The Southern Baptist Convention has announced that, should the Supreme Court approve same-sex marriages, the SBC will not abide by that ruling. As a practical matter, I don't believe the Court's ruling, whichever way it falls, will be intended to reach inside any church and dictate what its members or its pastors think or how the church functions, so I'm not sure that the Convention's announcement is necessary to defend the faith. My very limited legal knowledge suggests to me that a preacher can refuse to marry anybody in his or her church if such a marriage violates his or her own religious beliefs. The city government, on the other hand, would be bound to abide by the Court's ruling, a marriage at City Hall being a civil, not a religious, event.
Just as I am no legal scholar, I am likewise no theologian. I am, however, a Baptist. No longer a Southern Baptist, which I chose a good many years ago no longer to be, as I don't agree with some of the basic and most loudly proclaimed positions of that part of the denomination. But I joined the Baptist church nearly 70 years ago, choosing, in a family divided between two denominations, to go with the one that, even at a young age, despite what I would come to recognize eventually as some features I perceived to be not as Christ-like as I'd thought, I sensed contained a strain that appealed to me. That strain was freedom. Freedom to seek God in my own way, to interpret His word as I saw fit, freedom to push past rituals and rules and find a very personal relationship with my Creator, if I could. I've not always been successful, but I have not and will not let any manmade organization stand in my way.
That said, I am not attacking the SBC for its decision to announce its position. I have friends and acquaintances whose opinions on the subject may run directly counter to mine, and I respect their right to think as they see fit. I happen to think that, if you don't believe in same-sex marriage, then don't marry someone of the same sex. If you are opposed to homosexuality, don't choose to live as a homosexual, if choice is involved. I happen not to favor either of those, so I am happily married to a woman, have never been married to a man, have never engaged in a homosexual liaison and am unlikely to from here on in. But society is ultimately going to go the way it wants to go, and I can either rage from the sidelines or try to apply, within my limited sphere, the kind of tolerance and understanding Jesus applied, even to those who acted counter to what his life stood for.
I wonder if the SBC has given a lot of thought to its historical positions and how they look today. It was founded primarily on the basis of approval of slavery. After slavery was crushed, it supported segregation, where not formally, at least through actions and beliefs of a lot of its members. In my lifetime, I have heard defenses of segregation and the subjugation of blacks on the questionable Biblical basis that they are descendants of Ham and thus destined to be "hewers of wood and bearers of water," or some such verbiage.
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Along with other churches, the SBC surely condemned divorce in the past. Yet the highest divorce rate in the country is in the Bible Belt, natural home of the SBC. So a fair number of Southern Baptists must be among those with multiple marriages. Where's the outrage? Wives, the SBC says, must be submissive to their husbands, just as slaves were once admonished to be submissive to their masters. But if they divorce the husband, we'll just chalk it up to societal change and not fuss about it. Unless they turn around and marry another woman.
So, yes, the SBC has a right to issue pronouncements as it chooses. I don't send them my money, so I don't have a say in their decisions. I just hope the formal announcement doesn't lead some churches to proceed in a direction out of sync with the tolerance taught by the one whose name we claim.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."