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Russell Moore's ERLC Posts a Flawed "Evangelical Declaration on Marriage"

Russell Moore's ERLC Posts a Flawed "Evangelical Declaration on Marriage"

By Robert A. J. Gagnon
July 1, 2015

Russell Moore's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has posted a flawed "Evangelical Declaration on Marriage" entitled "Here We Stand." While I appreciate the effort at getting evangelical leaders to declare affirmation of a male-female requirement for marriage, I think that every evangelical leader who signed this (and there are already quite a few) signed a statement that errs at some points and gives the wrong advice at others.

This is not an attack on those who have already signed the document. Doubtless, many signed simply because it does contain a number of good statements. For example, the first paragraph states, "We will not capitulate on marriage because biblical authority requires that we cannot"; and the second paragraph affirms strongly Jesus' own affirmation of marriage as a male-female union. Nor should my comments be construed as a personal attack on any formulators of the statement or an accusation of doctrinal heresy. However, substantial disagreements or concerns exist about the content of the statement that I hope my friends can hear with some degree of openness.

So here are at least five problems that I see with the statement.

The Necessity of Godly Outrage as a Moral Force

First, I believe the unnamed author(s) of the document (presumably primarily, if not exclusively, Russell Moore) erred in claiming that Christians should not express outrage at this decision: "Outrage and panic are not the responses of those confident in the promises of a reigning Christ Jesus." When I read the document, this statement jumped out at me more than any other. Apparently, I wasn't the only one for whom this was the case. Christianity Today highlighted that remark above all others (in apparent approval, unfortunately).

Jesus expressed outrage at sin repeatedly in his ministry (the cleansing of the temple is a fairly concrete case in point). So did John the Baptist (his direct criticism of Herod Antipas for taking his brother's wife is an obvious instance). So did Paul (I would say that outrage was a hallmark of his comments on tolerance for the incestuous man in 1 Cor. 5). So did John of Patmos in Revelation (comparing the Roman Empire and its emperors to a harlot and a disgusting 7-headed beast rising from the sea, a puppet of the dragon that symbolizes Satan; likewise symbolizing the provincial imperial cult leaders as a blasphemous beast rising from the earth).

When I talk about outrage, I'm not talking about hating anyone but rather a holy outrage against injustice that motivates believers to take action. For decades the church has been overly passive about the liberties of their children being taken away and naive about the enormously negative impact of the imposition of acceptance of homosexual relations. Given the outrage expressed by Jesus, Paul, and every prophet, to claim (as this document does) that outrage against injustice is antithetical to trusting in God's promises is absolutely false and just plain silly. Everybody understands the concept when one is talking about outrage against economic exploitation and racism and abuse of women.

Friends, if this were the Supreme Court attempting to restore the Dred Scott ruling, would it be unchristian to express "outrage"? This is not a tea party. Democracy and liberty in America have been struck the greatest body blow in our lifetime. The action of the five lawless Justices will have enormous negative repercussions for the church corporately and Christians individually. And outrage at egregious immorality is not antithetical to love. This action by the Lawless 5 will harm many, especially those who experience same-sex attractions. We should have a godly outrage toward that.

In my view, although the statement polarizes outrage and faith (implicitly also love), the real polarization is between outrage and "niceness." In other words, the statement perpetuates the myth that if we were just a bit nicer, we wouldn't be persecuted so much. David French puts it well in a recent article:

"Christians often strive to be seen as the 'nicest' or 'most loving' people in their communities. Especially among Evangelicals, there is a naïve belief that if only we were winsome enough, kind enough, and compassionate enough, the culture would welcome us with open arms. But now our love ... is hate. Christians who've not suffered for their faith often romanticize persecution. They imagine themselves willing to lose their jobs, their liberty, or even their lives for standing up for the Gospel. Yet when the moment comes, at least here in the United States, they often find that they simply can't abide being called 'hateful.' It creates a desperate, panicked response. 'No, you don't understand. I'm not like those people -- the religious right.' Thus, at the end of the day, a church that descends from apostles who withstood beatings finds itself unable to withstand tweetings. Social scorn is worse than the lash."

Panic No, Alarm Yes

Second, while it is true that believers should not "panic," I think that the statement should also be stressing that many in the Church till now have been insufficiently alarmed by what is transpiring. A response of alarm can stimulate prayer and action. A comparison of Jesus and his disciples at Gethsemane makes clear that it was Jesus who was rightly alarmed while the disciples slept a sleep of ignorance. Jesus was not a masochist and neither should we be. Those who are not alarmed for their children are uncaring parents.

Far from Christians being too outraged and too panicked over the last two decades, many Christians, especially among 'elite' evangelicals, have exhibited a dearth of outrage and alarm, so as to appear reasonable to the broader culture. Many elite evangelicals have contended that the homosexualist push in the country was only one of many issues to consider in elections. Many still live in that denial, even after the SCOTUS decision. The last thing evangelicals need is another statement from elites that outrage and alarm are antithetical to trust in God (see "Sleeping at Gethsemane").

Treating the Supreme Court Decision as Outside the Rule of Law

Third, the document also seems to imply (wrongly, in my view) that Paul's remarks in Romans 13 mandate that Christian political leaders should not treat the ruling of the 5 Lawless Justices as the rogue decision that it is by disregarding compliance with the ruling. "We commit to ... respect and pray for our governing authorities even as we work through the democratic process to rebuild a culture of marriage" (Rom. 13:1-7). Do they think that Jesus "respected" Herod Antipas when he called him "that fox," which was not a compliment? Or that John of Patmos respected the Roman officials threatening Christians over emperor worship when he depicted them as the minions of Satan?

Romans 13 does not mandate compliance with a branch of the government that violates our own Constitution in such a manifestly blatant manner. The Lawless 5 violated the Constitution in their extreme hubris. Their decision deserves no credence now, even before replacement of the rogue Justices. The Lawless 5 should be denounced by all as meriting impeachment. As Princeton's Robert George recently noted,

"The Republican Party, the Republican Congress, and a future Republican President should regard and treat the decision just as the Republican Party, the Republican Congress, and the Republican President--Abraham Lincoln--regarded and treated the Dred Scott decision. They should, in other words, treat it as an anti-constitutional and illegitimate ruling in which the judiciary has attempted to usurp the authority of the people and their elected representatives. They should refuse to treat and regard it as a binding and settled matter. They should challenge it legislatively and give the Supreme Court every opportunity to reverse itself."

As Prof. George also observed twelve years ago:

"In office, Lincoln gave effect to his position against judicial supremacy by consistently refusing to treat the Dred Scott decision as creating a rule of law binding on the executive branch. His administration issued passports and other documents to free blacks, thus treating them as citizens of the United States despite the Court's denial of their status as citizens. He signed legislation that plainly placed restrictions on slavery in the western territories in defiance of Taney's ruling."

The ERLC statement appears to reflect Russell Moore's previous unhelpful criticism of Judge Roy Moore for not complying while he held the office of judge with a federal judge's unconstitutional overturning of Alabama's natural-marriage standard. Russell Moore presumed that state judges (and, indeed any government employees) who could not abide by the ruling of federal judges must resign their position if they are going to protest. According to him, "civil disobedience, even when necessary, cannot happen in their roles as agents of the state." He justified his position by appeal to respect for "the rule of law." But it is precisely the question of what here is "the rule of law" that is incorrectly presumed. What is presumed as "the rule of law" must be argued.

Leftwing judges have overreached their constitutional authority and thus abandoned the "rule of law." Moreover, effective "civil disobedience" can't be engaged in once a resisting official resigns because he/she, upon resignation, is no longer empowered to prevent the "marriage" of persons of the same sex. Lincoln didn't resign as President in order to protest the Dred Scott ruling. He subverted it repeatedly through the powers of his office. We need more political officials standing up and refusing to comply with the ruling, not less. Was it a bad thing for German officials to disregard anti-Semitic laws during Hitler's reign of terror against Jews?

To be sure, the ERLC statement is superior to the reaction of Rod Dreher (a senior editor and blogger at American Conservative) in TIME magazine. I appreciate Rod Dreher's sober estimate of how far matters have deteriorated; I have made similar arguments myself. However, I have done so as a means to awaken Christians to political action, not to discourage them from such. I believe that Rod is absolutely wrong about de-energizing Christians from getting behind political candidates who commit themselves to overturning or disregarding the ruling of the 5 Lawless Justices on "gay marriage." His insistence that "voting Republican and other failed culture war strategies are not going to save us now" insures our persecution.

True, elsewhere Rod states: "I'm not suggesting that we give up the fight in the public square. We have to fight for our religious liberty." Nevertheless, that qualifier is irrelevant if Christians are not making it a priority to elect officials who will support the cause of religious liberty and undermine the lawless actions of the Court. By all means let us be realistic. Realism for a long time now has involved the recognition that no Democratic candidate for President will henceforth work to preserve our freedoms, much less seek to chip away at "gay marriage."

Discouraging Christians from voting for Republican candidates that support a male-female prerequisite for marriage is counterproductive. Rod has no crystal ball at his disposal. While there is no guarantee, there remains a chance of change. We can say for certain that there will be no chance if we resign ourselves to political defeat. In discouraging Christians from believing that their votes will have any significant positive outcome, he aids and abets those who would deny us our liberties. It doesn't take any special clairvoyance to realize why TIME magazine, which has been sold out to homosexualism for many years, highlighted as Rod's most important sentence the remark that voting Republican will do little good.

Homosexual Practice as Desecration of the Imago Dei and Affront to Human Dignity

Fourth, I have concerns about the exhortation that Christians "affirm the biblical mandate that all persons, including LGBT persons, are created in the image of God and deserve dignity and respect." A first problem is adopting the "LGBT" nomenclature, as though doing so were part of this deserving "dignity and respect." Another is the failure to add that homosexual practice itself dishonors the dignity of the person engaging in it and threatens to mar the image of God stamped on the person (hence the close proximity of being made "in God's image" and being made "male and female" in Gen 1:27).

While animals are also made "male and female," sexual differentiation in their case is not connected to being made in the image of God. Consequently, when animals act in ways sexually that would be unthinkable for most humans, animals are not held responsible by God. Humans are. God's image and human sexual differentiation-and-pairing are uniquely integrated. As Nahum Sarna notes in the Jewish Publication Society commentary on Genesis: "No such sexual differentiation is [explicitly] noted in regard to animals. Human sexuality is of a wholly different order from that of the beast.... Its proper regulation is subsumed under the category of the holy, whereas sexual perversion is viewed with abhorrence as an affront to human dignity and as a desecration of the divine image in man." An attempt at uniting sexually two males or two females would threaten to desecrate the image of God stamped on humans as complementary sexual beings.

This is not to say persons who act out homosexually should not receive our love as human beings in need of divine grace. It is rather to say what must be said in any context in which gross immoral activity takes place: Those engaging in such activity are undermining the dignity of their own creation and desecrating the image of God, which problems the message of the gospel seeks to remedy. To suggest that such activity has no bearing on the dignity of the human creation is inaccurate and ultimately unhelpful. It unknowingly buys into a staple of homosexualist rhetoric, which focuses on the equal "dignity," "worth," and "image-bearing" as a basis for promoting acceptance of homosexual unions.

Our primary motivation for reaching out to people should lie not in ignoring the fact that dignity and image-bearing have been sullied by immorality but rather in recognizing that God wants to reclaim the lost and to reverse what was lost. The story of the prodigal son communicates the point: He is reduced to eating with the pigs, becoming like an animal in giving into his base instincts. And yet his father knows what he was and still hopes for his restoration (Luke 15:11-24).

The Need for Secular Arguments against Homosexual Practice

Fifth, while the statement's stand on remaining faithful to a biblical male-female prerequisite for sexual relations is good, there is no statement providing secular justification for rejecting homosexual practice. Jesus himself pointed the way by hinging his declaration about limiting two persons to a sexual union, whether concurrently (no polygamy) or serially (no remarriage after invalid divorce) on a male-female requirement for sexual ethics. Only the duality of the sexes requisite for marriage can logically establish a duality of number for marriage.

Conclusion: Too Flawed a Statement to Sign or to Treat as a Flagship Statement

In short, I think that there are too many flaws in this statement to make this a flagship statement for evangelicals regarding the current American Crisis on marriage. I understand that good people will agree to disagree and I (and many others) could be wrong at various points. At the same time I don't think the concerns expressed here should be dismissed or scorned simply because of who put out the ERLC statement or who has since signed it.

That kind of circle-the-wagons approach is not helpful, much less an ad hominem, sarcastic, or retributive response to those offering the critique. If the arguments are wrong, show where the arguments are wrong. It is just possible that an esteemed group such as this, this phalanx of evangelical leaders, can learn from others who may have thought about the issue at least as deeply as they have. At any rate, no advance can be made without expressing the disagreement. Hopefully in mutual engagement iron will sharpen iron.

Robert A. J. Gagnon, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Abingdon Press).

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