27 October 2015

Straight Talk about Gay

The following is a summary of the message delivered to the First Baptist Church of Hazard, KY on October 25.  The message was the culmination of ten months of prayer, conversations with a variety of individuals in person and via social media, reading and research, and bible study, consultation and counsel with church lay leaders.  We were strongly persuaded that our church must have a well reasoned and biblically faithful response to the June 26 Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.  What follows is the product of that journey. 

In a 5-4 decision the Supreme Court ruled that “The Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-State.”

The majority claimed that four key principles and traditions "demonstrate that the reasons marriage is fundamental under the Constitution apply with equal force to same-sex couples."  First, marriage is fundamentally an individual decision.  Second, marriage is unlike any other two-person relationship for committed individuals.  Third, marriage safeguards children, providing a stable environment.  Fourth, marriage is a keystone of our nation's social order.  In a concluding thought the majority argued, “The limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just, but its inconsistency with the central meaning of fundamental right to marry is now manifest.”

So, the court stated that marriage is important for a variety of historically recognized reasons, but that since our views toward homosexuality have changed ("now manifest"), it is no longer acceptable for state laws to deny marriage to same-sex couples who desire it.

The majority argument can be summarized as follows:  1. Marriage is a fundamental right of a person who wants it.  2. Ideas about marriage have evolved throughout history.  3. Homosexuality is no longer recognized as a deviant sexual behavior or a mental disorder.  4. It is wrong to withhold marriage from same-sex couples and not afford them the same status and  benefits of opposite-sex couples.  5. States, therefore, may not enact laws to limit marriage to a man and a woman.

In an indirect fashion, the court decreed for all Americans that gay is okay.  And since gay is okay, then it only is consistent and "right" to grant the status of marriage and all it's benefits to same-sex couples who desire it.   The dissenting four justices did not base their dissent on their rejection of homosexual behavior. Rather, their disagreement was based on procedure.  They argued that the court should not be creating law.  This duty should be left up to the people and their representatives in the legislatures.  They wrote, "Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us [the Court]. Under the Constitution, judges have power to say what the law is, not what it should be."  

The Supreme Court has given our country a new reality in regards to marriage.  However, our culture at large has not arrived at this place overnight, or even just in the last decade of judicial activism.  An aggressive effort began forty-five years ago with the goal of normalizing homosexuality in America.  The Court's recent ruling only reflect a major cultural shift.  From 1969 numerous organizations have arisen with a focused agenda in regards to homosexuality.  Publications have been produced, carefully proposing strategies for winning the public opinion and indoctrinating the next generation.  The goals have been pretty simple.  Create a climate of acceptance and make gay normal; therefore, allowing gay people to be more open, less fearful and equal.  I know in my lifetime (I'm now 48) the advance of the gay agenda into the mainstream in undeniable.  Today, the presence of gay affirmation (and the bigotry of anyone who thinks gay is wrong) is observed in literature, TV and movies, public and higher education, politics, and an abundance of specialized activists groups.  If you would like a well-documented read on this history, consult Michael Brown's A Queer Thing Happened to America (2011).

So, with all this understanding, the relevant question for the church is clear:  How do we, the church, engage the reality of legalized same-sex marriage and a growing affirmation of homosexuality in our culture?  You cannot choose not to engage.  That is irresponsible, impractical, and cowardly.  However, it is imperative that we think carefully about how to engage.

First, we must engage with God's Word as our priority.  This is easier said than done for some people.  Because when we look into the Bible completely and draw out from it a faithfully interpreted picture of it's position on homosexual behavior, we find ourselves as odds with the Supreme Court ruling and the overall culture shift in our country.  The Bible teaches us that we cannot affirm same-sex marriage because homosexual behavior is contrary to God's revealed truth.  Approval of homosexual behavior stands in opposition to the direct instruction of the Bible and the created design for marriage and sexuality.

There are those who are in the process of attempting to turn the Bible on it's head and claim that it truly does not teach that all homosexual behavior is sinful.  I have read the arguments and find them terribly flawed, driven by personal agenda, and out of step with the Apostolic teaching, witness of the church, and faithful understanding for 2,000 years.  If you want to see a fuller treatment of such arguments, you can look at previous posts.

The bottom line for me as a pastor is that I must lead the congregation entrusted to me with a courageous conviction to make the teaching of God's Word our priority.  No amount of shaming or legal pressure can make me forsake God's Word.  I must lead the church to fear no one but God alone. 

Second, we must engage with kindness as our posture.  Even as we stay faithfully tethered to a sound understanding of the Bible's witness, we know that it also calls us to be both long-suffering and kind.  The church must engage people with truth and grace, just as Jesus did.  We neither change God's revealed truth to accommodate people's sin, nor do we treat people badly or like lepers because of their sin.  Our calling is to be salt and light in a spiritually flavorless and dark world (Matt 5:13-16).  And when we find ourselves receiving opposition because we are holding firm to God's truth, we must continue to obey Jesus who told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us for righteousness sake (Matt.5:43-46). 

The bottom line is that we love people - all people.  We love our fellow believers; we love the lost; we love those who disagree; we love those who attempt to shame; we love those who oppose and challenge; we will love those who will persecute.  But we will love without compromise.  We will not redefine love as permissiveness. 

Third, we must engage with the Gospel as our passion.  Once we articulate our stance on the same-sex marriage issue, we have to let our world know clearly, loudly and convincingly that we are not defined with being against gay; we are about showing people the Gospel of Jesus in word and deed.  Our purpose is to  help all people understand that their greatest problem is their sin that separates them from God, that their greatest need is for salvation that leads to true transformation, and that their greatest challenge is to agree with God about their sin and have genuine faith in Jesus.

The bottom line is that we, the church, will not be known for being against gay; we will be known for being transformed disciples of Jesus leading others to be faithful disciples of Jesus.  We will not be obsessed with treating the outward symptoms (gay or otherwise), but with offering people the cure for their spiritual heart disease.  We will lift up the Gospel.  This will be our joy and passion.

Finally, it is important for us to be clear on how all this works out practically for ministry.  What does all this look like in how we go about fulfilling our calling as a church?  First, we must be resolute to fear God alone and remain committed to the absolute authority of His Word.  Since, our biblical convictions lead us not to affirm same-sex marriage, we must have policy reflecting these convictions. (You can read our guiding documents here). 

Second, we need to repent of a long slide of permissiveness within our church in regards to sexual sin.  We have gradually accommodated and not held one another accountable in regards to easy divorce, cohabitation, and adultery.  All sin is forgivable, but within the body of believers such sin should not go unaddressed. We are a body that should love each other enough to offer courageous correction and proper biblical instruction on all sexual issues.  We have not done this.  We need to repent.

Third, we need to have a path for the person with same-sex attraction. We must have an answer for that person who grows up in the church or comes to the church and simultaneously says he desires to follow Jesus and is gay.  It is not okay for us to stumble around and heap confusion on top of confusion for that person.  I'm not saying that he or she may like the answer, but we will have a response that is clear and biblically faithful. 

Here is what First Baptist Hazard will tell that person:

God certainly desires for you to have a saving relationship with Him through Jesus, which includes submitting your life to His will.  God teaches you that homosexual behavior is sinful and contrary to his design for human sexuality.  Therefore, if you choose to follow Jesus and be part of His church here, a voluntary life of celibacy is your option, if you cannot pursue romantic relationship with the opposite sex.  If this is a choice you make in order to follow Jesus, this church will support you and help you be accountable. 

Some will cry foul here.  However, I am convinced directing those with same-sex attraction to the option of celibacy is the biblically faithful solution to this dilemma.  Also, I have listened to testimony of folks with same-sex attraction who choose this, resulting in their personal satisfaction.  

Fourth, we need to beware of giving equal weight to side issues that detract from the critical question: Is homosexual behavior right or wrong and why or why not?   There are numerous rabbits to chase when discussing this issue.  Probably, the biggest bunny we run after is the question concerning whether gay is somehow biologically natural for some people.  Now, I think this is an interesting topic and certainly not unimportant.  However, it has absolutely no bearing on whether homosexual behavior is right or wrong.  From what I read, scientists believe they have discovered many genetic patterns that seem to indicate people have certain biological predispositions toward obesity, ruthlessness, crime, and sexual infidelity.  However, they all admit that environmental factors appear to be the deciding factors even if the genetic patterns that suggest such predispositions exist.  The point is that no one justifies certain behaviors simply because they might have a genetic predisposition.  Actually, we will work to figure out how to counter it if we believe the behavior is undesirable! 

Christians must be careful not to reason fallaciously that if certain people are biologically predisposed to homosexual behavior, then we must admit it is natural for them.  Then, if it is natural for them, then it must be the way God created them.  Then, if God created them that way, then the resulting behavior can't be seen as wrong. Then, if the behavior can't be seen as wrong, then anyone calling it wrong is wrong.  The argument is logical only if you accept the assumptions throughout it.  (i.e. that predisposition necessitates behavior or that the existence of such predisposition necessitates that God directly created it)

I believe there is a price to pay by talking straight about gay in the church and committing clearly to a non-affirming posture and policies.  I have been sensitive throughout this journey that for some in my flock this issue is extremely personal and uncomfortable.  For those I have offered much prayer, and I hope my tone has always been gentle and kind.  I have also learned that there are some who do not have ears to hear, and shut down because they choose not to submit to the teaching of God's Word.  They want a church, with a worship service, but without fully surrendering to His Word.  Some have left and others are more withdrawn.  And no matter how kind I am, there are some who will still regard me and my church as unenlightened, fundamentalist, narrow-minded bigots.  So be it.

However, I believe talking straight about gay has brought great rewards and will continue to do so for the future.  The more faithful this congregation boldly chooses to be to God and His Word, the more spiritually vibrant we become.  The more we step out on faith, letting go of fear and hesitations, the more I've witnessed God's provision.  As we more intensely lean on God for wisdom and direction, the less self-sufficient and proud we become.  Leaders within the church have had to walk together on this journey with me, resulting in a more intimate fellowship.  And through all of this we have been encouraged to what is good and right and seen exposed our own hypocrisy and need for real repentance.  All of this and more has been very good.

The same-sex marriage issue is a huge crossroads for pastors and the churches. You're at the crossroad right now, whether you like it or not.  The only question is about how you will lead your flock.  Pastor, lead them to chart a faithful course without fear.  Lead them to do the Gospel ministry to which God has called you.  Lead them as a gentle shepherd with the courage to fight off the wolves that would try to destroy them.  Trust God.  He is faithful.   

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