Columbus, Ohio — Declaring “spiritual warfare” on gay marriage, thousands gathered here Tuesday for the annual Southern Baptist Convention and vowed that, no matter what the Supreme Court rules this month, they will never yield on the issue.
The Baptists acknowledged that the court seems likely to legalize same-sex marriage when it rules in the next two weeks, but leaders urged the faithful to stand fast and, indeed, lead the nation in opposition.
“We are in spiritual warfare,” said convention president Rev. Ronnie Floyd. “This is not a time for Southern Baptists to stand back.”
Floyd echoed a generally defiant tone among attendees, many of them pastors, who have faced increasing criticism for their belief that the Bible declares homosexuality a sin and limits marriage to a man and a woman. At a time when society is increasingly tolerant of same-sex unions, he said, Southern Baptists must stand by their views.
“This is not the time to retreat,” said Floyd, who leads Cross Church in Arkansas. “The alarm clock is going off around the world. Now is not the time to hit the snooze button.”
Floyd said the high court’s opinion, expected within two weeks, could mark the most significant religion-related court ruling since the 1973 abortion decision of Roe v. Wade. It could alter the nation’s structure of marriage and compromise religious liberty, he said.
“It would add fuel, more fuel, to the already sweeping wildfire of sexual revolution and move it beyond all control,” he said.
Numerous Georgia pastors and church officials attended the opening of the convention Tuesday, as Georgia has played a long and powerful role in the organization founded in 1845. While still heavily concentrated in the South, the SBC has affiliations throughout the U.S. and is the world’s largest Baptist denomination.
'We must stay true to God's word'
Several attendees, whom the event terms as “messengers,” said the convention — with its joyful gospel songs, impassioned testimonials and shared fellowship — offered a communal sense of reassurance of their views. The official attendance was 5,000, but it did not count the many spouses and children here.
Many of their congregants, sensing the shifting cultural climate on gay marriage, feel defensive and afraid to publicly state their views, wary of being cast as bigots or hate-mongers.
“We understand how fully unpopular our view is, and where the culture is on this issue,” said the Rev. Bryant Wright of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in East Cobb and a former convention president. “But we must stay true to God’s word.”
Wright acknowledged the difficulty of communicating that church members are not hateful or discriminatory against gays and lesbians, though Baptists do believe they are sinners. He noted that he preaches to teens who have sex outside of marriage, people who divorce, and those who commit adultery. He loves them and hopes they find their way, he said.
Winston Taylor, a planner with Gospel Fellowship Church in northwest Atlanta, said he is fine with gays and lesbian spouses receiving legal benefits.
“Where I disagree is when they want to bring it into the church,” he said. “The church is a God thing, and God has said homosexuality and lesbianism is a sin.”
'I will not officiate over any same-sex unions'
The issue of same-sex marriage is expected to dominate the convention. Tuesday ended with a resolution reaffirming the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. Wednesday will begin with a press conference by Floyd and former presidents on the issue and end with a panel discussion on the question before the Supreme Court.
The atmosphere of the convention was striking in its righteousness on the issue of same-sex unions. Floyd’s morning presidential address was filled with the old-time fire and brimstone belief that the world is troubled and Baptists must show the way.
He received thunderous applause when he asserted, “I will not officiate over any same-sex unions or same-sex marriage ceremonies.”
The tone represented something of a shift from recent years when the convention sought a more subdued tone, focusing more on what people believed in, not what they were against, some longtime attendees said.
The messengers are convening in Columbus as some pundits have wondered whether the organization is in decline. Recent studies show that SBC lost 200,000 members between 2013 and 2014, the eighth straight year of declining membership, and saw the lowest number of baptisms since 1947.
Still, it remains the nation’s largest Protestant denomination with slightly fewer than 15.5 million members.
“Our church needs to stand up and pray like never before,” Floyd said. “Even as other churches bow to political correctness and cultural pressures … May the world never have to ask again, where are the leaders?”