Monday, July 6, 2015

Breaking Down Southern Baptist Rhetoric Against Same-Sex Marriage

While Southern Baptists have been vocally repenting of their support for slavery and Jim Crow since 1995, they have done virtually nothing to actually make amends. One of their own members, an African American pastor, noted that if the SBC was serious they would champion policies that would actually make a difference, such as criminal justice reform, education reform, and the alleviation of child poverty (and we could add others like immigration reform and confronting voter suppression laws).

So, did Southern Baptists make any attempt to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance when they met in Columbus for their annual meeting (the hate killing of the Emanuel Nine took place after their convention)? Oh no, it was oppositional energy that fueled the fire, not a vision for the common good.

Instead they passed a resolution against same-sex marriage asserting that traditional marriage is the clear teaching of Scripture. In a statement supporting the resolution issued by current SBC President Ronnie Floyd and signed by 16 past presidents they affirmed, among other things,

What the Bible says about marriage is clear, definitive, and unchanging. We affirm biblical, traditional, natural marriage as the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant for a lifetime. The Scriptures’ teaching on marriage is not negotiable.

Ronnie Floyd, addressing the Convention said,

Our first commitment is to God and his word – nothing else and no one else. And I want to remind everyone today, humbly, the Supreme Court of the United States is not the final authority, nor is the culture itself, but the Bible is God’s final authority about marriage, and on this book we stand. [emphasis mine]

In Southern Baptist rhetoric the Bible always trumps Jesus’ life and teachings in the Gospels when it comes to same-sex marriage. The reason is obvious: Jesus says absolutely nothing about same sex relations or marriage. Jesus’ one specific reference to marriage is a quote of Genesis 2:24, not for the purpose of affirming some clear, incontrovertible, traditional law of marriage, but for the purpose of prohibiting divorce (Mark 10:2-9). (Why Jesus prohibited divorce is subject to various interpretations. In the Jewish world of Jesus’ day Jewish men could divorce their wives for any reason whatsoever, but Jewish women could not divorce their husbands. I suspect Jesus was trying to level the playing field.)

There was no clear, definitive, unchanging law with respect to marriage in the Jewish biblical world. This is where Southern Baptist rhetoric is not only disingenuous but dishonest. Fox News pundit Cal Thomas recently made the same mistake. He argued that if the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage they would be going against scripture by making possible the legalization of polygamy and adult-child marriage. It’s a convoluted argument, I know, but my point here is that he assumes that the traditional marriage of one man and one woman is the clear biblical pattern.

What’s dishonest about this? It is clearly not the biblical pattern. Polygamy was practiced throughout the biblical world without a single Bible verse condemning the practice. Abraham, Moses, David, and all the great biblical heroes of the faith were polygamists. In fact, Genesis 2:24 was never understood in Israel as excluding polygamy. They believed that through the act of sexual intercourse a man could become “one flesh” with more than one woman.

In the patriarchal, biblical world marriages were often arranged and women whom we would consider still children or youth were wed to older men. Women were often given an economic value as one would assign to a commodity in the marketplace. The oppressive nature of biblical marriage is reflected in the fact that a man could not commit adultery against his own wife; he could only commit adultery against another man by sexually using the other’s wife. According to biblical law a woman was to be stoned to death if she was not found to be a virgin before her marriage (Deut. 22:13-21). There was no such law for men. Even New Testament instructions to husbands and wives commonly assume a patriarchal worldview (see Eph. 5:21-33Col. 3:18-191 Peter 1:3-4).

So do we really want biblical marriage? And where is the clear, unchanging, consistent biblical ethic on marriage?

In the statement signed by the former SBC presidents they say, “We stake our lives upon the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” This is the only reference to Jesus in the statement. If they truly claimed the life and testimony of Jesus then, I have no doubt, they would accept and affirm same-sex marriage. For while Jesus said nothing at all regarding same-sex relations or marriage, in story after story in the Gospels, Jesus crossed boundaries, tore down walls, overstepped social mores, and challenged scriptures, traditions, and customs that separated and segregated people into acceptable and unacceptable categories. He did this as a son of Abba and for the cause of God’s kingdom (God’s will and way) in the world.

The SBC rhetoric goes downhill from here. When the 2015 SBC Convention convened the Supreme Court had yet to make their landmark decision legalizing marriage in all 50 states, but SBC leaders seemed to anticipate that a decision favorable to same-sex marriage was coming. Ronnie Floyd called this “a Bonhoeffer moment for every pastor in the United States.” How crazy is that?

Bonhoeffer was the German pastor who opposed Hitler by forming the Confessing Church. Bonhoeffer paid the ultimate price for his opposition with his life. Quoting Bonhoeffer Floyd proclaimed, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak, and not to act is to act.”

I suspect that many progressive Christians like myself would call the SBC’s treatment of our LGBT sisters and brothers “evil,” but we surely wouldn’t use Bonhoeffer as our example. I have encountered some opposition from my conservative Christian sisters and brothers, especially Southern Baptists, because of my public support for same-sex marriage and LGBT inclusion in my conservative Bible belt town, but I am not persecuted. And neither are my SBC sisters and brothers. For Floyd to draw upon Bonhoeffer here is not only a real stretch, it is a disservice and dishonor to Bonhoeffer’s good name. Now that same-sex marriage is the law of the land I’m sure we can expect from the religious right another bombardment of extreme rhetoric about religious persecution.

Of course, no federal, state, or local government agency is going to make SBC ministers perform same-sex weddings. Same-sex couples will ask who they want to ask, and if by chance a Southern Baptist minister is ever asked, he (it surely wouldn’t be a she) can politely (or not so politely) say “No.” But think about it. What same-sex couple would ever ask a SBC minister to perform their wedding?


Now that same-sex marriage is legal, we can expect SBC leaders to raise their rhetorical thunderings to a new pitch. Some of it will be of the looney tunes variety, which would be amusing if not so sad.

(This article was first published at the Unfundamentalist Christians blog)

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