SOUTHLAKE, Texas (BP)–Bob Stith officially assumed the role of Southern Baptists’ National Strategist for Gender Issues June 1, leaving the pastorate of Carroll Baptist Church in Southlake, Texas.
It was Stith who, in 2001, introduced a motion at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting for the SBC to “establish a task force to inform, educate, and encourage our people to be proactive and redemptive in reaching out to those who struggle with unwanted same-sex attractions.”
That task force now will serve as an advisory group to Stith, who is expected to develop workshops and conferences for training local church staff as well as resources for pastors, churches, SBC seminary students and others to aid in their outreach to the homosexual community.
LifeWay Christian Resources is providing start-up funding for the ministry, including Stith’s position.
“When God first convicted me about this issue in 1994, my whole attitude toward homosexuals was negative and condemning,” Stith said. He readily admits he is a changed man — with a passion to tell whomever will listen that the church has a scriptural mandate to reach all people.
James T. Draper Jr., immediate past president of LifeWay, said it was extremely important for the person selected to direct the ministry to have a pastoral background.
“As a pastor he dealt with this issue, ministered effectively in this area, and confronted critics,” Draper said of Stith.
“He has a knowledge and experience with this issue that very few others have,” said Draper, who, with SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Richard Land, was instrumental in launching the convention’s emphasis on ministering to homosexuals.
“The church has a divine assignment to touch every segment of society and to do it with love and compassion and with biblical accuracy,” Draper said. “There is a segment of our society — a very vocal and increasingly powerful segment — that needs ministry. They really need to know the love of Christ.
“They need to feel like someone will care about them as individuals and not simply condemn them for their lifestyle,” Draper continued, emphasizing, “It is the kind of thing the Lord would have us to do.”
Stith said he introduced the motion at the SBC to get the convention to look at the issue and consider a redemptive ministry to the homosexual community. While Stith found the convention’s leadership far more responsive than he could have imagined, churches have not responded quite as well, he admitted, noting that the burden to carry out this ministry rests on local churches.
Draper acknowledged the difficulty in reaching out to many in the homosexual lifestyle because “they don’t want your acceptance; they want your approval.”
“That makes it very difficult because as biblical Christians we can never approve the homosexual lifestyle,” Draper said.
While it is a ministry within the church’s assignment from God, Draper added, it is a ministry that the church doesn’t know how to carry out. “Most Christians,” he said, “are afraid of trying to deal with homosexuals.”
Despite the protestations of some, it is possible to reach homosexuals for Christ, Land said. “Homosexuality is neither the unpardonable sin, nor the worst possible sin, nor the sign of God’s permanent rejection,” he said, noting that some churchgoers wrongly view homosexuality as somehow “more sinful” than other sins.
Stith recounted a telephone call he recently received from a parent of a child in the homosexual lifestyle asking for help. Stith said he was disheartened to tell the person there is no support ministry within 200 miles of the major Texas city where they live.
“It breaks my heart how often I hear from parents and strugglers that have no ministry and no support in their community,” Stith said, expressing hope that state Baptist conventions would initiate centers for ministry in their areas.
It is a huge challenge to help the church recognize how to show concern and compassion for homosexuals yet be careful not to compromise Scripture’s teaching, Draper said. “I don’t know any church that would say we know how to do that well,” he said.
“It’s not acceptable for those of us who have tender hearts and compassion toward people to be accused of hate and anger,” Draper said in explaining why churches thus avoid outreach to homosexuals.
By not doing so, however, Draper warns that the people of God will “abdicate their role as a redemptive community.”
“When we tell them what the Scriptures say, all we’re doing is really debating with them,” Draper added, noting, “They have no point of reference, except their own experience.
“We have to come to the place where we love them unconditionally without compromise and minister to them,” Draper said, noting that Stith and the task force are poised to play a key role in helping churches become places of healing through their ministries to homosexuals.
Stith said he is unsure why church staffs don’t view the issue as he does – as “perhaps the most critical issue the church is facing” — but he speculated that many churches “convince themselves they don’t have this problem. And a lot of people would just rather avoid it.”
Stith also noted a looming biblical crisis regarding homosexuality.
Those seeking to make the homosexual lifestyle normative “knew the only way to get past the evangelical church on this issue was to make it appear the Bible doesn’t speak against homosexual behavior,” Stith said, expressing concern that many churchgoers only have a surface understanding of the Bible’s teaching on the issue.
“Many conservative Christians don’t understand how to refute those arguments,” Stith said. “In fact, people in the pews are beginning to believe homosexuals can’t change and that they are born ‘that way.'” Some studies estimate that at least a third of the population believe homosexuals are born, not made, and therefore cannot change.
That belief implies that the Bible is not accurate since it clearly says there were those in the early church who had come out of the homosexual lifestyle, Stith noted, citing the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11.
Some believers are quiet because they’re not that confident they can rely on these Scriptures — and if these passages seem errant, it is only natural that Christians begin questioning other parts of the Bible, Stith suggested.
Even a tacit embrace of homosexuality as acceptable and normal threatens the authority of Scripture, he said.
“There is not a single scientifically replicable study that demonstrates people cannot change,” Stith noted.
He talks excitedly about a letter he received from the president of the American Psychological Association after he had written expressing frustration with the organization’s “hard stance that homosexuals can’t change.” The APA leader corrected him, telling him the association was aware that “people change all the time.”
Land said the Bible does not give Christians a pass on who they are to tell of God’s saving grace.
“Southern Baptists must practice lifestyle-blind evangelism in the same they are to practice color-blind and ethnic-blind evangelism,” Land said. “That doesn’t mean we accept their lifestyle. It means we accept them as people for whom Jesus Christ died. If we get ourselves correctly centered under the lordship of Christ, we understand that every human being is a person of incalculable value because Jesus Christ loved them enough to suffer and die for them.”
What does a successful ministry to homosexuals look like to Stith?
He’s reserved in sharing his dreams, but he hopes to help lead SBC seminaries to examine how they are preparing pastoral students to address the issue once they are on the field. He said the preparation needs to include the biblical foundations of the issue and the truth of the psychological and genetic claims made by homosexual advocacy groups and others.
Draper said he is hopeful the task force will have a “strong influence and partnership with the seminaries” as well as the convention’s missionary-sending entities.
For more information on the SBC task force on ministry to homosexuals, visit http://www.lifeway.com/lwc/mainpage/0,1701,M%253D200778,00.html. Members of the SBC are former LifeWay Christian Resources President James T. Draper Jr.; Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Richard Land; the ERLC’s vice president for public policy, Barrett Duke; John Revell with the SBC Executive Committee and editor of SBC Life; Tim Wilkins of Cross Ministry, a ministry to homosexuals based in Wake Forest, N.C.; Christine Sneeringer, director of Worthy Creations, an outreach to homosexuals based at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Richard Hollomon, who heads up The Sight Ministry, which focuses on sexual brokenness or sexual identity issues in Nashville, Tenn.; and Tal Thompson, director of missions for the Holston Baptist Association in Bryson City, Tenn.