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Acceptance Grows, Slowly But Steadily, For Gay Evangelicals

Nick Wilson (left), at his ordination last month, is given a framed sign from Pastor Matt Johnson that reads "Just As I Am," the title of one of Wilson's favorite hymns.
Bill Campbell
Nick Wilson (left), at his ordination last month, is given a framed sign from Pastor Matt Johnson that reads "Just As I Am," the title of one of Wilson's favorite hymns.

In rural Kentucky, the call to be a preacher can come at an early age. Nick Wilson was born with it.

"We were always in church," he says. "Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, Bible school, revivals. That's what life was."

His father, a grandfather and two great-grandfathers were Southern Baptist preachers. So is his brother. His sister married a preacher, and Wilson intended to follow the line.

After college, he attended the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., a training ground for Baptist preachers since 1859. But his ministry plans soon ended, because no congregation was interested in ordaining him. They all wanted a family man, and Wilson didn't measure up.

"First off, I'm single. That's a problem," he says. "They really want you to be married. But then if you throw in gay, it's over with."

Hear Nick Wilson on how he struggled with his sexual identity

Wilson says he knew from the time he was six or seven that he was "different." In time, he became open about his sexuality, even taking his boyfriend to church. But in the Southern Baptist world, homosexuality is morally unacceptable, so he was disqualified from the ministry.

"The scriptural view is what's ultimate," says Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Seminary and an intellectual leader in the evangelical world. "The Apostle Paul very explicitly in 1 Corinthians says that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God." [There's more from Mohler and the culture war being fought among Evangelical Christians in Tom Gjelten's Morning Edition story.]

At one time Mohler advocated "reparative therapy" for LGBT individuals to help them change their sexual orientation. He now thinks same-sex attraction may be involuntary. Still, he says, those who feel it should not act on it, no matter whether they are in a committed same-sex relationship. Southern Baptist doctrine emphatically rejects gay marriage.

Hear Albert Mohler on cultural and social changes in society and its impact on Christianity

"If you can change the way a society or civilization defines itself at the most molecular level — at marriage and family — and if you can redefine sexual mores pervasively," Mohler argues, "you will have changed the society utterly."

Not surprisingly, as an evangelical, Wilson has long struggled with being gay. "It didn't take long to realize that that was not approved of, because I heard my father preach about it," he says. "I have been to the point of suicide over trying to not be gay, because I felt early on called to the ministry. But then 'gay Christian,' in the world I grew up in, that didn't go together. You had to be one or the other, and God didn't take it away — the calling or the gay."

Attitudes toward homosexuality and same-sex marriage have become much more supportive in the United States over recent years. Evangelicals generally still consider homosexual behavior immoral, but by ever smaller margins. In 2007, just 23 percent of Southern Baptists said homosexuality should be accepted by society, according to the Pew Research Center. By 2014, that figure had risen to 30 percent. Attitudes toward same-sex marriage have shifted just as dramatically. In a 2001 Pew survey, just 13 percent of white evangelical Protestants (the most conservative religious group on social issues) said they favored same-sex marriage. By 2015, that number had almost doubled, to 24 percent, and it was becoming easier for LGBT individuals to find a church home.

Music has been part of Nick Wilson's life since he was a child, when he taught himself to play the piano. He plays daily in the living room of his shotgun house in Louisville.
Tom Gjelten / NPR
Music has been part of Nick Wilson's life since he was a child, when he taught himself to play the piano. He plays daily in the living room of his shotgun house in Louisville.

For Wilson, it was Ridgewood Baptist, a small church in a working-class neighborhood of southwest Louisville. The church is part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a group of churches that broke from the Southern Baptist Convention about 25 years ago over the question of whether women should be ordained. The church's more welcoming attitude toward LGBT individuals, however, is a relatively new phenomenon.

Pastor Matt Johnson, 36, was himself raised and schooled in the Southern Baptist tradition. As he prepared for the ministry, he says his views were clear cut and typical of his time and place: "Homosexuality is wrong. And that's very clear in the Bible. So that's kind of the end of the discussion."

While studying at the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University, however, Johnson met some gay Christians and found his views softening.

"People who were there because they want to be ministers and whose faith was very challenging to me and who were just deeply committed Christians and deeply committed to their faith and who also were gay," Johnson says.

A careful study of the Old and New Testament convinced him that the scriptural references to homosexuality were not as clear as he originally thought, but it was his encounter with gay ministry students that mattered more.

"I see the Holy Spirit working in these people's lives," he says. "Who am I to say that they are not Christians or that they are somehow lost or wrong? I don't feel like my faith is nearly as strong as theirs. I'm challenged and humbled by them."

LGBT rights were not a big issue at Ridgewood when Johnson arrived at the church, but it already had a reputation for openness.

Wilson, uncomfortable elsewhere as a gay man, was already a member. In April, at the age of 51, Wilson was ordained at Ridgewood as a Baptist minister, with Johnson's enthusiastic support.

Most Ridgewood members have taken the church's gay-friendly reputation in stride, despite its setting in a community where LGBT rights are not well established.

Sarah Thurmond, 20, a leader of the Ridgewood church youth group, says some people she knows find it hard to believe there are gay congregants. "When I say we have a gay member in our church, they just don't understand how we allow that," she says. "So I was like, 'What do you mean, how do we allow that? They walk through the door!' "

Young people in general are much more likely to support same-sex relationships, but it's not universal. The men who choose to attend the Southern Baptist Seminary do so knowing their church's position. Matt Mihelic, 28, is preparing to be a pastor. He says if a young man were to come to him at church and confide that he's gay, he'd advise him to embrace God's view of sexuality alone.

"He should ... refrain from sexual activity until he's married to a woman," he says.

Mohler, the seminary president, acknowledges that he and other conservative evangelicals are often asked whether they are obsessed with issues of sexuality, given all the other evils they could focus on.

"This sexual revolution is undergirded by a vast change in the moral thinking and the moral intuitions of Americans," he says. "And the reason why we can't drop this is because we do believe it matters to salvation and eternity."

As for Wilson, he will not repent for his sexual orientation, but he does recognize that sexual behavior can be immoral under some circumstances.

"Depending on how sex is used, or how somebody is literally used in sex. That can be sinful," he says. "If you're not honoring that other person and just using them as an object for your gratification, I think that's sinful."

As a born-again Christian, Wilson seeks forgiveness and acknowledges that he is a sinner — but not because of his sexual orientation, nor because of his hope that someday he, too, will marry.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
Marisa Peñaloza is a senior producer on NPR's National Desk. Peñaloza's productions are among the signature pieces heard on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as weekend shows. Her work has covered a wide array of topics — from breaking news to feature stories, as well as investigative reports.