Pastor, What Do You Think of the Supreme Court Ruling on Marriage?

Jason Micheli —  July 1, 2013 — 10 Comments

largeA number of you have asked me my thoughts on the Supreme Court’s marriage ruling last week. I’m not sure if I have anything new to say on the topic. You can search for previous posts on the blog or scroll through the ones here.

Rather than rehashing previous essays, I thought I’d offer you these thoughts from Adam Hamilton, the de facto pontifex maximus of the UMC. Usually, I’m left nonplussed by the fiercely moderate tone Hamilton strikes in his writing and speaking; it’s often pastoral to the point of being vanilla.

Here in this pastoral letter, however, I think Hamilton hits just the right notes while being both clear and bold.

I’m sitting in front of my computer today finishing a chapter on the New Testament epistles for my new book on Making Sense of the Bible. The chapter is called, “Reading Someone Else’s Mail.” In it I am trying to help the reader understand the importance of reading and interpreting the 21 New Testament epistles in the light of the culture and circumstances in which they were written. The New Testament letters were written to answer questions, to give instruction and pastoral guidance, and to address concerns among first century Christians living throughout the Roman Empire.

To help readers think about what a difference time and culture make in one’s perspective and the kind of advice, guidance and instruction one might give, I invited readers to imagine a Christian leader writing a letter to Christians in America in 1950 versus the same leader writing today.

In 1950 the Cold War was going on and the Soviet Union was our enemy. In 1950, 3 out of 4 college grads were men and women were seldom found in leadership positions even in the church (women could not be ordained pastors in the Methodist Church until 1956). Separate But Equal had been the accepted norm for the races since the 1896 Supreme Court Ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson so that even in Kansas City African Americans could not swim in the public pools with white children. This norm was accepted by most white Christians. Though in 1948 the Supreme Court rendered them unenforceable, deed restrictions continued to keep Jews and other minorities from purchasing homes in many of the more desirable neighborhoods in our city. All of this in a “Christian” culture where more than 90% of the people who wrote the laws considered themselves Christians.

The world has changed a great deal in 63 years. The Soviet Union no longer exists, more than half of all college grads today are women, “Separate but Equal” is unthinkable to most Christians, and no one would dream of deed restrictions to separate people of different religion or race from a community. But many Christians could not imagine the world we live in today back in 1950.

How different our world is today from the first century Roman world. Yet often we read the New Testament as though the letters of the apostles were speaking directly to us. They do speak powerfully to our time, but there are elements of the letters that are clearly shaped by the cultural norms of the times. Slavery and the subordination of women are two of these norms reflected in the New Testament which 21st century Christians no longer believe reflect God’s heart and character even though they are recognized in the New Testament epistles.

One of the things that precipitated my decision to write this book on scriptures is the conflict over homosexuality in the church. As I’ve taught our congregation, within the Christian faith the question of homosexuality is not a question of biblical authority, but biblical interpretation. Both conservatives and liberals agree that there are places where the Bible reflects the cultural norms and needs of the times rather than the timeless will of God. Even the apostles recognized this, as we see in Acts 15 when they decided that most of the Law of Moses – the early church’s Bible – was no longer binding upon Christians. The apostles were recognizing that the needs of the children of Israel, and the expectations of God for his people were different in the first century than when Moses had led the Israelites 1,300 years earlier. The apostles continued to value the law of Moses and saw much of it as timeless, but there were sections they believed were no longer applicable.

The question conservatives, moderates and liberals in the church disagree upon is whether the handful of verses on same-sex intimacy, are like the passages on slavery, women’s subordination and those sections of the Law of Moses the apostles set aside.

This week there were three news making events that were focused on this issue. The first was a week ago when Alan Chambers, the President of Exodus International, publicly apologized for the ways that Exodus had hurt gay and lesbian people in its work. It’s board then voted unanimously to close down the ministry. Exodus International was founded 37 years ago and was the leading advocate in America of “reparative” or “conversion” therapy in which they held out the hope that same-sex attraction could be “cured.” You can read Chambers’ remarkable apology here. This created waves within large sections of the Christian community.

Then on Wednesday of this week the Supreme Court issued two decisions related to homosexuality. The first was concerning a case brought by 84-year-old Edith Windsor who was partner with Thea Spyer for 44 years. They married in 2007. When Thea died in 2009 the Federal Government did not recognize them as married because of the Defense of Marriage Act, despite the fact that the State of New York did recognize their marriage. Consequently Edith had to pay estate taxes on half of their shared property – something that married couples do not have to do when one mate dies. Edith paid $363,000 to the IRS and $275,000 to New York (who recognizes gay marriage but follows IRS tax practices).

The Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act that applied to this case and thus the Federal Government had to recognize a legal marriage because it was legally recognized in the State of New York and must return the taxes paid.

Had Edith lived in Kansas or Missouri she would have still been required to pay the estate tax as though she and Theo were not married because neither state recognizes same sex marriages from other states. The Supreme Court’s ruling has no effect on what happens in Kansas and Missouri.

The second Supreme Court decision was that private parties do not have “standing” to defend state constitutional amendments that the state itself refuses to defend. This related to Proposition 8 in California, a constitutional amendment that was passed in California with strong support from conservative and evangelical churches in 2008 that defined marriage as between a man and a woman thus overturning a state Supreme Court decision in 2008 allowing gay marriage. In essence the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday turned the case back to the lower courts, refusing to rule on its merits which had the affect of reinstituting gay marriage in California.

Because these are both limited decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court there will be more cases brought before the court in the years ahead.

There’s a major sea of change happening in our culture and world regarding our understanding of sexual orientation. Conservatives believe the church must stand its ground – its ground being an opposition to same-sex relationships. The basis for this are two Old Testament passages and three New Testament passages condemning same-sex intimacy as well as the broader model of heterosexuality found throughout the Bible.

Yet a large number of Christians are beginning to see the issue differently. This is particularly true for a younger generation of Christians.

I was recently in a meeting with ten pastors of large evangelical churches. Every one of them was wrestling with this issue in their congregation. Some were committed to “holding the line” while others were questioning, as I have been for some time, whether these passages in the scripture actually capture the heart of God toward gay and lesbian people, or if they might be more like those scripture passages that accepted slavery and the subordination of women – a reflection of historic cultural norms not necessarily the heart of God.

You can try to pretend that the issue will go away, but, as we’ve seen this week, that is highly unlikely. You can leave churches that are open to wrestling with the issue like ours in order to find churches that “hold the line.” But it seems unlikely that even those who “hold the line” will see this issue the same in the years ahead.

As a church we don’t all see eye to eye on this. Your pastors don’t all agree about this. And we’ve learned to be okay with that. We have to learn to agree to disagree on this issue as our society and the broader church are going to continue to wrestle with this issue – it is not going away and greater change is coming. As a church we’ve committed to be a place that welcomes everyone. We’ve committed to be a church where thoughtful, committed Christians on both sides will agree to disagree with respect and love.

I personally believe that twenty years from now most churches will welcome gay and lesbian families, will call gay and lesbian people to live lives of faithfulness and sacrificial love in their relationship just as they call heterosexual couples to do, and that they will see the passages on same-sex attraction as reflecting cultural norms just as the passages on slavery and on the subordination of women reflected cultural norm and not God’s heart and timeless will.

Jason Micheli


10 responses to Pastor, What Do You Think of the Supreme Court Ruling on Marriage?

  1. How do you distinguish between “cultural norms” and “God’s heart and timeless will?” For instance, I’ve seen a number of articles in just the past week talking about “monogamish” or open marriages. One of the benefits of extending marriage to gay couples is that they can expand the definition of marriage. One author said spouses should “rejoice when their partner finds someone else to meet a sexual or emotional need”

  2. Whatever happens in the next twenty years, I hope one of the things that happens is greater compassion and recognition of homosexuals in our congregations. However I have yet to see anyone offer a good response to Robert Gagnon’s arguments. Although plenty could be more gentle than he, few have been more persuasive as to the argument for still seeing homosexuality whether between commited adults or not as against God’s will.

  3. Nearly 30 years ago, eminent theologian, bishop, dean of Harvard Divinity School, and New Testament scholar, Krister Stendahl, advised those of us in attendance at one of his summer courses to withhold judgment on the question of homosexuality. Clearly, social justice issues are seen in a different light according to the cultural norms of the times. Moreover, and more important, it is the work of the Holy Spirit to enlighten and open our hearts and minds to God’s. As we have been led to abolish slavery and accept the equality of women, so we will come to accept gays and lesbians in full communion, with all that implies. This will be a non-issue in a few years. Adam Hamilton is correct.

  4. Gail Richmond July 2, 2013 at 9:31 PM

    My 30ish children claim this is NOT an issue for their generation. I believe GOD LOVES ALL HIS DHILDREN, as Juanita claimed!!

  5. Is it the role of the Christian church to emulate popular culture? This certainly wasn’t the case of the early church…far from it. Just because something is socially popular at a time doesn’t mean the Christian church should adopt it or embrace it.

    As for homosexuality and how we should just let it slide as a sin…I think that’s not being entirely honest. True, Levitical laws are largely not followed today, but that’s also because Jesus declares portions of those laws no longer standing…such as eating “unclean” meat. Jesus never does this for homosexual behavior. Indeed, Paul addresses homosexuality multiple times in the NT. Was Paul not speaking the word of God?

    If we are to discount what Paul says for modern political expediency, what else might we just “do away with” because contemporary political circumstances dictate that we do so?

    We shouldn’t allow ourselves forced into two false choices on this matter by secular society. The absolutes of embracing homosexuality or becoming like the Westboro Baptist Church are NOT the only two options. As a Christian, I am friends with many individuals who lead lives that is completely contrary to my beliefs. I know liars, cheats, adulterers, philanderers, drunkards, atheists, pagans, and even a homosexual or two. I can love them all without embracing their lifestyles.

    God loves us all, but its our own faults that often times keep us from His love.

    • It is the role of the church to emulate Jesus. Unfortunately, the church has not been on the forefront of justice issues many times in its history and has had to be schooled by “Gentiles” who do what is right because they are morally sensitive and responsible (Romans 2:12-15, the law of conscience). Primary examples of this include slavery, women’s rights, racial equality, and rights for homosexuals. While Paul wrote that in Christ there is neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, that did not change the culture of the times nor the church. Moreover, Paul was not immune to the cultural biases of his day. He spoke the word of God insofar as he was able to perceive it.

      One often hears the remark, “God doesn’t make mistakes.” This is particularly applicable when we acknowledge that one does not choose one’s sexual orientation. Jesus says nothing about homosexuality, and very little about sexual sins; he reserves his severest criticism for those who claim to love God but who do not serve the poor and the oppressed. It remained for the Holy Spirit to work through the hearts and minds of secular citizens and church folk in order to bring about a change that is more in keeping with the commandment to love one another. I believe the Holy Spirit enlightens and teaches us the mind of Christ, as he promised (John 14:16, 26).

      • On the contrary, Christians HAVE been on the forefront of injustice. For instance, when the Spanish started to enslave and annihilate the Tainos in Hispanola, it was Dominican and Jesuit Friars who stood up for the Indians. Same for the indigenous tribes in South America. It’s a common, but incorrect, meme that the Europeans coming to the New World were all here to destroy the natives.
        Again, in slavery, Christians stood up against the institution; from the leaders in England who sought to destroy the slave trade to the Methodists in Ohio who changed the national dialogue on the subject that allowed an anti-slavery man like Lincoln to become President.
        With ending segregation and Jim Crow, it was again Christians who led the way.

        Anyway, it would be erroneous to assume that because we have no recorded words of Jesus on homosexuality that He was somehow FOR homosexuality. When it comes to Levitical law, I already mention that Jesus essentially did a line-item veto of certain portions of the Old Testament Laws. He does actually confirm marriage as between a man and a woman in Matthew 19. Sure, he was addressing divorce, but wouldn’t he have said something to the effect of “a partner shall stay with his/her partner” instead of stating “man and woman?”
        A popular portion of the Bible that political liberals like to point to is when Jesus saves the unfaithful woman from being stoned, where he faces down the mob by saying the one without sin can cast the first stone. What is usually forgotten is when Jesus forgives the woman, BUT then tells her to leave her life of sin. That second part is key, wouldn’t you agree?

        Simply discounting Paul because its popular to say he was biased misses some big points about the New Testament…namely that everything in it was inspired by the Holy Spirit, including Paul’s letters and directions to the early churches. Jesus said the Holy Spirit would work through his disciples. If you aren’t prepared to listen to Paul on homosexuality, then how can you listen to Paul on anything? If you’re willing to dismiss him on one subject, then you must dismiss him on all subjects.

        If the secular world allows homosexual marriage, that is fine, but as Christians, we’ve been warned to avoid worldly things; to live in the world but not be of the world.

        Oh and God doesn’t make mistakes…we do.

        • My comment was that many times in its history the church has not been on the forefront of justice issues. We have seen this happen in the areas I mentioned: slavery, women’s rights, racial equality, and now homosexuality.

          It is absolutely true that many Christians have been on the forefront on social justice issues. No one, certainly not I, is disputing that. It is also true that many secular folk have reached the same position through the conscience of which the apostle Paul wrote. When it came to racial segregation and racial equality, it seems to me that it was the Supreme Court and not the church which was in the forefront. This decision outraged most Southerners and not a few Northerners, most of which probably belonged to a church at the time. We can assume these folk constituted the cultural norms of the day.

          Relative to your comments saying that ” …..namely that everything in it was inspired by the Holy Spirit, including Paul’s letters and directions to the early churches. Jesus said the Holy Spirit would work through his disciples. If you aren’t prepared to listen to Paul on homosexuality, then how can you listen to Paul on anything? If you’re willing to dismiss him on one subject, then you must dismiss him on all subjects.”

          While God inspired the men who wrote down what they believed they heard God say, they did so according to their ability. They were not free from cultural bias. As human beings, they were limited in their understanding of God and God’s purposes, just as we are today. That does not mean that we arbitrarily dismiss everything they say because we can see cultural bias in some things. This is your position, as I understand it. For me, it is a question of the Holy Spirit continuing to enlighten us as we seek to bring about God’s kingdom on earth.

          I think it best if we just agree to disagree rather than to continue on with point by point rebuttal; I suspect neither of us has the time (I know I don’t) and we could both probably find better ways to serve God. I trust that you are a kind and loving Christian and that if I knew you we would be good friends.


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