A couple years ago, Southern Baptists created an uproar in the national media when they added a section dealing with "the family" to their official confessional statement, The Baptist Faith and Message. This statement proclaimed that God had "ordained the family as the foundational institution of human society" and that marriage "was the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime."
Now, the widely respected Barna Research Group has released the results of an in-depth study which found that while 25 percent of American adults have been divorced at least once, the divorce rate is even higher (27 percent) among self-identified "born again" Christians and higher yet (29 percent) among Baptists. While the Barna research did not distinguish among the various types of Baptists (from the more conservative Southern Baptists to the more liberal American or Northern Baptists), clearly, the divorce rate among self-identified Baptists is at least as high, if not higher, than most other religious groups in the nation.
Why is this so, and how is it related to the 1998 Southern Baptist doctrinal statement?
Baptist leaders began to feel that their people were increasingly honoring more with lip service than with life action the traditional sexual teachings of biblical Christianity--no premarital sex, for example. They also began to realize that some of the so-called traditional teachings on sex were less than biblical.
As a result, their preaching began to change.
For instance, the traditional double standard which resulted in one standard of chastity for young women (virginity), and another for young men ("boys will be boys"), is now explicitly rejected from pulpits, as pastors have helped their people more fully understand that God has one standard for sexual purity--sex only within the confines of matrimony between a man and a woman.
Meanwhile, Southern Baptists have thought more about the biblical command that the husband love his wife as Christ loved the church. That means the husband is to give himself sacrificially to her--and the wife is to respect her husband and "to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband."
The statement was proposed and approved overwhelmingly by a vote of the Convention, with the conviction that if such biblical teachings were taught and practiced among our Baptist people, the divorce rate would no longer rival that of the secular world.
Baptists have been assaulted on every side by challenges to the traditional sexual moral code that declares sex outside marriage immoral. They have seen far too many fellow believers enticed by the "free love" of the sexual revolution. They've seen too many of their young people--untutored in the true biblical teaching that sex is one of God's gracious and beautiful gifts when experienced within the boundaries (marriage) and commitment (life-long) that God designed--fall prey to pre-marital sex or premature marriage and the broken hearts left in their wake.
So Baptists are in the midst of a concerted, long-term attempt to re-educate their people to the biblical revelation concerning human sexuality.
They have put their concerns into action by attempting to educate their people. They have produced a Sunday School curriculum and articles and books in denominational publications, and they have sponsored marriage retreats; they have attempted to vaccinate their membership against the virus of the sexual revolution. And they have done this with full awareness that the denomination's adherents were to a startling degree manifesting the signs of infection.
One of the most dramatic and successful programs Southern Baptists have developed to address this crisis is the "True Love Waits" campaign. Started in 1993, this program has resulted in more than a million teenagers signing commitment cards pledging to remain sexually chaste until marriage. The program has succeeded beyond the wildest expectations of its originators and has been mentioned, even by some secular authorities, as one of the causes of the first decline in over two decades in pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease rates among adolescents.
The enthusiastic response of young people to the "True Love Waits" campaign is at least partially explained by another intriguing result from the Barna Research study. The high divorce rate of their parents and grandparents has made an indelible impression on young people. They seek a different path.
Barna's survey of teenagers found that one of the highest-rated goals for the future was to "get married and have the same spouse for their entire life." Many of these young people come from broken homes. They desperately desire to have for themselves and for their children what they did not have.
And therein lies much hope for the future.