By Bob Allen
Amid both praise and condemnation for last week’s Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage, leaders of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship staked out a position of neutrality on a topic deemed best left up to the local church.
“In a changing culture, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship seeks to model unity,” CBF leaders said in a June 26 blog describing unity as “our cornerstone commitment.”
“For nearly 25 years, Cooperative Baptists have found it unifying to celebrate our autonomy in Christ while inviting collaboration. We cling tightly to and defend historic Baptist principles of soul freedom, Bible freedom, church freedom and religious freedom — our core values,” the blog statement said.
“CBF is a place where tension is recognized and spoken in honest dialogue, remaining in fellowship despite differences and disagreements. Put simply, our core purpose is to partner with one another in renewing God’s world.
“During this time of cultural change, we continue to celebrate our shared commitment to Baptist freedom. We seek to more fully live into our commitment to unity, cooperating and forming together as a Fellowship of churches and individuals.’
The recent CBF General Assembly in Dallas included a breakout session featuring two pastors who disagree sharply about homosexuality but remain lifelong friends.
“Joe [Phelps] and I disagree about this, but it’s not a break-fellowship issue, and it doesn’t have to be a break-fellowship issue,” said Houston pastor Steve Wells, a member of the CBF Governing Board. “I think I’m doing what I’m doing out of my best reading of the Scripture. That’s where I have to start. And I think Joe’s doing what he’s doing out of his best reading of the Scripture, and I think he’s wrong, and he thinks I’m wrong.”
A Southern Baptist Convention leader, meanwhile, said he doubts denominational bodies can avoid polarization over the issue for long.
“There is no place to hide on this issue,” Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler said in a podcast June 30. “Eventually, every single church, every single denomination, every single pastor is going to have to answer the question. If anything, the decision handed down by the Supreme Court on Friday just makes that situation more acute. It is now virtually impossible to duck the issue or to hide.”
Mohler observed that in media coverage of reaction to the Supreme Court ruling, in some cases “the actual story becomes the intent to hide or the attempt to evade the question.”
“In terms of the political context I think we can all understand why there might be a reluctance on the part of some to speak to an issue that will be divisive,” Mohler said. “But when it comes to the responsibility of the Christian pastor to preach the word in season and out of season, there is no room for equivocation on something to which the Bible speaks clearly. And if the Bible speaks clearly to anything, it speaks clearly to the reality of marriage.”
The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, an evangelical organization with offices on the Southern Seminary campus, described the issue as a litmus test for what constitutes a “true” church.
“Since the true church of Jesus Christ stands or falls on the gospel of Jesus Christ and because biblical marriage is so clearly defined in Scripture, faithfulness to the Word of God on the truth of biblical marriage is a mark of the true church of Jesus Christ,” the CBMW said in an official statement June 26. “To depart from the faith once for all delivered to the saints on this issue is to depart from Christ Himself.”
In light of the Supreme Court ruling, council board members including Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Danny Akin reaffirmed the Danvers Statement, a 1987 document outlining what later came to be known as “complementarianism.”
“The distinct but complementary realities of manhood and womanhood are ordained by God and foundational to the created order,” CBMW leaders said in the statement. They further stated that “biblical marriage pictures the gospel of Jesus Christ” and that “homosexuality is declared by God a sin.”
At the same time, more than 100 self-described evangelicals celebrated the Supreme Court decision as a “major step towards justice and equality for LGBTQ people in the United States.”
“As evangelical pastors and leaders, we believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of good news for all people,” the faith leaders said in a statement June 26. “Following in the way of Jesus, we are compelled to be a voice for the voiceless and to fight for the dignity and equality of all people, regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, or gender identity.”
While “a major step in the right direction,” the evangelical leaders said legalizing gay marriage “is only one step towards true equality for LGBTQ individuals and highlights our need, as people of faith, to continue to work for justice.”
“[W]e still are far from having a just and equal society for LGBTQ people,” the statement said. “As evangelical pastors and leaders, we call on our fellow evangelical Christians around the country to lift our voices on behalf of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, working to make our nation, our communities, and our churches welcoming and inclusive spaces for all people. For far too long, we have been silent and complicit in the discrimination and marginalization of LGBTQ people around the world. Today, we commit to no longer stand by while discrimination and inequity flourish, but to lift our voices on behalf of all of God’s children.”
Baptist signers included David Gushee, an ethics professor at Mercer University; Larry Bethune, pastor of University Baptist Church in Austin, Texas; Danny Cortez, senior pastor of New Heart Church in La Mirada, Calif.; and David Key, pastor of Lake Oconee Community Church, Greensboro, Ga., and director of Baptist studies at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.