Marriage, family, and human sexuality

Upholding Truth in an Increasingly Decadent Culture

Nathan A. Finn

Southern Baptists in 2023 find ourselves mostly out of step with the values of the wider American culture. This is especially true when it comes to sexual ethics and how best to understand marriage and the family. It’s not that Baptists have changed our views. Rather, in recent decades, our nation has drifted increasingly into a post-Christian moral consensus.

For over a century, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and its forerunners have played a key role in helping Southern Baptists navigate threats to a biblical vision of marriage, the family, and human sexuality. As American culture has moved further into decadence, the ERLC has refined its vision, educated Baptists about biblical ethics, and advocated faithfully for our views in the public square. 

Alcohol and family stability 

In the early 20th century, Southern Baptist views on marriage and family were mostly aligned with majority opinions in American culture. Nevertheless, there were threats to flourishing families. One of the most pronounced was alcohol abuse, which Baptists believed contributed to the destruction of individuals and the dissolution of the family. Many American evangelicals had begun advocating for total abstinence from beverage alcohol following the American Civil War, when countless thousands of veterans who suffered from alcoholism struggled with reintegrating into civilian life. 

In 1908, Southern Baptists established a Committee on Temperance, which became the first forerunner of the ERLC. In 1913, a newly formed Social Service Commission (SSC) absorbed the older committee, led by A.J. Barton. Southern Baptists and other evangelicals celebrated the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919, which prohibited the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” Under Barton’s leadership, the SSC encouraged Southern Baptists to adopt several anti-alcohol resolutions and advocated for the Baptist consensus in the political sphere.

Prior to mid-century, the Commission also led Southern Baptists to pass resolutions against other social ills they believed threatened the family, corrupted children, and undermined public morality including gambling and immoral content in motion pictures. 

The Christian Life Commission and the sexual revolution 

In 1953, the SSC was renamed the Christian Life Commission (CLC), a change that reflected a more holistic emphasis on applied ethics for Christian faithfulness and paved the way for published resources and conferences. In the period between 1950 and 1980, the CLC mostly emphasized race relations and matters of war and peace. The key figure during these years was Foy Valentine, an ethicist who served as president from 1960 to 1987.

Valentine’s presidency overlapped with the advent of the sexual revolution that led to the dissolution of the traditional biblical consensus about marriage, the family, and sexuality in America. No-fault divorce, second-wave feminism, sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, and cohabitation were each becoming increasingly acceptable, especially among the baby boomers and their children. 

The CLC struggled at times to offer a clear biblical witness in response to some of these trends. Conferences and literature addressed issues that threatened the family including alcohol and drug abuse, poverty, divorce, cohabitation, and sexual promiscuity. However, CLC leaders sometimes framed abortion as a birth control issue, remained mostly ambivalent about homosexuality, and occasionally invited speakers who promoted progressive sexual ethics to conferences. 

By the mid-1970s, American evangelical concerns about sexual ethics were inspiring increased political advocacy among moral traditionalists. Many Southern Baptists shared the cares of this politically active Religious Right and desired a more full-throated affirmation of traditional biblical values.

The Conservative Resurgence and social conservatism

Though the Conservative Resurgence which began in 1979 was primarily about promoting the truthfulness of Scripture, the vast majority of the conservative participants also believed that the Bible spoke clearly to God’s design for sexuality. Throughout the 1980s, Southern Baptists passed numerous resolutions that affirmed traditional views of sexual ethics including marriage between one man and one woman, sex within the covenant of marriage, the evils of pornography, the aberrant nature of homosexuality, and gender complementarity in the family and the Church. 

However, the CLC was sometimes on the opposite side of these resolutions. Under the leadership of presidents Valentine and Larry Baker, the CLC remained ambivalent about both abortion and homosexuality. The CLC was also closely aligned with the gender egalitarianism advocated by moderate Southern Baptists and embodied in the failed Equal Rights Amendment.

By 1988, conservatives had gained control of the CLC’s board and elected Richard Land as president of the commission. Under Land’s leadership (1988-2013), the CLC’s positions were more closely aligned with the conservative consensus of grassroots Southern Baptists. Southern Baptists defunded the Baptist Joint Committee in 1990. In 1997, the CLC was transformed into the ERLC, which was responsible for addressing both social ethics and religious liberty concerns on behalf of Southern Baptists.

ERLC and the culture wars

In the early 1990s, the sociologist James Davison Hunter and politician Pat Buchanan argued memorably that conservative Christians and progressive secularists, as well as their allies, were engaged in a “culture war” that often centered around marriage, the family, and human sexuality. 

Under Land’s leadership, the ERLC became a leading voice among social conservatives committed to a biblical vision for sexual ethics. For example, Land advocated for the Defense of Marriage Act (1996), which passed Congress and was signed by President Clinton. The ERLC also purchased a second office in Washington, D.C., to better facilitate advocacy for biblical convictions at the national level.

During the 1990s and into the 2000s, Southern Baptists continued to pass resolutions affirming orthodox Christian views, though this time with the support and encouragement of the ERLC. Commission publications and conferences also championed the conservative views of Southern Baptists. In addition, Land served on the committees that amended the Baptist Faith and Message in 1998 to include a statement that affirmed a traditional view of the family and revised the confession in 2000 so that it clearly rejected homosexuality, pornography, and gender egalitarianism.

A key feature of both the presidencies of George W. Bush (2001–2009) and Barack Obama (2009–2017) was the culture war that increasingly coalesced around the issue of gay marriage and celebration of LGBTQ+ lifestyles. Land served as a key counselor to Bush and spoke forthrightly against the ordination of homosexuals and the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. He also authored a book titled For Faith and Family: Changing America by Strengthening the Family (2002), promoted social conservatism on his daily radio show, and encouraged “values voters” to mobilize to vote for socially conservative candidates and ballot measures in 2004. Further, the ERLC supported state marriage amendments that defined marriage as between one man and one woman.

In 2013, Land retired from the presidency of the ERLC, and Russell Moore (2013–2021) began his tenure as president. Moore’s administration overlapped with a series of notable defeats for cultural conservatism in the public square. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges required states to recognize same-sex marriage. Soon, progressive activists and corporations began to push for increasing normalization of LGBTQ+ lifestyles and to exert political or economic pressure on individuals, companies, and even states that refused to embrace revisionist views of marriage, the family, and human sexuality.

Under Moore’s leadership, the ERLC remained committed to equipping Southern Baptists and advocating on behalf of a biblical vision of these increasingly contested issues. The ERLC website was expanded and content was published to help Southern Baptists and other believers to think biblically about sexual ethics. Advocacy at the state and national level continued. Moore and ERLC ethicist Andrew Walker edited a series of books titled Gospel for Life that addressed a whole range of ethical issues including marriage, same-sex marriage, adoption, parenting, and pornography. Moore also published several other books addressing adoption, marriage, and same-sex marriage, while Walker published a book offering a Christian response to transgenderism.

Sexual abuse in the SBC

At the same time the ERLC was equipping believers to engage with the growing sexual decadence of American culture, the commission was also addressing sexual sins and crimes in the Southern Baptist camp. In 2019, the Houston Chronicle published a five-part series that alleged a pattern of abuse and cover-ups dating back over two decades. During the final two years of Moore’s presidency, the ERLC focused increased attention addressing the scandal of sexual abuse among Southern Baptist churches.

In 2019, the ERLC hosted a panel discussion on sex abuse at the SBC Annual Meeting, dedicated its national conference that year to the same topic, and launched an initiative called Caring Well to equip congregations to prevent abuse and respond faithfully when abuse occurs. The ERLC continued to partner with appointed sex abuse study committees, task forces, and third-party groups that were tasked with claims of abuse and cover-ups, as well as make recommendations on how best to move forward. 


Though American culture continues to drift morally and the issues remain contentious, Southern Baptists steadfastly affirm a biblical understanding of marriage, the family, and human sexuality. Our convictions are rooted in Scripture, reflect God’s divine design, and result in authentic human flourishing. Though our nation has reached a post-Christian moral consensus on these matters for the time being, the ERLC continues to serve Southern Baptists faithfully by helping us form our convictions and advocate on our behalf in the public square. By God’s grace, we will maintain a consistent public witness—to the glory of God and in the hope of the renewal of our nation.

Nathan A. Finn is provost and dean of the University Faculty at North Greenville University in Tigerville, South Carolina. His latest book is Historical Theology for the Church (B&H Academic, 2021), co-edited with Jason G. Duesing. He serves as a Research Fellow of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24