Thank you Mr. President.
The late Johnny Cash once remarked that there were many people who would come up to him after a concert and say something along the lines of, “My father was in prison with you.” Cash would smile listen to them because he knew that he’d never done prison time; he just sang about it. So would just ask, “How’s your Daddy doing?” The Cash prison story just seemed real and authentic to these people because his lyrics sounded like someone who had been there, on the other side of the law, stuck in Folsom Prison, listening to the sound of faraway trains.
But of course there’s a big difference between songs about jail and life within jail, between singing like an outlaw and actually being an outlaw. For most of the past century, Baptist Christians have been comfortable in our culture, or at least in the little cocoons we could build within it. Some from this platform in many years over the last century could even speak of a “Southern Baptist Zion,” referring to the states beneath the Mason-Dixon line. Those days are over, and not a moment too soon.
Baptist Christianity just doesn’t do well as a water-carrier for anybody’s civil religion. Ours is a jailhouse religion, carried to us by heroes who were often outlaws—Paul of Tarsus, Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, Isaac Backus, John Leland, Martin Luther King, Jr. Many of them went straight from the baptistery to the jail cell to the great Cloud of Witnesses. And John Bunyan was able to love the celestial city because he didn’t care if he was on the cover of Vanity Fair.
We are their sons and their daughters. And we stand here again on the wrong side of history, right where we started. Your Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has been working hard this year with a two-pronged strategy. We want to speak up with a word of witness in the public square, and we want to equip churches to have a word to witness about. In short, I want to help keep you out of jail, and help make you willing to go to jail.
As we think about the struggle for religious liberty, one story in particular rings in my mind. A fellow Southern Baptist named Barronnelle Stutzman. Barronelle Stutzman wanted nothing more than to serve her community in Richland, Washington, through her business, a business called Arlene’s Flowers. She loved what she did and the people she served. One day, a long-time customer—who like many had become a personal friend to—asked her to provide floral arrangements for his upcoming wedding to a same-sex partner. Barronnelle had a difficult choice. She wanted to be kind to her friend; she wanted to honor him. But as a Christian, she did not want to violate her conscience by participating in a ceremony she believed to be wrong. She worried about alienating a loyal client, and even more than that a valued friendship, by explaining the limits of her ability to participate? Many of you here today know the choice that she made. It was a choice of courage and a choice of compassion, a choice of conviction and a choice of kindness. She said, “I love you, I want to serve you, but I can’t participate in something I believe to be wrong.”
It is for that choice that Barronnelle Stutzman finds herself and her business now under the assault by the government. She has been found guilty of trespassing, not the actual laws of discrimination, but the imagined laws of public conscience conformity. The American Civil Liberties Union represented her former clients in their civil suit, shortly before the state of Washington filed suit against her as well. And once again, Barronnelle was given a choice. The ACLU proposed a settlement if she simply apologized and recanted her religious beliefs. The attorney general’s office made a similar offer, suggesting that Mrs. Stutzman pay a modest fine if she would agree to service same-sex weddings from now on. Here were two more opportunities to, in the world’s eyes, to “recover”; two chances to make her troubles go away. I their minds, you might even say it was an opportunity to repent.
But Mrs. Stutzman knew that truth is not up for sale, and the gospel doesn’t bend to the highest bidder, that faithful Christians do not stow away their convictions in a blind trust when they enter the public square. Ms. Barronnelle’s story is one that shocked many of us, but her story is one that Southern Baptists need to be prepared for—a world in which the gospel and our convictions seem increasingly strange and freakish. That is Barronnelle Stutzman’s story and that is ours.
But, lets not just talk about our fellow Southern Baptist and sister in Christ Barronelle Stutzman, lets talk to her and honor her and pray for her. Brother and sister messengers, please give a warm welcome to Mrs. Barronnelle Stutzman.
I want for us to have a word of prayer for Mrs. Stutzman and for others who are making difficult decisions about convictions, and I wonder if we could do that together. If you are able, could you please kneel as we come before our Lord.
Father, I thank you right now for my sister, for her boldness, for her courage, for her conviction, for her kindness, for the truth that she loves the gospel more than her home, more than her business, more than her bank account, more than her reputation. And Father I pray that every one of us in this room would be able to love the gospel more than we love our comfort, our security, and our safety. And so Father we pray for her and her family and beyond that we pray for all of those who, all North America and all over the world, are having to live in different ways in a changing culture with the aroma of Jesus Christ with both truth and with grace. And we ask this in Jesus name, Amen.
Brothers and sisters, I am pleased to bring a report from your Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. The full report is found in your book of reports.
Your Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has been busy this year engaging in the public square. When one of the most ignorant and willfully deceitful public relations campaigns I’ve ever seen was waged against religious freedom legislation in Indiana, your ERLC fought back. Religious liberty was purchased with the blood and toil of our Baptists forefathers, and we will not see it bartered away at the hands of corporate or government bullies.
When one mayor had the audacity to subpoena sermons, we demanded it be known that soul freedom is not subject to subpoena. As Christians, we will render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but the preaching of the church of God does not belong to Caesar, and we will not hand it over: Not now. Not ever.
When Congress cowered and refused to pass commonsense legislation making it illegal to take the lives of pain-capable children in the womb, we mobilized and made it clear that we are not interested in rhetoric without results, and we fought to see the passage of the Pain Capable Unborn Protection Act in the United States House of Representatives, and we will continue to work until every unborn child is recognized and protected with human dignity and freedom.
At a time when religious liberty has been under assault more than any time since the American Revolution, your Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has been active in the Courts, filing over a dozen amicus briefs in the Supreme Court ranging from issues of life to issues of religious freedom to issues of the protection of marriage.
Not only that, but as we meet in this safe city, in this secure building, much of the rest of the world is on fire with religious persecution. Our brother, Pastor Saeed Abedini, for whom we prayed this time last year at this gathering, still languishes in prison. Around the world, our brothers and sisters in Christ are being driven from their homes, being mercilessly slaughtered for professing the name of our Lord. The lands where our Father Abraham and our Brother Paul once walked are now killing fields where people of the cross are being slaughtered. Brothers and sisters, we must act—we must contend for religious freedom for our brothers and sisters in Christ, and for everyone else wherever they are on the globe.
We will say to every government and every regime around the world: no government bureaucrat, no king, no tyrant, no leader will stand with sinners at judgment, so no government, no president, no king, no tyrant, no regime has authority over a free conscience.
That’s why today I am proud to announce that your Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission is establishing an international presence in the Middle East for the promotion of religious liberty around the world. In consultation with our International Mission Board and with others working overseas, we have decided that we must develop strategic relationships to advance the advocacy of religious freedom and to inform, to educate, and to mobilize Southern Baptists churches in North America in order to plead and to press for the cause of religious freedom all over the world. We will not stand idly while those with whom we will share eternity are being led to the slaughter.
But this is not enough in the public arena. Our primary priority has been to equip churches to bear witness to the transforming effects of the gospel.
For starters, every day on our website we provided content in the form of articles, videos, podcasts, bulletin inserts, scholarly essays, and more, designed to equip churches to think through the issues, including issues that our parents and grandparents and great grandparents never had to think about.
We partnered with LifeWay to develop the Gospel for Life book series, books with contributions from leading thinkers and writers about issues in the culture ranging from the sanctity of human life, to sexual ethics and marriage, to religious liberty, to racial reconciliation, to train and equip our churches and our church leaders.
We partnered with our seminaries to train next-generation Southern Baptists pastors at our ERLC Academy, where students came from all over the world in order to be equipped in the areas of Christian ethics.
We partnered with the Alliance Defending Freedom to create a legal guide for churches to use to protect their ministries from lawsuits about sexual orientation and gender identity resources that you can find at the ERLC website.
We partnered with churches and conventions throughout our denomination to train Southern Baptists pastors and leaders to address tough questions with faithfulness to the gospel. We’ve partnered with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma to create events training our churches, in light of the coming threat to marriage, about what faithfulness to Christ looks like in a world where even the definition of marriage is confused.
And we have created events of all sorts to equip Christians and churches. Just recently, we held a national leadership summit on the issue of racial reconciliation because we believe that the blood of Jesus Christ is shed for all people not just for white people and that means that the church of Jesus Christ should look like the kingdom of God from every tribe, tongue, nation, and language. And in January of next year, when thousands are gathering for the march for life on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we will be hosting a gathering, in partnership with Focus on the Family, of Evangelicals for Life, understanding and knowing that the abortion issue is not simply a Catholic issue and as much as we appreciate our Catholic friends gathering and marching, we need born again evangelical Christians standing up for life.
We’ve said before and we say now, that no matter how the Supreme Court rules at the end of this month, we as Southern Baptists must both articulate and embody a vision for marriage. If the Court finds some right to marriage that neither the drafters of the Constitution nor any previous generation of Americans, or non-Americans, could ever have imagined, then we stand and we will speak otherwise, we can do no other, our consciences are captive to the Word of God. We will not capitulate because we cannot capitulate. We did not make up a Christian sexual ethic, we were given a Christian sexual ethic, and as long as the throne in Heaven is occupied, we can’t rewrite what he has written. At the same time though, a half gospel is worse than no gospel at all. We are not ministers of condemnation. We are ministers of reconciliation. We will speak a word that calls to repentance, but we will not end at repentance. We will not end at a call that says, “Look at your sin.” We will continue until we say, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes a way the sins of the world.”
We’ve come a long way from the jail-house to now, but a lot can happen in jail-houses. As with Paul and Silas, sometimes they are filled with hymns and prayers, and the kind of gospel that can save a suicidal jailer now and then. And we’ll work to preserve religious liberty, because there is too much at stake not to. But I’ll tell you right now, there’s one thing worse than going to jail for your faith if it ever comes to that for you, and that’s having a faith that’s too safe to jail.
As Baptists, we bear a responsibility for the rest of the Body of Christ. We are the conservators of freedom of conscience, of a free church in a free state. And when we stand before our King, there are many things we will want to say. But one of them will be these words, “Our fathers were in prison, with you.”
Thank you, Mr. President. I am happy to take questions.