Friday, June 26, 2015

On Defining Marriage

In light of today's Supreme Court ruling, I yield the floor to my good friend Fred O. Pitts, current pastor of Clairmont Hills Church in Atlanta. Some of my readers may know his wife Cindy Connor Pitts from Macon.

Earlier this week Fred O posted the following essay on his blog, which I post here in full. If you read this I pray you will read the whole thing, with an open mind.

Thoughts on Changing the Definition of Marriage

Marriage has been, as far as I understand, heretofore always defined as joining male and female throughout human history. The Supreme Court is expected to soon make a ruling on the idea of broadening that definition to include same sex couples in the definition, at least here in the U.S., as has already recently been done in some states and some other nations. As one who is a follower of Jesus and believes that the Scriptures are God’s clearest word to us about life, I want to share three observations from my understanding of my faith in Jesus.

First, I acknowledge that although I would prefer to maintain the historic definition, a country that is governed by a democratically based republic can change its laws. However, to me it seems a bit dishonest to redefine a word from what it has historically meant rather than create a new word that describes a similar (in that two people make legal promises to one another) but different (in that it involves same sex couples rather than male and female). It would be, in my mind, similar to the color green demanding to be called blue. Though close on the spectrum, they are different, and why shouldn’t green be proud to be green rather than demand to be called blue? The mere fact that a modifier (e.g., “same sex” or “gay”) has to be placed in front of the word “marriage" shows that there is a distinction, and I think that distinction will remain. While I think it would be proper to have a different term, the country through courts and/or legislatures will do whatever it wants. In the first century, when Christianity began and grew throughout the Roman Empire, the early believers had no thought of having the influence to change laws; they sought to change hearts. And the record shows that all kinds of people came out of all kinds of behaviors that the Bible calls sin, including the practice (as opposed to feelings) of homosexuality. So I don’t think it is the end of the world if the law changes, any more than when other laws about sexuality and marriage and divorce (and other areas of behavior) have been changed over the years that legalized more lax standards than had previously been in place. Having said that, I do believe that any nation that continually ignores God’s plan in all of life, as our nation has been doing for years and years—not just now—will be subject to consequences that perhaps we are already seeing throughout the world. The consequences may be sent by God or simply allowed by God as some of his protections are removed. We see such things noted throughout the Old Testament and there is no reason to believe God’s hand is not active today in the affairs of nations. As it says, we reap what we sow.

My second observation is that I don’t know any mainstream evangelicals who advocate mistreating homosexuals or denying them their civil rights. Yes, you can find fringe people on every side of pretty much any issue, and as a society we love to focus on and highlight such people, but it is more honest to look at the main behavior of any group. Put the practice of homosexuality aside for a moment—the Bible teaches that all sexual relationships outside of marriage are outside of God’s plan. I know many people who have had sex before or outside of marriage. I know couples that live together before marriage or never intend to be married at all. I think they are living outside of God’s plan for their lives, but I would not mistreat them or refuse to serve them if I worked in a store. I wouldn’t put a scarlet letter on them or ask them to move to the back of the bus. To disagree does not mean the necessity of dislike or mistreatment. Addressing the topic that many have been concerned over, I don’t think anyone would refuse to sell bakery goods to someone simply because he or she is homosexual; I think that the ones who have qualms about providing a cake for a wedding ceremony for same sex couples believe that they are participating in a worship experience in some way by providing a cake or by doing the photography. I am not sure exactly what their consciences are saying to them, and those who decline to perform such business services may have different personal reasons to some degree. But I think you would see a narrow distinction of what Christian business people would refuse to serve—those things that to them put them in a situation of participating in what they may consider worship against their consciences. Few if any that I know would go beyond that very narrow distinction to include not serving a group of people as part of a normal business practice.

As a pastor, knowing that I am indeed not only participating in but leading a worship service when conducting a wedding, I do know that I could not in good conscience conduct a wedding ceremony for a same sex couple because of my understanding of God’s plan. But it’s not just same sex marriages. The truth is, I have turned down heterosexual couples, too, who asked me about conducting a wedding when they really weren’t interested in a Christian wedding, and I have referred such people to a Justice of the Peace as a better option from my viewpoint.

My final observation is that as a believer in Jesus, I take him to be my Lord. I seek his opinion to form my own. When I discover that his opinion differs from mine, I am committed to altering my own opinion. My natural inclination is to want to let everyone have their own way and to avoid controversy and conflict. It is true that the practice of homosexuality goes against what is natural biologically. But I prefer to be a “live and let live" kind of person. I get no joy out of telling heterosexual couples that sex outside of marriage is sin from God’s perspective. Neither do I get joy out of telling homosexuals that God says that the practice of it is not his way. Yet, I believe that I have been given a trust from God to be faithful to his word. As a Christian, the clearest word from God is found in the Bible and in the person of Jesus who is revealed there. And his word seems pretty clear, in both the Old and New Testaments, that marriage is defined by God as between male and female. Among the earliest words in the Bible we read, “For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” In the New Testament, Jesus affirmed this definition, as did those apostles who came after him. The truth is, that would be all that is necessary to understand God’s word to us, but both Old and New Testament also clearly say that the practice of homosexuality is, like the practice of heterosexuality outside marriage, outside of God’s will. (Please notice that I don’t put the practice of homosexuality as a different category all by itself; I consider it as part of the larger category of sexual sins that are indicated in the Scripture.) Now, some say, “Well, I don’t believe the Scripture, and I don’t follow Jesus.” Well, go back to observation one. I am speaking here not of how the country should stand but how the Body of Christ should stand.

Some try to explain away words in the Old and New Testaments that are translated as relating to homosexuality. While I don’t think that criticism holds up, the truth is, even deleting those references from our consideration, in both the Old and New Testaments there are descriptions that are hard to mistranslate and misunderstand that speak to the the issue (e.g., “A man should not lie with a man as he does with a woman”).

I acknowledge that this presents a difficulty for those who have homosexual desires. Jesus speaks of those who remain celibate because of the kingdom of God, and I know many heterosexual Christians who have remained celibate all their lives because God never led them to a person to marry, and they desired to live as they understood his call. While sexuality is a gift from God, it is not the ultimate value of life. Jesus himself was celibate, and had God not been gracious to send me a wife, it was my intention to follow in Jesus' pattern from what I understood his word to say.

It seems to me that sometimes, rather than saying, “God, please show me what you say,” we approach the Bible with a preconceived wish of what we want God to say. We wish for it to say something, so we see how we can make that happen in our interpretation. I think most of us would admit that we do that from time to time. (In this case, it is often because we have family, friends, and acquaintances who have homosexual desires, and who doesn’t want our loved ones to enjoy a marriage relationship?) Others simply believe what their trusted teachers say. So if they hear a teacher say, “The OT passages that speak to forbidding the practice of homosexuality are part of ceremonial laws like not eating pork or shellfish,” some say, “Glad to hear it! That takes a load off my mind” without even reading the passages. A passage in Leviticus 18, for instance, speaks of more than a dozen sexual practices that God says are not to be practiced by his people, and I daresay most believers would still think pretty much all of those prohibitions are still valid—but not this one, in their view. So, some believers approach the Bible already with a preconceived desire of what they want it to say and read it with that bias, some listen to who they consider trusted teachers without being careful to test them; others simply are ignorant of what the Scripture says. Still others would say, “The Bible is an old fashioned book, and I just don’t think God cares about our sexual practices, whether they are homosexual or heterosexual.” If this last one describes the way you feel, you would do well to stay away from any Bible reading at all, because if you read it you will discover that marriage and sexuality and faithfulness as well as the symbolism of how they picture the relationship between God and his people are mentioned over and over and over again. One of the Ten Commandments touches on sexuality, and it is obvious in reading the Bible that sexuality is a pretty big deal to God on several levels, including the fact that it was created as a gift to be enjoyed, but like many gifts, it can be and often is misused. It seems out of all the ways to approach the Bible, the most honest is coming to God for his idea, not asking him to bless what we want to believe because of what culture believes in this generation. What will we do when culture changes again in another generation? Will God keep changing his mind to whatever culture says at the moment? Is he really “God” if that is all he does—simply mirroring what society wants rather than telling us what is right and wrong? And, if so, how does that jive with the many biblical injunctions not to follow the standards of the world? These are questions with which we must grapple as believers.

I sure hope I am wrong, but I am afraid that in the next decade half or more of all churches will declare that “same sex marriage” is the plan of God. Some will be delighted by that. In my own life, my overall concern is being faithful to God and his clearest word to us. While I will never mistreat others and will always seek to be loving to all, I cannot tell someone that this practice is right in they eyes of God. This issue will never be the focus of my ministry, but I will share God’s truth on this subject as I seek to do on all subjects as they come up. It seems already evident that those who remain faithful to God’s word will be criticized and worse in the days ahead for saying what almost everyone has believed in past generations, but I cannot be concerned with what the changing tide of opinion says. I will not stand before the men of this generation on the Day of Judgment; I will stand before Jesus to give an account of my life as well as what I teach. He tells me to love everyone but to also remain faithful to share his truth.

Many Christians, in my mind, are confused. (I am sure they think the same of me.) They say things like, “Well, people are greedy, and I don’t see a lot of churches talking about greed, so why do we talk about the practice of homosexuality—why do we single it out?” Well, to start with, I think most churches do talk about greed as sin, as well as many other sins. But certainly, every church has greedy people as attenders and probably as members. But we don’t go around saying, “It’s okay to be greedy!” We say, “Like every other sin, you should repent of your greed and lay it aside.” If a church were to start teaching that it is no longer sin for people to be greedy, or murderers, or liars, or adulterers, she would lose her legitimacy.

We hear people say, “Every sin can be forgiven.” Of course that’s true (okay—except for the unpardonable sin). That’s the beauty of the gospel we proclaim. But when Jesus forgives, he doesn’t say, “I forgive you for that sin; why don’t just keep doing it every day, more and more?” He says, “I don’t condemn you… go and sin no more."

Yes, our nation can and will do what she wants in regard to marriage. While I would like to see the age-old definition upheld, that’s not my primary concern. No, I don’t think anyone should be mistreated or refused business in general because of the lifestyle they live, and I don’t think that is happening a lot, either. (The exceptions some make are very narrowly defined as to their understanding of their own role in what they consider worship, in my view.) But I think in the church, we must do our best to rightly divide the word of truth and declare with love and clarity what God says about his plans for all things, and for all categories of sexuality. And I think those who love him will want to put his teachings into practice, even when it means we deny ourselves things we desire—which is pretty much the case in turning aside from every sin that tempts us.

Disagree? I am sure this isn’t the only area for that! As far as I am concerned, we can still be friends. (If we quit being friends with everyone we disagree with or who we believe is practicing some sort of sin, we wouldn’t have any friends left at all.) Your disagreement won’t make me dislike you or treat you poorly. But the fact that we can disagree doesn’t mean the church should not patiently, lovingly, and clearly state the truth on this issue as well as she does on other issues to which the Bible speaks with as much clarity. And for those who count themselves as believers in Jesus, confess him as Lord, and take the Bible seriously as his word to us, I will confess that your disagreement puzzles me. It makes me wonder how you decide just when and how God speaks about any issue at all. 

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