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SBC presidents unite, declare stand on marriage

COLUMBUS, Ohio (BP) — The living former Southern Baptist Convention presidents elected since 1980 issued a joint statement Wednesday declaring they will stand on the biblical truths concerning marriage despite anticipated legal and civil changes to the definition. Pastor Jack Graham called it “the most critical issue of our times — religious freedom and the very definition of marriage itself.”

Current SBC President Ronnie Floyd led the press conference and was joined on the platform by former SBC presidents Jimmy Draper, Bailey E. Smith, Paige Patterson, James Merritt, Jack Graham, Frank S. Page, Bryant Wright and Fred Luter.

Reading from the statement, Graham said, “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.”

The statement, signed by 16 former presidents, was not issued on behalf of the SBC but issued to the SBC, evangelicals and the nation, Graham said.

The statement reiterates the long-established SBC stand on homosexuality and same-sex marriage but was issued as a proactive response to the impending U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage expected by the end of the month. The 2015 National Day of Prayer served as the impetus for the statement. Floyd said he felt the weight of the nation’s burdens at that event and asked Graham, coordinator of the prayer event, to spearhead the drafting of the statement.

For the full statement and audio of the news conference, click here.

Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, said the document was written from the heart of pastors and with a spirit of brokenness and boldness. He said, “No one needs to wonder where we stand as Christians in these days.”

James Merritt, pastor of Cross Pointe Church, Duluth, Ga., said the issue at hand is not who can get married but what marriage is. As the culture lunges toward a historically unprecedented alteration of the definition, pastors, religious institutions, ministries, and individual Christians will face spiritual and legal challenges for standing on the biblical truth about marriage.

And the pastors repeatedly emphasized Christians must be prepared.

“This is coming and it’s coming now. And the trajectory of this issue is at breakneck speed,” Graham told Baptist Press, noting just seven years ago during then-candidate Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign it was politically correct for Obama to announce he was in favor of traditional marriage. “And now, in seven years, that has turned upside down. At least in the political arena.”

If the Supreme Court declares marriage a constitutional right and affords gays and lesbians protected class status — as the Civil Rights Act afforded the same status to blacks — refusing to marry same-sex couples or affirm homosexuality in the workplace could come with fines, taxes, and, as demonstrated in one case in Idaho, threats of incarceration.

Graham and Frank S. Page, president of the SBC Executive Committee, cited the Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, lawsuit, which has since been rescinded, in which a pastor operating a marriage chapel was threatened by the city with fines and incarceration for refusing to marry a same-sex couple.

Depending on how SCOTUS rules — and the subsequent passage of laws and regulations pertaining to the ruling — churches and religious institutions could lose their tax-exempt status for refusing to recognize or service same-sex marriages.

And that, pastors said, could ruin a church.

“This is part of counting the cost,” Graham told Baptist Press following the press conference.

Page added, “Many churches live on a razor-thin edge of finance and it well could be catastrophic to many churches. Even more than the tax-exempt status are the fines levied against churches” for failure to comply with local, state, or national regulations.

“Soon and very soon, it’s coming. The pastors will be held accountable for what they say in their pulpits on this issue,” Graham said, citing the subpoenaing of five Houston pastors in a lawsuit against the city and mayor.

Merritt, quoting the late SBC President Adrian Rogers in a meeting with then-U.S.-President-elect Bill Clinton, said, “The church is not just tax exempt; the church is tax immune.”

Merritt added, “There is nothing in the Constitution that speaks to gay marriage. There is plenty that speaks to the right to religious freedom.”

The pastors offered advice on how pastors and leaders of religious institutions can insulate themselves, to a degree, against the legal tide flowing against them.

Bryant Wright, pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., said these institutions must have well-documented policies clearly defining marriage and the policies grounded in that definition.

Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said, “We are urging every college, university and seminary to be crystal clear in their bylaws and in their operational manuals about what is and is not acceptable. We never saw this day coming but we are urging all to be very, very clear.”

Concise documentation could, for the time being, thwart lawsuits but may not appease accrediting institutions. Patterson said religious schools’ future accreditation could be “dependent on whether or not you play ball on this issue.” But, he added, “We are not allowing accrediting associations to be the lord over our institutions.”

Patterson said his greatest concern is for the small churches who have not thought through their bylaws, and “the forces arrayed against us” know that. It will be the small congregations who are ill-equipped to finance a lawsuit or pay fines, he said.

So one of the most important reasons for issuing this statement, Patterson said, is, “you need to get ready for this. You need to be prepared for this.”

Following the press conference, Page and Graham said they are also concerned for church members who live in the corporate world and the marketplace. The issue of same-sex marriage has moved beyond those who are in the wedding industry.

“When you come to this issue of religious liberty … members of our congregations, Christians everywhere, are being asked to support something in their business environment which is unconscionable,” Graham added. That could cost employees promotions or even their jobs.

Merritt said every pastor on the platform has refused to perform certain marriages of various kinds, such as marrying a believer and an unbeliever. Until now the government has had no say in that, and pastors must not give up that right.

Merritt said God’s design has proven itself to be the best standard for families, children and the nation. Adding, “No vote of any court will ever change that fact.”

But recognizing members of their churches and society at large struggle with — or embrace — same-sex attraction, the nine men on the platform encouraged all Christians to address the issue with conviction and compassion.

“We offer this statement prayerfully, and with the hope and aspiration that things could change and that God could turn this whole thing around. But this is currently a legal battle and therefore we must respond to the legal battle.” Graham said.

Floyd said, “The Southern Baptist Convention has not moved. The culture has moved. We stand on the Word of God that abides forever. And that’s who we are to the glory of God.”

The document was signed by Bailey E. Smith, 1981, 1982; Morris H. Chapman, 1991, 1992; James T. Draper, Jr., 1983, 1984; Charles F. Stanley, 1985, 1986; Jerry Vines, 1989, 1990; H. Edwin Young, 1993, 1994; James B. Henry, 1995, 1996; Tom Elliff, 1997, 1998; Paige Patterson, 1999, 2000; James Merritt, 2001, 2002; Jack Graham, 2003, 2004; Bobby Welch, 2005, 2006; Frank S. Page, 2007, 2008; Johnny M. Hunt, 2009, 2010; Bryant Wright, 2011, 2012; Fred Luter, 2013, 2014; and Ronnie Floyd, 2015, 2016.

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  • Bonnie Pritchett