The Southern Baptist Church is changing. How much it's changing is open for debate.
A recent article in The Wall Street Journal profiling Russell Moore, the new head of the denomination's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, suggested he believes the church should tone down its rhetoric on social issues and pull back from the political fray it had become increasingly involved in over the past 30 years.
Practically as soon as the Journal story was published, though, Moore came back with a clarifying article in The Christian Post suggesting he was seeking no such pull-back and in fact Christians should be more rather than less involved in politics.
Dr. Fred Luter, the Southern Baptist Convention president who will speak Wednesday at the Tennessee Baptist Convention in Chattanooga, said in a phone interview last week that Baptists have suffered not necessarily from "what we say but how we say it."
"We have to speak the truth in love," he said, "not be known as a group of people spewing hate. We have to stand up for principles but do it in a loving way."
For Luter, that doesn't mean the denomination will stop pushing to end abortion or to oppose gay marriage.
"The church needs to maintain our stance," he said of the latter topic. "It concerns me [that] so many people are compromising on this issue. If we're people of the Book, if we believe the word of God, we have to stand on what it says."
However, said Luter, "we have to make it plain those are not the only issues we stand for. That's the mark Southern Baptists have gotten through the years. We have to talk about the things we're good at. That's not getting out like [it] should."
Moore's concern is fueled by surveys, such as a March poll of nearly 1,000 white evangelicals by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute. The survey found half of those under 35 favored same-sex marriage, compared with just 15 percent of people over 65.
When the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act in June, Moore wrote a flier, "How Should Your Church Respond." In it, he wrote churches should "love your gay and lesbian neighbors. They aren't part of an evil conspiracy." Marriage, he said, is a bond between a man and a woman but shouldn't be seen as a "'culture war' political issue."
Dr. David Myers, interim director of missions for the Hamilton County Baptist Association, said Baptist churches have gotten too involved in those political issues.
"That's not what our calling or our task is," he said. "Whenever religion and politics mix, then religion is the loser. We lose our voice, lose our ability to speak prophetically, lose the ability to speak the truth."
Yet the church should be involved in the issues and fight for just causes, Myers said.
"The real mission of the church is to share the Gospel," he says. "That can be done no matter what the political party is or the situation of society is. If we marry the political system, then we lose our clear voice and ability to speak to the issues of the day."
Luter, who hadn't read the Journal article, said Moore was a "phenomenal brother" in whom he had the "utmost confidence." And he was glad Moore had a chance to clarify his remarks.
Dr. Ken Duggan, senior pastor at 2,500-plus member Dallas Bay Baptist Church in Hixson, said pastors also have to take some of the blame.
"We tend to align with a political party or agenda rather than promote the faith we are called to live and to share," he said. "The Gospel is by definition 'good news.' Unfortunately, the way we choose to frame our conversations is often taken by those outside of Christianity as anything but good news.
"God is perfectly capable of convicting of sin," Duggan said. "If his word, that I preach and teach, convicts someone of a lifestyle or behavior, then that is between the author of the word and the one who is convicted. My job is to deliver the message and to live by it with his spirit that lives within me. If I need to condemn someone, I need look no further than myself."
He said the way the denomination has defined itself more by what it is against than what it is for has been off-putting to young people.
Luter saw another reason why membership has declined as a proportion of the United States population since 1990: Parents have allowed church attendance to become optional, he said, in favor of activities such as children's sports.
Church attendance is "not as much of a priority as it used to be," he said. "It starts in the home with Mom and Dad. They have to make it a priority -- to let schools know, to let coaches know."
The Rev. Jeffrey Wilson, pastor of New United Church, a member of the Hamilton County Baptist Association, said black churches have long been "best equipped to offer guidance as it related to a number of [social] issues."
Yet, he said, "the church has a responsibility to balance its religious [teachings] with social activism." Of primary importance "is how we get the message out, how we express our beliefs." That message must combine "the core beliefs of love and unity and cooperation with the tenets of the Christian faith."
Dr. Robby Gallaty, senior pastor of 3,300-plus member Brainerd Baptist Church who will address the convention Tuesday, pointed to a lack of discipling for mixed messages from the church over the last several decades. He said too many members practice "consumerism," sitting in the church pews on Sunday and living a life "not worthy of the Gospel Monday through Saturday."
"If we want to fix the church as a whole," he said, "we have to start with the people. We want to see men and women who love the Lord, who live for the Lord, who are not ashamed of the Gospel." With proper discipline, he said, there won't be "unbiblical responses to moral issues that are not God-honoring."
Yet, Gallaty, whose book on discipleship, "Growing Up," will be released today, says the denomination is on the right path.
"I'm more hopeful now for the Southern Baptist Convention than in the past," he said. "I think we have the right men in the right seats at the right time."
Luter, the first black Southern Baptist Convention president and the first SBC president to speak at a TBC gathering, said he has made it a priority to be visible around the country.
"Mine is not a position of power but of influence," he said. His presence "is a big deal for a lot of these associations. I didn't realize how big of a deal it was" until he began accepting invitations. "So I've tried to make as many as I could."
Luter said he would challenge the messengers on the importance of the Gospel, of making it a priority, of sharing it in everyday lives.
"The Gospel is the only thing that changes the lives of individuals -- Republicans, Democrats or independents."
Contact Clint Cooper at email@example.com or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to his posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.