Bob Stith spent 37 years as pastor at Carroll Baptist Church in Southlake before resigning to become the Southern Baptist Convention’s national strategist for gender issues last spring. An Alabama native who came to Texas to attend Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth and never left, Stith shared his testimony at the SBC annual meeting in 2003 about the importance of reaching out to homosexuals with the gospel.
The TEXAN’s Jerry Pierce interviewed Stith at the SBTC office in Grapevine recently. What follows is adapted from that interview.
TEXAN: How did God put this issue on your heart?
STITH: For me, when I preached on the issue of homosexuality, it was always negative and harsh–very little if anything redemptive. And the Lord really convicted me at one point that if someone struggling with homosexuality heard you preach, would they come to you for help? And I thought, “Not likely.”
I realized I would not know how to relate to what they were dealing with at all. And it really broke my heart. I always told people–be very careful about condemning someone’s behavior if you’re not prepared to help them walk out of it. And as I applied that then, I realized that I was not doing that, that there were hurting people out there that I was not prepared to help.
This was in ’94, and at that time very little was known or said about anything that was from a redemptive perspective. It was probably about six months later that I ran across the name of Exodus International in an article. I wrote to them and asked them for information, and within that information was an invitation to their annual conference, which I had no intention of going to. Yet God continued to put it on my heart. I wound up going and it was one of the most eye-opening and incredible experiences I’ve ever had.
I had realized, even then, and I wrote to some friends then that this is going to be the watershed issue for the church in our generation. And they all thought, “What? How do you figure that?” And I told them this is just going to grow in its acceptance in the culture. Even in our churches, what I run across are good, solid Bible-believing people who in their minds weren’t sure what to think about this issue.
I ran across people who were very strong and then in questioning them, they’d say, “Don’t you really think they’re born that way? They can’t change.” And they were not speaking of it in the sense of accepting it, but “you know, they’re just doomed to celibacy at best.”
I thought, “If they think this, if this is what’s in their mind, then deep down they’re not convinced of the power of Christ to change.” And for others, there is a sense that we’ve missed this, we have been wrong about this. So if we’re wrong about this, then that undermines the whole concept of the infallibility of Scripture.
So that’s when I started to try to communicate to people. And it’s been fascinating. Even to this day, many of those in the church still don’t see it, and yet it’s happening all around us.
TEXAN: Tell us a little bit about your work in helping Baptists deal with this issue biblically and redemptively.
STITH: One of our big goals is to get into the churches and equip them. We do a one-day workshop similar to Focus on the Family’s “Love Won Out” conference. Focus can only do about four to six of those a year, which means they can only reach about 6,000 people.
So our ministry developed one that would be accessible to the local church. It covers the things I think are pivotal for churches to understand in this area of ministry. But the people in the pews are much more interested in hearing about it than pastors are for some reason.
We’ve gone into some very large churches, and not only have the pastoral staff not shown up, but they haven’t really promoted it actively, which just really amazes me.
We include one keynote address on roots and causes of homosexuality, giving people some understanding. One of the important ways to address this is revisiting the way we do family ministry in the church. I would never say the family is always the cause of homosexuality. Certainly it isn’t. There are a variety of factors. But the family is key.
And then I do an afternoon keynote on homosexuality in the church. And I talk about some of my feelings about this issue early on. And then I talk about visiting with people who have struggled with this issue in the church and have been wounded, not maliciously, but just by things that were said and done, sometimes in innocence, but because [the church] didn’t understand how it came across.
I remember one guy, a really sharp guy, who went through our ministry and eventually went on to get married and have a family. He recounted how he was not a Christian but how he struggled with these feelings and knew it wasn’t right no matter what this homosexual peers were telling him.
And he finally decided to go to church and that Sunday the pastor told the little joke–“God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”–and then nothing redemptive to follow that. So he left and it was a long time before he found a church.
Those are little things we don’t think much about, to see what that’s like for someone who’s scared already, someone who is uncertain of what’s going on. So trying to help our churches understand how we need to change and why it needs to change and what we do to make our churches redemptive and safe places for people who struggle.
TEXAN: Are the churches prepared to give an answer?
STITH: I do two workshop sessions. One is on the Bible and homosexuality, because gay activists are in many ways better at using Scripture for their own purposes than we are. Now, we know the basic scriptures that speak about homosexuality, but we don’t know how to defend those exegetically and apologetically, and they do.
They can be pretty convincing if you don’t understand the context of Scripture. You have to go back and see the deviation, but no, most Christians I talk with are not prepared to do that. They’re putting that out there continually and people are seeing it. In a seeker-church environment, a lot of guys are just willing to let that slide because they don’t want the hassle. I’m not coming down negatively on pastors. I understand that things are coming across your desk every day to get involved in this or that.
But I see this as something that poses a real threat to the church in this country because many homosexuals realize that the evangelical church is their last big obstacle. And they know that. Anything they can do to make us look bad or undermine us, they will do it. And when we are not prepared to explain Scripture in its context, then they carry the day just by default.
And the other area is the apologetics of science. It is frightening to me to see the change that polls show in the number of people who believe gays are born that way. There has been an onslaught of attempts to show a biological cause to homosexuality, and all have failed. One of the earliest studies by Simon LeVay tried to show a genetic cause by showing differences in the size of the hypothalamus between heterosexual and homosexual men. And he later admitted the study did not show a genetic cause. But people don’t know that.
There are a variety of factors. I do think there is such a thing as a genetic predisposition, which is a long way from predetermination. And people get disturbed when I say that sometimes. Remember, we’re a fallen race. Because of the fall we are predisposed to a lot of things–a lot of manifestations of that sin. And it shows up in a lot of different ways.
TEXAN: You are saying that no matter the sin, it is traced back to our depraved nature.
STITH: Yes. In our ministry we have run across people who were not Christians at the time but knew in their heart this was not right. This was not what they wanted. Some of them would seek until they found an answer. There are organizations and there have been studies done for years by psychologists and psychiatrists who are not Christians who have helped people come out of homosexuality.
We say to people, “Our goal is not heterosexuality. Our goal is holiness in Christ. We want you to be whole in Christ.”
TEXAN: Is that misunderstood largely?
STITH: Yes, very much so. When the report was made in Phoenix [of an SBC task force on gender issues in 2003], one headline read that “Baptists to help homosexuals become heterosexuals.” And that’s just typical of what happens with this. Just the headline of heterosexuality is exactly what the gay community latches onto.
At any rate, numerous studies both Christian and secular have shown change is possible. What the homosexual activists argue is that people don’t change, they just suppress. And they base that on the fact that sometimes people aadmit they still have a homosexual struggle. And I’ve said, “Well, I’ve worked with a lot of alcoholics and drug addicts in my life, and they recognize all their life that they could slip into that at any time. Does that mean nobody is ever really healed of drug addiction or homosexuality? With the whole area of lust, most men who battle lust, they don’t have lustful thoughts about their wives. Does that mean they’re not monogamous? Or does it mean they have a struggle they’ve got to deal with?
People have responded, “Well, that’s different.” But why is it different? It’s just an unwillingness to look at the whole picture. I know people personally where there is such peace and joy in their lives. Yeah, they would not say they never have a homosexual thought. But there is a great difference in having a thought and being driven by it and it consuming you. I see the peace in their lives. I see the joy that they have. I know what they have.
TEXAN: What would you say to someone who questions how a loving God could allow such human depravity?
STITH: For me it comes from a theological perspective. The fall contaminated the whole human race, and there were all kinds of things that came from that that were not God’s plan. My conviction is that God planned for man to have a fruitful, peaceful, productive life. I tell people I really believe the Bible. Jesus says, “I’ve come that you might have life and abundance.” And he said “my joy, my peace I give to you.” And I believe that. Now, I believe that’s God’s intention for all of us. But I also believe because I’m committed to Scripture that if we choose to live outside of God’s will in any area, whether it’s homosexuality or anything else, we can’t have all that God wants us to have. And I want people to have everything God wants for them. And I don’t believe we can ever have that if we choose to disobey God in any area of our lives.
TEXAN: How would you counsel people who have friends or relatives who are homosexuals?
STITH: One of the things I’ve noticed almost from the beginning of my involvement in Exodus was how many people who came out of homosexuality who had someone in their life who was able to say “I believe there is a way out of this and I care about you,” and then didn’t preach at them, didn’t hound them, just loved them unconditionally. And inevitably they reached a point in their life where they said, “You know, these people really care about me. I’m going to go to them for help.”
So I would recommend strongly that at some point you let them know that you’re sorry they are struggling with that and you believe there’s a way out of that, but you are going to love them and be there if there is anything you can do for them. And just be caring.
You say what you think Scripture says but you love them, you pray for them, and you care about them as a person—not because he or she is a homosexual, not to try to get them to change, but to love them as Jesus loved them.
TEXAN: The act of homosexuality is obviously a choice at some point, but is it helpful to say that homosexuality is a choice or does it beg from more explanation?
STITH: I still hear pastors say it’s a choice, and then leave it at that. I say, “Well, you know, we don’t always get to choose the dragon. Sometimes the dragon chooses us.” And in this case, the people I’ve talked to over and over and over again will say—people who have come out of it and people who are activists—“I’ve known all my life I was different.” And they did. They sensed some difference all their lives. They didn’t know what it was and didn’t know why. Of course, in some cases they do because there was molestation, sexual abuse. In some cases they do know because they’ve had an abusive father.
Ironically, whether it’s a girl or a guy, the end result is always the same. For that guy, it’s usually the sense that I want to be a male but need male affirmation. For the female, it’s “I want nothing to do with men.” So there’s a variety of factors, and sometimes you can figure it out, but not always.
TEXAN: What is it about the sexual nature of people that Satan attempts to seize for his benefit?
STITH: There may be theologians who would disagree with me or challenge me on this, but I’ve often thought one of the reasons is because it’s in our sexuality that we enter into our creative cooperation with God. It’s the area where man joins with God in creating life. And if he can pervert that and change that … And out of that we get our ethic for the foundation of the home, and the home being the foundation for society. So when you begin to mess with sexuality, you’re eroding the foundations and you are interfering with that thing where God allows us to join with him in his creative acts.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his niece while he was in the Nazi prison camp. She was about to be married. He said something like, “Your love is your own private possession. But in marriage you take an oath of responsibility to the ages. You become a link in the chain of those who have gone before and those who will come after.” So I think there is something to that; that’s a part of God’s plan for creation and perpetuation of the race and so forth. When you distort that in any way, then Satan has effectively challenged God’s plans and purposes.