The nation's largest Protestant denomination is stepping up efforts to minister to the homosexual community.
After stepping down as pastor of Carroll Baptist Church in Southlake, Texas, Bob Stith now heads the Southern Baptist Convention's Ministry to Homosexuals Task Force. Stith was announced as SBC's National Strategist for Gender Issues earlier this week during the denomination's June 12-13 annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas.
"While we as Southern Baptists have consistently resisted the efforts of some in the culture to affirm homosexuality as normal and acceptable, we must remember that homosexual behavior is not the unpardonable sin," said Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), according to Baptist Press. "We must be committed to sharing God's love with all people - including homosexuals."
When Stith introduced in 2001 the motion to establish a task force to inform, educate and encourage Southern Baptists to be "proactive and redemptive in reaching out to those who struggle with unwanted same-sex attractions," he feared the convention's leadership might not be responsive. But he found them to be more responsive than he could have imagined, although churches have not responded quite as well, he said, considering ministry to homosexuals is to be carried out by the local churches.
The task force is a joint effort of LifeWay Christian Resources and the ERLC with James T. Draper Jr., former president of LifeWay, and Land as chairmen.
A recent Gallup Poll revealed a continual increase of pro-gay rights attitudes over the past two decades, and that 57 percent of the American public believes homosexuality should be sanctioned as an acceptable alternative lifestyle - the highest the Gallup Organization has recorded since 1982.
Considering the growing gay tolerance in America and the lack of education on the issue in the churches, Stith urged Southern Baptists to give a "biblical and compassionate" response to homosexuality "while maintaining a biblical stance on the issue," according to Baptist Press.
Those who are offended by the notion that homosexuality is a sin, however, may not welcome the ministry to homosexuals, Stith acknowledged. But God doesn't have a hierarchy of sins, he stated.
"We must receive them with the love of Christ regardless of who they are."
Stith admitted that he himself had harbored a "negative and judgmental" attitude toward homosexuals. But with the help of Exodus International, the nation's largest ex-gay ministry, Stith wanted to establish an Exodus-type ministry in his church.
Today, the Southern Baptist Convention has shifted into higher gear to reach out to homosexuals and Stith believes people can change.
"There is not a single scientifically replicable study that demonstrates people cannot change," he said. The president of American Psychological Association had written a letter to Stith about homosexuals stating "people change all the time."
"Our biblically-based opposition to the normalization of homosexuality and the affirmation of homosexual behavior should not hinder us from ministering to homosexuals and offering them the love and healing environment they need to leave this destructive and unbiblical lifestyle," said Land.