The signs up at the Greater Columbus Convention Center read, “Welcome Southern Baptist Convention,” while banners on the lampposts declared “Gay Pride Festival.” With only a day separating these gatherings, their juxtaposition—and shared subject matter—was especially noticeable.
Awaiting the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that will likely determine whether same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states, SBC leaders and messengers talked marriage and a host of other issues that threaten to isolate the gospel from the people who need it.
“Whatever happens in the culture around us,” Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, reminded attenders at the Pastors’ Conference, “it does not take one bit more gospel to save the people protesting us than it took to save us, the people who were once protesting God.”
But there weren’t a lot of people protesting Southern Baptists in Columbus. In fact, for several years now, the controversial conversation has been inside the hall rather than parading the sidewalks outside, with messengers taking up issues—such as same-sex marriage and ministry to transgender people—that would not have been handled so candidly a decade or two ago.
“For most of this last century Southern Baptists have been comfortable in the culture in their soft cocoon,” Moore said in his convention report. “Some said that the Southern Baptist Zion was below the Mason-Dixon Line. Those days are gone, and not a moment too soon. Those days are over, thankfully.”
Southern Baptists are taking on hard issues.
Firm positions, softer hearts
“The mission of the church isn’t to un-gay people. The mission of the church is to win people to Christ,” Houston pastor Nathan Lino said at a breakfast hosted by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He challenged churches, asking why they try to “run off” homosexuals and transgendered people. “Do you realize that it’s a miracle they are there? It’s because of God and it’s glorious.”
Former lesbian, now pastor’s wife Rosaria Butterfield agreed that salvation comes first. “I was not converted out of homosexuality, I was converted out of unbelief and then God went to work.” She spoke as part of a panel called “The Supreme Court and Same-Sex Marriage: Preparing Our Churches for the Future.” The panel was the first of its kind staged during a convention business meeting. Some panelists reinforced a fortress mentality for churches. Others introduced a new kind of missionary to the culture. Moore observed that Butterfield is probably the “Lottie Moon of the 21st century mission field, a Presbyterian ex-lesbian sitting right here.”
SBC President Ronnie Floyd framed the field this way: “The Southern Baptist Convention has not moved, the culture has moved. We stand on the Word of God that abides forever, always has been, and will forever be.”
On the final day of the convention, Floyd and eight past SBC presidents held a press conference stating their commitment to biblical marriage. The statement, endorsed by Floyd and 16 living past convention presidents, served notice to the nation and to the Supreme Court that they “will not recognize same-sex ‘marriages,’ our churches will not host same-sex ceremonies, and we will not perform such ceremonies.”
The presidents also stressed the need for churches to be prepared by having clear bylaws and constitutions that say what it means to be married in their churches.
Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, urged Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries to do the same. He said he could see a time when accreditation would be withheld from Christian educational institutions that do not approve of same-sex marriage or transgenderism.
Patterson said what concerns him most are the churches “that have never thought through their bylaws and constitutions. Challenges will probably come to those small churches that are ill-prepared.”
At the same press conference, Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, concurred: “We want to challenge pastors and church members. This is coming and it’s coming now. The trajectory is on breakneck speed…We encourage Christian leaders everywhere to make some noise and to be a voice.”
Other threats to religious liberty were also highlighted at the convention:
Former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran spoke at the Pastors’ Conference. Cochran was fired from his position for stating on one page of his 160-page book, “Who Told You That You Were Naked?” that homosexuality is sinful. “There are self-inflicted sufferings and the ones God allows,” Cochran said. “What I’m experiencing is a God-allowed suffering that has nothing to do with me, but that God is using in and through me.”
And Barronelle Stutzman, the Washington state florist who was sued for not providing flowers for a same-sex wedding, made an appearance during the ERLC report. She lost her case and is in danger of losing her home and business. After Moore shared her story, she came to the stage for prayer.
“This is a Bonhoeffer moment for every pastor in the United States,” Floyd warned in a sermon citing the example of pastor and Nazi-fighter Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “We will not bow down nor will we be silent. We will hold up and lift up God’s authoritative truth on marriage. While we affirm our love for all people, we cannot deviate from God’s Word.”