The ruling of the Supreme Court in favor of same-sex unions has seemingly monopolized our conversations these last 24 hours. A tidal wave of emotions and opinions has washed over our media, social and otherwise. I’m not sure that anyone can say they were truly surprised by the decision, and certainly no one can be surprised by the broad spectrum of reactions. As we would expect, some rejoice while others grieve; some celebrate while others are angered. In the middle of this swirling mass of emotion, we as followers of Jesus cannot afford the dangerous loss of perspective that can so easily occur. To help set a guard over my attitude and responses, here are the things I choose to remember:
Believing I am right about an issue does not grant me permission to be unloving in any manner.
I hold to convictions based on my understanding and interpretation of Biblical authority. They are shaped and informed by the tradition of the Church, the reality of my experience, and my best efforts to apply the gift of reason. I hold to them because I believe them to be true, and I hold to them respectfully but without apology. The church of which I am a part does not sanction same-sex unions, and I stand with that position. The firmness of my convictions, however, will never excuse or justify a lack of love or grace toward anyone. Period.
The primary mark of Jesus’ disciples is not that of being right – it is that of love. We cannot read his words and come to any other conclusion. First and foremost, we will be recognized and identified with him, not by our positions on issues, but by the manner in which we love. Expressions of hatred and bitterness deny his name; the demeaning and devaluing of others through judgment or insult deny his heart. The person who disagrees with me is loved by Jesus just as much as he loves me, and I am in need of grace and mercy just as much as anyone else. The world is full of people screaming opinions, and most of their words are lost in the noise. It is the character of Christlike love that will truly speak volumes, engaging our world in a transforming way.
In all of our discussion and debate, let’s remember that we are talking to and about real people, individuals of immeasurable value that Jesus deeply loves and willingly died for. It is a truth that must be reflected in our words, actions, and attitudes
Marriage authorized by the state and marriage solemnized by the church are separate issues.
Much has been said about the redefinition of marriage, and granted, the Supreme Court has done this from the perspective of civil law. The understanding of marriage from a civil perspective, however, was fundamentally different from that of the Church, even before this decision. States authorize and sanction marriages without regard to the faith of the individuals, their particular understanding of marriage, or their level of commitment. Such matters are not the concern of the state when issuing a license to marry. The license issued by civil authorities provides the relationship a particular standing under the law, along with the legal and economic benefits that come with such recognition.
The solemnization of a marriage in the eyes of the church, on the other hand, is something radically different. It is not legal standing or economic benefit that drives us; it is the recognition and blessing of a God-ordained union. For us, it is entrance into a holy covenant, pledged in the sight of God and within the community of faith. It stands as an expression of the mystical union between Christ and His Church, a lasting relationship of love, faithfulness, and unity. The value and sanctity of marriage is built on something far deeper and more significant than the issuing of a license from the local courthouse. While these differing concerns and perspectives may be deeper and more apparent now, the philosophical divide existed long before this week’s Supreme Court decision.
Recognizing this fundamental difference in perspective also provides us the opportunity to address the weaknesses of our own house. We need to be honest about our own failings, our own lack of care in affirming the sanctity of marriage. Even while we demonstrate great concern over the issue of same-sex unions, we have too often presided over and given approval to wedding ceremonies that were not genuine expressions of faith and covenant. I say this not as judgment or condemnation toward anyone else, but as an act of confession. As a pastor, I admit with regret that there were times I performed weddings simply because it was the child of a church member or someone I knew in the community. We gloss over past divorces without asking the hard questions, or we conduct a ceremony in the language of faith, conveniently ignoring the fact that those getting married make no profession of faith themselves and do not honor our words. Perhaps it is time for us to rediscover and reinforce the concept of marriage as a holy covenant, applying it consistently to all those who ask the church to bear witness to their union.
Our mission has never been to establish Christianity as a civil religion. Our mission is to build the kingdom of God.
Many are lamenting the apparent reality that Christianity no longer holds a privileged position in our culture. We are disappointed and angry that our ideals are not supported by the government, the courts, or the schools. It troubles us that our faith values do not shape the law of the land. We sense that Christianity is no longer the civil religion of our nation, and the separation is a painful one. I understand the struggle and disorientation this seemingly massive shift brings about, but I wonder if this moment affords us the opportunity to step back and refocus in regard to our mission, our call, and our allegiance.
I do not completely disregard the positive effects and influences of civil religion. No doubt, laws informed by faith have produced numerous examples of justice and good for society. An honest look at history, though, would suggest that it also bears other consequences that are not as positive. When Christianity becomes identified or entwined with earthly kingdoms, the health, vitality, and mission of the church suffers in the long-run. The civil religion brand of Christianity has a way of lulling the church into complacency, satisfying us with the apparent cooperation of our culture. We sit in a place of privilege and contentment, certain that the powers of the state will advance our values for us. We settle for earthly power and the rule of law as the tools of our mission. The problem is, earthly kingdoms are not the kingdom of God, and civil law has absolutely no power to change the human heart. Civil religion has a way of producing nominal Christians and a church that loses sight of its mission. As evidence, we can look to some of the most secular nations on earth today and remember that they were once the center of Christendom.
While we may want to hear it, the church has typically been at its best when it is not in the position of privilege or power. The early church did not take on the mission of God expecting the government and courts to be in their corner. Our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world today make no assumption that the laws of the land will favor them. Yet, in the midst of conflict and persecution, we see the kingdom of God break in with unstoppable power. Perhaps we are where we are today because we have spent too many years content with civil religion and cultural Christianity. Maybe we are bearing the fruit of a neglected mission, the call to make genuine, Christ-following disciples. It could be that we are paying the price for a misplaced trust, believing that laws and the force of government could somehow build the kingdom. But earthly kingdoms are just that – kingdoms of this earth. Civil religion and its laws cannot transform hearts and renew minds. And the fact is, Jesus never said that the government, or the courts, or your neighborhood school would be salt and light. He gave that call and entrusted that responsibility to us. We are the ones who must embody the life-changing love and grace of Jesus in our communities. This moment in time may very well be telling us that rather than simply mourning the loss of a civil religion, our efforts and energy would be better directed in recovering a genuine passion for the kingdom-building mission of God.