Southern Baptists confront a 'third way' on homosexuality and sin

Pew Research Center/June 9, 2014

By Tim Townsend and Jessica Martínez

As the Southern Baptist Convention begins its annual meeting Tuesday in Baltimore, the country’s largest Protestant body will confront an issue agitating many conservative evangelical Christian churches: How to navigate the rapidly shifting landscape of same-sex marriage and homosexuality.

The denomination, which claims 16 million members but also has been struggling with declining membership, defines God’s plan for marriage and sexual intimacy as between “one man and one woman,” and teaches that homosexuality is “not a ‘valid alternative lifestyle.’” According to its constitution, if a congregation decides to “affirm, approve or endorse homosexual behavior,” it is considered no longer “in cooperation with” the wider body.

But in February, a California pastor told his Southern Baptist congregation that he no longer believed the traditional teachings of the church regarding homosexuality. The Rev. Danny Cortez said members of New Heart Community Church and his own son, who had recently come out as gay, had helped convince him that homosexuality is not a sin.

Last month, New Heart church members voted against firing Cortez, choosing instead to welcome the gay community as a “Third Way” congregation, described by the pastor as “agree to disagree…and not cast judgment on one another.” But in a blog post headlined, “There is no ‘Third Way’ – Southern Baptists Face a Moment of Decision (and so will you),” prominent evangelical leader Albert Mohler wrote last week that, “A church will either believe and teach that same-sex behaviors and relationships are sinful, or it will affirm them.”

Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote that eventually, “every congregation in America will make a public declaration of its position on this issue.” He also predicted that the Southern Baptist body “will act in accordance with its own convictions, confession of faith, and constitution” at this week’s meeting.

White evangelical Protestants are particularly likely to believe that homosexuality is a sin. In 2013, a Pew Research Center survey found that about eight-in-ten white evangelicals (78%) said it is a sin to engage in homosexual behavior, similar to the percentage saying the same 10 years earlier (82%). In 2013, about eight-in-ten black Protestants (79%) also said homosexual behavior is a sin, but far fewer white mainline Protestants (38%), Catholics (33%) or religiously unaffiliated people (18%) agreed. Overall, among the general public 45% said homosexual behavior is a sin.

In the same 2013 survey, six-in-ten white evangelical Protestants (59%) said homosexuality should be discouraged by society and 74% said there was a conflict between their religious beliefs and homosexuality, both more than any other major religious group besides black Protestants. In another 2013 survey, we found that 66% of white evangelicals said homosexuality is morally unacceptable. Overall, only 37% of Americans said this.

Young people tend to express more positive views of homosexuality and more support for same-sex marriage as compared with older generations. And the same pattern seems to be true of young evangelicals. In aggregated polling from 2012 to February 2014, 29% of white evangelicals under the age of 30 expressed support for allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, compared with 24% of evangelicals age 30-49, 19% among evangelicals age 50-64, and 14% of evangelicals age 65 and older.

But young evangelicals tend to look much more like other evangelicals than like other young people on this question. Among all adults under age 30, fully 67% expressed support for same-sex marriage in our aggregated 2012-2014 data, more than doubling the level of support from young white evangelicals.

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