• Thought #2: Talking is not Walking!

    On Friday the Supreme Court voted to impose their definition of marriage on all states – replacing a definition that has stood, by its own admission, ‘for millennia’. As a firm believer in the traditional definition of marriage as between one man and one woman, I am concerned with how the changes in the law will impact my ministry, the church I lead and faith-based ministries across the country. Having read the arguments prior to the judgement and now the conclusions I want to highlight some of the significant statements in the hope of helping us discern where the critical issues lie.

    As I wrote previously, I do this not because I necessarily have anything unique to offer but because my email, messages and social network feed is buzzing with requests for my thoughts. There is so much to digest that I will avoid putting too much out too soon. Rather, I’m going to offer a response in bite-sized chunks. An issue a day for as many days as I feel compelled to write.

    Walk the Walk

    Growing up in Wales I remember my Scottish pastor, Tom, frequently saying, “Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.” It’s a message my wife has repeated to me and the boys over the years regarding exercise! She’s a marathon runner and later this year will compete in her first ultra-marathon! “What pleasure is there in running 50 miles?” I’ve asked! “Train with me and see,” she replies. Yeah, right … I love ball sports and Wibke points out that both watching and talking about sport is not the same as playing sport. Talking about exercise is not the same as exercising!

    What’s all this got to do with Friday’s ruling you wonder? Take a look at the First Amendment:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

    The First Amendment protects the ‘free exercise’ of religion. With that in mind take a look at the concluding statement of the Supreme Court ruling:

    “Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principlesthat are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered. The same is true of those who oppose same-sex marriage for other reasons. In turn, those who believe allowing same sex marriage is proper or indeed essential, whether as a matter of religious conviction or secular belief, may engage those who disagree with their view in an open and searching debate.The Constitution, however, does not permit the State to bar same-sex couples from marriage on the same terms as accorded to couples of the opposite sex.” [Question 2 page 27]

    At first reading these remarks could be construed as hopeful for people of faith. Words like ‘advocate’ and phrases such as ‘teach the principles’ and ‘open and searching debate’ encourage us to believe that our right to teach our faith will continue unhindered. I am encouraged by these words. Across the world there are Christians who find themselves in prison or under house arrest because they share their faith. In many parts of the world the right to speak and teach the Christian faith is prohibited. Let us not forget how blessed we are!

    Unfortunately, it’s what the court did not address that is the bigger issue. For quite some time I have highlighted what I believe to be the subtle attempts to redefine the First Amendment. Little by little I sense that what was once a freedom of religion is now being redefined as a freedom of worship. They ARE NOT the same thing.

    Freedom of religion affords me the liberty of freely exercising my faith convictions as well as freely speaking about them. As my wife would say, ‘Talking about exercise is not the same as exercising!” The First Amendment clearly protects both walk (‘exercise’) and talk (‘speech’).

    In the same way that marriage has been redefined I wonder to what degree the Supreme Court ruling has signaled the next stage of the American cultural revolution – reapplying the First Amendment. To what degree is the next push going to attempt to limit the exercise of my faith to within the walls of my home and the church I attend? Yes, I will continue to be free to both talk and walk my faith convictions in ‘private’ but to what degree will my public expression be curtailed? We’ve witnessed attempts at limiting the free exercise of faith already:

    • The school boy in Florida who was told not to read his Bible in an open reading class in school.
    • Churches not being allowed to use publicly owned buildings – schools, libraries – even though other groups have.
    • Christian students not being allowed to form and participate in Christian clubs on campus even though the school allows other clubs to gather.

    I could add more but these three suffice to show how the free exercise of religion is being challenged. None of these incidents have anything to do with the same-sex debate, by the way. However, all of them point to a narrower understanding of the First Amendment. The same-sex ruling will surely only serve to heighten the tension.

    Until now it has been Christian business owners who have come under scrutiny and, in a number of cases, been successfully prosecuted for exercising their faith convictions in the way they run their business (in relation to same-sex marriage). One aspect of the dialogue in the Supreme Court reveals that Christian schools and ministries are put on notice that it could be their turn next:

    JUSTICE ALITO: Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax-exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same-sex marriage?

    GENERAL VERRILLI: You know, I – I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I –I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is – it is going to be an issue.  [Obergefell v. Hodges; Oral Argument Transcripts – page 38 (Washington, D.C.  10  Tuesday, April 28, 2015)]

    In other words, just as in 1983 when Bob Jones university lost its tax-exempt status for opposing inter-racial marriage, so too Christian schools and colleges who oppose same-sex marriage may suffer the same fete. It’s going to be an issue … we can’t deny that.

    So what do we do?

    Five thoughts:

    1. Pray for presidents, boards and leaders of Christian schools, colleges and ministries across the country.
    2. If your child attends such a school, send a message of encouragement and support.
    3. Give the school some time to process the judgment but determine to find out their stance.
    4. Be ready to step up and help if need be and if led – some of the schools may experience a financial short-fall as they refrain from drawing either government or external funding sources (in order to stay faithful to their beliefs).
    5. Show appreciation if the approach of the school differs from your what you’d like.

    The last one may need some comment. I expect many Christian schools to stand their ground and claim First Amendment protection. Some Christian schools who are trying to reach those from the wider community may well adopt a less conservative approach than many would like. Wrestle with the policy by all means. Engage in the type of debate the Supreme Court invited us into. I’d only encourage us to avoid the mistake of shooting the wrong side! The enemy isn’t the school. Remember policies are part of a strategic plan, guided by a defining vision. Consequently a policy different to your own desires may not necessarily reflect a change in belief but an attempt to make the vision the defining feature of the school and not a single issue!

    That last thought is critical. Life is bigger than same-sex marriage. Ministry is bigger than the same-sex marriage debate. Maybe the worst thing the church and christian community can do is to make this one issue, the main issue.

    Let’s be prepared for every eventuality but as my Scottish pastor used to say, “Let’s remember to keep the main thing, the main thing.”

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