of the Baptists’ stance said was a welcome declaration.
Away from the conference floor, private encounters -- such as a meeting between Mohler and Matthew Vines, author of “God and the Gay Christian,” were hailed as a useful start.
“What’s significant is not the content of the meetings, but that there were meetings at all,” Justin Lee, executive director of the Gay Christian Network, told The Wall Street Journal (paywall). “It allowed us to humanize one another and form relationships.”
Of his meeting with Vines, Mohler told the Journal, “It was a gracious, honest conversation. I think all evangelical Christians are having to learn anew how to discuss these issues.”
Not all hailed the apparent bonhomie evident at the event. Left-leaning blog ThinkProgress declared: “The conference’s overall ‘love thy neighbor’ theme was also compromised by some of the bedfellows invited to participate,” taking particular note of a speaker from the Alliance Defending Freedom who “trumpeted their call for religious liberty” as well as an appearance by Washington state florist Barronelle Stutzman, who wants the right to decline selling flowers for same-sex weddings.
“Despite all the rhetoric used at the conference, that ovation was the one moment that made this openly gay reporter feel particularly unsafe at an otherwise hospitable” event, the blog said.
Time magazine‘s Elizabeth Dias drew a distinction between the ERLC gathering and the recent Roman Catholic synod in Rome that discussed family issues. “The most noticeable difference was tone,” she wrote. “Pope Francis opened the synod on the family by asking the church leaders to speak freely, and saying his goal was to listen. … The ERLC conference, by contrast, (was) not an open forum -- dissenting voices are not included in the presentations.”
And Sarah Pulliam Bailey, who covered the event for Religion News Service, said “the thawed relations could not hide tensions between the ideas of ‘loving your neighbor’ and ‘defending your rights,’ particularly as legal recognition of same-sex marriage continues its lightning-fast expansion across the country.”
She added, “With the clashes between religious liberty and gay rights that inevitably follow, many still question whether the friendly conversations can continue.”
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