United States Supreme Court, Washington, DC (Photo courtesy wikipedia)
WASHINGTON, DC (BP) – When the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide one year ago this month, Southern Baptist Convention entities and cooperating Baptist state conventions sprung to action to help pastors and churches navigate the new cultural milieu. From books and conferences to videos and suggested church bylaw revisions, Baptist-produced resources have helped thousands with ministry, legal and family responses to the high court's Obergefell v. Hodges ruling June 26, 2015.
"The biggest surprise for many church people is how many of their friends and family members are being impacted by this issue," said Jeff Iorg, president of Gateway Seminary of the SBC and editor of the book "Ministry in the New Marriage Culture." "It's not enough to decide not to allow same-sex weddings in church facilities or not to endorse same-sex marriages among members. These are important decisions but they don't make the problem go away. "The real ministerial challenge," Iorg told Baptist Press in written comments, "is helping people impacted by the choices of others. For example, the deacon with a granddaughter who marries a woman and invites him to her wedding. The Sunday School teacher who has a child in her class who has two married male fathers. The business owner who now has same-sex married employees who are entitled to benefits."
SBC entities respond
Iorg's book, released Oct. 1 of last year by B&H, was based on a 2013 conference at Gateway, then Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, which became increasingly relevant following the Obergefell ruling. The book, featuring an array of authors, explains the biblical and theological foundations for ministry within a culture that embraces same-sex marriage and provides practical guidance on legal issues, children's ministry, family counseling and more. "I have spoken on the book from California to Florida," Iorg said, "and the consistent response has been 'thank you' for helping us start thinking about how to respond to the thorny issues created by same-sex marriage." Among the most immediate responses to the Supreme Court's ruling came from the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. The day the decision was handed down, the ERLC "had ready dozens of resources," the entity said in a statement to BP. "In fact, our site was such a go-to destination for people across the country that we had to strengthen our capacity to withstand all the traffic."
Subsequently, the ERLC helped bring together hundreds of evangelical leaders to sign an affirmation of biblical marriage that drew nearly 15,000 online endorsements in 24 hours; convened a conference in July on "the Gospel and Same-Sex Marriage" in Austin, Texas; partnered with pastor and author Sam Alberry to create a series of short videos on same-sex attraction; and published a book titled "The Gospel and Same-Sex Marriage" edited by ERLC director of policy studies Andrew Walker and ERLC President Russell Moore. At LifeWay Christian Resources, the B&H Academic division published "Unchanging Witness" in January, a detailed explanation of what Scripture teaches about homosexuality and how Christians in various phases of church history have responded to it.
In the book, authors Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams refute arguments by some of the contemporary homosexual movement's most prominent scholars. "We address a number of the contemporary, revisionist authors and mainline denominations in the West that are trying to distort the clear and unchanging witness of Scripture and the church on this issue," Grams, associate professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, told BP in written comments. "Our book lays out the biblical and orthodox theology of sexuality on which any truly Christian pastoral care must be based."
Numerous Baptist state conventions have helped equip churches for ministry in the new marriage culture. Among them, the Illinois Baptist State Association has continued a ministry it began three years ago, when Illinois began moving toward legalization of same-sex marriage. The state's same-sex marriage law took effect June 1 of last year, less than a month before the Supreme Court's ruling.
"When we saw that Illinois was to be one of the first states considering same-sex marriage legislation, our churches passed a unanimous resolution in support of biblical marriage and religious freedom," IBSA executive director Nate Adams told BP in written comments. "This empowered me to speak directly to the issue on behalf of our churches, and I did so with letters to all our state legislators. Conservative legislators held off the legislation for a while, but once it was passed, we began focusing our efforts on awareness and education for our churches.
"Now, and especially since the Supreme Court's ruling," Adams said, "our energy is going into making sure churches understand their religious freedoms regarding same-sex marriage assertions, and helping them take steps to protect those liberties through their bylaws and written operating procedures. We have used conferences, articles and especially downloadable resources on our website to make these protections as accessible to churches as possible."
The IBSA also has urged pastors to "elevate marriage" -- the theme of a 2014 conference -- by teaching the biblical foundation of one man and one woman united in covenant commitment for a lifetime. The Alabama Baptist Convention's State Board of Missions has developed a sample Facilities Usage Policy that churches may choose to adopt in an effort to prevent their facilities from being used for same-sex weddings and their pastors from performing such weddings.
In February, the State Board of Missions sponsored a conference on "the church and sexuality" one day prior to the annual State Evangelism Conference. The 500-plus attendees "well exceeded our initial expectations and estimates," the State Board of Missions told BP in an email. State Board of Missions executive director Rick Lance told Alabama Baptists in a blog post last summer, "We are not to be hateful people who despise and loathe those with whom we disagree. No, we are to have a missionary spirit, seeking to serve in a culture not inclined to look to Christ as the The Way, The Truth and The Life."
The Tennessee Baptist Convention has helped churches on multiple fronts following the ruling, with an emphasis on smaller congregations. "We recognized last year that our smaller churches potentially have more legal exposure than larger churches because of lack of resources," TBC communications director Chris Turner told BP in written comments. "We wanted to equip them so they could be proactive in protecting their churches, which is why we created a template to help them in amending their constitutions and bylaws." Turner noted, "There was and is a lot of misinformation out there so we created a series of articles for the Baptist and Reflector Tennessee Baptists' newsjournal to help answer questions we heard from people. We sent those stories out directly to all our churches. This is obviously an issue that is not going away and we feel a responsibility to making sure we keep our pastors informed and churches equipped."
Christians 'on mission'
The day the court handed down its ruling by a 5-4 margin, Moore of the ERLC charged Christians in a video to be "holy" and on "mission" -- words that have proven prophetic in light of the activities of SBC entities and state conventions. "There are many people outside the court today," Moore said, "who are exuberant because they believe that what the court has done today is to give them something that will fulfill them and make them happy.... It won't do that. Our churches need to be the places to receive the refugees from the Sexual Revolution, those who have been hurt and harmed by it."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.