Of the American constituencies said to have an acrimonious relationship, evangelical Christians and the LGBT movement may most embody the entrenchment of divided worldviews. In these two communities, fault lines emerge that reveal conflicting understandings of political authority, social stability, and human fulfillment.
In the present cultural moment, we must all honestly acknowledge the moral revolution in public sentiment, which has become increasingly libertine in its sensibility and, consequently, more affirming of homosexuality. It does the evangelical community and its mission no good to deny the present state of affairs.
Given this state of affairs, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention convened its first annual national conference, titled “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage.” With over 1,300 attendees, this late October conference was organized to help equip Christians to apply the gospel on these issues with convictional kindness in their communities, their families, and their churches.
The presenters left no stone unturned. Topics included everything: the state of sexuality in culture, strengthening marriage, accommodation of divorce, understanding millennial attitudes on marriage, religious liberty, and testimony from those grappling with same-sex attraction. A sampling of the conference program reveals the breadth and depth of the issues explored. (All of the resources from the conference are freely available at the ERLC’s YouTube channel; and we encourage you and your church to use them.)
As the nation’s largest protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention is often depicted as a bellwether for religious conservatism writ large in America, so the added significance of the ERLC focusing on these issues compounded the event’s importance on the American religious landscape. With over thirty credentialed press and 156 media stories written, the attention given to evangelicals and Southern Baptists discussing homosexuality and same-sex marriage was significant. What lessons were learned from the ERLC conference that might serve as a guide in the days ahead?
Lessons from the Conference
On homosexuality and same-sex marriage, the conference stands alone, at least from my perspective, as an earnest first attempt to move evangelicals in a deliberate direction toward more loving, thoughtful engagement on issues that are deeply visceral and deeply divisive. The conference also highlighted the ongoing attempt to rehabilitate the institution of marriage in a same-sex marriage world.
Simply being against same-sex marriage is an insufficient apologetic for rebuilding marriage as a cultural fixture. When deviations from marriage—such as cohabitation, divorce, and promiscuity—become routine, same-sex marriage can seem intelligible and acceptable. In attempts to halt the dictatorship of sexual relativism, the ERLC is dedicated to helping undo the foundations of the sexual revolution that have chipped away at marriage, not just fixing its symptoms.
The conference also revealed that evangelicals are taking a play out of the pro-life handbook. With persuasion as its method and goal, the pro-life movement fought on two fronts. First, the movement made the intellectual argument for life. And second, a compassionate ministry to women with an unplanned pregnancy worked to make abortion an unnecessary alternative. The same approach is emerging on same-sex marriage and homosexuality.
Today, evangelicals are learning that cultural engagement on sexual ethics and marriage requires intellectual nuance and a fierce commitment to refusing to reduce sexually broken persons to mere “issues” to be debated. Evangelicals are beginning to recognize that their own understandings of sexuality are no longer shared by the broader society. We must make the case for why sexual ethics are not just sectarian Christian practices, but a roadmap promising human flourishing. We are learning for the first time to make the public argument for marriage, its relevance to public policy, and the consequences of redefining it. Young champions for marriage are emerging. Together, we are learning how to speak about the LGBT community with compassion and biblical conviction.
Because LGBT activists also attended the conference, opposing sides had a more humanized view of their interlocutors. The conference signaled that Southern Baptists and evangelicals are learning how the evangelical church has failed same-sex attracted persons by unfairly targeting homosexual sin as worse than our own. We are learning to see sexual desire as something far more complex than language like “choice” would allow. A young generation of millennial Christians is beginning to see LGBT persons as neighbors to live alongside, not primarily as political adversaries to be pulverized. We are learning to see marriage as a whole-life issue, one necessary for stable political order, not just a gateway to or byproduct of sexual excursion. We also recognize that niceties and platitudes can’t paint over serious and irreconcilable disagreement.
Concurrently, we are learning that cultural credibility is a castle of shifting sand if credibility comes at the expense of sacrificing biblical authority. We are learning that a church in cultural exile is not a church in retreat. We are learning that a call to celibacy for those with same-sex attraction cannot mean a lifetime of isolation. We are rejecting the false antithesis that faithfulness to the gospel means either abandoning orthodoxy or affirming what Holy Scripture clearly identifies as sin.
The conference sought to reflect what must happen if we are to be a faithful church in America. We are learning to disagree well with the LGBT community in tones of respect and honesty. In short, evangelicals are learning to model both grace and truth when discussing homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
Modeling Grace and Truth
Voices on the left criticized the ERLC conference for being too orthodox in its stance toward homosexuality and same-sex marriage. For liberal thinkers, an orthodox Christian view of homosexuality entails the imprisonment and self-loathing of one’s desires. Voices on the right criticized the ERLC, viewing a shift in tone and language as suggesting an underlying shift in view. Some expressed concern at attempts to engage in dialogue at all.
These criticisms fall short of what we believe is the biblical ideal, which is to embody a ministry of reconciliation full of both grace and truth. The ERLC National Conference was but one illustration—of what we hope will be many more—of the way forward.
What must faithful Christians—whether Southern Baptists, evangelicals, or Roman Catholics—do in the coming years? Understanding our vocation as faithful witnesses requires that confessional Christians articulate a robust, irreplaceable, and biblical vision for sexuality and family. Yet we must not make enemies by way of our rhetoric, when it is unnecessary to do so. We must ennoble all sides in our culture to navigate and accept the terms of civility, pluralism, and non-coercion.
At the same time, having convictional kindness as our guide, Christians must not accept the principles of the sexual revolution, which ground identity in the adrenal rush of sexual climax. We must unremittingly insist that sexual fulfillment is found within the permanent and exclusive union of one man and one woman. We must ground sexual practice and human flourishing together, within a holistic worldview that incorporates biblical depth and application toward political order. Lastly, we must not apologize for the gospel. We must call sinners to repentance, but heed that call ourselves as well.
Finding Our Identity
After the conference, Sharon Groves, Director of the Religion and Faith program at the Human Rights Campaign, penned an essay for the Huffington Post, explaining how Southern Baptists in particular, and evangelicals in general, are facing an existential “identity crisis” on the issue of homosexuality. Having met Sharon and spoken with her at the conference, I couldn’t disagree with her more on this point.
Southern Baptists and evangelicals are beginning to more faithfully live out their identity. Knowing that cultural credibility and Christian orthodoxy have an increasingly strained relationship, we are more and more each year finding our identity apart from a culture that for too long upheld Christianity by taking it captive through the domesticating channels of civil religion.
As the novelist Philip K. Dick said, “Just because something bears the aspect of the inevitable, one should not, therefore, go along willingly with it.” The Christians I know are not willing to let the next wave of the sexual revolution crash over our country without a fight for what is true, good, and beautiful. The realities of homosexuality and same-sex marriage are helping to solidify what a true and faithful Christian presence in America looks like.
As a millennial, an evangelical, and a Southern Baptist, I’m passionate about a vibrant civic pluralism. Our differences should not be ignored for the sake of false unity. But the fractured values divide in America can’t persist healthily at the rate we’re going. Now more than ever, we need courage, civility, and a commitment for the church to be the church, refusing to excise the purposes of sexuality from its message. Were we to ever do so, the evangelical church in America would cease to be both evangelical and a church.
Andrew Walker is the Director of Policy Studies at The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He is also a PhD student in Christian Ethics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.