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Marriage equality advocate visits seminary class

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) — Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary ethics professor Evan Lenow recognized the risk of inviting Michael Saltsman, co-founder of Evangelicals for Marriage Equality, to his classroom to discuss whether evangelicals should support same-sex marriage. But he also viewed it as a learning opportunity for those called to ministry.

Lenow and Saltsman dialogued on the topic during Lenow’s Bible & Moral Issues class at the seminary Oct. 15.

“It’s humbling to invite someone into my classroom whose goal is to convince my students that I am wrong,” Lenow, who holds the traditional view of marriage, said in a blog post the previous day. “But it is a healthy exercise for both student and professor.”

Saltsman, who serves as research director at Employment Policies Institute and vice president of a research and communications firm in Washington, D.C., grew up in a conservative evangelical family. He is married, and he and his wife have a 2-year-old daughter. Although he held to a traditional view of marriage in college, he said discussions with friends who were in same-sex relationships and readings on both sides of the issue caused him to reconsider his position.

“I was very concerned about the way the debate was moving,” Saltsman said. “On the one hand, I really felt like this was an issue on a civil marriage point that the church was wrong on, but on the other hand I was really concerned about the way that people who had reservations about abandoning a traditional view of marriage were being treated.”

This concern led him to be co-founder of Evangelicals for Marriage Equality (EME).

“The idea behind Evangelicals for Marriage Equality,” Saltsman told Lenow’s class, “was to have an organization that said you can be a faithful Christian and a faithful evangelical that supports civil marriage equalities, as the government provides a certain set of benefits and tax treatments to opposite-sex couples that they would also provide them to same-sex couples. But at the same time, that we could have a respect and understanding for those folks who [disagree].”

Saltsman said EME’s board members — including author and former pastor Brian McLaren, who has been widely criticized for departing from orthodox Christianity — would largely identify themselves as “evangelicals.” Asked by Lenow to define the term “evangelical,” Saltsman defined it as someone who focuses on “the authority of Scripture, the inerrant Word of God, a personal relationship with Christ, evangelism and sharing the Gospel.”

Saltsman said members of EME’s board fall along the spectrum of views on whether homosexuality is a sin — some believing it is, others saying it is not — but, he added, “I would count myself as one of the people who is still undecided on the issue.”

Thus, Saltsman said, EME’s argument for civil same-sex marriage is more a legal position than a theological one.

Lenow, who serves as director of the Richard Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern, countered with Scripture he believed clearly defined homosexuality as sin and asked, “If there really is a spectrum of belief across your board of advisors — you actually have people on your board who would say homosexual behavior is sinful and the Bible clearly condemns it as sin — how do you get to the point as evangelicals of saying, ‘This is a sinful behavior that God judges and condemns, yet we want to support it?'”

“We’re protecting a principle rather than promoting a behavior,” Saltsman said, adding that Christians often “stand for the rights of people who we either think are heretics or whose beliefs we don’t believe in.” He said EME advocates “equal treatment under the law.”

Lenow pushed back, saying he did not understand how evangelicals could give “hardy approval to something God says is sinful.”

“Is that a theologically consistent [position to take]?” Lenow asked.

“In a pluralistic, religiously diverse society such as ours,” Saltsman replied, “I will always stand up for equal protection under the law, even for people who I disagree with and who disagree with my point of view.”

Lenow also asked Saltsman for his definition of marriage, to which Saltsman gave two definitions — the church’s definition and the government’s definition — a dichotomy that allows him to have one position theologically and another legislatively.

The two also debated whether recognition of same-sex marriages would open the door in the future for other redefinitions of marriage, including polygamy and incest.

Saltsman agreed that polygamy could “denigrate society” but was dismissive about the potential for society to accept it, adding, “Polygamy isn’t even a discussion,” to which Lenow cited groups already pushing for acceptance of polygamous cohabitation and the potential for polyamorous relationships with multiple husbands and wives.

Lenow argued that opening the door for same-sex marriage becomes a “slippery slope” toward other perversions of traditional marriage. Saltsman said, “In any place where we draw lines … there’s always a way you can say there’s a slippery slope.” He argued that polygamy does not have widespread support by the majority of the population.

The two ended the dialogue with a discussion of whether Christian businessmen and businesswomen should be forced to offer wedding services and venues to same-sex couples. Both agreed this is a religious liberty issue and that Christians should not be persecuted for holding to their religious convictions. Lenow encouraged Saltsman and EME to take a stronger stand on this side of the religious liberty argument.

Following the dialogue, both Saltsman and Lenow expressed appreciation for an opportunity to discuss the issue with civility and Christian character. Students were given the opportunity to dialogue further with the two after class was dismissed.

“Today’s conversation in Fort Worth might not have solved the marriage equality debate,” Saltsman told the Southern Baptist TEXAN newsjournal, “but it still provided an important opportunity to explain that it’s possible to be a faithful evangelical and a supporter of civil marriage equality.” Saltsman said he appreciated “the back-and-forth with Dr. Lenow, who initially proposed this conversation and was kind enough to host it in his classroom.”

Lenow expressed appreciation for Saltsman’s willingness to speak to his class.

“Too often those on different sides of an issue talk at each other rather than with each other,” Lenow told the TEXAN. “This discussion demonstrated that two people can disagree on a significant topic and still have a civil conversation.

“There was a great risk in bringing Michael Saltsman into my classroom because he had everything to gain while I had everything to lose. However, I am confident that the biblical design of marriage is able to withstand critique from both inside and outside the church. In addition, my students need to know what people on the other side of the debate are actually saying. I hope my students benefited from the discussion and are more prepared to engage in similar discussions on their own.”

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  • Keith Collier