The Southern Baptist Convention tackled topics at its annual meeting this week that seemed to show a concern for a broadening array of social issues, including human trafficking, homosexuality, and the country's high rate of incarceration.
While a resolution expressing opposition to the Boy Scouts of America's new policy allowing gay Scouts was expected, some other resolutions were not. And even the Boy Scout resolution took a softer tone than many had expected by not urging Southern Baptists to drop all ties with the Boy Scouts.
In the past, the nation's largest Protestant denomination has often been more heavy-handed in its condemnation of homosexuality.
In 1997, the Southern Baptist Convention asked its members to boycott The Walt Disney Company, in part because it provided benefits for same-sex partners of employees and hosted gay theme nights at its amusement parks. The SBC dropped the boycott in 2005.
The Boy Scout resolution also calls on the organization to remove executive and board leaders who tried to allow gays as both members and leaders without consulting the many religious groups that sponsor troops. It passed overwhelmingly, but not unanimously, by the nation's largest Protestant denomination at its annual meeting in Houston.
Before the vote, Charlie Dale, pastor of Indian Springs First Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala. said the resolution "is not going to help the cause of Christ."
Of boys who say they are gay, he said, "Let's bring them in, show them what real biblical manhood is about and love them."
Some delegates to the convention tried to toughen the language of the resolution. Paul Taylor, of First Baptist Church in Mauriceville, Texas, successfully proposed an amendment to strike language about churches and families that chose not to drop ties with the Boy Scouts.
"That seems like we are going on record encouraging a relationship with Scout troops that have homosexual members," he said.
But a few minutes later, similar language was put back in the resolution when the convention passed an amendment by David Uth, of First Baptist Church, Orlando, Fla. His amendment encouraged those churches that continue to sponsor Boy Scout troops to "seek to impact as many boys as possible with the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ."
"We're not trying to bring condemnation or Hell fire on scouting or their leadership, though we sort of hope they get new leaders or leaders that change their minds," said Steve Lemke, chair of the committee on resolutions.
"I think this resolution was a resolution of kindness, to say the churches that choose to continue with the scouting ministry should do so with an emphasis on sharing the gospel," said David Dykes, a pastor from Tyler, Texas. "As a pastor I appreciate that the convention does not tell churches what we should do."
In all, about 70 percent of the 116,000 Scout units in the United States are sponsored by religious organizations. Many of those groups have decided to continue sponsoring troops. Among them is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which sponsors more Scout units than any other organization, serving about 430,000 boys.
The second-largest Scouting denomination, the United Methodist Church, was quick to respond to the SBC's move: Methodist Director of Scouting Ministries Larry Coppock said its congregations would welcome any troops currently sponsored by Southern Baptist churches.
While resolutions like the one on Scouting and others that expressed concern over religious freedom were expected, there were several resolutions passed that someone outside the denomination might find more surprising, such as a call to pray for the President of the United States.
Other resolutions called on Southern Baptists to fight human trafficking and to work to support people with mental health problems. That later issue has been on the minds of many Southern Baptists this year after the son of hugely popular megachurch pastor Rick Warren committed suicide. And earlier this month, Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee President and CEO Frank Page released a book about his daughter's suicide.
The convention also passed a resolution expressing concern about the high rate of incarceration in the United States and recommending greater use of probation and parole for nonviolent offenders.
The membership also voted to express concern about child sexual abuse and called on all Southern Baptists to report allegations of child abuse to authorities. That resolution was amended to urge Southern Baptist leadership to use caution affiliating with groups or individuals with questionable practices for protecting children.
It is unclear whether the amendment was aimed at any specific person or practice, but it comes after some Southern Baptist leaders expressed support for Sovereign Grace Ministries. That group faces accusations that church officials covered up child sexual abuse.
Travis Loller reported from Nashville, Tenn.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.