Several University of South Carolina students recently protested in the campus paper the school’s May 7 plan to award an honorary doctorate to Southern Baptist Convention President and USC alumni*, Bryant Wright. University student Dustin Tucker said the message of the SBC toward the gay community is “one of hate and intolerance and I really don't think that reflects well on the university" (//link). And apparently, according to Jonathan Merritt, Director of College and Single Adults at Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Georgia, the protestors stand on solid ground…>>>
Young Merritt is the son of James Merritt, a once denominational rising star during the Conservative Resurgence and past two-term president of the Southern Baptist Convention (2000-2002). More significantly, young Merritt (hereafter, Jonathan) embraces views out of lock-step with most Southern Baptists, especially concerning fairly extreme views on environmental issues and nuclear pacifism. Neither did he possess positive vibes for the Manhattan Declaration signed jointly by Catholics and evangelicals decrying the demise of the Judeo-Christian consensus in American culture. In fact, Jonathan pooh-poohed the whole idea. So, Jonathan is hardly a stranger to taking provocative stands on socio-cultural issues.
The most provocative issue Jonathan has engaged, however, is homosexuality. In August of 2009, Jonathan had an article show up on USA Today entitled “An Evangelical's Plea: Love the Sinner, wherein the young pastor argued evangelicals need to tone down their rhetoric toward the gay lifestyle, “treating our gay and lesbian neighbors more lovingly.” He further indicated in his blogpost that while “Homosexual practice is sin according to scripture,” it is also true that “gossip, lying, pride, most divorces and the many other "respectable sins" that run rampant in our church hallways” are sins as well.
According to Jonathan, the USA Today article provided “intense feedback” but it was nothing like he received from an interview he did with The Advocate, a popular magazine which caters to the gay community, an interview for which he confessed he took “a beating behind closed doors.” In the May, 2009 print issue, Jonathan Merritt got a feature profile and story about his public plea to evangelicals about loving homosexual sinners by losing harsh speech. The article entitled “Reduce, Reuse, Religion?” written by Andrew Harmon has as its main thrust to profile Merritt as a “young evangelical leader, a prominent writer on modern faith” who joins a rising generation of young evangelicals swapping an antigay agenda for a pro-planet one. And, according to Harmon, Jonathan Merritt views his generation as unwilling to stand for traditional marriage. Harmon quotes Jonathan:
“My generation will not fight to preserve the platform for traditional marriage that our predecessors have fought for," the 26-year-old says. "Older evangelicals are so stubborn and unable to compromise or reach out a hand. And they're in danger of losing their legacy."
Harmon offers the reasons why Merritt holds his position on evangelicals’ slipping posture against gay lifestyle:
Merritt says it's easy to see why. Four out of 10 evangelical youths say they have a close friend or family member who is gay, twice as many as their older counterparts. When the issue becomes personal, attitudes change. "Many older [evangelicals] are in disbelief when you quote that statistic," he says. "One man said to me, 'Well, I have a cousin who is gay.' I told him the difference is that I hang out with my friends who are gay on Friday nights. You just see your cousin at Christmastime."
Nor is this the only time Jonathan has been formulating a new and improved game plan to reach into the gay community. Merritt wrote in the Chicago Sun Times that "I don't think [recognition of same sex unions] is an issue that my generation will fight over, at least not with the tenacity that the previous generations did" (//link). This theme occurs with increasing frequency within Jonathan’s cultural commentary.
Merritt’s most recent commentary about the Christless way evangelicals allegedly treat gays is an opinion essay published by Christian Science Monitor entitled “Evangelical shift on gays: Why 'clobber scriptures' are losing ground.” Merritt becomes bolder still as he increases his own form of clobbering the evangelical community to which he belongs. He writes cautiously yet approvingly of Jay Bakker, son of the famed but fallen star of the PTL scandal, Jim Bakker, as Bakker has become a sort of “bellwether” in being the “only prominent evangelical to have argued for a big-tent approach to sexuality”:
Mr. Bakker, who is straight and divorced, says that religious people for far too long have used selective “clobber scriptures” to condemn gays and lesbians. A closer look at the teachings of the full biblical narrative, he says, leads us away from this position. “The simple fact is that Old Testament references in Leviticus do treat homosexuality as a sin ... a capital offense even,” Bakker writes. “But before you say, ‘I told you so,’ consider this: Eating shellfish, cutting your sideburns and getting tattoos were equally prohibited by ancient religious law… . After Bakker made his views public, every church where he had speaking engagements scheduled for the coming year cancelled. The withdrawal of his church’s biggest donors forced him to lay off his entire church staff”
Adding to Merritt’s entourage to show off his premise that evangelicals are loosening their moral plank against gayness are two theologians on opposite ends of the “evangelical” platform—Brian McLaren and Al Mohler. Mclaren, according to Merritt,
“moved toward affirmation of gays and lesbians in his 2010 book “A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith. He condemns Christians’ obsession with sexuality and urges them to construct “a more honest and robust Christian anthropology” (Merritt incidentally mentions musicians Jennifer Knapp and Ray Boltz coming out of the closet)
While one would not be surprised Brian Mclaren would hold a “big tent” view of sexuality to compliment his “big tent” view of generous orthodoxy, one can only be confused at Merritt’s attempt to pull Al Mohler into his entourage. Let’s be clear: while Al Mohler’s Reformed views remain a minority among Southern Baptists, his views on social ethics—particularly homosexuality—hardly differ from traditional Southern Baptist subculture if differ at all. Who would reasonably believe otherwise?
Yet, while he rightly quotes Mohler as holding the very clear Biblical teaching that homosexual behavior is not in God’s design for sexuality and is sinful, Merritt later supposedly quotes Al Mohler directly in what stands as hard-to-accept language. According to Merritt, Mohler bluntly said:
“We’ve lied about the nature of homosexuality and have practiced what can only be described as a form of homophobia,” Mohler says. “We’ve used the ‘choice’ language when it is clear that sexual orientation is a deep inner struggle and not merely a matter of choice”
I attempted to locate the direct quotes. I failed. Unfortunately, the Merritt article offers no links, and Jonathan did not hint in the article where Mohler allegedly said or wrote these words or the context for them. Frankly put, if Al Mohler did either write or speak these words, I don’t believe for a minute these words accurately represent the context in which Jonathan says Dr. Mohler allegedly used them.** It’s just that simple. Mohler has been too clear on his cultural commentary on the gay agenda. Moreover, it is unacceptable for Merritt to write such provocative statements without citing his sources.
Finally, Jonathan’s conclusion is frightening and should be noted by all Southern Baptists. He writes:
“Retaining young people is crucial, and a more accepting generation will not tolerate business as usual when it comes to the debate over homosexuality. Pastors need not compromise their convictions, but they can expect congregants to call for a more accepting, forgiving message – a more Christian message. If Christian leaders can’t make that transition – and quickly – instead of an awakening, evangelicals may be facing an exodus”
Given Jonathan’s diagnosis—we are hypocritically harsh on homosexuals while we let “respectable” sinners off the hook—his prognosis follows—if we don’t take his advice and stop “clobbering” the gay community with the Bible, then the younger generation will walk. While Jonathan possesses far too many premises which lands us here to reasonably and openly contest, one will presently suffice.
As noted above, Jonathan supposes while “Homosexual practice is sin according to scripture,” it is also true that “gossip, lying, pride, most divorces and the many other "respectable sins" that run rampant in our church hallways” are sins as well. True. Nonetheless, to lump all moral grievances into one clump as Jonathan obviously does and suppose the church must take an all-sin-is-equally-sinful-and-socially-destructive approach is societal-suicide so far as the church’s cultural voice on moral issues goes. For my part, I understand Merritt is asking the church to stop verbally addressing the gay community with “thou shalt not” because we don’t address the gossiping community with “thou shalt not.” If I am correct, suppose we do begin addressing gossipers with “thou shalt not” *** Wouldn’t that mean it would be O.K. to also give gays their rightful, equal share of “thou shalt nots”?
More problematic is Jonathan Merritt’s moral naiveté concerning precisely which moral grievances become threats to societal culture and thus deserve publicly addressing those concerns. The truth is, the gay-agenda community may very well be the most organized, well-funded political caucus in modern times. And they are decidedly bent on changing our legislation pertaining not to civil union, a victory of which would only be a temporary quantum leap for them. Rather the gay agenda will settle for no less than an unconditional surrender of our legislative definition of marriage. There is no compromise on this. Period. This is the gay-rights agenda. Marriage as we know it becomes culturally, legally obliterated.
In light of this, where is there present, in American culture, an organized group of dedicated, die-hard gossipers whose chief goal is to make legislative changes to make gossip morally acceptable and consequently stigmatize anyone—including the church—who speaks “thou shalt nots” to gossipers? While it sounds fairly reasonable to make evangelicals into the moral hypocrites the cultural elites know them to be, not to mention gets Jonathan into good graces of the more leftist magazines to which he constantly caters, the truth remains that some sins deservedly require more prophetic energy than do others, especially when we are dealing with societal norms.
How tragic that a bright young Christian man like Jonathan Merritt sells his literary soul to compromise biblical conviction. And, the sad thing is, he thinks it’s us who stand as the real enemy to our culture. One thing is for sure, however: if he thinks evangelicals are too stiff and refuse to compromise, wait until he attempts to compromise with the gay community elite. With the prodigal about which Jesus spoke, he may find himself remembering his Father’s house, pack up his bags, and move back. We’d welcome you, Jonathan.
With that, I am…
*Bryant Wright received his undergraduate from USC in 1974
**if I am shown to be mistaken I will make public retraction
***I’m not sure in what evangelical circles Jonathan runs but I get an ear full of “thou shalt nots” on gossip