The controversy in Houston rages on, after City Hall subpoenaed sermons from pastors and churches on issues of sexuality and gender identity. The obvious violation of basic American principles of religious liberty and separation of church and state here have united even those who are opposed to one another on all sorts of other issues, including sexuality and gender. But there are some who wonder why not simply comply with the subpoenas and hand the sermons over?
These questions come really in two or three different forms. The first is based on Romans 13, the Apostle Paul’s teaching that the government has God-given authority. We submit to government, the argument goes, even when we don’t agree with specific government policies. So why not just send in the subpoenaed sermons, even if we don’t like it, since we have nothing to hide.
The problem with this view is that Romans 13 is not an unlimited authority. Paul clearly bounds in the power of Caesar’s sword to the punishing of “wrongdoers” (Rom. 13:4). That’s why the Apostle says that taxes are to be paid, along with honor and respect, to those to whom such things are due (Rom. 13:7). On the opposite side of the spectrum from Romans 13 is Revelation 13, which demonstrates what happens when a government oversteps its bounds, as was the case eventually in the Roman Empire’s attempt to regulate worship.
Every authority, under God, is limited. Daniel is obedient to King Nebuchadnezzar, until the king decreed the way prayers should be offered. Peter and John are obedient to the authorities, until they are told how to preach, in which case they defy this authority (Acts 4:19-20).
Moreover, the issue is even clearer when we recognize that the City of Houston, and beyond that the broader American governing system, is, unlike in the case of Caesar, not the rule of one man (or one woman). There were all sorts of governing officials up and down the chain in the Roman Empire, but the ultimate accountability was Caesar himself. In our system of government, the ultimate “king” is the people. As citizens, we bear responsibility for electing officials, for speaking to laws that are made in our name, and for setting precedents by our actions. Shrugging this off is not the equivalent of Jesus standing silently before Pilate. It’s the equivalent of Pilate washing his hands, so as not to bear accountability for our own decisions and precedents set.
When the government acts, legal precedents are set. By complying with this unjust decree, Christians would be binding future people and institutions, including those who are the most powerless to stand against such things. If the government can scrutinize the preaching of Christian churches on sexual matters in Houston, the same government could do the reverse in, say, Amarillo. It would be just as wrong for the mayor to demand to see sermons from the Episcopal Church calling for LGBT anti-discrimination laws as it is to do this. As citizens, we bear responsibility. This is analogous to the tax collectors and soldiers coming to John and to Jesus asking how they are to function as Christians in the world of Caesar. They were not to use their power to defraud people or to go beyond their delegated authority (Lk. 312-14; 19:8).
It sounds spiritual and pious to say that we are just going to “give up our rights” and “surrender our place at the table.” We should indeed do that. When we are stricken on the cheek, we turn the other one. When someone takes our tunic, we give up our cloak as well (Matt. 5:40-41). That’s quite different though from those who have been given police authority ignoring assaults; such is injustice decried by Scripture. And it’s quite different from a soldier forcibly collecting cloaks because “you ought to be giving those up anyway.”
That’s why the Apostle Paul, quite eager to give up his personal rights (1 Cor. 11:7-11), appealed to his Roman citizenship repeatedly in the Book of Acts, litigating for liberty. And that’s why he, like John and Peter, refused to comply with a decree that was unjust (Acts 16:35-39).
But, some would ask, aren’t these sermons public anyway? Why would we not want the mayor and the city attorney to hear them? Of course, and of course. The question, though, is who has the authority to demand such things. The subpoena is not a request but rather a use of coercive state power. The compliance with this sets in motion a potential continuation of such unjust power that will harm those, again, with the least power to counteract such things. Imagine such subpoena power being used against impoverished recent immigrants to America, with little knowledge of the language and with few social and political connections?
The issue here is not the end-result of listening to sermons, any more than the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness were about the end result of eating bread and ruling the world. The question is how does one get there, and who is doing the giving. That’s why my Baptist forebears refused to pay the licensing fee to preach the gospel, even though they could have taken up an offering to do so. The issue wasn’t how much money, but rather who was claiming the authority to demand it. That’s not a question of politics, but of lordship.
Yes, the mayor and the city attorney should see sermons. And that’s why I think all of those not subpoenaed should freely send their sermons in, in solidarity with those who are under this subpoena. And that’s also why I think those under the subpoena should refuse to do so. The Apostle Paul left Philippi, just as the magistrates wanted him to do, but he didn’t move an inch until the magistrates’ command to do so was revoked (Acts 16:37-39). Peter and John didn’t stay, all the time, in the temple court preaching Jesus. But they didn’t cease while they were under orders to do so (Acts 4:21-23).
Religious liberty isn’t ours to give away to Caesar, and soul freedom isn’t subject to subpoena from City Hall.
During the 1960 presidential election, John F. Kennedy traveled to Houston to assure Baptist ministers there that he was, in fact, committed to religious liberty and separation of church and state. The fear was that he, as a Roman Catholic, might not recognize those principles. He did. Turns out, the Houston ministers should’ve been less worried about the Vatican and more worried about, well, Houston.
Reports coming out of Houston today indicate that city attorneys have issued subpoenas to pastors who have been vocal in opposition to the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), a measure which deals with gender identity and sexuality in public accommodations. The subpoenas, issued to several pastors, seek “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.”
I am simply stunned by the sheer audacity of this.
The preaching of sermons in the pulpits of churches is of no concern to any government bureaucrat at all. This country settled, a long time ago, with a First Amendment that the government would not supervise, license, or bully religious institutions. That right wasn’t handed out by the government, as a kind of temporary restraining order. It was recognition of a self-evident truth.
The churches, and pastors, of Houston ought to respond to this sort of government order with the same kind of defiance the Apostle Paul showed the magistrates in Philippi. After an earthquake, sent by God, upturned the prison where Paul and Silas were held, Luke tells us that the officials sent the police to tell Paul and Silas they could go. Paul replied. “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned men who are Roman citizens and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly. No! Let them come themselves and take us out” (Acts 16:37).
A government has no business using subpoena power to intimidate or bully the preaching and instruction of any church, any synagogue, any mosque, or any other place of worship. The pastors of Houston should tell the government that they will not trample over consciences, over the First Amendment and over God-given natural rights.
The separation of church and state means that we will render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and we will. But the preaching of the church of God does not belong to Caesar, and we will not hand it over to him. Not now. Not ever.
John Kennedy taught us, rightly, to ask not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country. The United States deserves the allegiance of its citizens. But no government can set itself up as the nation's god.
Russell Moore is President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He formerly served as Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. Dr. Moore is the author of several books including Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches (Crossway).
Visit his website: RussellMoore.com
The Supreme Court has declined to take up appeals from states in which the courts have found same-sex marriage to be a constitutional right. This paves the way for same-sex marriage in many, perhaps most, places in the United States. Many Christians may be unaware of how momentous this is, since the denial of cases doesn’t come with quite the shock and awe of a ruling handed down. The effect though is wide-ranging. So what should our response be as the church of Jesus Christ?
There are two responses we should avoid.
The first is the temptation to listen to those who would want to jettison a Christian sexual ethic in order to acclimate to the cultural moment. We have no authority to revise what Jesus has handed down to us. Our vision of marriage is not the equivalent of a church constitution and by-laws, adaptable by a majority vote. Marriage is not simply a cultural or legal practice, but is instead an icon of the union between Christ and his church, embedded in the creation (Eph. 5:22-31). Without a Christian vision of marriage, we have no Christian vision of the gospel.
The second, though, is to respond with a siege mentality. We wring our hands or shake our fists at the cultural moment in a way that also detracts from the gospel of Jesus Christ. We live in an era in which marriage is redefined and confused. So did many of our forefathers and foremothers, which is why the Bible is consistently equipping the churches to live in a world of prostitution and adultery and so on. The sexual revolution didn’t start at Woodstock. It is always with us.
We ought to have the confidence of people who have heard a word from God and the compassion of a people who are on a mission with God. The Supreme Court can do many things, but the Supreme Court cannot get Jesus back into his cemetery plot.
Our model here ought to be the best aspects of the pro-life movement. Were there angry people who were anti-abortion who simply wanted the “wedge issue” in order to differentiate themselves from their opponents? I’m sure there were. But the primary thrust of the movement wasn’t about culture wars but cultural persuasion. That was by necessity, since real-life women were making real-life decisions about real-life babies. We don’t demonize them. We speak to them, with an alternative vision of what it means to love and to cherish every human life, in our families and in our laws.
Jesus wasn’t shocked by the Samaritan woman at the well, who had had five husbands and was now living outside of wedlock. He also wasn’t afraid to speak a word of repentance to her conscience. He said to her, “Woman, go get your husband and come here” (Jn. 4:16). Both aspects of that sentence must be part of our witness: an honest assessment of sin and an invitation not just to morality, but to life.
Let’s hold fast to what the gospel reveals about the meaning of marriage and the gospel behind it. Let’s articulate a Christian vision of what marriage should be, and let’s embody that vision in our churches. Let’s love our gay and lesbian neighbors. Let’s move forward with persuasion and with confidence. This is no time for retreat or for resentment. This is a time for mission.
This week my denomination, through its executive committee, voted to “disfellowship” a congregation in California that has acted to affirm same-sex sexual relationships. This sad but necessary move is hardly surprising, since this network of churches shares a Christian sexual ethic with all orthodox Christians of every denomination for 2,000 years. One of the arguments made by some, though, is that this is hypocritical since so many ministers in our tradition marry people who have been previously divorced.
The argument is that conservative Protestants already embrace a “third way” because we’ve done so on divorce. Couples divorce, sometimes remarry others, and yet are welcomed within the congregation. We don’t necessarily affirm this as good, but we receive these people with mercy and grace. Why not, the argument goes, do the same with homosexuality.
The charge of hypocrisy is valid in some respects. I’ve argued for years and repeatedly that Southern Baptists and other evangelicals are slow-motion sexual revolutionaries, embracing elements of the sexual revolution twenty or thirty years behind the rest of the culture. This is to our shame, and the divorce culture is the number-one indicator of this capitulation. The preaching on divorce has been muted and hesitating all too often in our midst. Sometimes this is due to what the Bible calls “fear of man,” ministers and leaders afraid of angering divorced people (or their relatives) in power in congregations. Sometimes it’s due to the fact that divorce simply seems all too normal in this culture; it doesn’t shock us anymore.
A recovery of a Christian ethic of marriage will mean repentance, and a strong commitment by churches to courageously say, where applicable, what John the Baptist put his head on a platter to say to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” In that sense, the charge is correct.
But divorce and remarriage is not, beyond that, applicable to the same-sex marriage debate. First of all, there are arguably some circumstances where divorce and remarriage are biblically permitted. Most evangelical Christians acknowledge that sexual immorality can dissolve a marital union, and that innocent party is then free to remarry (Matt. 5:32). The same is true, for most, for abandonment (1 Cor. 7:11-15). If the church did what we ought, our divorce rate would be astoundingly lowered, since vast numbers of divorces do not fit into these categories. Still, we acknowledge that the category of a remarried person after divorce does not, on its face, indicate sin.
The second issue, though, is what repentance looks like in these cases. Take the worst-case scenario of an unbiblically divorced and remarried couple. Suppose this couple repents of their sin and ask to be received, or welcomed back, into the church. What does repentance look like for them? They have, in this scenario, committed an adulterous act (Matt. 5:32-33). Do they repent of this adultery by doing the same sinful action again, abandoning and divorcing one another? No. In most cases, the church recognizes that they should acknowledge their past sin and resolve to be faithful from now on to one another. Why is this the case? It’s because their marriages may have been sinfully entered into, but they are, in fact, marriages.
Jesus redemptively exposed the sin of the Samaritan woman at the well by noting that the man she was living with was not her husband. “You have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband” (Jn. 4:18). It could be that her husbands all died successively, but not necessarily. Christians are forbidden to marry non-Christians. This does not mean, though, that these are not marriages, or that, after repentance, these marriages are ongoing sins. Instead, the Scripture commands a repentance that looks like fidelity to that unbelieving spouse (1 Cor. 7:12-17; 1 Pet. 3:1-2).
Even if these marriages were entered into sinfully in the first place, they are in fact marriages because they signify the Christ/church bond of the one-flesh union (Eph. 5:22-31), embedded in God’s creation design of male and female together (Mk. 10:6-9).
Same-sex relationships do not reflect that cosmic mystery, and thus by their very nature signify something other than the gospel. The question of what repentance looks like in this case is to flee immorality (1 Cor. 6:18), which means to cease such sexual activity in obedience to Christ (1 Cor. 6:11). A state, or church decree of these relationships as marital do not make them so.
We have much to repent for in the accommodation to a divorce culture in our churches. And if we do not articulate an alternative gospel vision of the definition of marriage, we will see the same wreckage we’ve seen on so many churches’ capitulation on the permanence of marriage. But our attitude should not be that so many have shirked their churchly responsibility in some things, so let’s then shirk our responsibilities in everything. That would be the equivalent of someone saying, “Since I have had lust in my heart, which Jesus identified as root adultery, I should go ahead and have an affair” or “Since I am angry with you, which Jesus identified as springing from a spirit of murder, I should go ahead and kill you.
Instead, our response ought to be a vision of marriage defined by the gospel, embodied in local congregations. This means preaching with both truth and grace, with accountability for entering marriages and, by the discipline of the church, for keeping those vows. We don’t remedy our past sins by adding new ones.