The crisis in marriage preceded the rapid rise of legalized same-sex unions, and the church faces a daunting challenge in addressing it, speakers told 1,300 attendees on the first day of a Southern Baptist conference on the issue.
Southern Baptist and other Christian leaders addressed a gamut of related issues Oct. 27 at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s (ERLC) first national conference, “The Gospel, Homosexuality and the Future of Marriage.” A capacity crowd gathered at the Opryland Resort and Conference Center in Nashville at a time when court rulings have cleared the way for the legalization of gay marriage in 35 states, the percentage of never-married Americans is at a record high, cohabitation has become the default position of many adults and divorce remains a problem in the culture and church.
The conference continued Oct. 28 and will conclude Oct. 29.
Addressing Christian ministry in a “post-marriage culture,” R. Albert Mohler opened the event by saying the crisis regarding the biblical, traditional definition of marriage as a permanent union of a man and a woman began “with the heterosexual subversion of marriage.”
“The divorce revolution has done far more harm to marriage than same-sex marriage will ever do,” the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary told the audience made up primarily of pastors and other young adults. Heterosexuals “showed how to destroy marriage by making it a tentative, hypothetical union for so long as it may last, turning it only into a contract” that produced a “consumer good,” Mohler said.
“By the time the moral revolution on same-sex relations arrived on the scene, most of the moral revolution had already happened,” he said.
A group of panelists speak during the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s conference on “The Gospel, Homosexuality and the Future of Marriage,” held Oct. 27-29 in Nashville. Those pictured include Phillip Bethancourt, Albert Mohler, D.A. Horton, Robert Sloan and Russell Moore.
Other speakers pointed to the victory of romantic love over all other forms of love in the American mind as a major reason for the marriage catastrophe.
“I think we as a culture have already redefined marriage to a large extent,” said Trevin Wax, managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources and a popular blogger. The culture moved away from a “common-good” understanding of marriage to the view of the institution as a romantic, sexual relationship between two consenting adults who want to commit to one another and have the government’s approval, he said.
The romanticized view of love and marriage is “already prevalent in evangelical churches,” Wax said.
During the same panel discussion on millennials and marriage, cultural commentator John Stonestreet said, “Same-sex marriage is not the root of any problems. It’s the fruit of missing what the point of marriage actually is.
“It’s time to rebuild marriage. Stop talking about defending it and start rebuilding,” said Stonestreet, a fellow of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He added, “There’s not much left to defend on a cultural level.”
Sherif Girgis, who cowrote a book arguing for the traditional view of marriage, said cultural indicators demonstrate why the issue is so important.
“Every aspect of the common good depends on a strong marriage. This is Matthew 25 stuff,” Girgis said, referring to Jesus’ words about the “least of these” in His teaching on the final judgment. “It is a matter of social justice. That’s why your congregation should care about it. That’s why we can’t give this up or think that it’s just a matter for the church. We owe it to the least of these to make sure that wherever possible our culture gives them the best shot at being reared by the love of the man and woman who gave them life.”
Western civilization is in the final stage of a moral revolution – one that is “happening at warp speed,” Mohler told attendees. British theologian Theo Hobson has said three things must happen for a moral revolution to occur. Those developments, Mohler said, are:
“Something that was nearly universally condemned is now nearly universally celebrated.
“That which was celebrated is condemned.
“Those who refuse to celebrate are condemned.”
The church is now in a position of being “a moral minority,” Mohler said.
“We are accustomed to ministry from the top side in the culture, not from the underside,” he said. “We are accustomed to speaking from a position of strength and respect and credibility. And now we are going to be facing the reality that we are already, in much of America, speaking from a position of a loss of credibility.”
Responding to this situation, Mohler said, “is going to take an awful lot of Christian thinking. It’s going to take a lot of prayer, a lot of agonizing conversations. . . . the kind of conversations that take place in the middle of an emergency.”
Mohler acknowledged he has been mistaken on a couple of points in writing about the issue of homosexuality for about 30 years. Early in the debate, Mohler said, he denied “anything like sexual orientation” because he thought it necessary to make the gospel clear. “I repent of that,” he said.
He believes a biblical, theological understanding of homosexuality is “far more deeply rooted than just the will,” Mohler said, adding Genesis 3 explains this is “deeply rooted in the biblical story itself and something we need to take far more seriously than we have in the past.”
Other speakers encouraged attendees to think and act biblically toward those with whom they differ on these issues.
“We need to recognize that even though we disagree with the gay rights movement on many things, including sexual morality, including the definition of marriage, there are some human dignity issues involved,” ERLC President Russell D. Moore said. “And we also need to recognize that we have gay and lesbian persons created in the image of God who are treated with indignity and really with evil and wickedness in many places in the world.”
Kevin Ezell, president of the North American Mission Board, said during a panel discussion, “The one thing that’s hurt our witness most is the tone” with which it has been conducted. That has “brought on some of the condemnation not on what we’ve said” but how it has been said, he told the audience.
Glenn Stanton, director for global family formation studies at Focus on the Family, urged attendees to develop genuine friendships with people who disagree with them.
“The great divider between us and them – and I hate to use that term … – is not sexuality,” Stanton said. “The great equalizer is our sin. The great equalizer is our need for repentance and new life in Christ.”
Friendship “is not a means to an end,” he said. “It is an end in itself. And as those relationships develop, then we can share the truth about our life, and it comes up naturally.”
In other comments from speakers Oct. 27:
Barronelle Stutzman, a Christian and florist in Washington state who has been sued for declining to do flowers for a same-sex wedding, made a surprise appearance and was greeted by a standing ovation. She said, “Do I not have the right to believe in Christ or follow Him? I can’t leave my relationship at the door of the church. He is my life.” She told attendees, “It’s me today, but it will be you tomorrow. You cannot sit this one out. … I am but one voice. Let your voice be heard.” Moore prayed for Stutzman after her brief comments.
Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, said pastors should help their churches by being aware of the issues, taking proactive steps to protect their churches and ministries, and continuing to preach biblical truth.
Jennifer Marshall, director of domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, said singles “can love and esteem what we don’t have.” Marriage should be viewed as a stewardship by singles, one which is “not about self-validation” but is about “focusing on another,” said Marshall, who has never married. “Both marriage and singleness call us to focus on contentment now.”
Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in commenting on Eph. 5:22-33 while addressing sex in marriage, “Basically what the Bible is telling us is we need to be living and speaking the gospel outside the bedroom. And when that takes place, there will be good news, yes, even gospel, inside the bedroom.”
The conference is being live streamed online at http://live.erlc.com/.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)