Critics oppose plan to honor megachurch pastor Charles Stanley

Jewish group defends decision amid backlash over his views on gays

A plan to honor megachurch pastor and best-selling author Charles F. Stanley is drawing criticism from some members of Atlanta’s Jewish community concerned about his stance on homosexuality.

Stanley, 82, who is senior pastor of First Baptist Church Atlanta and founder of In Touch Ministries, has come under fire for his opposition to same-sex marriage and comments he has made on homosexuality.

He is scheduled to receive the prestigious Tree of Life Award from the Atlanta chapter of the Jewish National Fund, which was formed in 1901 to establish a homeland in Israel for Jewish people. Today, the organization plants trees, develops water technology, builds parks, creates new communities and cities and educates people about Israel and Zionism.

He will receive the award during the 12th annual Jack Hirsch Memorial Breakfast on April 23.

“Charles Stanley has, for many decades, made virulent comments about gay people that have been incredibly damaging,” said Rebecca Stapel-Wax, executive director of the Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity (SOJOURN), an Atlanta-based nonprofit that promotes understanding, acceptance and inclusion of gender and sexual orientation. “He has a pulpit that is gigantic and therefore, has the power to influence so many. As we all know, when people are alienated from their family, friends, community and faith, especially faith, they can be self-destructive or just not reach their potential as a human being.”

SOJOURN has asked people to sign an online letter that was sent to the local JNF chapter, asking it to reconsider honoring Stanley. Stapel-Wax said about 115 people have signed the letter and she’s heard from others that they’ve sent their own.

Stanley, who has served two terms as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, did not respond to attempts for comment.

In his book, “Landmines in the Path of the Believer: Avoiding the Hidden Dangers,” Stanley writes:

“Some proclaim they are living a gay lifestyle, but nothing is happy or gay about the destructive behavior of homosexuality. Anything that opposes the principles written in God’s Word leads to one ending — the end Solomon mentioned, a place of extreme emptiness where wind and sorrow breach the soul. Ultimately it ends in a place of extreme emotional sorrow and separation from God.”

Rabbi Joshua Lesser of Congregation Bet Haverim takes issue with remarks like those.

“To narrow in on a slice of his ministry that supports Israel, while ignoring some of the egregious stances that lead people toward bigotry is distressing,” said Lesser, who said he has spoken with people at JNF. “I’m very sympathetic when an organization or leader makes a mistake. Frankly, we all do. To me, the test of an organization’s character is its ability to address that mistake.”

The award is being given by the Atlanta office of JNF; however, the national headquarters is aware of the controversy.

National spokesman Adam Brill said while the organization respects everyone’s opinion, “we stand by our decision. Our honoree represents one of the largest Christian communities in the South which has always supported the Jewish people in times of peace and conflict.”

“In fact, last summer, in the heat of war during Operation Protective Edge, when few would travel to Israel, hundreds of congregants from the First Baptist Church Atlanta went to stand united with the people of Israel,” Brill said. “For such heroic actions, we honor this esteemed community, our neighbors in love. One of the core tenets of our wonderful democracy is the Bill of Rights, which grants Americans the ability to freely speak, worship and assemble as they choose.”

Orrin Hudson, a longtime member of First Baptist, and executive director of Be Someone, a youth advocacy organization, said Stanley is “worthy of any recognition he receives. He is a loving guy who has put in his dues.”

As for his comments on homosexuality, Hudson can relate. “I don’t condone homosexuality, but I don’t hate them (gays). I have lots of friends who are gay. I love them, I support them, but I don’t go there.”

Whatever the outcome, the controversy could open the door to dialogue.

“I don’t know if it will open dialogue before the event, which is a different story than after the event,” said SOJOURN’s Stapel-Wax. “There’s an expectation that there will be a meeting after the event.”

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