Thursday, February 23, 2012

Evangelicals and the Gay Marriage Debate

As I write these words, the majority in the Maryland House of Delegates is still celebrating over their recent vote to legitimize marriage between members of the same gender. Predictions are that the Senate also has the votes necessary to send this bill—which effectively legalizes homosexual marriage in my state—to the desk of Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who has said he will sign it into law. By this summer, Maryland will become the 8th state in the Union to legalize marriage between homosexual partners.

At the same time, evangelicals lost this issue a long time ago. In a recent USA Today article, Tom Krattenmaker astutely compares the current situation to the closing moments of a football game when the opposing team is so far out in front that there is no hope of recovery before the final seconds tick off the clock. Though I disagree with Krattenmaker’s proposal for evangelicals to simply “back off,” he is correct about one thing: Even with the Governor’s signature not already affixed to the bill, we have lost this ball game!

So the question going forward is simple: how did we arrive at this place? And is there a way to return our culture to previous thoughts about this issue when the playing field of dialogue is now so uneven? It is admittedly difficult—perhaps even impossible—to adequately respond in a 5-minute sound bite to why you would oppose two people who love each other being granted the same rights, recognition, and tax breaks as any other married couple.

Further complicating matters is the fact that many of us have friends in the homosexual community whom we care about deeply, and on the surface, it just seems heartless to deny them the opportunities available to heterosexual couples. If you are in favor of homosexual marriage and just read that last paragraph, you might think I’m sympathetic to the plight of a persecuted minority in our country. If you are an evangelical who just read it who thinks I’ve lost my mind, and you are wondering how on earth we ever arrived at this place, then you have stumbled onto my point.

What mistakes did we make that have resulted in the current climate?

1. Our Early Treatment of the Homosexual Community. I’m speaking here of two things primarily: mistreatment and stereotyping. Let’s face it. For many decades the sum total of the evangelical church’s response to the homosexual community was “AIDS is God’s judgment on you!” Though we claim our authority is the Bible, we largely ignored what it says about all human beings being created in the image and likeness of God where homosexuals are concerned.

As a result, an evangelical church—the one place where a homosexual struggling with his or her sin should have been welcomed—was the one place they avoided like the plague. We looked the other way when homosexuals were denied housing or employment or worse, when they were beaten and killed. We should have been the first to denounce such horrific acts of violence against any human being created in God’s image. Instead, we were largely silent.

Additionally, we tended to stereotype this part of our population as an aggressive minority intent on subjugating our children to sexual perversion of every sort and kind. To be sure, there is an identifiable group among homosexual ranks that walk around naked at parades, seek to radicalize school curriculum, and give support to organizations like NAMBLA. But this group represents less than 10 percent of the homosexual community.

Another 20% of this population is represented by men and women who are genuinely struggling with their sexual orientation, believe it is sin, and want to find a way out. The majority in the middle are convinced that they are doing nothing wrong, but have no desire to do anything except live their lives and be left alone. Our problem is that we have treated the entire homosexual population as if they all belonged to category number 1.

These two issues illustrate a sub-human treatment of men and women for whom Jesus died. I understand that this sin begins with “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.” (Romans 1:18), but given the way we have communicated our message, is it any wonder they don’t want to listen to us?

2. Our Own Perversion of Marriage: Homosexuals may very well help our society finish off marriage, but they can’t be held responsible for starting this downward slide. That began decades ago, and continues into the present. Within the evangelical church, divorce rates are actually higher than outside Christendom. In addition, our refusal to practice church discipline and uphold the standards of righteousness expected of any follower of Jesus has resulted in rampant and unrepentant fornication and adultery within our own ranks.

The Bible is clear regarding sexual sin, but our ambivalence within the church toward heterosexual sin betrays the absence of any moral authority to speak to this issue. Until we start treating heterosexual sin in all its forms within the church the same way we view homosexual sin outside the church, we can never presume the moral high ground. Judgment, the Apostle Peter says, begins at the house of God. (1 Peter 4:17)

3. Our Capitulation to the Idea of Marriage as a “Right.” The homosexual community has been largely successful in couching their agenda in the verbiage of “civil rights,” and the current marriage debate is also housed within this concept. If interracial marriage is permitted, for example, then what is wrong with two men or two women being wed to each other? I appreciate the response to this issue that has been made by my African-American brothers in ministry. They have spoken eloquently to the marked difference that should be noted between skin tone and behavior.

At the same time, when discussing marriage, evangelicals have failed to point out that this institution isn’t about “civil rights,” and in fact isn’t about “rights” at all. Yet at some point, we allowed the other side to co-opt the idea that marriage is a right. Rather than speaking to who does and does not have a “right” to marry, evangelicals should point out that in fact, no one has a “right” to marital union--not even a heterosexual couple.

Marriage has historically been viewed as a status of privilege, and this truth is functionally proven by the fact that although a clerk of court may be forced by law to issue a license, no public official—minister, notary public, or judge—is required to perform the ceremony.

A so-called “right to marriage” does not currently exist, even for heterosexual couples, and is not necessary for equality. If evangelicals want to turn opinion on this issue, this point must be made clear.

4. We allowed “tolerance” to be confused with “affirmation.” Tolerance, simply defined, is the power that keeps adherents to various points of view from killing each other. It is rooted in the idea that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, and describes the endorsement of the ideal of treating each other with dignity and respect, regardless of our differences with each other.

But toleration is not the same as affirmation. It is one thing, for example, for our society to “tolerate” an alcoholic by not killing him, getting him treatment when he seeks it, and in general treating him like a human being. But if we were to suddenly hold him up as an example of something healthy in our society, such action would not represent “tolerance.” but “affirmation.”

I’ve been pleased to see legislative and judicial moves away from punitive results for homosexual behavior. Aside from the fact that I think our government has better things to do with its time than lock up consenting adults, the sodomy laws in our country set up a defacto hierarchy of sin whereby heterosexual misconduct was winked at while homosexual sin was viewed as worthy of attention by our penal code.

Similarly, sexual behavior should, generally speaking, not be an employment issue. Ministerial employment notwithstanding, a homosexual should not be released from his or her employment for their sexual behavior any more than an adulterous husband should be fired for his last out-of-town tryst. Such a posture truly treats all sin equally and does not single out any particular group to be stigmatized. I’m thankful for evangelicals like Rick Warren, who have spoken to this issue with passion not only in our own country, but in other places like Uganda.

But a license to marry is not an extension of “tolerance.” It is instead the granting of societal affirmation. Our culture has historically affirmed marriage between a man and woman because of the inherent benefits this institution provides our society. The economic stability, emotional support, vehicle of sexual expression and ideal environment for childrearing that this institution has observably produced in our culture has resulted in our nation granting it a status of privilege. When a marriage license is issued, our society is in effect saying “we affirm this union because of the betterment of our society that we know will result.”

So when the homosexual community asks for the “right” to marry, they are asking for much more than tolerance. They are asking for the societal endorsement of their lifestyle. Regardless of whether you believe homosexual behavior to be a sin, the simple fact is that homosexual marriage is without a strong historical precedent and thus, its institutionalization by our government represents a radical approach to social engineering, the results of which will not be tangibly known or experienced for many decades. The “five-minute sound-bite” approach to this issue may make it seem as though the evangelical church is backed into a philosophical corner, but the truth is that the burden of legitimizing the radical redefinition of marriage to include two men or two women rests on those who would like to see homosexual marriage codified into our system of law. Tolerance is one thing. What the homosexual community is asking for is a quite different matter.

Evangelical Christians once spoke to the issue of homosexuality in a world that shared our opinion of the issue. Recent developments have proven that this world is now gone. The question now is how Christians can speak the truth in love in this new environemt. Admittedly, we did not use our cultural influence well when we had it, and our understanding of how to interact with the homosexual community has thankfully evolved. Our understanding of homosexual behavior as sinful must not change, but the way we communicate this truth and encourage dialogue must simultaneously demonstrate a clear compassion, and if neccesary, the willingness to be persecuted ourselves for the sake of those we strongly believe need the Gospel.

We need clear and compelling arguments combined with genuine love for our homosexual neighbors. Anything less not only substantiates the charge that we are "homophobic," but also demonstrates unfaithfulness to the Gospel we claim to preach.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Brian McLaren on Rick Santorum on Barack Obama: A Lesson in Pots and Kettles

Brian McLaren rightfully and appropriately nailed Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum yesterday for allowing his political ideology to unduly influence his approach to interpreting the Bible. In a masterfully written piece at the web site Pantheos, McLaren well-stated that there is indeed such a thing as “phony theology,” and through some of the most accurate and astute exegesis I’ve seen from him in more than 10 years, called Christians back to a sound theology of creation care.

If only Brian would use the Scriptures in this way more often.

The situation that gave rise to this article was a comment made by Santorum attacking President Obama for what he calls a “phony theology” that “takes seriously, serving the earth.” Apparently, Santorum had taken a moment on the campaign trail to take issue with some of the President’s policies on the environment. Before that conversation was over, Santorum described statements made by the President at a recent prayer breakfast as influenced by a “phony theology,” and concluded his remarks by stating that the earth was made “for man’s use.”

To be sure, there is more than one legitimate application of Scriptural teaching concerning our responsibility to care for the environment and the balance between “dominion” and “stewardship of the earth.” One can certainly care for the environment while simultaneously questioning the wisdom of certain public policy positions on the issue. But Rick Santorum went further than this, taking a single Genesis passage out of its context in order to forward what McLaren correctly identified as a “hallowed interpretive tradition of the industrial era.”

Says McLaren: “Now, many of us notice that this "dominion" is an expression of humanity being created in "the image of God." That framing seems to imply that human beings should show the same care for creation that the Creator does—respecting and conserving God-given balances and systems. As image-bearers of God, we should, for example, show foresight to conserve God-given resources to benefit future generations rather than grasping for the most profit in the least amount of time to benefit today's one-percenters. (One might even argue that this approach is more truly and deeply conservative.)”

McLaren then moves on to ground this view of creation care in a thoroughly Biblical worldview of creation itself. In particular, his approach to Genesis 2 and the language of “cultivate and keep” is a textbook example of careful exegesis that is usually governed by a conviction that Scripture should interpret Scripture. Theologians call this a “historical-grammatical” approach to Biblical interpretation. This approach assumes a couple of things. First, it assumes that words have actual meaning, and that when Biblical writers used particular words under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, it was no less than God’s own intention to communicate meaning through those words.

Second, this approach assumes that the historical context of Scripture passages—which include any issues that were being addressed at the time of writing, as well as the personality and writing style of a given Biblical author—is of imminent importance in understanding what God intends to communicate through His Word. The dictum “Scripture interprets Scripture” is honored best when this approach to interpretation is employed, and in this article, McLaren does it well, concluding his argument with an application of retiring “Santorum's Industrial Era theology of dominion and exchange it for a more ancient understanding . . . and one with more foresight for the future as well.”

In an attempt to counter Presidential environmental policies with which he disagrees, Rick Santorum did violence to the very Scriptural text he claims he respects and follows. In his inaccurate invocation of God’s name, he essentially ignored half of the creation mandate. Regardless of what one thinks about Obama’s environmental policies, Santorum’s brief wade into the theological aspects of this issue demonstrate how so often, people are much better Republicans (or Democrats) than they are Christians. In this, McLaren deserves credit for calling the body of Christ back toward a more holistic and Scripture-centered view of Scripture.

Problem is, in order to write this article, McLaren had to violate some of his own more normative interpretive approaches. For example, moving along this exegetical continuum would naturally lead one to believe in a literal Garden of Eden, a literal Adam and Eve, and a literal creation narrative! Yet some of McLaren’s earlier works give indication that these are antiquated ideas that must be discarded. Additionally, McLaren’s positions on everything from substitutionary atonement to homosexuality give evidence that even he only employs the historical-grammatical approach to Scripture when it suits his own agenda, as this approach to understanding Scripture on a consistent basis would quickly overturn most of McLaren’s own positions.

Bottom line: a phony theologian just called out a politician for being a phony theologian. He happened to be right, but the whole situation screams “irony.”

McLaren has an unfortunate history of such inconsistent approaches to Scripture. When the historical-grammatical approach fits his own agenda, he is happy to employ it, such as he does here with environmental issues, or previously with issues like immigration. And when he takes these positions on solid Biblical grounds, I’m happy to stand shoulder to shoulder with him.

Yet when the same interpretive approach calls for a belief in the exclusivity of Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation, McLaren has quickly abandoned this approach—along with centuries of orthodox Christian tradition—and instead insisted “that I do not believe this is the right question for a missional Christian to ask.” Likewise, when a historical-grammatical analysis of texts like Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 clearly reveal the homosexual lifestyle to be a sinful distortion of God’s intention, McLaren reverts again to an epistemological swampland by stating “Frankly, many of us don’t know what we should think about homosexuality.”

So in the end we have two partisans; one Republican and one Democrat, both stating that Jesus is unequivocally on their side. The only difference between Rick Santorum's partisanship and Brian McLaren's is that Rick Santorum's should be expected. He is, after all, a politician!

I once had a wise seminary professor who, while tearing apart a long-held understanding I had of a certain Biblical text, warned me about allowing personal feelings, political positions, cultural assumptions, or anything else get in the way of understanding the otherwise clear meaning of Scripture. “You should hate it,” he said, “when anyone twists the Bible to fit their agenda, even if that person is a “conservative.’” He was right. May the church return to her prophetic role in culture. And may the first result of that return be people in those churches who are less worried about holding together an ideology, and more concerned about just being good followers of Jesus.

Beware of those who drape their theology in a partisan cloak.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

When "Friendly Fire" Isn't so Friendly

About 13 years ago, Pastor Trey Rhodes was sitting in a meeting of other pastors who were considering the sponsorship of a new church. The local Baptist Association had called this meeting to discuss "concerns" that several of the pastors had relative to this new church proposal. Church planting wasn't nearly as "cool" back then as it is now, and in fact was held in high suspicion in several segments of my denomination. In particular, these guys were concerned about the theology, evangelistic philosophy, and church growth methods this young church planter under their inspection wanted to employ.

Before long, the meeting turned caustic, with accusations of heresy and being "unBaptistic" being leveled at a young guy who wasn't in the room to defend himself.

That young guy was me.

After hearing several very negative comments about me, Pastor Trey obtained my phone number and called me directly. Over the next several months as we got to know each other and he came to understand who I really was and what I wanted to see accomplished through planting new churches, he became a fan, and later on, a very dear friend. Two years after this, our new church had the opportunity to play a small role in helping Trey launch out himself to start a new church.

Such was the Kingdom advance that resulted from the decision to make a single phone call, and actually get to know someone. It's a shame that doesn't happen more often.

As a guy who spends most of his time working with pastors and seeking to bring the churches they lead to greater missional cooperation, I've spent more time than I want trying to de-fuse misconceptions and get past misunderstandings, and toward the commonalities I know are present for us to be on mission together. To be sure, I'm convinced I serve with some of the finest pastors in the country. I'm thankful that in the northeast, we don't have the luxury of so easily dividing over silly issues and gross mischaracterizations of each other. When you represent less than .01% of the total population, you simply cannot afford to divide on too many things! Nevertheless, even in an area like ours the propensity exists to hold fellow pastors in suspicion, merely on the word from a third party, and without talking to them directly.

We who dare to pastor churches should know better! We preach from a Bible that clearly instructs us to refrain from making judgements on fallacious grounds, and we serve a Lord who was crucified precisely because of the same kind of rumor-mongering, slander, and character assassination that, regrettably, some in pastoral leadership sometimes commit without thinking.

This scenario happens every time we say of one of our fellow pastors "I heard he is a Calvinist! He must not believe in sharing Jesus," or "with the way his church is growing, he MUST be compromising something!" or "I'm not so sure he is 'one of us'."

It continues with assignment of motive without any basis in reality. If he employs a church growth tactic we don't agree with we assume he is "all about the numbers." If he hosts a Super Bowl party on a Sunday night we assume he is "bowing to the idol of professional football." If he engages a segment of his culture in a way we think goes too far, we declare that he has "sold out."

When such claims are thoughtlessly made without so much as a shred of evidence, or without actually trying to get to know someone, those actions say more about us than those we are accusing. To be sure, putting someone else down often makes us appear better, more holy, and closer to God in our own minds, but it does nothing to help the reputation of our Lord Jesus or the advance of His Kingdom.

Making matters worse, too many pastors don't go right to the source, but instead rely on so-called "discernment ministries," organizations who make it their life's work to destroy the ministry of anyone they deem heretical. Funny thing is that many of these so-called ministries are themselves guilty of malpractice, since the overwhelming majority are not directly accountable to any local church, and that should tell you pretty much everything you need to know. Pastors have the intelligence and ability to seek out accurate answers about a fellow pastor simply by reading original source material. When it comes to the "big name" guys, make sure you have read their books before you say anything publicly so that whatever you say you can say with accuracy.

Oh, and when it comes to the pastor across town, the solution is easier still. Don't say a word about him from your pulpit until you have sat down with him personally.

Am I suggesting that pastors should not warn their people when they believe false teaching is present? Not at all! Paul warned us that wolves abound who look like sheep, and part of our role includes the protection of our flocks. But I am suggesting that our current practice of third-party sources and hearsay means we "cry wolf" way too often, and lose the respect and attention of our people in the process, thereby opening them up to REAL attacks from REAL false prophets.

We are not politicians in competition with one another for the "party nomination." We are a band of brothers on the same side of the battlefield, and who need to ensure that, in the midst of all the casualties that already result from the degree of spiritual battle in which we are involved, "friendly fire" isn't the cause of those casualties.

We rightly lament the rampant gossip, backbiting, slander, and character assassination that so often takes place in our churches. We wonder to ourselves how on earth people who are supposed to know and walk with Jesus can act in such ways.

Gentlemen, the sad truth is that many times, they act in such ways because they are following our example! We need to set a better one!

The pastorate needs more good men like Pastor Trey Rhodes. And the evangelical church needs its present leadership to commit to better discernment that is guided by actually getting to know other people. Stopping this kind of ungodly behavior in our churches begins with us.