The Bible tells us that the king of Israel once wanted to hear from the prophets, as to whether he would be victorious over his enemies. All the court prophets told him exactly what he wanted to hear. Yet the king of Judah, wisely, asked whether there might be another voice to hear from, and Israel’s king said that, yes, there was, but that he hated this prophet “because he never prophesies good concerning me” (1 Kings 22:8).
Once found, this prophet refused to speak the consensus word the king wanted to hear. “As the Lord lives, what the Lord says to me, that I will speak” (1 Kings 22:14). And, as it turned out, it was a hard word.
When it comes to what people want to hear, it seems to me that the church faces a similar situation as we look to the future of marriage in this country. Many want the sort of prophetic witness that will spin the situation to look favorable, regardless of whether that favor is from the Lord or in touch with reality.
Some people want a court of prophets who will take a surgeon’s scalpel to the Word of God. They want those who will say in light of what the Bible clearly calls immorality, “Has God really said?” Following the trajectory of every old liberalism of the past, they want to do with a Christian sexual ethic what the old liberals did with the virgin birth—claim that contemporary people just won’t have this, and if we want to rescue Christianity, this will have to go overboard. All the while they’ll tell us they’re doing it for the children (or for the Millennials).
This is infidelity to the gospel we’ve received. First of all, no one refusing to repent of sin—be it homosexuality or fornication or anything else—will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10). This strategy leaves people in condemnation before the Judgment Seat of Christ, without reconciliation and without hope.
Second, it doesn’t even work. Look at the empty cathedrals of the Episcopal Church, the vacated pews of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and right down the line. Let me be clear. Even if embracing same-sex marriage—or any other endorsement of what the Bible calls sexual immorality—“worked” in church-building, we still wouldn’t do it. If we have to choose between Jesus and Millennials, we choose Jesus. But history shows us that those who want a different Jesus—the one who says, “Do whatever you want with your body, it’s okay by me”—don’t want Christianity at all.
But there will be those who want prophets who will say that the gospel doesn’t call for repentance, or at least not repentance from this sin. These prophets will apply a selective universalism that denies that judgment is coming, or that the blood of Christ is needed. But these prophets don’t speak for God. And, quite frankly, we have no one to blame but ourselves since, for too long, too many of us have tolerated among us those who have substituted a cheap and easy false gospel for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Too many have been called gospel preachers who preach decision without faith, regeneration without repentance, justification without lordship, deliverance by walking an aisle but without carrying a cross. That gospel is different from the one Jesus and his apostles delivered to us. That gospel doesn’t save.
So when these prophets emerge to tell people they can stay in their sins and still be saved, we must thunder back with the old gospel that calls all of us to repentance and to cross-bearing, the gospel that calls sin what it is in order to call grace what it is. J. Gresham Machen warned us that our Lord Jesus himself never attempted to preach the gospel to the righteous but only to sinners. Those who follow him must start by acknowledging themselves to be in need of mercy, to be in need of grace that can pardon and cleanse within.
There’s also another form of court prophet of these times. This one has no problem identifying homosexuality as sin. He may do so with all sorts of bluster and outrage, but he still does what court prophets always do—he speaks a word that people want to hear. What some people want to hear is that sexual immorality is moral after all, and what other people want to hear is that same-sex marriage is simply a matter of some elites on the coasts of the country. This prophet implies that if we just sign checks to the right radio talk-show hosts, and have a good election cycle or two, we’ll be right back where we were, back when carpets were shag and marriages were strong.
I don’t know anyone in any advocacy organization in Washington DC—and there are many fighting the good fight on this one—that is saying that. As a matter of fact, the organizations closest to the ground know just how dark the hour is. The courts are hell-bent on redefining marriage, which is why state definitions of marriage, put in place by the citizens of those states, are being struck down. This isn’t happening simply in blue states but in the reddest of red states—Utah, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Tennessee, and so on.
The Supreme Court said last year, in a shocking ruling, that essentially the only reason anyone could have for defining marriage the way every human civilization has for millennia is hostility toward gay and lesbian persons. The answer is not a simple constitutional amendment—though that would be optimal—because any constitutional amendment would require a super-majority in both houses, that, apart from a miracle, no one sees happening in the next several years, now that the Democratic Party is firmly behind same-sex marriage.
What several of us have been saying for quite a while is that, in some form or another, your church will have to address the marriage revolution. My friend Jeff Iorg, president of Golden Gate Seminary in California, has courageously called the church to see that everyone will soon have to be standing where he is standing now. He’s exactly right. The cultural trends are such that the red–blue divide will not ultimately isolate any congregation from this Sexual Revolution, and all it entails.
Moreover, the situation isn’t as easy as just an election or two, given the vast cultural changes that have happened. I—and my co-laborers in other organizations—are fighting every single week in court cases, in hearings, in state disputes for the most basic of conscience protections for those who dissent from the High Church of the Sexual Revolution. Look at the way Louie Giglio was deemed too toxic to pray at the President’s inauguration in 2013. Look at the way the CEO of Mozilla was hounded out of office simply for supporting a ballot measure defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Look at the way photographers and florists are being forced, under penalty of law, to participate in same-sex weddings. And look at the way that even the most base-level religious liberty provisions are deemed discriminatory.
If the church doesn’t read the signs of the times, we will be right where we evangelicals were after Roe v. Wade—caught flat-footed and unprepared. Thankfully, the Catholics were there to supply an ethical framework and a sense of justice until some evangelicals—such as Francis Schaeffer and Jerry Falwell—emerged to rally for the lives of the unborn and their mothers.
So what should we do? Well, precisely what we should have done before and after Roe. We should recognize where the courts and the culture are, and we should work for justice. That means not simply assuming that most people agree with us on marriage. We must articulate, both in and out of the church, why marriage matters, and why its definition isn’t infinitely elastic.
We must—like the pro-life movement has done—seek not only to engage our base, those who already agree with us, but to persuade others who don’t. That doesn’t mean less talk about marriage and sexuality but more—and not just in sound bytes and slogans but in a robust theology of why sexual complementarity and the one-flesh union are rooted in the mystery of the gospel (Eph. 5:22-33).
We must—also like the pro-life movement—understand the importance of a Supreme Court that won’t will into existence constitutional planks by force of its own will. That requires a persuasive public witness, and a long-term as well as a short-term strategy. That means fighting—as we are doing—for the Court not to invalidate state definitions of marriage and for the culture to recognize that a state that can force people to participate in what they believe to be sin is a state that is too big for the common good.
Above all, we must prepare people for what the future holds, when Christian beliefs about marriage and sexuality aren’t part of the cultural consensus but are seen to be strange and freakish and even subversive. If our people assume that everything goes back to normal with the right President and a quick constitutional amendment, they are not being equipped for a world that views evangelical Protestants and traditional Roman Catholics and Orthodox Jews and others as bigots or freaks.
Jesus told us we would have hard times. He never promised us a prosperity gospel. He said we would face opposition, but he said he would be with us. If we are going to be faithful to his gospel, we must preach repentance—even when that repentance is culturally unwelcome. And we must preach that any sinner can be forgiven through the blood of Jesus Christ. That means courage and that means kindness. Sexual revolutionaries will hate the repentance. Buffoonish heretics, who want only to vent paranoia and rally their troops, will hate the kindness. So be it.
Our churches must be ready to call out the revisionists who wish to do away with a Christian sexual ethic. And we must be ready to call out those who tell us that acknowledging the signs of the times is forbidden, and we should just keep doing what we’ve been doing. An issue this culturally powerful cannot be addressed by a halfway-gospel or by talk-radio sloganeering.
The marriage revolution around us means we must do a better job articulating a theology of marriage to our people, as well as a theology of suffering and marginalization. It means we must do a better job articulating to those on the outside why children need both a Mom and a Dad, not just “parents,” and why marriage isn’t simply a matter of court decree. It means we must start teaching our children about marriage “from the beginning” as male and female when they’re in Sunday school. It means we may have to decide if and when the day will come in which we will refuse to sign the state’s marriage licenses.
Because the stakes are so high, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is hosting a conference this fall on marriage, homosexuality, and the church. Here we will assemble some of the leading thinkers and pastors on these issues to help you equip a new generation to stand for marriage in tough times, to prepare us to preach the whole gospel to hurting people. Sign up and join us. Bring your leadership, your small group leaders, your deacons, your elders, your Sunday school teachers. Long term the prospects for marriage are good. Sexual revolutions always disappoint, and God has designed marriage, biblically defined, to be resilient. But, short term, the culture of marriage is dark indeed. That’s why we have a gospel that is the power of God.
World Vision, an evangelical relief organization, announced on March 24 that they would now hire persons who are in same-sex marriages. The organization said, further, that this was no capitulation, just a recognition that some groups supporting World Vision have differing views on sex and marriage.
This is no surprise, on one level. The constellation of parachurch evangelical ministries founded after World War II have been running headlong, with some notable exceptions, toward the very mainline liberalism to which they were founded as alternatives. Some think if we can just barter away Christian orthodoxy fast enough we can catch the wave of that Presbyterian Church (USA) church growth boom.
But here’s what’s at stake. This isn’t, as the World Vision statement (incredibly!) puts it, the equivalent of a big tent on baptism, church polity, and so forth.
At stake is the gospel of Jesus Christ. If sexual activity outside of a biblical definition of marriage is morally neutral, then, yes, we should avoid making an issue of it. If, though, what the Bible clearly teaches and what the church has held for 2000 years is true, then refusing to call for repentance is unspeakably cruel and, in fact, devilish.
The devil works in two ways: by deception, “You shall not surely die” (Gen. 3:4); and by accusation, “the accuser of the brethren” (Rev 12:10). For some people, the devil wishes to assure that there’s no need for repentance, for others that there’s no hope for mercy. Some people are deceived into thinking they are too good for the gospel while others are accused into thinking they’re too bad for the gospel.
The gospel of Jesus Christ tears down both strategies. The gospel clearly calls us to repentance, even when that repentance is hated by the outside world. And the gospel clearly calls us to mercy by faith in the blood of Christ, even when we can’t believe that we’d ever be received.
We empower darkness when we refuse to warn of judgment. We empower the darkness when we refuse to offer forgiveness through the blood of the cross.
We’re entering an era where we will see who the evangelicals really are, and by that I mean those who believe in the gospel itself, in all of its truth and all of its grace. And many will shrink back. There are no riots if the gospel you’re preaching doesn’t threaten the silversmiths of the Temple of Artemis. And there are no clucking tongues if the gospel you’re preaching isn’t offered to tax collectors and temple prostitutes.
There’s an entire corps of people out there who make their living off of evangelicals but who are wanting to “evolve” on the sexuality issue without alienating their base. I don’t mind people switching sides and standing up for things that they believe in. But just be honest about what you want to do. Don’t say “Hath God said?” and then tell us you’re doing it to advance the gospel and the unity of the church.
Donor bases come and go. But the gospel of Jesus Christ stands forever.
World Vision is a good thing to have, unless the world is all you can see.
The PBS documentary series Cosmos is back, retooled for a new era. A few days ago, host Neil deGrasse Tyson (the heir of Carl Sagan) talked with political commentator (and former Southern Baptist minister) Bill Moyers about the question of whether the universe ought to make us feel small.Tyson says no.
Moyers’ question is a good one, especially in light of the series’ attempt to show us (rightly, I might add) how much bigger the world around us is than previous generations of humanity could ever have imagined. If our little galaxy is just a pin-point in a vast, swirling universe, then why would I think that what happens on this microscopic rock matters all that much? In the sweep of cosmic space, why would my life have much purpose at all?
Tyson says the universe doesn’t make him feel small at all because he sees himself in continuity with the rest of it. Since his body is made up, ultimately, of the same matter that makes up the star systems, he feels a part of, not diminished, by the cosmos.
Of course, he’s partly right. The Scriptures tell us that we aren’t fashioned apart from the rest of the cosmos, but were built from the “dust of the ground” into which God breathed into us “the breath of life” (Gen. 2:7). But I don’t think that answers the bigger question here.
There’s a reason human beings have a tendency to feel small in light of the universe around us, and a more thorough-going materialism doesn’t answer it. After all, a material connection with stardust does not a personal connection make. The universe doesn’t know I am here, and doesn’t care where I’m going, if the universe is just stuff.
In a Christian vision of the cosmos, the vastness of the universe around us isn’t incidental. God is designing the universe this way to reveal something (Rom. 1:20), something about himself, something about his gospel.
David, king of Israel, felt small when he looked into the expanse of the night sky, a reaction the Scripture considers to be reasonable (Ps. 8:3). The starry scene above made him wonder, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Ps. 8:4). And David didn’t even see a pinprick of what we now see is out there. Conversely, we see only a pinprick of what our descendants may know about what’s out there.
The universe is meant to prompt such a response precisely so that this can be met by a revealed word: that humanity is “crowned with glory and honor,” and that God has set all things “under your feet” (Ps.8:5-6).
That reality cannot be seen through the natural order alone. Sure, we can see the dignity of humanity over against the beasts and the birds. We recognize our intellect, our moral sense. But what about us seems “crowned with glory and honor” in light of the star systems and black holes light years away from us? We don’t yet see all things under our feet, the book of Hebrews tells us, and that’s the point.
“But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9).
The central point of the cosmos is Christology. All things are summed up in this man, Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:10). Even from the perspective of the territory of Israel, much less the Roman Empire, the background of this man was surprising. God chose the Light of the cosmos to dawn not out of Rome or Athens, or even Jerusalem, but from Galilee.
If the unveiling of Christ was met with a dismissed, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46), should we really be suprised that God, at even the cosmic level, chooses what seems insignificant and tiny to display the paradox of the wisdom and power of God in Christ (1 Cor. 1:20-31)?
The universe is meant to make us feel small, to stand in silenced awe. The gospel, though, tells us that we have purpose and meaning, not by our strength or our power, but because we’re hidden in the One who was dead, and is now alive forever, the One for whom every galaxy, seen and unseen, was made as an inheritance.
Recently, Kirsten Powers and Jonathan Merritt wrote an article for the Daily Beast accusing conservative Christians of hypocrisy and unchristian behavior for suggesting that some persons’ consciences won’t allow them to use their creative gifts to help celebrate same-sex weddings. Since I was a key example of this hypocrisy, I’ll respond to that charge.
At issue is a response I made, reposted this week over at the Gospel Coalition, helping a Christian wedding photographer think through whether he ought to work for a same-sex wedding. In the photographer’s question, he grapples with the question of how his conscience ought to play in this decision not only as it relates to weddings of people who, for all he knows, might be involved in all sorts of unbiblical behavior. Powers and Merritt suggest if he refuses to photograph one “unbiblical wedding,” he ought to “refuse to photograph them all.”
As a matter of fact, they say, to do anything else is to be “seen as a hypocrite” and to “heap shame on the gospel.” More specifically, they point to my advice that the photographer doesn’t have a moral obligation to ferret out the circumstances behind every wedding he shoots. I am telling him, they say, to do something “wrong” as long as he doesn’t investigate the background. “Apparently, ignorance is bliss.”
This sort of sarcastic response could just as easily apply to the biblical text at the root of our conversation: the Apostle Paul’s teaching on the conscience in the context of the marketplace in Corinth. Paul tells the believers there that they have no obligation to investigate whether the meat set before them was sacrificed to idols. If something’s put before you, Paul says, eat it to the glory of God, no questions asked.
But, the Spirit says through the Apostle, if the food is advertised as sacrificed to idols, abstain from it for the sake of the consciences around you (1 Cor. 8:7-9). I suppose the first-century Daily Beastcould have sarcastically dismissed this with “ignorance is bliss.”
The article quotes me telling the photographer that he need not investigate the background of every wedding he performs, but they do not quote the next sentence: “But when there is an obvious deviation from the biblical reality, sacrifice the business for the conscience, your own and those of the ones in your orbit who would be confused.”
Here’s why this matters. The photographer has, in most cases, no ability or authority to find out the sorts of things a pastor or church elders would about a marrying couple. Most evangelical Christians, this one included, believe there are circumstances in which it is biblically moral for a divorced person to remarry. And all Christians—regardless of what we think about a church’s responsibility—think that marriages between otherwise qualified unbelieving men and women are good things, grounded in a creation ordinance.
It’s possible, of course, that the man and woman who’ve contracted with a wedding singer are just marrying to get a green card. It’s possible that they don’t plan to be faithful to one another. It’s possible that she’s already married to three other men. It’s possible that their love is just a reality show stunt. Or, to take us back to Corinth, it’s possible the blushing bride is the groom’s ex-stepmother. But unless the photographer has a reason to think this, he needn’t hire a private investigator or ask for birth certificates and court papers to make sure it’s not.
In the case of a same-sex marriage, the marriage is obviously wrong, in every case. There are no circumstances in which a man and a man or a woman and a woman can be morally involved in a sexual union (I have no reason to assume that Powers and Merritt disagree with apostolic Christianity on this point. If so, they should make that clear).
Now, the question at hand was one of pastoral counsel. How should a Christian think about his own decision about whether to use his creative gifts in a way that might, he believes, celebrate something he believes will result in eternal harm to others. I recognize there are some blurry lines at some of these points. But what isn’t blurry is the question of state coercion.
It’s of no harm to anyone else if Kirsten Powers and Jonathan Merritt (both of whom I love) think me to be a hypocrite. It’s fine for the Daily Beast to ridicule the sexual ethic of the historic Christian church, represented confessionally across the divide of Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy. It’s quite another thing for the state to coerce persons through fines and penalties and licenses to use their creative gifts to support weddings they believe to be sinful.
That’s broader than just homosexuality. I don’t want wedding singers forced to use their lyrics and voices to tell us how great it is that Herod and Herodias or Henry VIII and fill-in-the-blank wife’s name are soul-mates.
This article maintains that there are no circumstances in which the Bible “calls Christians to deny services to people who are engaging in behavior they believe violates the teachings of Christianity regarding marriage.” Really?
Does that apply only to the morality of marriage? Should a Christian (or Muslim or Orthodox Jewish or feminist New Age) web designer be compelled to develop a site platform for a legal pornography company?
Now, again, we might debate the best ways to see to it that consciences are protected by law and in the courts. But acting as though those concerned about such things are the reincarnation of Jim Crow is unworthy of this discussion. Moreover, the implications for conscience protection are broad and long-lasting. This isn’t just a tit-for-tat Internet discussion. The lives and livelihoods of real people are on the line, all because they won’t render unto Caesar (or to Mammon) that which they believe belongs to God.
And we might disagree about what sort of pastoral counsel should be given as a Christian seeks to live out his or her life in the marketplace, but in order to do so we’ll have to deal with what the Bible teaches about our responsibility both to love our neighbors and to testify to what we believe to be true: That they, and we, will face a God who has revealed himself in our consciences and in the Scriptures. We might disagree on whether or when to bake the cake, but surely we ought to agree that it’s worth at least asking the question of whether and when the icing on the cake might imply, “Hath God said . . .?” (Gen. 3:1)