COLUMBUS, Ohio — There was a seismic shift in Columbus, Ohio, this week. Did you feel it? It came when 16 former Southern Baptist Convention presidents issued a statement on same-sex marriage — not on behalf of the SBC — but to the SBC, evangelicals and the nation.
The statement reiterates a long-standing SBC position on homosexuality and same-sex marriage, Baptist Press reports, and is also a proactive response to the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, expected later this month.
The statement reads in part, “The Scriptures’ teaching on marriage is not negotiable. We stake our lives upon the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus. We will not accept, nor adhere to, any legal redefinition of marriage issued by any political or judicial body including the United States Supreme Court.”
So where’s the shift?
It’s all in the approach to the church’s relationship to government.
In the 1960s, conservatives set their eyes on the White House, while liberals set their eyes on college campuses, says Warren Smith, author and associate publisher of WORLD magazine. By the 1980s, both groups had achieved their goals. Political conservatives did so in part through alliances with evangelicals like Jerry Falwell, who mobilized Christians through his Moral Majority and urged them to elect politicians who would further the evangelical agenda.
Granted, the pendulum between Christian involvement in and Christian separation from politics constantly swings, but since the 80s, it’s been swinging hard toward involvement, as evangelicals have sought public office in an attempt to influence the political system — and “turn this country back to God.”
And therein lies the problem.
Historically it hasn’t worked well when religious leaders knotted themselves too tightly to political leaders to further an agenda. It was a disaster with the Pharisees. It didn’t work with the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. And it wasn’t a sustainable strategy in the 1980s. Today, Smith says, liberals control both the White House and college campuses. The political strategy of the Christian right failed, and in the process, the influence and relevance of the church weakened.
Why? Because the church’s biblical responsibility is not to elect political leaders who agree with us but to call men, women, boys and girls to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ alone.
Current SBC leaders seem to get that. By releasing a statement that they will not accept a definition of marriage based on anything other than God’s Word, regardless of the political and financial cost, they are shifting from a mindset of working within the political system to standing apart from it. The first has dominated evangelical thought in the U.S. for more than 50 years. The second aligns more with the mindset of Christians living in hostile environments around the world.
It’s a very different perspective — one that will help us move beyond what David Platt calls “casual, cold, comfortable, cultural Christianity” to empathize with believers suffering persecution around the world.
And let’s be clear: While the current issue focuses on the specific question of same-sex marriage, the stance these leaders are taking is much broader than that. It is a call to all of us who follow Jesus in America to stand firmly on the principles of God’s Word, rather than the platform of a political party. Jesus cares less about how we vote and more about how we live.
This leads to a second shift.
Love God and love others, Jesus commanded. When we practice those commandments from the perspective of cultural outsiders, we better identify with those who are marginalized, hurting and broken. We are free to come alongside those from every tribe, people and nation to share the love of God and his good gospel — and because we our outsiders, our message gains credibility.
SBC leaders seem to get this, too. In more than one setting, messengers and leaders affirmed their love for all people, including those struggling with same-sex attraction. But more than that, messengers also passed resolutions on racial reconciliation and the persecuted church signifying as in past years our call to “speak up for those who have no voice” and to stand hand-in-hand with the suffering, vulnerable and exploited.
What does this mean?
Acknowledging that we are unable to turn America toward God via a political process does not mean we don’t continue to vote for candidates who most closely align with our Christian values. It is incumbent on every Christian to consider how the platform of any political contender aligns with Christian beliefs.
But, we must remember that politicians serve at the pleasure of the public. They might currently be in a position to create law, but their continued leadership relies on followers. When the public ceases following, political power quickly dissipates.
Consider the civil rights movement and the laws of the country at that time. The willingness to practice peaceful civil disobedience was a major factor in influencing public opinion. As a result, the Civil Rights Act quickly followed.
When conducted most effectively, civil disobedience forces an apathetic public to reconsider their views — not by promoting anarchy but through moral influence. The goal is not to threaten the public lest they feel extorted but to involve the public in a way that demands a decision — where apathy is no longer an option. Those who know what they believe, why they believe it and are willing to sacrifice civil liberties to put their faith into practice can effectively sway public opinion. When this happens en masse peacefully and civilly for a cause that is just, politicians quickly follow or risk becoming irrelevant. In these instances, the dance between religion and politics might look the same, but the difference lies in which partner is leading.
Historically, spiritual awakenings begin with prayer and take hold when we recognize our call to stand apart and align ourselves with God’s Word, even if it involves civil disobedience. Perhaps in years to come, this week’s call by SBC leaders “to stake our lives on the Word of God” will be marked as the starting point in the church’s return to relevance.