SCOTUS Decision: A Pastoral Letter from Our General Director
By Jim Lyon
Comment Context: Why are you sending this, Jim?
(1) I have, in the last several days, received moving requests (heart-felt pleas, really) from Church of God pastors in the United States, asking me for some guideposts as they prepare to preach in the wake of the United States Supreme Court ruling (released 26 June 2015), asserting a constitutional right to marry for couples of the same gender (popularly dubbed “gay marriage”) in the same way couples of different gender (vernacular: “straight marriage”) have enjoyed since the nation’s founding. This Court ruling represents (or, perhaps, it might be said, acknowledges) a sea change in the social construct of our time.
(2) For almost all of my adult life, I have served as a pastor. I have spent more than a few years living with the weekly rhythm of sermon prep. As general director of Church of God Ministries in the last two years, I have not been the shepherd of a local parish, but am still often “in the pulpit,” all over the country (and, yes, the world beyond, too); I am still tuned up to preach, you might say, but without a fixed, local audience.
(3) As general director of Church of God Ministries, I do not speak for the Movement, per se. No one does. However, as I explained in the concluding session of the 2015 Church of God Convention in Oklahoma City on Thursday (and before the Court’s pronouncement), I am increasingly aware of a sense that the Movement itself, at some level, longs for a pastor. In the same way that a local church best moves forward with a shepherd at the helm (as contrasted to a congregation without a leader at the point, attempting to advance the Kingdom cause without a pastor/shepherd), is it possible in a community of churches like the Church of God, that there is a place (a need?) for some form of shepherding? It is a question with which I am wrestling; it is a question provoked by moments like these, in which pastors across the continent are reaching out to me for counsel. Local church ministry and the role to which I have now been called are not exact analogs, of course, but there are some parallels. In any case, my native wiring has been hugely informed and fashioned by my years as a local church pastor.
(4) Consequently, I am sharing this brief, for any who are looking for a frame with which to respond to current events, preaching/teaching this weekend. It is offered without any pretense of authority or Movemental definition; again, I understand that I do not speak conclusively “for the Movement.” What follows is being proffered upon request of local pastors; it is the heart of one pastor (me), hoping to encourage other pastors (you). We are all brothers and sisters in Christ, not one above the other. That said:
If I were a local pastor, charged with bringing the Word to my local church and its visitors, what would I say?
(5) I would approach the assignment guided by four important principles that have always governed my preaching: (a) the Word is the source and plumb line of any message I will bring; my thoughts must spring from, be grounded in, and be measured by the Scripture, (b) I have a responsibility to help my congregation to interpret the world—and current events—through the lens of Scripture, proposing answers to questions with which my flock is preoccupied today, (c) I must make always Jesus the subject—whatever is addressed in the message must be anchored in a biblical understanding of Jesus, and, at last (d) I must experience what I teach—it must be authentically and deeply owned by me, born in me by the Spirit—I cannot parrot what I think people want to hear or trumpet what others have said—the message must be knit in my own heart.
(6) My text would be John 18:33–38, a passage which emphasizes the supremacy of Christ over all world orders and systems, a text which suggests that in tethering our beliefs and conclusions to Christ we will be guilty of no crime (however the secular world judges us), a narrative that contrasts the Lordship and persona of Jesus with the legal and governmental authority of this world.
(7) I would not immediately engage the debate about the definition of marriage, homosexuality, heterosexuality, transgender, sexual ethics, et al.; that (as I will mention later in this frame) is a conversation for another day; this weekend’s emphases would be a clarion call to Kingdom people to take their cues from Kingdom documents, not secular ones. The Court’s decision in this case only is a stage upon which this truth can walk (whatever folks in my audience might believe about the merits of the majority’s reasoning in the 5–4 decision).
(8) I would help my audience to walk into the historic drama of Jesus in the courtroom of Pilate; I would paint a picture of the scene; I would acknowledge (and praise) the wonders of Roman justice (primitive in many ways from our perch two millennia later, but still a phenomenon in the ancient, pagan world—a system of laws, focused on the privileges of citizenship, stratified to deal with different circumstances on a global stage, requiring hearings, thoughtful consideration of the issues at hand, governed by a library of statutes and precedent); I would bring Jesus into the room: a Man conscious of the temporal power and place of secular authorities, respectful, and poised and, at the same time, altogether secure operating from a different, almost other-worldly set of values and legal sourcing. So do we, not just in this instance, but always, as citizens of the Kingdom, stand in juxtaposition to temporal and secular power and ideas.
(9) I would next contemporize the text, by moving the congregation into modern times. Our legal systems are, by wide margins, more just and sophisticated than those of the Roman age, but still are not our ultimate moral compass. And while great political questions may be viewed as great moral questions, judicial panels, legislatures, executive orders, and the statistically polled pulse of public opinion are not now (nor have they ever been) the last word in ethics for Jesus-followers. The Constitution of the United States is, at many levels, the stuff of genius, but it was flawed from the beginning (e.g., it originally codified the owning of people as personal property). Interpreting the Constitution, as required by its own design, is ultimately vested in the Supreme Court—but that forum has also not been without flaw, drawing conclusions clothed by controversy and sometimes reversing its own course, over time (the list, over 200-plus years, of what we would now consider outrageous Court-ordered outcomes is substantial). Whatever the views resident in the pews these days on the great questions placed before the Court (as in the marriage case), those following Jesus must be reminded that the Court, the Congress, the President, the European Union, the United Nations, Fox News, CNN, The Washington Post, the Gallup Poll, Modern Family, Grey’s Anatomy, 60 Minutes, Hollywood films, Vanity Fair, Time magazine, Southwest Airlines, Disney, and the broad spectrum of books you can find at Barnes & Noble or at Amazon.com and all the rest, are not for Jesus-followers the anchor of ethics, conduct, truth, or values. They may, at times, be congruent or at odds with our worldview, but we are not defined by them.
(10) The Court’s decision prescribing who qualifies for a marriage license in the United States appropriately has been heralded as a triumph for “gay rights.” It clearly establishes a new social norm, by law, universally applicable in all American jurisdictions. Nevertheless, it is a civil norm, not necessarily a biblically-grounded one (any more than legal frameworks for a wide range of other human behaviors are uniformly consistent with Scripture). On this, as on many other fronts (think abortion, divorce, the prison at Guantanamo, American military drone strikes abroad, corporate funding supporting individual candidates for public office, the Affordable Care Act, immigration and “the path to citizenship,” and so much more)—whatever we think about them—laws are formed in secular processes that do not recognize the same source authority as do we (although appeals to Scripture, faith, and God Himself are often made in public discourse). I have often disagreed with secular decisions made in other cases, but the sky has not fallen and my confidence in Christ and His Gospel has not been shaken. This is not to say that we should not work to influence our culture or engage in political arenas; it is to say we must stay centered in who is our King and by what law He calls us to live.
(11) Who qualifies to be married—in a way, the definition of marriage itself—is a critically important, foundational, concept. Marriage is a social contract of the most profound and intimate nature. Many countries require a civil (state) ceremony, even as those marrying also opt for a religious one (as a second, spiritual statement and witness). Many straight people marry in the United States outside of what I consider to be biblical boundaries: I have occasionally declined to officiate at some straight weddings over the years, concluding that what was permissible by the “laws of men” was not permissible by the “law of God;” this tension is not new. Marriage law (both secular and religious) necessarily requires a consideration of human sexuality and sexual ethics. The present debate, in my view, unfortunately attempts to narrowly address the issues of same-gender attraction (and, consequently, same-gender marriage) without addressing the broader continuum of human sexuality. All of us are sexual beings—and all of us are faced with the challenge of managing our sexuality, while acknowledging we are all sexually broken, in some way or another. I would disclose to my congregation the reality of my own struggle with sexuality (everyone has one), admitting that my desire, my dreams, my imagination (I have a very vivid imagination), and my attractions, if left unchecked and governed by my born nature alone, will fall outside the parameters set for me by my King, even as I consider myself to be a straight man. Human sexuality has unspeakable power to bless and give life—it can also, conversely, have a perverse power to destroy, to rob life. I would try and contextualize the marriage issue by challenging my people to consider the larger frame of questions regarding our sexuality: How is our sexuality formed? Are we born “that way?” Am I straight—or gay—because I have been “created by God” one way or another? Why are some men attracted to women with enormous breasts, and others not so much? Why are some women attracted to the tall, dark and handsome guy, and others not so much? Why are some adults turned on by the thought of sexual intercourse with minor children? Why are some men (and, I suppose, some women) thirsting for three-ways or multiple partners and others repelled by the idea? Why is monogamy perceived to be superior to polygamy? By what authority? Is it possible that God creates some women’s souls in men’s bodies—and vice versa? Is sexual identity even relevant to soul life? Why do some desire oral or anal sex and others find it repugnant? Are these genetic predispositions? Are they the result of subliminal or subconscious influences in infancy? Childhood? Adolescence? Adulthood? Are they choices, or predetermined by our Creator, or are they random traits, without design or explanation? Are they consequent to my conscious will or are they the fixed predispositions of my destiny? Does God create anyone one way and then demand they be another? Are my natural inclinations, in this fallen world, sound evidence of God’s design and purpose? Is my sexuality a blank page at birth, is it formed in the womb, a genetic script, or combinations of all of the above? And, whatever its causal factors, by what light do I manage my sexuality? When it comes to sexual appetites and desire, the palate and possibilities are vast. What does science say (the jury is still out on the science of gender orientation, even though it is popularly believed that science has conclusively determined we are oriented genetically)? More importantly, in our context, what does the Scripture say? Perhaps, it would be best for all of us to admit, that no matter what we feel about our own sexuality, its formation remains somewhat of a mystery. Of course, as you can see, this kind of sharing will require a kind of naked conversation we are not accustomed to having in church. But, that is a large part of our problem just now: because we have not had these kinds of conversations in church, the world has had them alone.
(12) I would promise my congregation that there will be an open, thoughtful, respectful exploration of sexual ethics and conduct in our church family that will allow people to speak and listen. It will inform our church family about why some read Scripture one way, others read it another, and some leave it behind altogether. It will be a conversation framed by the Scripture. Personal experience, personal opinion, what my grandmother taught me, the Supreme Court, and all the rest, may enter on the periphery, but we are Jesus-followers and we will commit ourselves to embracing His will and way, His Word. The Bible will be our charter. Jesus is the subject; it will be through His lens that we will tackle the questions and interpret the rest of Scripture.
(13) Which would bring me back to the text, to Jesus. Jesus clearly established that His values, His wisdom, His authority, His Kingship, His supremacy, and His frame of reference stood apart from and above that of Pilate (and the secular). He clearly understood that standing by His principles in the moment would prove very costly, but He also grasped that over the long haul, His truth would prevail and Pilate’s would fade; He took the long view. So must we. Jesus also stood respectfully, quietly, and strongly for His Kingdom, in the face of all the power, agency, and pressure this world can bring, and immediately impressed Pilate (by the world’s measure, the most powerful and influential guy in the room, the city, the region) that He (Jesus) was guilty of no crime (even though the two men approached their choices that day from diametrically opposed points of view).
(14) I would emphasize our need to sincerely, without prejudice, seek Jesus just now: in our understanding of His will for our sexual ethics and conduct, in our understanding of His Word (starting with His own comments about marriage and then working back into the Old Testament and forward into the New Testament, humbly allowing the Holy Spirit to guide). I would emphasize this was not the hour for defensive entrenchment (by those who profess to follow Christ and are disappointed or offended by the Court) or triumphalism (by those who profess to follow Christ and are pleased by the Court)—both are in our pews. I would emphasize that we must all find our grounding in Scripture, not emotion, not our sympathy and love for family members who have come out gay, not the arguments about “the right or wrong side of history,” not the popular press, or the Court itself—but in the Christ of the Word. I would emphasize that we must all have listening hearts and ears, and that for many, the issue of marriage definition and the larger scope of sexual ethics, attractions, preferences, appetites, and experience is a complex weave. I would explain that the General Assembly of the Church of God has in 1993, 2004, and 2014 consistently voted to affirm that marriage should be defined only as between one man and one woman—but also acknowledge, that in our churches, the conversation continues. I would invite everyone present, no matter what their position on (or questions about) these things, to surrender, fresh and new, into the Lord’s hands—whatever the cost. I would explain that for me, having wrestled with the issues involved, so far as I comprehend them, I remain persuaded that same-gendered sexual relationships are not permitted by the Gospel, but that I also recognize the need to continue to listen and care for others with differing views. I would affirm the marvelous gift of human sexuality and call everyone to live to a biblical standard; many in the pews are struggling with their sexual conduct, across the spectrum. I would affirm marriage and singleness.
(15) I would remind my congregation that we are a people of broken places—all of us—whose only hope is being made whole and holy in Christ. Let us first cleanse ourselves before the throne before we presume to dismiss others.
(A) Church of God Ministries will launch a new forum for conversation, biblically-grounded, in the church called ChoG Tables, later this year. The first (slated for 11 September 2015 at Warner University in Lake Wales, Florida) will tackle sexual ethics. It will be part “TED talks,” part panel, part conversational break-outs, part prayer—but all framed by our historic commitment to the supremacy of Scripture.
(B) If you promise your church a conversation about human sexuality, you will have to deliver. A preaching/teaching series, a question-and-answer forum (in which questions can be submitted anonymously on any sexual topic—you’ll find masturbation, pornography, straight and gay sex, and more put on the table), a commitment to make your church a safe place to talk about sexuality, in all of its dimensions. The church is usually the last place people seek information about sexual issues/conduct/ethics; it should be the first.
(C) Whatever is preached, it must be clothed in humility, grace, and compassion; many of our families are coming to terms with loved ones—children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, etc., who have “come out gay.” The emotional roller coaster is a wild ride; we must be thoughtful and speak our understanding of the truth in love.
Additional Resources Compiled by Church of God Ministries
ChoG Tables and Other Resources (PDF)
How the Church of God “Speaks” (PDF)
SCOTUS Same-Sex Marriage Ruling Response: A Legal Perspective (PDF)
Jesus is the Cornerstone: A Sample SCOTUS-Response Sermon (MS Word doc.)
Learn more about the Church of God at www.JesusIsTheSubject.org.