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Southern Baptists open to reaching out to LGBT community

Leaders at the Southern Baptist Convention are slowly appearing to embrace the idea of a new conversation on gay rights.
Phillip Bethancourt speaks with Dr. Russell D. Moore at the ERLC Leadership Summit, April 21, 2014.
Phillip Bethancourt speaks with Dr. Russell D. Moore at the ERLC Leadership Summit, April 21, 2014.

Leaders at the Southern Baptist Convention are slowly appearing to embrace the idea of a new conversation on gay rights. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, an entity of the SBC, met this week in Nashville for its first-ever conference on sexuality.  The gathering brought together more than 200 pastors and religious leaders to discuss “sexual brokenness,” in addition to divorce and pornography.

Homosexuality dominated the 3-day meeting, with some pastors pushing colleagues for a new tone on reaching out to the LGBT community. “I just think we have to reject redneck theology in all of its forms,” Pastor Jimmy Scroggins told the group Monday night. “Let’s stop telling Adam and Steve jokes.”

Those comments lit up social media, with some followers predicting a major shift on the horizon in what’s been a traditional cut-and-dry part of Baptist doctrine. SBC officials were quick to downplay any pending change, but many pastors did express a seemingly new message of openness. “The way we have treated people with whom we disagree, I just don’t think is helpful and we need to set a different kind of tone,” Scroggins told msnbc Thursday.

This internal debate is not unique to Southern Baptists. Churches all across the country are grappling with the same idea: How to welcome in worshippers, particularly gay worshippers, with whom their theology and doctrine disagrees. Phillip Bethancourt, executive vice president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wants to build on what he calls “convictional kindness.” “This is the idea that we are holding on to clear Biblical principals in an unwavering way while presenting them in a winsome capacity seeking to persuade and engage and not vaporize,” Bethancourt told msnbc Thursday.

Preachers now say they are looking for areas of common ground with the LGBT community – like fighting AIDS and human trafficking. “Personal relationships are important,” Scroggins said. “Conversations are important. We want to do a better job trying to establish relationships and conversations.” Those type of conversations are becoming more and more personal for Southern Baptists because members are finding more open gay people in their ranks, rather it be at church, work, or family reunion. “Naturally we’re going to change our tone because you’re talking about actual people and I think that’s going to change the way we talk to people,” Scroggins said.

Despite newfound gay worshippers in pews, Baptist doctrine still draws hard lines against gay members. “Membership is reserved for those walking with Jesus, and anyone acting in a relationship contrary to that is not granted membership,” Bethancourt said. “We’re looking at how we can still love and serve and minister to people despite different viewpoints.”

And there is one major and stark different viewpoint that pins Southern Baptist and many other American religions against an evolving cultural issue – same-sex marriage. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released in March shows 58% of Americans support the rights of same-sex couples to marry, and that number grows to an overwhelming 81% among Americans younger than 30. However, despite what appears to be a more accepting public opinion, convention leaders say they are in no rush to make any official move on gay rights. “I think in 10 years, the SBC will be right where they are right now in holding on to the view that marriage is between one man and one woman,” Bethancourt said.

Major religions are historically slow in changing doctrine, and there’s no indication change  is coming now. The SBC is the country’s largest Protestant denomination with nearly 16 million members in more than 46,000 churches nationwide, according to the convention’s latest count. The most recent landmark-type change to a SBC stance came in 1995 when the convention formally apologized and renounced the church’s support of slavery and segregation.  The issue of homosexuality and gay parishioners could come up at the 2014 SBC Annual Meeting in Baltimore June 10-11.

Pastor Jimmy Scroggins will be on MSNBC Live with Craig Melvin this weekend on msnbc.