Southern Baptist theologians and ethicists have taken exception to a new organization – Evangelicals for Marriage Equality that is advocating for same-sex marriage in the name of evangelical Christianity.
Evangelicals for Marriage Equality (EME) debuted Sept. 9, saying in a statement of belief at its website that a person “can be a devout, Bible-believing evangelical and support the right of same-sex couples to be recognized by the government as married.” While EME affirms the significance of marriage and recognizes America’s devotion to religious liberty, “We also believe that in a religiously diverse society, no one religious perspective should determine who can and cannot be married,” the statement says.
In response, Southern Baptist leaders told Baptist Press the EME’s position contradicts God’s Word, revises the Creator’s definition of marriage and abandons any biblical standard for sexuality.
“We’ve seen this before,” said Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). “Every generation seems to have those who try to rewrite the portions of the Bible they are embarrassed about. But if evangelical theology is to keep the evangel, then we must not be ashamed of the Gospel or what it teaches about sexuality. This means holding firm to what the Scripture says and the church has believed about marriage from Pentecost to the present.”
EME’s launch came as advocates await a possible ruling this term from the U.S. Supreme Court on same-sex marriage (SSM). The justices’ next term begins Oct. 6. Gay marriage already is legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia, and SSM advocates have won in the last 15 months nearly all legal challenges to state laws limiting marriage to a man and a woman. Three federal appeals courts have struck down marriage protection laws, and decisions are pending in three other circuit courts.
Some Southern Baptist commentators refuted the claim by EME spokesman Brandan Robertson that the organization “is not taking a theological position” on marriage. “We just want evangelicals to see that it is possible to hold a plethora of beliefs about sexuality and marriage while affirming the rights of LGBTQ men and women to be civilly married under the law,” Robertson said, according to Religion News Service.
EME’s “very language is theological in nature,” said Evan Lenow, assistant professor of ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. “To say that they do not take a theological position on marriage is disingenuous.”
Based on Robertson’s comments, “the options for sexuality are virtually limitless,” Lenow said. “Does EME place any restrictions on adultery, fornication, polygamy, polyamory or even incest? If ‘Bible-believing evangelicals’ made an argument for these expressions of sexuality, must biblical standards that prohibit them also be dismissed? There is no limit on the options for expressing sexuality and marriage if EME believes that there are a plethora of beliefs.”
EME, Lenow said, has “adopted a revisionist definition of [marriage] that understands marriage to be nothing more than an intimate emotional relationship between individuals.” He added, “Holding the Bible’s clear instructions regarding marriage and sexuality as true and binding on all people will most certainly not be tolerated within their organization.”
Dorothy Patterson, professor of theology in women’s studies at Southwestern, told BP the Bible addresses the issue with “one word from God without contradiction.”
“He doesn’t change it from the Old Testament times to the New Testament times,” Patterson said. “He doesn’t change it from inspiring one writer of Scripture to inspiring another, but He has just that one plan. And it’s based on the creation order.”
God “created the man and the woman and put them in the garden, essentially creating the home and the family, that this is the way He has chosen to reveal Himself,” Patterson said. “He calls Himself Father; He calls the church the bride; He calls heaven home; He calls us His children. You break down that metaphor and you have actually knocked out the underpinnings of God’s revelation of Himself.
“So it becomes really important for us not to mess with the metaphors God uses,” she said.
Daniel Heimbach, senior professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, said, “There is no genuine question among Bible-believing Christians over what the Bible teaches about the sinfulness of welcoming same-sex sexual desires and behavior. The Bible is clear, and Bible-believing Christians are clear, about what the Bible teaches.
“No one who relies on the Word of God over secular culture is wrestling with the ethics of homosexuality,” said Heimbach, the author of a new book, Why Not Same-Sex Marriage: A Manual for Defending Marriage Against Radical Deconstruction.
Andreas and Margaret Kostenberger, co-authors of the new book God’s Design for Man and Woman: A Biblical-Theological Survey, said in a statement to Baptist Press, “[S]o-called ‘marriage equality’ … is utterly incompatible with an evangelical ethos and submission to the authority of God’s Word, where man and woman are shown to be created with unique and irreversible roles.”
Andreas Kostenberger is senior research professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Southeastern Seminary, where his wife is adjunct professor of women’s studies.
“Whether or not this political ploy will succeed, it is a tragic and mistaken effort that will sadly leave gender confusion, broken lives and anarchy in its path,” the Kostenbergers said. “Can any of us improve on God’s design and set it aside with impunity? We fear that by advocating marriage equality, the same-sex revolution, with the transgender revolution in its wake, will likely further destabilize the already fragmented social fabric of our culture.”
Owen Strachan, assistant professor of Christian theology and church history at Boyce College at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, said EME’s assertion that it is not making a theological statement “could not be more wrong.”
“Marriage is not only given us by God for the betterment of a man and a woman and for the procreation and nurture of children. It is a sign and symbol of the union between Christ and His church,” Strachan said. “Only a complementarian union – constituted by a husband and wife – images Christ the bridegroom and His bride, the church.”
EME’s nine-member advisory board includes Brian McLaren, a former leader of the emerging church movement, and Richard Cizik, longtime vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals. Cizik was forced out at NAE after he supported gay civil unions in 2008, he said.
Three evangelical publications – Christianity Today, Relevant and WORLD – have declined advertising submitted by EME, according to the pro-SSM organization.
EME’s unveiling occurred about six weeks before an ERLC national conference designed to help Christians think in a Gospel-focused way regarding homosexuality and SSM. The meeting – titled “The Gospel, Homosexuality and the Future of Marriage” – will be Oct. 27-29 in Nashville.
In its statement, EME says millennials – generally adults in their 20s and early 30s – “are increasingly supportive of marriage between same-sex couples.” A 2012 survey by Pew Research Center showed 29 percent of white evangelicals ages 18 to 29 endorsed permitting gays and lesbians to marry legally, RNS reported. About 17 percent of older evangelicals supported such unions. In general, 65 percent of young adults approved of gay marriage. A 2014 Public Religion Research Institute poll showed 43 percent of white evangelical millennials are likely to back SSM, according to RNS.
Strachan said the idea the church “is embracing same-sex marriage owes more to PR than to reality. While it is true that some young evangelicals are proving susceptible to cultural pressure on this issue, the majority of evangelicals, including young evangelicals, are holding firm to biblical teaching.”
Evangelicals’ strong defense of biblical and traditional marriage is behind EME’s emergence, Heimbach said. The reason EME is seeking “to change how evangelical Christians view the ethics of same-sex sexual relationships and marriage is because evangelical Christianity is the last truly significant block of convictional opposition to normalizing the publicly expressed ethical approval of same-sex sexual desires, behavior and relationships in American life and culture,” he said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Art Toalston is editor of Baptist Press; Tom Strode the Washington bureau chief for the Southern Baptist Convention news service.)