America’s churches are trying to sort through the implications of the United States Supreme Court’s decision legalizing Same-Sex marriage, and like pastors all over the country I’m being bombarded by questions every day. “What does this mean for our church?” “What are we going to do?” “What does the Bible say about all this?” “Will we lose our tax-exemption?” “Where does our church stand?” I try to answer as many of the questions in as much detail as possible. The truth is, though, that no one at this point really knows. We’re in uncharted waters and have no idea on which shores we’ll wash up. With their decision the Supreme Court engineered a social change on a level and at a pace never before experienced and remade the face of American society. Churches are as confused and anxious as everyone else. So what are we to do next? How do we respond to this upheaval and begin to re-establish our presence and our ministries in what commentator George Weigel calls “the New Normal”? Here are several truths/principles/facts to help guide pastors as we try to prayerfully lead our congregations in this new, strange and threatening season of American church life:
- Don’t over-react. The temptation is to rush around like Henny Penny, thinking that the sky is falling. The apocalypse isn’t upon us and the American church isn’t coming to an end. The gospel, the Christian faith and Jesus’ church have survived far worse than this.
- Don’t under-react. On the other hand, churches and pastors who don’t recognize the fundamental change in American culture that this decision represents, as well as the fundamental threat it poses to evangelical faith, aren’t paying attention. We can’t pretend American church life will go on as normal. It won’t. It can’t. This decision is so counter to biblical faith that it changes the playing field for biblical faith.
- We now live in a post-Christian nation. The Supreme Court’s decision didn’t change American religious life, but it did ratify a change that’s been occurring over the last few decades. Religion—especially traditional biblical Christianity—no longer has a significant voice in the direction of the nation. In fact, any public mention of traditional Christian values is likely to be denounced. When possible, those who voice such values will be persecuted.
- The church must get serious about disciple-making. To a large degree, the reason we in the churches failed at building a Christian culture is that we failed at building authentic Christians. We’ve built large buildings and impressive institutions. We’ve written impressive doctrinal statements. We’ve raised lots of money. We’ve honored Christian celebrities. We’ve written books and held conferences on everything from prayer to music to sex to overcoming addiction. We’ve succeeded in building ministries that appeal to every conceivable appetite and interest. The one thing we haven’t figured out is how to take people who come to faith and lead them into becoming fully devoted followers of Jesus. That has to change and change quickly.
- The church will always survive persecution; it will not survive faithlessness. Through history, Christians and their churches have undergone periodic persecution. From Rome in the first few centuries to Europe during the tumultuous years of the Reformation to the Soviet Union under Communist rule to China and the Middle East today, Christians suffered for Jesus. In fact, their willingness to suffer paved the way for future generations to find Jesus, too. The church not only survives episodes of persecution, it actually grows because of it. What the church cannot survive, though, is faithlessness. When churches and their pastors cave into prevailing cultural standards, the gospel message is diluted to the point where it becomes ineffectual.
- Pastor and churches must come to grips with our true source of authority. The biblical teaching on marriage is clear and unmistakable. Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Genesis 2:24 says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Ephesians 5:31-32 repeats the principles of the Genesis passages then takes the institution of marriage to an even higher level, saying it is also an icon, a window into heaven of the glorious relationship of Christ and the church. Finally, Jesus speaks directly to the divine plan for marriage in Mark 10:7-9, where he repeats, as in Ephesians, the Genesis account then makes the additional point, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Biblical marriage is instituted by God and rooted in the male/female relationship. My point in all this isn’t to preach a mini-sermon but simply to affirm that, for any Bible-believing Christian, support of Same-Sex marriage is impossible. Not because we’re homophobic or because we’re haters or ignorant buffoons that ignore modern science or because we’re backwards religious fanatics. But because—in the words of Martin Luther at a similar juncture of history—our conscience is held captive to the Word of God. The argument around Same-Sex marriage, for us, cannot be about sexuality, politics, law or expedience. It comes down for us to the authority of God’s Word. Pastors and churches must hold to that above all else.
- Churches may need to get out of the wedding business. America’s churches and their ministers have always had an awkward arrangement with the civil authorities. Even though we’re religious by definition, the state has vested us to perform wedding ceremonies with civil and legal implications. As a pastor, when I pronounce someone “husband and wife,” I sign a civil marriage license that legally binds that couple together in the eyes of the law. If the government now tells me that I must include homosexual couples in that function—and despite protests to the contrary, that’s exactly what will shortly happen—then I’m faced with the conflict between my biblical convictions about marriage and the civil law regarding marriage. The cleanest, simplest response to that quandary is for ministers and churches to separate the religious wedding ceremony from whatever civil marriage laws apply and stop performing weddings, at least in the legal sense. In other words, we can perform the same wedding ceremony as we’ve always done, but instead of including the civil portion—with all its legal implications—we simply perform the religious portion. The couple would be responsible for obtaining whatever civil license necessary that allows them to be married according to state law. The pastor and church would then only perform religious ceremonies for those couples who are in agreement with the church’s biblical convictions. The practical way of doing this would be, at the conclusion of such a ceremony the pastor, instead of declaring, “I now pronounce you husband and wife” would simply say, “I bless you as husband and wife.”
- The Church needs to untangle itself from the prevailing ideas of Christianity and re-establish its commitment to a counter-cultural gospel. A term I’m hearing more and more describes almost exactly what passes for American religion. The term—it’s a mouthful—is “Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism.” MTD is taken from a study done several years ago of America’s Christian teenagers, examining their true religious convictions. The results boiled down to three major beliefs. The first is “Moral”—teenagers today believe that being good will make you happy and get you into heaven. The second is “Therapeutic”—our purpose is to be happy so whatever it takes to help us adjust to life’s circumstances is part of the religious equation. Sin, confession and repentance have little role in a therapeutic religion. The third is “Deism”—the belief in a God who is distant and removed from human life but available to be called on when you need him. Rod Dreher says of MTD, that “It is a vague, vapid approach to religion that can be summed up as: God exists, and he wants us to be nice to each other, and to be happy and successful.” Dreher goes on to point out that this is the religion that religious parents want their children to have. The gospel of Jesus is NOT moralistic,therapeutic or deistic. It is the power of God to all who believe. And the church better learn the difference.
These points are the beginning of my own thinking and praying. I have to confess that I’m a little anxious about what the coming months and years hold for the American church, but I’m also excited about the future. We’re facing challenges unlike any we’ve faced before. But we’re also becoming much more clear and focused about who we are; what we believe; and what we’re supposed to be doing. In God’s providence and by his Spirit, we may yet see a re-awakening of America’s faith.