28 March 2013

An Open Letter to My Congregation about Gay Marriage

Our country is somewhat on edge this week as the gay marriage debate heats up in the press, social media, the blogosphere and conversations everywhere.  The Supreme Court is currently hearing two different cases related to the issue and everyone knows the potential for the high court to deliver a game changer.

In all of this rancor, how is the church to respond?  How are people of the Christian faith to interact with this culture shift?  It's here and it's real.  The shift has already dramatically affected the thinking for my son's generation (he's sixteen).  Just get them talking about it and listen for awhile.

As a pastor, I have a sacred duty to think deeply about how I am going to engage this issue and how I will lead the people to whom God has granted me leadership.  What will I say to them?  I have a diverse congregation; I have people all across the political and social issues spectrums.  Nevertheless, a good leader leads from strong conviction.  So the following is what I want to say to my flock.  As a preacher, it only seems fitting to put my thoughts down in the form of points.  I have four.

1. We must have a clear source of authority.

The debate over gay marriage is happening on many levels - legal, moral, philosophical, practical, etc.  Some of the arguments for gay marriage are persuasive.  The analogies that many use to support the ideas that homosexuals ought to be a legally protected class of people make sense to a lot of people.  American individualism seems to reign supreme in our collective postmodern mindset. However, everyone must clarify on what authority his or her opinion rests.  For Christians, this is particularly important.

The Christian faith is a specific worldview.  It is unique and makes specific and exclusive claims about truth.  This in itself is in increasing tension with our postmodern world.  My source of authority is the Bible.  The testimony of historic Christianity is that the Bible is God's revelation.  It is old; it is progressive in nature; it is the product of thousands of ancient copies compared, compiled and translated into English; it is testimony from those who were there for us today.  The Old and New Testaments are equally inspired, although very different.  Some of what we find in the Old Testament has been fulfilled and made obsolete, yet it's principles and precepts concerning God's character and his moral expectations are unchanging.  The New Testament tells us how to connect the Old to the New.  It tells us the Good News of Jesus and gives the church instructions for faith and practice. 

Yes, people disagree over a great many things about the Bible and concerning what's in the Bible.  There is room for agreeing to disagree on numerous non-gospel issues, therefore, different evangelical traditions have developed.  However, the Bible also speaks clearly in its totality to many issues as well, homosexuality being one of these.  It's not that the Bible does not give us clear instruction on the gay marriage issue, it's really about if we are going to allow the Bible to have authority on the issue.  I choose to be a consistent Christian and let the Bible be my authority.  I urge my flock to do the same.

The Bible both sets up as example for marriage a heterosexual relationship and condemns homosexual behavior.  Genesis 1-2 describe the creation of man and woman as sexual companions, created in the image of God for oneness with the command to produce children.  The very definition of marriage biblically is between a man and woman.  If we want to recognize gay marriage, then Christians have to concede we are redefining the biblical model.

The Law of the Old Testament explicitly tells us of God's disapproval of homosexual behavior (Lev. 18:22; 20:13).  Homosexuality is also is mentioned as an example of the wickedness of the men of Sodom.  From that it's a logical inference that God's Word cannot endorse gay marriage.  Where homosexuality is mentioned in the New Testament, consistent with the Old, it is condemned as sin (Rom. 1:18-32; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 1 Tim 1:8-10; Jude 7).

Many point to the fact that in the Gospels that Jesus is never quoted teaching anything about homosexuality.  Many infer that his silence (although he may have spoken to it, not everything he said is recorded) is tantamount to his approval of the behavior.  He didn't speak directly to child sexual abuse either, but no one would suggest Jesus would approve of that! 

The whole of the Bible is God's revelation or it is not.  This is what Christians must clarify.  It is absurd to believe we can simultaneously be Bible-believing Christians and support gay marriage.  You must choose what your authority will be on this issue.  My authority is the Bible on this issue and every issue of faith and morality.  I urge my church to make sure of the same authority. 

2. We must have a firm commitment.

I choose to make my mind and heart captive to God's Word, not the opinions of men.  I must know what the Bible teaches and then be resolute to the end.   I desire the Christians in my congregation to be deeply commitment to the study of the Bible, discover it's truths on matters, and then dig in their heels and not be moved.

This world will attempt to persuade you, shout you down, and shame you.  If you stand firm with me, be ready to be called a Pharisee, bigot, hater, and ironically unchristian.  You will be pressured to compromise God's Word and back peddle.  But with a clear conscience and a sincere faith, you must stand your ground.  This world does not need Christians who tuck and run when they are opposed.  This world needs light and salt even though it may most often reject it. 

3. We must show love to opponents.

The call to follow Christ takes resolve.  Jesus himself said you have to count the cost, meaning it's not easy.  Jesus said to stand in the truth of God will bring opposition.  To garner opponents simply for standing boldly on God's Word can't surprise us or derail us.  It's going to happen.  But I am concerned greatly about how I and my church reacts to opposition and criticism.

We must be Christ-like.  Jesus told us to love our enemies and to pray for those who would persecute us.  A tall order indeed when the emotions are running high!  But it is by our love that we win people, not be our arguments.  I'm not against making the arguments (obviously), but not at the expense of love. 

We must always be gracious, patient, kind, long suffering, gentle, and humble.  It is possible in the power of God to be both strong in conviction and loving in behavior.  You don't have to sacrifice one for the other.  And truly loving people is respecting them while sharing the truth with them, not changing the truth so that you won't offend. 

Church, we must be okay if the truth offends, but we ourselves should never be offensive.   

4. We must keep our eye on the main thing.

The bottom line is that the church does not exist to fight against gay marriage.  Yes, I as a pastor, and the church as a whole should add our voice to the discussion.  There is a prophetic role to fulfill.  But the purpose of the church remains the same now from the day it was commissioned by Jesus.  We are to be about making disciples of Jesus.  This is the main thing.  The Gospel itself is the message and should always be center stage.

We must recognize that God brings transformation about in individuals.  He does this through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We must believe that the absence of God's transforming power is the root of all of humanity's woes.  Homosexuality is a provocative issue, but let's never forget that we have many other problems as well that are the result of sin - adultery, divorce, child abuse, greed, laziness, neglect, dishonesty, pornography, violence, and so forth.

Church, we must keep our eye on our task of sharing the Good News of Jesus and growing disciples who will obey Him and honor His Word with their whole lives.   

20 March 2013

Freedom and Fairness: Thoughts on KY HB279

Recently, the local news station in Hazard called me for an interview concerning my thoughts on the Religious Freedom Bill that has now made it's way through the Kentucky legislature.  Although I did not see what actually aired on the newscast, I was disappointed with the selective quoting and summary of my statements in the online article.  I guess eventually I'm going to learn to say no to these interviews.  Anyway, I think I would like to say more here in my own words to clarify and expand on the news report.

HB279, known as the Religious Freedom Bill, no doubt has grown out of a reaction to recent tensions growing between legislation in this country and Christian individuals attempting to live their faith out in the public space.

The bill reads as follows:

Government shall not substantially burden a person's freedom of religion.  The right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief may not be substantially burdened unless the government proves by clear and convincing evidence that it has a compelling governmental interest in infringing the specific act or refusal to act and has used the least restrictive means to further that interest.  A "burden" shall include indirect burdens such as withholding benefits, assessing penalties, or an exclusion from programs or access to facilities.

Last year The Affordable Health Care Act (a.k.a Obama care) stirred up the proverbial hornets nest by mandating that employers provide health coverage for employees that included birth control for women, including the morning after pill and week after pill.  Catholic institutions immediately and strongly reacted against this mandate and our president backed off.  Then the owner of Hobby Lobby, David Green, protested that he would not comply with the new law because it violated his Christian conscience.  Although the federal government is backing off from religiously affiliated organizations, it is not from businesses that happen to be owned and operated by Christians who have enough conviction to dissent.  Others have joined Green is bring suit against the government.  We'll see what happens there.

Also, in Lexington there was the brouhaha with Hands on Originals T-Shirt business that refused business to a LGBT group desiring to promote an annual gay pride parade.  Although suffering no punitive action this time, the company was slapped back by the city and told not to discriminate like that again. Again, the Christian owner and operator of the business argued that it violated his religious conscience to support the message of the event for which the group wanted shirts.

In January the small town of Vicco, near Hazard, was the most recent town to pass the increasing popular fairness ordinance aimed primarily at eliminating forms of discrimination against homosexuals. Why would a small town in Eastern Kentucky suddenly become so progressive?  It probably has something to do with the fact that the mayor is openly gay. 

HB279 is in my opinion at its heart a push back against government that is increasingly clashing with some traditional Christian values, specifically those concerning abortion and homosexuality.  Although I'm not privy to the private thoughts of the author(s) of the bill, it seems a reasonable inference considering recent events.

The ACLU and the Kentucky Equality Federation (a gay-rights group) have denounced the bill as a means by which people will have the right to discriminate against others by appealing to religious conviction.  They believe the bill will guard such individuals from the punishment by the government that they ought to incur for such acts.

What does the bill actually propose? First, the bill speaks to the individual's right to "act or not to act" due to a "sincerely held religious belief."   It vaguely states that the government will not "substantially burden" an individual's right to act or not to act according to his or her religious conscience.  What does this mean?  Like a lot of public discourse on sensitive items the language is ambiguous while still communicating volumes on its intent.

In the truest sense this bill seeks to allow people to have the freedom to discriminate with whom they want to do business.  Should a business owner be allowed to refuse service to an organization whose purpose is to push the gay-right agenda if he or she believes that homosexual behavior is wrong?  Can't that group surely find another business that would gladly satisfy their request? 

Some want to compare this with racism.  I would argue that to do so is comparing apples and oranges.  To discriminate against a person because of their race is to discriminate against his or her shade of humanity.  And this is not supported with biblical Christianity.  To discriminate against a person because of homosexuality is to disagree with a behavior that biblical Christianity clearly condemns.  These are two very different things.  I would agree that people in the past, claiming to be upholding Christian values with a Bible in the hand, have argued for racial separation.  But I would argue that they had to twist the content of the Bible and ignore other parts to do so.  This is not the case with homosexuality.  Where the Bible speaks to the issue, both Old and New Testaments, the message is clear.  To affirm the homosexual lifestyle, you have to dismiss what the Bible content clearly asserts.

What about the health care issue?  This bill appears to want to allow business owners to not act to supply methods of "birth control" that they believe are in reality destruction of human life. Should the individual whose religious conscience causes him to dissent be steamrolled by federal mandate?  Traditionally, taxpayer money has been excluded from direct funding of abortion for this very conflict of conscience.  Is not the new federal mandates on women's health a backdoor way to make the the people of this country supply and support a practice many oppose based on religious conviction?

Of course, without specifics, the bill could apply to a number of other scenarios.  Possibly, the bill's greatest weakness is its vagueness, which opens up all kinds of fearful imaginations.  But I think the premise of the bill is sound.  People ought to have a fundamental right to a religious conscience.  This has been our American understanding since 1791(Bill of Rights).  People are neither forced to participate in religion they don't support, nor are people restricted by their government in matters related to their religious conscience.  Most of the time this is not a problem, and our country observes this dual concern daily fairly harmoniously.

However, the tension between personal liberty in religious matters, and the public good has and will come into conflict for time to time.  To say that an individual has the right to religious freedom and should be able to make choices according to it, does not necessitate that he can to anything as long as he justifies the act by appealing to a religious conviction.  Some appealed to religion to support the crusades of the Middle Ages, but they were wrong.  Some appealed to the Bible to support racism in the past, but they were wrong.

How can I make that judgement?  By using the Bible as my standard.  Biblical Christianity is one thing; cultural Christianity is another.  I would argue that cultural Christianity has been responsible for the atrocities and immoralities committed in history in the name of the Christian religion.  Biblical Christianity is what has ultimately worked against those things.

So, here is the tricky part.  HB279 also contains this restrictive element when it states, "unless the government proves by clear and convincing evidence that it has a compelling governmental interest in infringing the specific act or refusal to act," it (the government) should not take punitive actions against the individual.  But in the end, who is the government to say?  Well, the government has a God-given role (Rom. 13) to protect the innocent and punish evil.  But the government has to decide what is good and what is evil. 

Here is an example from American history: The federal government passed the Edmund's-Tucker Act in 1887 that punished the Mormon church for the practice of polygamy and made their "religious" practice illegal.  The overwhelming majority of Americans supported the law and believed polygamy to be wrong and counter to a moral and healthy family life.  This stopped the Mormon practice, even though the LDS church appealed to religious conscious as validation for the practice.  The government, however, made the final call concerning what was right.   

I have and will continue to argue that our government policies and laws eventually and ultimately reflect the consensus of the people.  If we really are a government by the people and for the people, how could it turn out any other way?  At times this has reflected biblical Christianity and at times not.  Sometimes I think this has been God-honoring and sometimes not.

The biggest issue right now is gay-rights, hence the increase of fairness ordinances and the debate on gay marriage.  At one time homosexual behavior was deemed by the consensus of people to be deviant, unnatural, and morally wrong.  The laws of the land reflected that consensus - key word is consensus.  I sense that consensus is shifting.  The heat of the debate typically takes place with terms such as fairness, rights, discrimination, equality, tolerance, and freedom.   However, that is what we talk about on the surface.  But those discussions rest on a foundation of more fundamental issues, such as truth, right and wrong.  This is what is at the heart of it.

Every time government, whether local, state or federal, passes another piece of legislation that protects the homosexual from potential discrimination of any kind, it is by necessity approving the homosexual lifestyle (or at least attempting to be indifferent by not condemning it).  Once enough legal precedent and tradition builds up, the next step is to accept the behavior as right  and anyone or organization that would continue to disapprove as wrong

Everyone thinks in the categories of right and wrong. We just don't all agree into which category to place certain behaviors.  For me, this is why having the Bible as an objective source of truth is such a blessing.  I don't have to defend my personal view or try to figure out what to believe based on all the arguments out there.  If so I most likely would do what most people do who operate in that way - in time I would be swept along with the cultural consensus.  My choice is to stay firmly tethered to the absolute and timeless truth of the Bible.  My job is to know to the best of my ability what God, through His revelation (The Bible) approves and disapproves.  I discover there God's standards, His plan for me and all people.  This is my primary calling as a pastor.

The Bible is where the pastor must stake his claim, from which he must support his view, and if need be hold firmly onto while dissenting against government and the court of public opinion.  If I don't hold onto the clear teaching of the Bible, then I have nothing left to form my views other than my own reasoning, others' persuasion and the fear of being shamed by the majority.

I hope that America will continue to be a place where true Christian teachings will be respected and Christian individuals will be free to live by their biblically informed consciences, even in regards to their business practices and choices.  But even if America is in a period of turning away from God, the truth of the Bible will remain.  No one can change truth.  You can twist it, avoid it, or do your best to shout it down, but you can't make it go away.  Be fearless pastors in the truth! Teach your people to fear God and adhere to His Word, not this world.     

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