Category Archives: Culture

Legal and Religious Liberty Implications of the Supreme Court Decision on Same-sex Marriage (Part I)

by Matthew Steven Bracey

 *This five-part series is adapted from Matthew Bracey’s presentation, “Legal and Religious Liberty Implications of the Supreme Court Decision on Same-sex Marriage,” Theological Integrity Seminar (presentation at the annual meeting for the National Association of Free Will Baptists, Kansas City, Missouri, July 17-20, 2016), which itself is adapted from chapter five, “Same-sex Marriage and Christian Citizenship,” in Sexuality, Gender, and the Church: A Christian Response in the New Cultural Landscape (Nashville: Welch College Press, 2016), which readers can order by emailing order@welch.edu

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 “Get EnGAYged.”[i] Those were the words I saw pinned to a young man’s shirt on the day after Obergefell v. Hodges.[ii] This is the Supreme Court ruling that held that the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants same-sex couples the right to marriage, and that all states must recognize this right.

What followed was the declaration that “love wins” and a rainbow light display from the White House.[iii] Perhaps you had a similar experience. But homosexuality and same-sex marriage didn’t arise in 2015 with Obergefell. They’ve dominated the public discussion for well over a decade.

These cultural developments haven’t left the church, its members, or its ministries unaffected. Now, courts are jailing some who refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses. Workers who decline to accommodate same-sex couples are found guilty of discrimination. Examples include Christian bakers, bed and breakfast establishments, florists, photographers, and wedding venues. Cities are denying church groups equal access to rent public properties and attempting to regulate wedding chapels.

Universities are declining to recognize Christian student groups with traditional religious values. Federal healthcare mandates are attempting to require corporations to cover contraceptives and drugs to induce abortions. One city mayor even terminated the services of a public servant who expressed religious views contrary to city policy. Another attempted to compel pastors to submit sermons that make reference to homosexuality or gender identity.

These developments aren’t over. We haven’t heard the final word. Our denomination, churches, and congregants will continue to be affected. Christians today are facing strong pressure to conform. As a result, many are asking, “What does this mean? What are the legal and religious liberty implications of Obergefell?”

In answering these questions, we’ll consider some social and legal developments. Then we’ll examine several important civic principles. These include religious liberty, separation of powers and federalism, the rule of law, and democracy and liberty.

“I’m just a church member. I don’t know anything about the law,” some may say to themselves. But I submit that all American Christians should know something about these principles. As we’ll see, they help us understand the society within which we serve.

Historically they’ve also helped protect the inherent, God-given liberties we possess—what the American founders referred to as “unalienable rights.” Regrettably, many of these principles and protections are being threatened, which we must work to curb. We live in a democratic republic, and we all can play an important role. But to do this, we must understand what we’re protecting.

How Did We Get Here?

Social Developments

For most of its history, American government has penalized homosexual behavior. However, after World War I, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) rights made a small step forward in the so-called Roaring Twenties.

By the 1960s, the LGBT movement was in full swing. In 1962, Illinois became the first state to decriminalize homosexuality. Prior to this, all fifty states had laws against it.

Legal Developments

In 2003, Lawrence v. Texas decided that laws against same-sex sexual conduct are unconstitutional. This decision set the tone for the expansion of LGBT rights for the next decade as public awareness and sympathy continued to grow.

In 2011 and 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) held that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act also applies to LGBT people. Title VII outlaws discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Now that doesn’t say anything about LGBT rights or gender identity, does it?

Well, the EEOC determined that the “sex” component extends to LGBT people. Previously this had referred to women to protect them from gender discrimination.[iv] Now apparently it also refers to LGBT people.

With same-sex marriage, Massachusetts became the first state to recognize it in 2004. By June 2013, just nine years later, United States v. Windsor said that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional. Congress had passed DOMA in 1996, and President Bill Clinton had signed it. And it had defined marriage as a one-man, one-woman union.

Obergefell v. Hodges

Most recently, Obergefell v. Hodges has said that same-sex marriage is legal across the land.

The facts of the case are simple. The states of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee “define[d] marriage as a union between one man and one woman.”[v] A lawsuit was filed, saying that this was unconstitutional. And eventually it made its way to the Supreme Court.

Keep in mind that Americans had defined marriage this way for over 150 years. And no one had suggested it was unconstitutional.

The question they considered was whether the Fourteenth Amendment gives same-sex couples the fundamental right to marriage. And if so, do all states have to recognize this fundamental right? A 5-4 majority held “yes” to both questions.

Defining “marriage” as a one-man, one-woman union is, according to Obergefell, unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Antonin Scalia wrote four separate dissents.

Justice Kennedy wrote that the Constitution—specifically the Fourteenth Amendment—protects liberties that extend to certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy. Which includes choices defining personal identity and beliefs. Which includes the right of same-sex couples to marry.[vi]

Now, the Fourteenth Amendment reads that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Do you hear anything about that in there?

All of this leads us to ask, “Where do we go from here?” We’ll consider that question in part II, as well as the topic of religious liberty.

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[i] Portions of this series are adapted from “Supreme Decision?”, ONE Magazine, October-November 2015: 6–8; “Responding to Intolerance: From Life Transformation to World Transformation,” The Brink Magazine, Summer 2015, 38–42; and “Godliness and Government,” FUSION, December, January, February 2013–14: 66–69.

[ii] Accessible at http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/14pdf/14-556_3204.pdf.

[iii] Molly Oshatz, writing for First Things, writes, “‘Love wins’ has become a catch phrase of the fight for gay marriage. Love wins, yes, but it’s agape that wins, not eros” (Molly Oshatz, “Agape Wins,” First Things, July 6, 2015; http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2015/07/agape-wins; accessed September 25, 2015; Internet).

[iv] See “Civil Rights Act (1964), Our Documents, http://www.ourdocuments.gov/ doc.php?flash=true&doc =97&page=transcript; accessed October 21, 2015; Internet. This legislation does contain a religious exemption in section 702, which provides, “This title shall not apply to an employer with respect to the employment of aliens outside any State, or to a religious corporation, association, or society with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association, or society of its religious activities or to an educational institution with respect to the employment of individuals to perform work connected with the educational activities of such institution.”

[v] Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S ___ (2015), at 1; accessible at http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/14pdf/ 14-556_3204.pdf.

[vi] Obergefell, 576 U.S ___, at 2, 3.

Pastoral Theology and Change: Part 2

by Jackson Watts

What’s in a change? We never truly know until we enter into the crucible which is change.

As I explained in my previous post, church leaders (especially pastors) face numerous challenges in the course of leading God’s flock. Among them is the difficult task of helping implement change. This change operates both on the level of personal spiritual sanctification, as well as the structural aspects of the church’s congregational life which are intended to foster spiritual renewal and progress. We might say that changes in the organism (individual believers’ lives) are inextricably connected to organizational changes (the programs, policies, and procedures of the church’s ministry).

Pastors, especially by virtue of their role as overseers or bishops (episkopoi), must wisely work together with other leaders and mature members to discern which changes will best accomplish the church’s mission.

However, many of us intuitively know that not all change is the same, though some may tend to associate all change with discomfort and hurt feelings. Part of why this is so often the case is because there has been a failure to consider the nature of specific changes. In other words, church change isn’t a monolithic category.

I would suggest that there are at least three main forms of change a church can experience. Each is difficult in its own way, but each is also sometimes necessary. Here we will consider the first of these three unique types of change.

What’s New?

The first type of change is when something new is introduced to the church’s life—what I call “incorporation.” This is the resourcing of the church’s ministry because a new practice or custom, artifact or object, or value or belief is introduced to improve or strengthen the church.[1] Sometimes the newness is associated with a pastor’s particular background or experience elsewhere, or perhaps an emerging trend among associated churches. The perception is that the pastor is “bringing this newness” or that all the other churches are doing this now. Regardless of the source, usually a pastor or group of leaders presents the idea, hoping to persuade members of its value, and then implement it as smoothly as possible.

The main obstacle with this type of change is that the newness in question seems like an unwanted intrusion on a church’s existing life. For members who aren’t in the habit of self-examination, there is usually an implicit assumption that everything is already fine. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” epitomizes this sentiment. Therefore, the default position is to reject anything new on this basis without further reflection.

Any number of other sensibilities can be attached to this reticence toward change. Members may be fearful of how something they deeply value may be negatively impacted by the intrusion of the new. New programs, practices or tools have a tendency to displace older programs, practices or tools that may be deeply cherished.

Another common reason towards resisting the new is that many churches have had a checkered history when it comes to implementing new things. More than likely, the frustrated pastor is unaware that some of the congregational resistance to change has been conditioned to be that way by prior, unsuccessful changes. If crossing Jordan posed its difficulties for the Israelites after they had the Red Sea crossing in their rearview mirror, then it’s no surprise that sometimes church members—especially those desiring peace—don’t want to retread old ground whenever things weren’t successful before.

In this way, our experiences tend to be hermeneutical in nature. If a church leader has had success with a particular change in a previous ministry situation, it conditions him to think that it could go well and work smoothly in other contexts equally well. Likewise, if people have had unpleasant experiences with various forms of “newness,” this will shape their perception and expectations concerning the impending change.

Expectations and Ends

An equally problematic pattern with incorporation can be when churches want to adopt anything and everything new simply because it is new. In this, the church reveals its captivity to the myth that whatever is new is inherently good, and whatever is old is inherently bad. Another aspect of this is the belief that this new thing will deliver to the church something needed or sought after, whether converts, improved finances, or any number of other positive things. In this respect, the modern notion of ‘technique’ (especially in its commercialized American form) is simply applied to ministry. If the right technique is applied, then this will engender the desired result.

Many people will recognize that the first reaction above by some lay members is problematic in that it out-of-hand rejects anything without careful spiritual reflection. But the second mindset is also problematic because it also lacks a certain level of essential biblical evaluation. Rejecting something new for the wrong reasons is, in the long run, just as detrimental as promoting or accepting something new for the wrong reasons.

Pastors must work diligently to make a reasoned case, from Scriptural principles, for why certain new additions to the church’s life should be pursued. Additionally, they must develop an understanding of the context into which such new changes are being proposed. This will not only help them gauge the reactions they will receive, but the likelihood of success even if the changes are adopted.

A second thing they must do is closely evaluate which problem they are trying to solve, or area of ministry they are trying to improve by such a change. What is the end, in other words, of this effort? What are we realistically expecting to happen as a result of this change? Will the evaluation of the change’s effectiveness continue even after its adoption? How, if at all, will the church tweak the change or even reverse course if things are not successful?

These questions demand more time, attention, and reflection than we sometimes want to give, even if we are well-intentioned throughout the process. But they are the reasonable extensions of any case for incorporating something new into an existing church ministry.

Leadership Insight

We must come to appreciate the unique ministry setting in which God has placed us. Certainly the principles of Scripture are truthful, valid, and beneficial in any place where God’s people are. Yet these can never be hastily abandoned in the name of cultural relevance, or even in a misplaced desire to give the illusion that the church is making progress simply because they are doing something new and different.

There are also no doubt trans-cultural principles that shape pastoral ministry in any context. However, one of these principles is, in fact, that all ministry is local! This means that the pastor must be an anthropologist and historian, in addition to being a theologian. They must be students of the people they are called to love and serve. They must explore the history which has shaped the church throughout the years, making it the unique congregation that it is. The church’s history itself is constituted not by random events that simply happened to the church; its history is the sum total of the decisions (good and bad), gifts, victories, defeats, and dreams of the people. An awareness of such history will facilitate pastors in all types of change, especially with incorporation.

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[1] More on these three ‘traditions’ will be shared in a later post.

Moving Beyond Partisan Politics

by Kevin Hester

I recently read an article in Time magazine that traced the seemingly permanent impasse in the federal government to the election of a number of representatives during the presidency of George H. W. Bush. At a meeting with incoming House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich and Congressman Vin Weber, Bush expressed his greatest fear that they would allow their “idealism…(to) get in the way of…sound governance.”[1] His fear may not have been misplaced for Weber is noted to have said, “What is good for the President may well be good for the country, but it is not necessarily good for congressional Republicans.”[2]

Continue reading Moving Beyond Partisan Politics

Christians and Cultural Transformation

by Matthew Pinson

(the following is a blog post originally published here on the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission blog; )

I recently listened to a podcast of the White Horse Inn in which Michael Horton featured the ongoing transformation of Mackenzie University, a prestigious private university in Brazil with more than 40,000 students, into a Christian university.

Let me say at the outset that, even though I have serious questions, which I’m going to express in this piece, about Michael Horton’s two-kingdoms approach to the relation of Christianity and culture, I count him a gift to the church. When it comes to what goes on inside the church (except for obvious denominational differences), I tend to agree with him. But when it comes to how the church should relate to the secular culture, I disagree with his two-kingdoms approach, rather espousing a more positive transformational approach to cultural engagement more like that of a Wesley or a Kuyper. So don’t let these friendly critiques of Horton’s views on culture be taken as a lack of excitement about his views on other things.

Continue reading Christians and Cultural Transformation

The Gospel & Cultural Identity

by Jackson Watts

Recently I was perusing an older edition of Integrity, the theological journal which the Commission for Theological Integrity occasionally publishes (back issues available in PDF form here). I especially enjoyed reading an article written by Dr. Jeff Turnbough on culture as a missiological concept.

Turnbough remarks that in recent years he has given a lot of consideration to the biblical imagery of Christians as pilgrims, and the implications that has for our life in the world. As I was reading his discussion of this, simultaneously aware of his missionary background and the recent celebration of Memorial Day, I thought his piece provided a helpful caution about syncretism. Syncretism, from a religious perspective, is typically understood to be a problematic attempt to amalgamate different religious, cultures, or ideas, thus compromising the core substance of the original truth.

He warns,

While we must immerse ourselves in local cultures in order to communicate eternal truth effectively, we must be careful not to mix local wisdom with godly wisdom. This is probably most difficult when we stay in one culture all our lives, especially if the nation claims to be a Christian nation. We must pledge our allegiance first and foremost to God and heaven and treat our present location (as ambassadors of a heavenly kingdom) with diplomacy and respect, without betraying our loyalty to our eternal homeland. If we fall in love with a specific earthly and human sociocultural system, that love and allegiance will tend to distort and skew our perspective of eternal values. That is dangerous for the Christian pilgrim. Divided allegiances usually lead to varying forms of syncretism. Ultimately, in order to avoid this problem, we must follow the biblical exhortation to “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen; for what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18) [1].

Such words of caution have significant import for not only missionaries, but national church planters, pastors, and all Christians who are serious about communicating the Gospel wisely.

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[1] Jeff Turnbough, “Understanding Culture: From a Missiological Perspective,” in Integrity 3 (2006), 65-89.