NEWS | Meredith Flynn
Southern Baptists’ generals in the culture war demonstrated their new strategy at an April meeting for church leaders. But the tactic, softer in decibels but not doctrine, was met by criticism from opponents using modern weaponry – social media.
“The way that we are going to be able to speak to the people in our culture…is not by more culture war posturing, but by a Christ-shaped counter-revolution,” said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
The conference on sexuality and the Gospel was the ERLC’s first major event since Moore assumed leadership from Richard Land, who served as the denomination’s main voice on issues such as abortion and first amendment rights.
The event came with a sort of confession: the culture war as we knew it is over.
“We’re all in agreement that the cultural war is over when it comes to homosexuality, certainly when it comes to gay marriage,” Florida pastor Jimmy Scroggins said at the ERLC’s summit. In his urban context of West Palm Beach, Scroggins said, “The question is what are we going to do in the church.”
Some might call this “post-culture war America.” Others might conclude that we’ve entered a new phase, culture cold war, with new weapons such as Twitter and a new battlefield, ironically, inside the church.
Embrace the strangeness
This new culture has been on the horizon for a while: Marriage rates across all demographic groups have fallen continuously since 1970, Andrew Walker of the ERLC noted during his summit breakout session. Cohabitation rates are up too: USA Today reported last year that for almost half of all women between ages 15 and 44, their “first union” was cohabitation instead of marriage.
Also on the rise: Approval for redefining marriage. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll reported 59% of Americans approve of same-sex marriage.
Addressing sweeping social and cultural changes was one emphasis of the April 21-23 meeting in Nashville, but speakers also talked about how church leaders ought to interact with increasingly specific questions arising at their churches. Like what to do when a transgender person expresses repentance and belief in Christ. Or how to counsel college students when premarital sex is not only accepted, it’s expected on the first date.
A few days before the ERLC summit, Moore appeared on ABC’s “This Week” to discuss religion and politics with a panel of evangelical and conservative leaders. He talked about the falling away of nominal, in-name-only faith, and the increasing “strangeness” of Christianity. Moore told moderator Martha Raddatz, “It’s a different time, and that means…we speak in a different way.”
“We speak to people who don’t necessarily agree with us. There was a time in which we could assume that most Americans agreed with us on life, and on abortion, and on religious liberty and other issues. And we simply had to say, ‘We’re for the same things you’re for, join us.’
“It’s a different day. We have to speak to the rest of the culture and say, ‘Here’s why this is in your interest to value life, to value family, to value religious liberty.’”
During the Nashville meeting, social media provided plenty of evidence of the divide. The meeting was one of Twitter’s top trending topics on its first day. Feedback from attenders was positive, but others watching the summit online spoke out, often harshly, against what speakers said.
That Christian views are seen as strange isn’t surprising, Moore said on the ABC broadcast.
“Many people now when they hear about what evangelical Christians believe, their response is to say, ‘That sounds freakish to me, that sounds odd and that sounds strange. Well, of course it does. We believe that a previously dead man is now the ruler of the universe and offers forgiveness of sins to anyone who will repent and believe.”
Reclaim the strangeness of Christianity, he urged at the Nashville meeting, basing it on the death and resurrection of Jesus.
So, what should we say?
Throughout the summit, speakers stressed the supremacy of the Gospel and clarity of what the Bible teaches about sexuality. Christians shouldn’t apologize for it, said Andrew Walker. Preaching an almost-Gospel is no match for the sexual revolution, Moore said.
Or, as Southern Seminary’s Denny Burk put it, “We have to be grave about these things.”
Scripture calls Christians to speak the truth, but to speak it in love. “We have to reject ‘redneck theology’ in all of its forms,” Jimmy Scroggins said during a panel discussion on the Gospel and homosexuality. “Let’s stop telling ‘Adam and Steve’ jokes.” (God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve…)
As the audience chuckled, Scroggins continued, “Let’s be compassionate because these are people that are in our community, these are people who are in our churches, these are people who have grown up in our youth groups, and these are people that we’re trying to win to Christ, and we want to care for them as a people created in God’s image.”
Speaking with “convictional kindness” has been a major part of Moore’s message in his first year as ERLC president. “I hope to speak with civility and with kindness and in dialogue with people with whom I disagree,” he told Christianity Today last year.
It’s a timely endeavor, especially when social norms run ever more contrary to the Gospel. J.D. Greear pastors The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, N.C. At a church that reaches a large number of college students, sexual ethics are a topic of constant conversation.
“Sex gets at the core of who we are. Its dysfunction and its damage is deep, but the Gospel goes deeper still,” Greear said. “Because where sin abounds, grace much more abounds, and the great brokenness of sex presents an even greater opportunity for the Gospel.”
The May 26 issue of the Illinois Baptist will examine in more detail how speakers at the summit addressed contemporary threats to biblical sexuality and marriage. The ERLC also will look more closely at “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage” at a conference scheduled for Oct. 27-29 in Nashville.