NASHVILLE — Southern Baptists are taking up the issue of same-sex marriage twice in one year, with the denomination's top policy official calling it the No. 1 topic pastors are asking about.
Homosexual behavior is still a sin, Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore said, and same-sex marriage biblically forbidden. But pastors need guidance as they face more questions from the community and from gay and lesbian church members who may have kept quiet before.
At the same time, the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination, the United Methodist Church, is embroiled in a debate over the same issue. After widespread religious media coverage last month of a letter from 80 Methodist pastors predicting a church schism over same-sex marriage, the denomination released a poll showing only 11% of Methodists surveyed believe it's the church's "most important" issue, and more than 90% don't want a split over it.
It's an interesting contrast for two denominations with strong Nashville ties — theSouthern Baptist Convention is based here, as are several United Methodist Church agencies. But both are preaching similar doctrine on same-sex marriage while navigating a culture where 55% of Americans support it.
Moore, who green-lighted a widely publicized spring summit titled "The Gospel and Human Sexuality," is organizing a larger national conference in Nashville in October titled "The Gospel, Homosexuality and the Future of Marriage."
While Southern Baptists are going more public on the topic, there's no contingent of pastors fighting for change and there won't be, Moore said.
"There has always been the message out there that if only Christianity were less Christian, we'd be able to reach more people," Moore said. "It doesn't work. Otherwise, we'd be seeing a booming Episcopal church. Mainline Protestantism is nearly dead in this country."
Membership in the Southern Baptist Convention has dropped for seven straight years, the denomination reports, falling from 15.9 million in 2012 to 15.7 million in 2013. Membership in mainline Protestant churches, generally more liberal on issues of sexuality, is dropping as well, an Association of Religion Data Archives report shows.
Neither Southern Baptist nor Methodist leaders say the decrease is related to doctrine on same-sex marriage.
Any confusion on the Southern Baptists' unchanging stance could come from a message of more inclusion, but even that isn't new, said Pastor Rick White of The People's Church in Franklin, Tenn. To him, the church has always been "a place of mercy and grace for all people."
In White's experience, issues of sex and marriage are big in U.S. culture but not church life. White said there are gay and lesbian people in his congregation now, but he doesn't know how they fit into the community because he and the church try not to single them out.
Methodists also welcome gay people into their congregations but, unlike Southern Baptists, don't require them to be celibate in order to fully participate in church life. They do not ordain gay clergy.
The recent polling was planned before the 80 clergy released their letter, said the Rev. Larry Hollon, general secretary of United Methodist Communications, and was part of a series researching several issues. The United Methodist's General Conference in 2016, where policy is set, will probably include a proposal on allowing same-sex marriage in churches.
In the meantime, pastors are meeting on the issue, Hollon said.
"What's different (from Southern Baptists) is that these are conversations in which we're sharing our differences of opinion under the question of: Are these differences significant enough that they should divide us, or do we have a larger and more comprehensive mission that keeps us together?" he said.
Retired Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert of Nashville, who's facing church discipline over marrying two men last year in Alabama, said the United Methodist Church poll could be interpreted to mean Methodists are so supportive of same-sex marriage in the church, they consider it a non-issue.
He said the 80 clergy who signed the letter pale in comparison to the 42,000 ordained in the United States. But not reflected in polling or letters are the countless ministers quietly marrying gay couples. His own case is at the stage where it could be settled without a trial, but he will push forward, he said.
Change in denomination membership in United States between 2000 and 2010:
Southern Baptist Convention: +0.1%
United Methodist Church: -4.7%
º Evangelical Lutheran Church: -18.2%
º United Church of Christ: -24.4%
º Episcopal Church: -15.7%
º Generally allows blessing of same-sex unions. (Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee does not.)
Source: Association of Religion Data Archives