CRESTWOOD – Evangelical pastors who have biblical objections to same-sex marriages are advised to take action now to avoid potential legal liability for refusing to officiate or host gay and lesbian ceremonies.
That includes updating policies on the use of church buildings and adopting a statement of belief on what constitutes a biblical marriage, said Andrew Walker, director of policy studies for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in Nashville.
Walker told nearly 600 Southern Baptist church leaders gathered in Crestwood on Thursday that churches also should adopt policies explaining requirements for church membership, spell out procedures for revoking church membership, and develop written policies spelling out employment standards.
“We must continue to insist that marriage is a God-ordained and timeless institution that sees a man and woman come together as husband and wife to be father and mother to any children their union produces,” Walker said. “We must insist that government respect those who believe marriage is the union of a man and woman.”
Kentucky Baptist Convention Executive Director Paul Chitwood said taking such steps could help pastors avoid being brought before a judge, a scenario that he said has become “highly probable.”
“Every dime that’s spent on litigation by the church is a dime that’s not being spent to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked and to take the gospel of the Lord Jesus to Kentucky, to North America and to the ends of the earth,” Chitwood told the crowd at Crestwood Baptist Church. “So we want to do all we can to equip our churches to be prepared to address this issue, and issues like this, long before we face legal challenges.”
Chitwood, leader of Kentucky’s largest religious organization with some 750,000 members, said Southern Baptists are to “love people regardless of their involvement in any lifestyle the Bible characterizes as sinful.” But he said expecting the church to bless sinful lifestyles through marriages “is beyond the pale.”
“The purpose of our gathering is not to make a statement of being against something,” Chitwood said. “Rather, we want to make a statement of being for something. What we’re for is the church. We’re for the church’s freedom to carry our her ministry faithful to the scriptures and unhindered by outside influences.”
Speakers, including Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler, made clear that churches need to show compassion and love to people living gay and lesbian lifestyles in hopes of introducing them to Christ. But he said they also need to hold firm to the scriptural mandate that marriage is between one man and one woman.
“We’re not here tonight because we’re imaginative or paranoid, but because we’re brokenhearted and concerned,” Mohler said.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia now recognize gay marriage.
The issue flared last year when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that forbade the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage. Justices ruled that law deprived gay couples of due process.
Since then, gay rights activists have won eight lower court cases across the country, and expectations are high that the nation’s highest court will eventually rule that gays can marry in every state.
Already, a federal judge in Kentucky signed an order directing officials in the state to immediately recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states and countries. That order was handed down in February.
“We are only one court ruling or one presidential executive order away from removing the tax exempt status of churches that refuse to conduct gay marriage or ordering churches and ministers, like florists and photographers, to participate in gay weddings,” Chitwood said.
Chitwood brought together a heavyweight lineup for the conference. Besides Mohler and Walker, Chitwood invited Bill Langley, pastor of Severns Valley Baptist Church in Elizabethtown; Curtis Woods, KBC’s associate executive director for convention relations, and Augie Boto, attorney for the Southern Baptist Convention.
“This is such a serious issue facing our churches that I felt it important to bring in people who have the most to offer in terms of helping our churches navigate this complex issue,” Chitwood said. “Al Mohler leads one of the largest evangelical seminaries in the world and is widely recognized as one of the most influential voices in our culture. Bill Langley leads one of the oldest and largest Baptist churchse in Kentucky. Andrew Walker and Augie Boto occupy very strategic roles serving the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. Curtis Woods is among the brightest African Americans in the SBC. These individuals have tracked this issue over the years, understand the local church, and spend their lives dealing with the moral and cultural issues that impact the church.”
Woods said people shouldn’t equate the debate over same-sex marriage to the civil rights struggles of African-Americans in the 1960s, which were based on race, not behavior. Kentucky Baptists, he said, should resist societal pressure to accept gay and lesbian lifestyles.
“I would challenge the churches to make sure that the Bible is the rule and guide,” Woods said. “Issues of ethics and morals have to be defined by scripture and not simply by cultural norms.”
Boto said churches can protect themselves simply by passing a bylaw or policy specifying appropriate uses of their buildings.
“Does it need to be complicated? No,” he said. “You could have a policy that says the church’s facilities will only be used for purposes consistent with a statement of faith. But that simple policy only works when the church adopts a statement of faith.”
Langley said it’s important that churches stand firm, even when it’s unpopular in modern culture.
“There will be people we lose when we take a stand, but in the end it all comes back to scripture,” he said. “We must stand and give our account.”