In a landmark decision last Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of same-sex marriage. The Court has made gay marriage a fundamental constitutional right for everyone in the United States. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy said,
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.
The Court’s majority interpretation of the text poses a significant threat both to the historical definition of marriage and to the constitutional right of dissenters, especially those with religious convictions. Ironically, it was Justice Kennedy who during the oral arguments of Obergefell v. Hodges was “concerned about changing a conception of marriage that has persisted for thousands of years based on little more than a decade of experience with same-sex marriage in the United States.”
Justice Alito further probed the issue when he asked, “Suppose…a group consisting of two men and two women apply for a marriage license. Would there be any ground for denying them a license?” Today’s ruling not only changes marriage to allow for same-gender couples; it also opens a door for polygamy.
It is interesting to note that even as secular as Europe is considered to be, many European countries have opted to provide same-sex couples the right to form “registered partnerships” but not to participate in the marriage institution that has lasted millennia. Worldwide, there are only 21 other countries where same-sex marriage is legal nationwide. Last week the U.S. became the 22nd!
By making same-sex marriage a right in the whole country, the Court potentially threatens the religious freedom of many. During the oral arguments, the Chief Justice asked Solicitor General Verrilli: “Would a religious school that has married housing be required to afford such housing to same-sex couples?”
The equivocating answer from Mr. Verrilli was revealing about the messy situation Christians will face in the coming years. He said it “is going to depend on how the States work out the balance between their civil rights laws, whether they decide there’s going to be civil rights enforcement of discrimination based on sexual orientation or not, and how they decide what kinds of accommodations they are going to allow under State law…different states could strike different balances.”
Moreover, when Justice Alito questioned Mr. Verrilli about the right of religious institutions to maintain tax-exempt status, President Obama’s top lawyer struggled further to respond, recognizing the depth of the issue: “You know, I — I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I — I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is — it is going to be an issue.”
Make no mistake, religious liberty is going to be a problem. The legalization of same-sex marriage may mean an existential threat for the church.
A Call for the Adventist Church to Prioritize
Next week, the 60th General Conference (GC) Session kicks off in San Antonio. In certain circles of the church, this GC Session has been billed as the most defining session in recent memory.
For four decades now, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has been in the trenches vigorously debating over women’s ordination. Arguably, few issues have consumed more time and resources than the ordination of women to pastoral office. By now it should be obvious to all concerned church members that there is a deep and profound hermeneutical and cultural divide within the world church. In the context of the current divisive rhetoric, it seems unlikely that a simple yes or no vote can resolve the issue.
In light of the Supreme Court’s decision, one may ask—is the church misplacing its priorities? Permit me to highlight four areas that demand that the church shift its focus from the women’s ordination debate: loss of religious freedom, resource allocation, our Fundamental Belief on creation, and stagnant church membership.
1. First, the loss of religious freedom is upon us. Preaching against homosexuality may soon be against the law, if the situation in Canada is any indication. With little, if any, legal protection, the church is likely to face many litigations over its Biblical and homiletical stance. How can the church maintain its Biblical fidelity in such a hostile environment?
Some Christian leaders have been quick to respond. Christianity Today released a statement written by 90 leaders entitled: “Here We Stand: An Evangelical Declaration on Marriage.” These leaders write:
In the coming years, evangelical institutions could be pressed to sacrifice their sacred beliefs about marriage and sexuality in order to accommodate whatever demands the culture and law require. We do not have the option to meet those demands without violating our consciences and surrendering the gospel. We will not allow the government to coerce or infringe upon the rights of institutions to live by the sacred belief that only men and women can enter into marriage.
A few days ago—June 16, 2015, to be precise—the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution on gay marriage. Here is an excerpt from that resolution:
RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Columbus, Ohio, June 16–17, 2015, prayerfully call on the Supreme Court of the United States to uphold the right of the citizens to define marriage as exclusively the union of one man and one woman; and be it further
RESOLVED, That Southern Baptists recognize that no governing institution has the authority to negate or usurp God’s definition of marriage; and be it further
RESOLVED, No matter how the Supreme Court rules, the Southern Baptist Convention reaffirms its unwavering commitment to its doctrinal and public beliefs concerning marriage; and be it further
RESOLVED, That the religious liberty of individual citizens or institutions should not be infringed as a result of believing or living according to the biblical definition of marriage; and be it further
RESOLVED, That the Southern Baptist Convention calls on Southern Baptists and all Christians to stand firm on the Bible’s witness on the purposes of marriage, among which are to unite man and woman as one flesh and to secure the basis for the flourishing of human civilization; and be it finally
RESOLVED, That Southern Baptists love our neighbors and extend respect in Christ’s name to all people, including those who may disagree with us about the definition of marriage and the public good.
Contemporary challenges call for wisdom from on high and courageous church leadership.
2. Second, wise allocation of church resources needs to be a priority. With the church at risk of losing its religious liberty protection for refusing to compromise, Adventist universities and other institutions face the possibility of losing their tax-exempt status. Is the church engaged in faithful stewardship today to sustain its future operations? Jason K. Allen, president of Midwestern Seminary, provides this three-step approach:
First, Christian institutions must be clear and consistent about their convictions. Faithfulness to one’s confessional heritage and mission demands it; a discerning constituency should expect it; and courts of law will necessitate it. Intentional ambiguity on the great theological and moral challenges of our generation never was a virtuous strategy, and it is no longer a tenable one. In the courts of law, only Christian institutions that have clearly codified and long practiced their biblical convictions will have a fighting chance.
Secondly, Christian institutions must quickly develop a sustainable business model. Operational sustainability necessitates that institutions prepare to free themselves from dependency on Pell Grants and Federal student loans. Furthermore, they must devise contingency plans for losing their tax-exempt status. These considerations are not prompted by paranoia; they are prompted by realism.
Finally, Christian institutions must engage the new—and most urgent—front in the culture war: religious liberty. Now is the time for every religious institution, Christian or otherwise, to advocate for religious liberty. The government that is powerful enough to limit your neighbor’s religious liberty may prove powerful enough to eliminate yours.
3. Third, we must strengthen Fundamental Belief #6. Sadly, the urgent need to tighten the language of our belief on creation at this year’s GC Session seems to have been lost in the women’s ordination debate. Genesis 1-11 provides a foundation for the God-ordained family unit as well as for the rest of the Bible. Wavering on the historicity of the creation account greatly undermines the rest of the church’s teachings, such as salvation, Sabbath, and the Second Coming. It opens a door for theistic evolution into our church. (For a discussion on the length of days in Genesis 1, see Gerhard F. Hasel’s excellent article.)
4. Finally, stagnant church membership calls for a renewed focus on evangelism. With certain parts of the world church facing minimal growth and an aging population with few youth in the pews every Sabbath, the church needs to get back to the most important mission ever given to mankind—the proclamation of the first, second, and third angels’ messages (Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, p. 19). Ordained or not ordained, one has to agree that the church has spent too much time and resources on a singular issue—whether it is an ecclesiological civil rights issue or not. It is time for the church to prioritize much weightier issues with far deeper implications.
Momentous times are upon us. The church must acknowledge that we are no longer ministering to a Christian culture in North America. In such an environment we face increasing challenges. It is time that we press together, press upward, and press forward, vindicating the truth and honoring Christ.
The battle is not ours; it is the Lord’s (2 Chron. 2:15). His church will prevail. Maranatha!
[Photo: Crowds outside the Supreme Court last Friday when the same-sex marriage verdict was announced. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.]