Editor's note: This is an attempt to refocus the Church on our call in the midst of a changing cultural landscape, not an "us versus them" statement, but a reminder that we are called to be "us" to reach "them". There are many more facets to this subject that cannot all fit in one article. See this issue's book review for more.
Update: The Supreme Court decided for the plaintiff in Obergefell v. Hodges, et al., on June 26, 2015, effectively mandating same-sex marriage nationwide.
Last month the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges, et al. on the question of whether same-sex marriage (currently legal in some states and illegal in others) must be allowed in all U.S. states and territories (per the 14th Amendment). A ruling is expected later this summer. This is only the latest squeeze of cultural pressure for sweeping change now coming to a head after 50 years of sexual revolution. Christians in America are quickly recognizing that we are on a very different path from the majority of our countrymen.
The conversation among believers has, accordingly, shifted from the question of how to protect the traditional view of marriage (a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman) in law and culture, to the ways we can preserve any meaningful freedom to dissent in a society that has largely rejected our beliefs as immoral and cruel. If we learned anything from recent flare-ups (the Indiana and Arkansas Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, in particular), it is that the new morality (rooted in unfettered individualism) hates any public rebuttal.
Christian leaders and writers across denominations have been wrestling with what that means for our daily practice and identity as members of the Body of Christ. Few expect an impending trip to the lions, but the consensus takeaway is that things will be different. Russell Moore (a Southern Baptist) speaks of becoming "a prophetic minority" (playing on the 1980s "Moral Majority") willing to be reviled while lovingly and unflinchingly speaking truth to the world. Rod Dreher (a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy) has been most vocal about what he calls "The Benedict Option"-not a wholesale return to monasticism, but the intentional withdrawal from mainstream culture and cultivation of Christian community to preserve the truth and shine the light of Christ in a new dark age. This is beyond the "culture wars" of decades past. These are not discussions within a nominally Christian population about public morality, but serious questions about how the Church as an institution will weather the coming storm.
There is a real sense of fear today-fear of what we stand to lose, fear for the world our children and grandchildren will inherit. Beyond its value as a healthy motivator (more on that to come), though, this is not the time for fear. Whatever comes (though we seek to understand the times, we cannot know all that God's plan holds), we ought to be concerned with how the Church will survive and thrive, because we have been given roles and responsibilities in the Lord's kingdom. We strive to protect the Church, not because we want to preserve our comfort and influence, but because we have a job to do.
Times Require the Gospel
Compared to the New Testament context, the modern West is a land of unparalleled peace, tolerance, and freedom. But Christ came into that world; into that world that He commissioned His followers to make disciples and be His witnesses to the uttermost parts. The Lord knew the opposition they would face. He knew that the Jewish leaders would not tolerate His Gospel, and that the Roman authorities would seek to crush it too, once they realized that Jesus' lordship meant denying Caesar's. Proclaiming the Gospel, historically, has always been done from a position of cultural weakness, ostracism, and danger. Our message is literally from "out of this world," and we are told repeatedly that the world will not understand it unless the Holy Spirit opens their eyes to the truth (see 1 Cor. 1 and 2, for starters).
No matter the circumstances we face, our mission remains to be fulfilled. Until the Lord returns, the Gospel must be preached. There is salvation in no one but Christ, and we should see that all the better when the false assurances of peace and prosperity give way. When we grow more concerned about safety than faithfulness, our eyes are off the ball indeed.
Jesus had a few choice words for us in this regard: "If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign the members of his household! Therefore do not fear them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in your ear, proclaim upon the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell"(Matt. 10:25b-28). Our fear is misplaced when we worry about ourselves. God is the judge; evil will be shown for what it is, and the truth will be plain. God's plan to lead the lost to the light does not involve hiding the truth from public view.
Times Require Holiness
When we see the world turning its back on Christianity, it is easy to forget God's concern with our own sin and conduct. It is often for our own purification that the Lord allows oppression and opposition: "though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 1:6-7). Peter's entire letter focuses on challenging the church to holiness in the midst of suffering. Why? Because this follows the example of Christ (2:21-25), speaks truth to a watching world (2:11-20), and prepares us for glory in God's presence (5:6-11). Suffering for the sake of Christ strengthens the Church by making it impossible to be both of the world and in the Church.
It has been well observed that the shift toward celebration of same-sex marriage is little more than a logical progression from two antecedents: no-fault divorce and chemical birth control. That is, when we as a culture began to separate sexual activity from the possibility of producing children and turned marriage into a simple and easily dissolved contract between two people who (at least at the moment) love one another, we evicted the family as the foundational unit of society in favor of the individual. In that context there is no longer a culturally legitimate reason to limit that contract to one man and one woman.
Sadly, the Church has not always been faithful to uphold the Bible's teaching on the primacy, permanence, and procreative purpose of marriage (which all picture Christ and the Church). Though the notion that the divorce and cohabitation rates are the same in the church as in the world has been repeatedly debunked, it is still much higher than it ought to be for a people committed to Christ and His Word. Moreover, many churches and denominations (mostly within the Mainline) have answered the question of same-sex marriage by changing right along with the culture. If we are going to be distinct from the world, it has to be bigger than our stance on one issue. Doctrine and practice matter, both in terms of what we are able to protect in terms of religious freedom and in the witness we present to new believers in other cultures as we fulfill the Great Commission.
Times Require Boldness
As mentioned above we ought not be afraid, but share the Gospel in boldness. Jesus told His disciples: "Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. Be glad in that day and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven. For in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets" (Luke 6:22-23). "Thus says the Lord" has never been well-received by men, so we should not expect anything different now. Being opposed and persecuted by the systems of men is often a sign that we are working hard within God's perfect plan. Again, in the passage from Matthew mentioned above, Jesus said, "Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows" (Matt. 10:29-31). These are not platitudes, but powerful assurances given to those on mission for Christ. It is fair to take danger into consideration in how we fulfill our calling, but the proper stance for believers is boldly following Christ in obedience, not cowering in fear.
On a more practical level, as cultural and legal changes push us ever further from the American mainstream, the Church should not be surprised, but neither should we give up the exercise of what rights we do enjoy. Notably, Paul played up his Roman citizenship in Acts 16 for the benefit of the fledgling Philippian church, in Acts 22 to extract himself from the mob in Jerusalem, and in Acts 25 to appeal to Caesar so that he could continue proclaiming the truth. Churches and Christian institutions still enjoy tremendous protection under the law for the time being (including tax exemption and allowance for belief-based discretion in hiring), and we should not sit idly by as those protections are assaulted. Like Paul, we have a Gospel to proclaim, and we should use every available means to ensure that it reaches as far and wide as possible.
Times Require Love
In what is often a heated debate, it is critical to remember that none of us are righteous apart from Christ. Some of the vitriol on the part of those who practice or affirm homosexual behavior no doubt stems from unbiblical attitudes shown toward them by some Christians. If Christ would die for us "while we were yet sinners" (Rom 5:8), should we not also show sacrificial love for those who do not yet know Him that they might see His love in us? In Christ, we have no cause to refuse love, concern, care, and friendship to others broken by sin.
Paul wrote, "Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God" (1 Cor. 6:9-11). No one in this life is beyond the possibility of repentance and redemption. As Paul himself could attest, even the "chief of sinners" could in a moment be transformed by the power of God.
In a grand sense, sexual identity has never been the real issue, but is one more tool for Satan to use in his ongoing war against God, His Word, His world, and His people. Individuals in unbiblical lifestyles are not themselves the enemy, but they are being used and abused by him. This means that standing firm on Scripture at this point is part of our love for those enslaved to sin in these particular areas-if we deny that their actions are sinful, we deny them the opportunity to be broken by the Spirit and repent.
Times Require Strategy
To return to points made above, how we negotiate this changing landscape has tremendous implications for our ability to fulfill our responsibility before God to proclaim the Gospel at home and abroad. Religious freedom matters, but even if that is taken from us, we cannot stop obeying Christ. Christian generosity, service, and mercy ministry go hand in hand with that call (James 2:14-26, etc.), so we ought to labor to preserve our ability to continue the work.
Practically, the era of evangelical entrepenurialism in which non-denominational churches and parachurch organizations (like my own) of all shapes and sizes have flourished may be at an end. Organized church denominations with official worship functions and established confessions of belief are better positioned in the emerging legal framework to a) maintain orthodox theology and practice among their members and employees, and b) hang onto their rights to serve others openly and fully through hospitals, schools, universities, and other charitable functions.
Unaffiliated churches and organizations will make easier targets when legal battles arise. When challenged on the basis for our actions, we can point to Scripture, but not always to established confessional framework and patently religious functions. It may be necessary for the American Church to undergo a contraction of Christian mission and mercy work, with organizations consolidating into established denominational groups to protect their ability to fulfill Christ's call. Again, we are not to give up, but to "be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matt. 10:16).
The Times Require Rejoicing and Rest
"Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name" (1 Pet. 4:12-16).
"Rejoicing" may not be the first (or the tenth) thing that comes to mind as you read one more news story about same-sex marriage or experience struggles in business (or more brutal persecution, for our overseas readers) because of your faith. Yet that is what Peter commands, as do Jesus (Luke 6:22-23, quoted above), James (James 1:2-4), and Paul (Rom. 5:3-6). We rejoice because we know the end of the story, or rather, we know the One who is the beginning and the end. Whatever He allows is for our ultimate good and His glory (Rom. 8, etc.). These commands to rejoice aren't saying so much that suffering produces joy, but reminding us that the joy of the Lord that should characterize all of our lives ought not be disrupted by persecution.
In all this, we do need to understand what we face, we must know what is at stake, and we cannot lose hope. Even so, beware the temptation to believe that you know better than God what is going on. Things that seem straightforward are often borne along by undercurrents we've missed. History is an exercise in sifting out why the obvious is not always accurate, and the real issue is seldom obvious, but nothing that happens is outside of God's sovereign plan. Despair is never on the table.
Justin Lonas is editor of Disciple Magazine for AMG International in Chattanooga, Tennessee.