A Pastor Must be a Leader, Not a Coward

lionRead the rest of the series.

Paul tells Timothy something very important, and it’s so obvious and so clear that we sometimes take it for granted – a pastor must be a leader, not a coward. In 2 Timothy 1:1-7, Paul reminds Timothy to “rekindle” the pastoral gifts he had, which God had given him through the Holy Spirit. In other words, don’t be depressed. Don’t despair. Don’t give up your fight for the Gospel. Don’t give in to laziness. Let your love of Christ and His Gospel burst into “flames” of enthusiasm, and serve the Lord with passion!

Why was this reminder even necessary? Why did Paul tell this to Timothy? Because it’s natural for a guy to become timid, to slink back, to tuck his head into his shell like a timid little turtle, to start treading lightly as the storm clouds of persecution began to crash out against Christians in the Roman Empire. Remember the apostles immediately after Jesus’ execution!

But, the point here is that God didn’t give Timothy (or any Christian) a spirit of timidity, of cowardice, of fearful fright. Instead, he gave him power. The power of the Spirit, to aid us when we’re afraid. The power of direct access to the Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord, the captain of our salvation who blazed that trail for us, right through the compartments of tabernacle, past that torn and obsolete curtain, right to the very throne of grace.

God gave Timothy love. This means love for one another, love for the Gospel, love for the Father, love for His eternal Son Jesus Christ, and love for the Spirit who gives us spiritual life and draws us to salvation.

He also gave us discipline or self-control. The self-control to do what’s right, no matter what pressures are brought to bear by the Accuser. The discipline to lead a congregation to follow and worship the Lord in spirit and truth, no matter what the culture says.

Paul continues …

Hence I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control (2 Tim 1:6-7)

Let me be as plain as vanilla ice cream right now, and tell you straight-out:

  • A Pastor can’t be a coward!
  • A Pastor can’t be timid!
  • A Pastor can’t be afraid to stand for the truth!
  • A Pastor can’t be afraid of people, including Christians!

This is what Paul told Timothy. These are critical times for Christians, and we need leaders in our churches who:

  • care about the Gospel,
  • and have the spirit of power,
  • and have a love for God
  • and the discipline to be fearless, persuasive, winsome and passionate ambassadors for the Good News of Jesus Christ

You can’t do that if you’re terrified about what people think about you or the Gospel. If you love God, you’ll want to defend Him and proclaim Him to the world. Make no mistake, organizations across this entire land (secular and Christian) are filled with so-called leaders who are cowards. You’ve worked for some in the past. You may even work for some right now. You know what I’m talking about. Christians can be very skilled at spiritualizing incompetence, because we want to be loving and kind.

  • A man might not be able to teach his way out of a wet paper bag,
  • might not know Augustine from Anselm,
  • might have a spine as stiff as a soggy spaghetti noodle,
  • but if he’s a nice guy who loves the Lord, some congregations are willing to make him their Pastor

Don’t do it – a Pastor can’t be a coward, not with the pressures and challenges he faces every day. He must be a leader. That’s exactly what Paul turns to next:

Do not be ashamed then of testifying to our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel in the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not in virtue of our works but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus ages ago, and now has manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

For this gospel I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, and therefore I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me (2 Tim 1:8-12)

Folks, a Pastor can’t be a wilting flower of a guy. He must be mentally tough. He needs to be willing to never be ashamed of the Gospel, and its implications for every single facet of your life.

The Christian life is a worldview, an inter-related network of beliefs and convictions that combine together to inform how we view this world – the Christian faith is a picture and story that interprets reality; that explains “the way things are:”[1]

  1. Creation: how did we get here?
  2. Fall: why are things the way they are? Why do bad things happen?
  3. Redemption: how can this be fixed? How can things be set right?
  4. Restoration: will things ever be fixed?

Every worldview, every religion (yes, atheism and scientific naturalism is a religion; I’m also tempted to believe politics are a religion for some people, too! 😊) has a set of beliefs that seek to explain these four, most basic concepts and, together, they form the skeleton you use to interpret and understand the world around you.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ answers each of these four “big questions” in a way no others can (because it’s the only truth😊), and this message has implications that should echo and reverberate throughout every nook, cranny, corner and closet of your life. If your local church doesn’t have a leader who is willing to understand that, and can’t lead your congregation individually and corporately to impact your community, friends, family, neighbors, co-workers and enemies with this picture of reality (the only true picture of reality), then he’s not fit to be a leader of a Christian church.

The Pastor must be a leader – his job is too important.

I preached two sermons on these and eight other “marks of a good pastor.” The notes are here (Part 1) and here (Part 2), and the audio is below:

Audio – Part 1

Audio – Part 2 

Notes

[1] These days, there are plenty of books which discuss the idea of a Christian worldview. One of the most helpful, I believe, is Gregory Koukl’s book The Story of Reality: How the World Began, How it Ends, and Everything Important that Happens in Between (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017). His book is really a description of the Christian “story” for seekers; that is, unbelievers who are interested in finding out what Christianity is about. It’s a wonderful book to give to someone who fits this description.

My description of the Christian worldview as a “picture” or “story of reality,” along with the four “big questions,” are taken from his book. Again, I’ve heard and read this all before, but Koukl did a masterful job of distilling these concepts here.

A Pastor Needs to be Competent, Not Brilliant

performanceEvery Pastor grows depressed when he reads books about “how to be a better Pastor.” I believe that, if you took five popular “how to be a Pastor” books by conservative authors, and compiled a list of everything these books said, you’d be one depressed guy. Of course, not all of these lists are credible.

For example, one well-known Christian leader posted, just today, that one “warning sign” of a bad pastor is that has a “poor social media witness.” No, I’m not joking. Somehow, I must have missed that requirement in the Bible. Yes, now that I think on it … I’m almost certain the Apostle Paul mentioned a weekly quota for FaceBook, Twitter and Instgram posts.

Competence, not brilliance

But, that madness aside, these lists can be depressing. No doubt about it. But, I want to offer a small ray of sunshine. When it comes to pastoral requirements, I don’t believe God requires a guy to be perfect at everything. He asks for competence, not brilliance; along with a willingness to get better and learn over time.

Let me use a sports analogy. In baseball, the “ideal” athlete is known as a “five-tool player.” This means a guy who can (1) hit for power, (2) hit for a good average, (3) has good base-running skills and speed, (4) can throw, and (5) can field. Most guys aren’t “five-tool players.” Most baseball players can do one or more of these things very well, and are competent at the rest. A superstar is generally someone who can do all five (e.g. Ken Griffey, Jr.).

Some Pastors are “five-tool” guys. They can do everything very, very well. Most guys can’t do that. And, I don’t think God asks for brilliance. But, I think He does expect competence.

Unfortunately, many congregations don’t even ask for that much. Christians are generally very, very good at spiritualizing incompetence, because we want to be “loving” and “nice.” A man might not be able to teach his way out of a wet paper bag, might not know Augustine from Anselm, might have a spine as stiff as a soggy spaghetti noodle, but if he’s a nice guy who loves the Lord, some congregations are willing to make him their Pastor. That is a terrible mistake.

The list …

I believe the Bible teaches a Pastor must meet certain qualifications. I also believe that God gives every believer certain talents, gifts and abilities, and molds and shapes all His children into the people He wants them to be. We can look at the Bible to find these Pastoral qualifications. Most Christians instinctively turn to 1 Timothy 3, or Titus 1, to find these. But, those largely moral requirements. What about performance requirements? What about the skill sets, the competences that allow a Pastor to actually do his job?

I think the book of 2 Timothy has something for us, on that score. At my church, as we prepare the congregation to consider a new Pastoral candidate, I’m walking through 2 Timothy 1-2 and picking out some “marks of a good Pastor.” Here is the list I’m working from:

  1. He must be a leader, not a coward
  2. He must be committed to the Bible
  3. He must be educated, competent and capable – so he can guard the faith
  4. He must train new leaders
  5. He must be totally committed to the Gospel ministry
  6. He must not preach a cheap Gospel, and encourage self-examination
  7. He must be theologically balanced and mature
  8. He must be spiritually and emotionally mature
  9. He must be able to teach

I could have found more, but this is enough. Remember, God asks for competence, not brilliance. We can’t all be superstars. But, we can all be competent. If a guy can’t meet these core competencies, then he isn’t qualified to lead a congregation.

End of story.

In the rest of this series, I’ll briefly elaborate on each of these “marks of a good Pastor.”

The Curious Case of the Christian Cake Baker

cake
Jack Philipps, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop

This article is a short summary of the oral arguments in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd.  v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on December 5, 2017. For those who’ve been following the news, this is the “Christian cake baker case.” Oral arguments are an opportunity for both sides to defend their legal positions in person, and answer any questions the Justices have. The Supreme Court will rule on this case sometime in 2018.

In the article, I provide a few bits of commentary. But, this is primarily a summary.[1] Hopefully, it can spur each of on to consider the issue of soul liberty in the public square in these troubled times.

Baker’s Response (Kristen Waggoner, Alliance Defending Freedom)

Philipps’ objection is not with the people who want the cake, his attorney argued. Instead, the objection is the message it communicates. “The First Amendment prohibits the government from forcing people to express messages that their violate religious convictions,” (4:12-19). The back and forth centered on this point. What is “speech?” How do you separate the identity of the customer from the message the product communicates?

Ginsburg opened by asking about off the shelf products; would Philipps provide these to a same-sex couple (4:21-5:4; 10:9-19)? Absolutely, Waggoner said, a pre-made item wasn’t compelled speech (5:5-8). The crux of the issue is intent. When Phillips puts a pre-made product on display “in the stream of commerce in a public accommodation setting, his speech has been completed,” (6:1-4). However, when you consider custom designed cakes, it’s a whole new ballgame (6:7-10). Thus it is with Phillips; “we are drawing the line prior to the compulsion — there can be no compulsion of speech,” (6:4-6). And, this is about more than putting “words and symbols” onto the cake – it’s the act of custom making the product itself (8:8-19).

So, where is the line? Who can claim an artistic exemption on the basis of compelled speech? The justices hammered away on this line. Can a florist (11:9-13)? Yes, Wagonner said (11:14-17). What about a wedding invitation designer (11:18-21)? Of course (11:22). What about hair stylists (12:8) or makeup artists (12:17)?

  • “Absolutely not,” Waggoner says (12:9).
  • Justice Kagan is aghast; “Why is there no speech in — in creating a wonderful hairdo,” (12:12-13)?

Waggoner provided a legal answer, but not a particularly logical one. A tailor, a chef, a hairstylist and a makeup artist don’t produce “speech” because they (1) aren’t communicating a message with their product, and (2) their product isn’t analogous to other forms of protected speech (12:9-11; 12:23-13:5; 14:16-21).

This prompted Justice Sotomayor to ask how the Court could protect Phillips’ cake as a medium for public expression, when its primary purpose is to be eaten (15:21-25)!? Simple, Waggoner replied.

“[I]in the wedding context, Mr. Phillips is painting on a blank canvas. He is creating a painting on that canvas that expresses messages, and including words and symbols in those messages,” (16:9-14).

Well, what about sandwich artists (16:24-17:3)? The difference, Waggoner says, is the message being conveyed:

… when we have someone that is sketching and sculpting and hand designing something, that is creating a temporary sculpture that serves as the centerpiece of what they believe to be a religious wedding celebration, that cake expresses a message (17:4-10).

This distinction is the heart of the issue, according to Waggoner. If the very nature of the product is communicative, then you have “speech,” and this speech cannot be compelled. For example, this is why architecture is not “speech,” because “buildings are functional, not communicative,” (17:20-23).

Justice Breyer weighed in:

So, in other words, Mies or Michelangelo or someone is not protected when he creates the Laurentian steps, but this cake baker is protected when he creates the cake without any message on it for a wedding? Now, that — that really does baffle me, I have to say (18:4-10).

So, where on earth is the line (19:1-11)? What should we do? The answer, Waggoner says, is simple: “Is the individual who’s being compelled to speak objecting to the message that’s contained in that speech or the person? And that’s usually a very obvious inquiry,” (20:7-11). This is why Waggoner believes the issue of public accommodation laws related to race are completely different; “we know that that objection would be based to who the person is, rather than what the message is,” (23:3-6).

Here is the dividing line, and it isn’t something a secular Court can decide. Is sexual identity a legitimate category at all, from a Christian perspective? You can’t set theology aside here, because it informs how you answer the question. Everybody has a foundation for his worldview, and the Christian worldview (based on the Scriptures) proclaims that all sexual thoughts, intents and actions outside a monogamous, male and female sexual relationship in the context of a marriage covenant is deviant. To the Christian, “sexual identity” is not a legitimate category, because it isn’t part of the original, “good” created order. Race is, sexual identity is not.[2]

Waggoner, of course, didn’t go there. She simply continued to push the distinction between the racial public accommodation laws (which were about who the person is) and the Phillips case which, she insisted, is about the message, not the people. It’s unclear whether she (and her client) actually believe this, or if it’s merely a convenient legal peg to hang their case on.

How can the State fairly decide whether this message vs. identity distinction isn’t just a smokescreen? This was Justice Gorsuch’s question (24:18-21), and he didn’t receive a satisfactory answer.

Solicitor General’s Response on Behalf of Baker (from Noel Francisco)

Francisco insisted there must be “breathing space” for free speech protections for business owners, so they aren’t compelled to engage in “speech” for an event they disagree with (26:1-8). Dignity interests cut both ways, he argued (28:1-8).

What about a situation in a rural context, where only very limited services are available (28:10-29:11)? Leave that to the individual states, Francisco said (29:12-17).

Where is “the line?” You figure that out, he answered, by applying a two-fold test:

  1. can the “art” in question be analogized to traditional art in a legitimate way, and
  2. “is it predominantly art or predominantly utilitarian,” (41:1-3)?

In Phillips’ case, Francisco observed, “people pay very high prices for these highly sculpted cakes, not because they taste good, but because of their artistic qualities,” (41:3-6).

The goal is the intent of the purchaser. Is it merely a cake to be eaten? Why not go to Safeway? No, they clearly sought out Phillips so he could create, sculpt and fashion a special cake which is analogous to a traditional sculpture “except for the medium used,” (40:18-20). Is the creation’s purpose and effect intended to be (1) artistic, or (2) utilitarian? That is the key to answering the question (42:2-24).

In Phillips’ case, they sought him out for artistic purposes, to create an artistic and aesthetic effect on the wedding guests. Thus, they asked him to “speak” through the medium of the cake, and his “speech” must be protected. Francisco closed with a “slippery-slope” argument:

… if you were to disagree with our basic principle, putting aside the line about whether a cake falls on speech or non-speech side of the line, you really are envisioning a situation in which you could force, for example, a gay opera singer to perform at the Westboro Baptist Church just because that opera singer would be willing to perform at the National Cathedral (46:13-21).

State of Colorado (from Frederick Yarger)

Colorado’s position is simple (47:12-22):

  1. if you are a retail establishment, then
  2. you’re subject to anti-discrimination laws, and
  3. “you cannot turn away from your storefront if you’re a retail store,” (65:21-23).

It really is that simple and, if you’re a retail establishment, the State can require you to serve a customer (50:11-19).

What about, say, a same-sex couple who went to Catholic Legal Services and demanded to be given legal service related to their marriage? Would Colorado force them to provide service (50:21-51:23)? Yes, Yarger says, if Catholic Legal Services were operating in a retail context, “then Colorado would have the ability to regulate them,” (52:3).

Justice Kennedy brought up an interesting point. Colorado’s opinion read, in part, that “freedom of religion used to justify discrimination is a despicable piece of rhetoric,” (52:14-16). Why shouldn’t the Court assume Colorado is prejudiced against religion, and act accordingly? Kennedy asked Yarger three times if he disavowed the statement, and Yarger tap-danced mightily to avoid answering (52:17-53:15). If there were a bias on Colorado’s part, he claimed, of course there would be the problem (54:12-16). But, such was not the case (55:15-23).

Colorado’s issue, Yarger said, is that Philipps’ actions were based on the identity of the customer. Phillips may claim the message is the problem but, Yarger argued, the message here is linked with the customer’s identity, so the argument lacks merit. “[T]he message in this case, Your Honor, depended entirely on the identity of the customer who was ordering the cake,” (62:15-18). So, if the baker chooses to refuse service, he is being discriminatory (63:16-21).

Justice Kennedy, once again, chimed in with some stern words (64:3-8):

Counselor, tolerance is essential in a free society. And tolerance is most meaningful when it’s mutual. It seems to me that the state in its position here has been neither tolerant nor respectful of Mr. Phillips’s religious beliefs.

Yarger disagreed, and his position hinges on granting the idea that “sexual identity” is a valid category, on par with race and sex (64:14-65:3). They’re protected by public accommodation laws, so “sexual identity” must be, too.

Attorney for Homosexual Couple (from David Cole)

Cole traveled over much of the same ground Yarger did. Beware the slippery slope; “to accept his argument leads to unacceptable consequences,” (74:20-21). Sexual identity is a valid category, along with race and sex (75:9-16).

Cole dismissed Francisco’s “artistic purpose and effect” argument. If a mom buys a cake for a child’s birthday party, “no one thinks that the baker is wishing happy birthday to the four-year-old. It’s the mom,” (78:1-3). The issue isn’t some alleged “message,” it’s the identity of the homosexual couple. “Because in this case, again, the only thing the baker knew about these customers was that they were gay. And, as a result, he refused to sell them any wedding cake,” (79:4-8).

For Colorado, if you’re in retail, your private beliefs do not allow you to discriminate against a protected class (92:6-10), and sexual identity is a protected class (87:13-19; 89:7-10). Justice Kennedy retorted, “your identity thing is just too facile,” (89:23-24).

Conclusion

The legal arguments hinge on whether the act of making a cake is “speech,” and whether that “speech” can be compelled by the State. Both sides presented valid “slippery-slope” arguments in support of their own positions. On balance, it is doubtful whether you can logically separate the identity of a homosexual couple from the message their wedding cake is meant to convey.

Aside from the legal arguments, there is a more profound question for the Christian – where is the dividing line between one’s right to soul liberty, and the opportunity to share the Gospel in all sorts of negative contexts? Could Philipps have baked the cake, and still made a positive opportunity out of this? Have his actions served to “maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation,” (1 Pet 2:12)?

Should we allow everyone do what they want, according to their own consciences? Is this the best solution? Os Guinness wrote a book advocating a sophisticated version of this approach, and remarked,

Soul freedom for all was once attacked as naive and utopian, and it is still resisted as subversive. Yet it is not only a shining ideal but a dire necessity today and an eminently practical solution to the predicaments of our time. Truly it is the golden key to a troublesome situation in which the darker angels must not be allowed to dominate.”[3]

But, when it gets down to brass tacks, how do we actually do this? This case is about that question. How do you allow people to express their sincere beliefs, yet crack down on genuine bigotry and hatred? How do you carve out these exceptions, and where does it end?

Guinness remarked that, in the end, soul freedom depends on people thinking and acting like adults, and taking their civic responsibilities seriously. “Reciprocity, mutuality and universality are the key principles of this vision of a civil public square. In this sense a civil public square is the political embodiment of the Golden Rule.”[4] In this day and age, these are not virtues that totalitarians (on either side) are anxious to model. Instead, activists seek to force their views on the public by force of law, not by persuasion and discussion in the public square:

“The constant pursuit of rights through law alone rather than the habits of the heart has caught Americans in the toils of ever-spreading law. On the one hand, it has led to a strengthening of the law at the expense of the habits of the heart, of litigation at the expense of both civic education and the role of parents and schools, and of the lawyers and the lawyer class at the expense of other public servants.[5]

This case is the fruit of this particularly poisonous tree. The Court has been made the arbitrator of morality. How can the Court fulfill this mission? How can it draw the line this homosexual couple wants it to draw? In a moment of candor, Justice Breyer admitted, “I can’t think of a way to do it,” (59:11-12).

Notes

[1] I make no attempt to summarize or even reference the various briefs filed by the Petitioners or Respondents. Here is the question before the Supreme Court. If you’re interested, you can find them. Throughout this article, I’m referencing the official transcript of oral arguments. The citation format in the article is page number : line number.

[2] Of course, in the end, the only category distinctions which have eternal significance are (1) believer or (2) non-believer. Or, as the Didache puts it, “there are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways,” (Didache 1:1).

[3] Os Guinness, The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 2013), 14.

[4] Guinness (Global Public Square, 181).

[5] Guinness (Global Public Square, 149).

Letters from Legion (No. 2)

letterMy dear Frederick: [1]

I read your last email with joy in my heart! You say your Christian is going through a difficult time; that his wife has left him and run off with her “personal trainer” from the gym. This is excellent news, my boy! You must strike when his defenses are at their weakest – never lose an opportunity to help him doubt the Enemy’s goodness, kindness, mercy and grace.

Make the enemy a tyrant

Don’t tempt him to doubt the Enemy’s providence; his governance over everything that happens. No, Frederick – we want him to keep believing that God (in the words of one of the Enemy Forces’ wretched creeds), “leads and governs them according to his holy will, in such a way that nothing happens in this world without his orderly arrangement.”

You see, we don’t want him to doubt that God governs His creation. He certainly does! What we want, Frederick, is for this young man to doubt God’s goodness. You must do everything you can to make the Enemy seem cold, distant, uncaring and unmerciful. Make the man despise God for allowing this to happen. Poison his mind with bitterness! Instead of recognizing that God governs and controls everything, but people are still morally responsible for their own actions – lead him to believe that God is a cruel despot, a wicked kitten playing with a spider.

He’s the poor spider, Frederick – and God is the kitten who tears off a leg here, smashes his body there and finally (when he grows tired of this play), eats him whole and leaves a few stray bits and pieces on the floor to rot.

Keep the scriptures abstract

You wrote that the young man is trying to find comfort in the Scriptures. You specifically mentioned the book of 1 Peter, where the cursed apostle warned believers that “this is favor with God – if, when you’re doing right and suffering, you endure it. This is why you slaves were called to salvation!” And, when he wrote, “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will do right and entrust their souls to a faithful Creator.”

Don’t wait for a moment, Frederick! This is a critical moment for the young man; a turning point. The Enemy teaches that He calls men from slavery to us, sets them free, and calls them to live a life in devoted service to Him. He calls them to worship His Son as their King and Lord. He tells them to trust in His good providence, and to always realize that everything He does is for a good, holy and just reason. No, no, no!

We can’t allow this mindset to last, my boy. The good news is that this mindset is extraordinarily counter-cultural. It goes against every instinct in his body, and your object is to keep this at an intellectual level. Make this a sterile, cold and abstract kind of doctrine. The very word doctrine conjures up images of ivory-towers, thick books, and dreary lecture-halls.

Keep it there. Keep it far away from so-called “real life.” Keep the scriptures academic; don’t let them become practical. Encourage your young man to think he’s special, unique – that the pain he’s feeling is one of a kind, and the scriptures don’t speak to his situation.

Encourage him to keep the old habits

At heart, Frederick, people are narcissists. They’re in love with themselves, and it takes tremendous effort to make them love God more. This process only begins with the so-called “new birth,” when the Enemy gives his new subjects a new heart, soul and mind. He awakens them spiritually (that’s when we lose them, Frederick), and gives them the ability to love him and his son. But the good news is these habits have to be learned. Many of the Enemy Forces don’t bother to cultivate this behavior, so they’re easy prey for us when disaster strikes.

But, always remember – “disaster” for the Enemy is sweet music to our ears!

Farewell, for now …

I must dash. I’ll send you another email in a few weeks. Remember this, and you’ll do well:

  1. Keep him away from the scriptures
  2. Push the doctrine of God’s providence, but crush any thoughts that He’s good and kind. Make God a tyrant, not a loving King.
  3. If he does read the scriptures for help during his suffering, keep everything he reads abstract, cold and distant. Emphasize the dryness of doctrine, and the pain of his personal experience.
  4. Cultivate his bitterness, feed his pain, bury his thoughts of God’s goodness, crush his theological notions of God’s kind providence, and maximize every thought about divine injustice.
  5. Make the young man hate God for doing this to him.

I can’t wait to write again, Frederick. I’m anxious to see what you do with what I’ve taught you! Our Father Below greets you. May the Cursed One be blasphemed forever.

Your loving uncle,

Legion

Notes

[1] Some readers will recognize this letter is inspired by C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece The Screwtape Letters, which is a fictional set of letters between a high-ranking demon (Screwtape) and his young nephew, Wormwood. In these letters, Screwtape offers young Wormwood some practical advice about how to ruin the life of an ordinary young man who has recently become a Christian.

Lewis was a Christian, and this work functions as sort of a mirror into one’s own soul. It’s one of the most brilliant pieces of literature written, I believe. I can’t hope to match Lewis’ style and content, but I can at least give it a shot.

Against a “Social Justice” Interpretation of the Gospels

stopIt’s common in conservative Christian congregations to hear a lot of talk about how we ought to help the poor, the downtrodden, the homeless and the disadvantaged. These are all worthy goals, as long as we always keep one thing in mind:

Christian social activism is a means to Jesus’ Good News, not the Good News itself.

This is not a subtle distinction; it’s vital. Consider this:

  • If a Christian congregation (or para-church organization) provides money and food to the poor, or shelter, food and aid to the homeless (etc., etc.) without also preaching, teaching, explaining and applying the Gospel in a persuasive, winsome and loving way … then all you’re doing is ensuring these people go to hell with a bit more money, food and shelter than they’d otherwise have.

Social programs are vehicles for the Gospel. They aren’t the Gospel. They’re the practical outworking of a desire to bring the Good News of perfect forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation and adoption into God’s family and coming kingdom to this present evil age.

I’m not sure all Christians really understand this distinction. Many times, they appeal to the Scriptures to support their social programs. Unfortunately, I believe they interpret some of these passages incorrectly. I believe most of this is due to a wrong-headed understanding of Christ’s Kingdom, and (in some quarters) a startling ignorance of the context of the various prophetic passages which speak of the peace, justice, righteousness and “social justice” which will characterize Christ’s reign here on earth.

But, all that is a story for another time – to the passage!

Wrongly dividing the word

Many Christians appeal to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount to support this social ethic. I want to gently push back on this. However, because I don’t have the time or energy to tackle the Sermon on the Mount, I’m going to use John the Baptist’s sermon beside the Jordan River as my text.[1]

John fulfills prophesy

John the Baptist came on the scene to prepare the Israelite people to receive their Messiah. The Gospel of Luke tells us “he went into all the region about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet …” (Lk 3:3-4).

Luke went on to quote a passage from Isaiah 40:3-5, which explains that a special messenger will prepare the way for Yahweh to return. Once He does return, Yahweh will lead His people from captivity back to the Promised Land (Isa 40:6-11). That messenger was John the Baptist, who the prophet Malachi told us Yahweh would send before the terrible day of judgment (Mal 4).

So far, so good. John is the fulfillment. He’s the guy Isaiah and Malachi promised would come. And, this is exactly how the Gospel of Mark starts out, too.

John was preaching to old covenant members, not strangers

Here is what you have to keep in mind, and it’s something many Christians seem to forget all about – John came to preach to Old Covenant Israelites.

Why should you care about this? Well, the Old Covenant wasn’t only composed of believers – it was a mixed covenant:

covenant

If an Israelite boy was born to proud parents in Capernaum, then he’d be circumcised as an external sign that he’s a member of, and heir to, the Old Covenant promises. Then, he’ll (hopefully) be brought up to know, trust, love and believe in Yahweh for salvation. His parents will teach him about Yahweh’s grace, love, mercy and kindness (cf. Deut 6:20-25). Hopefully, this boy will grow into a young man who loves Yahweh with all his heart, soul and might (Deut 6:5).

Here’s the problem – not every little boy and girl grew up to know, love, trust and believe in Yahweh for salvation. Some did; some didn’t. Those who didn’t either left the Israelite community entirely, or perhaps “played along” by following the rituals, ceremonies and observing the prescribed festivals in a rote, mindless and empty fashion.

The Old Covenant was a mixed multitude. The New Covenant is not.

You have to understand that John the Baptist was preaching to Old Covenant members, and he was calling them to be faithful to the Old Covenant law, to prepare their hearts, minds and souls to receive the Messiah – whose ministry was just about to begin.

Why should you care?

Because John wasn’t preaching to homeless strangers on freeway off-ramps, or to inner-city families who didn’t have enough money to make ends meet. He was preaching to fellow covenant members. This means, if you want to import this text (and John’s commands for right behavior) into today’s New Covenant context, then the only direct parallel is to believers. This doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t care about the poor or the homeless; it just means they shouldn’t use these texts to justify social programs. The context won’t allow it.

John preaches to the people

Here is his opening salvo:

He said therefore to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him,

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire,” (Lk 3:7-9).

This is fairly simple, but profound. The Gospel of Mark tells us that “there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem,” (Mk 1:5). This was some crowd!

John began by insulting them, striking right at the heart of the legalistic approach to the law so many of them had. He called them a group of snakes. He told them they had to prove their repentance; an outward, pious “show” wouldn’t do it. They couldn’t count on their Israelite blood, because that had never guaranteed anything. Remember the chart, above – at best being born an Israelite (i.e. Tier #1) meant you’d hear about Yahweh and His mercy and grace, so hopefully you’d become a believer (i.e. Tier #2).

So, the natural question is – what should these folks do, then? What kind of fruit is John looking for?

And the multitudes asked him, “What then shall we do?” (Lk 3:10).

Good question. Let’s see …

And he answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise,” (Lk 3:11).

The most basic expression of real love for God (Deut 6:5) is to love your fellow covenant member just as much as you love yourself (compare Mk 12:28-34). What does this look like, then, at a practical level? Well, it could look like a lot of things, but one good example is to provide clothing and food to folks who don’t have any.

On to the next group:

Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than is appointed you,” (Lk 3:12-13).

Israelite tax collectors shouldn’t defraud other Israelites. Sounds simple, right?

Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages,” (Lk 3:14).

Jewish soldiers shouldn’t abuse their power and positional authority, and shouldn’t steal.

The answer is pretty simple – he’s looking for them to actually obey and follow the Old Covenant law out of a pure heart. He’s telling them to put the law into practice in their own contexts, in everyday life, starting right now. 

Basically, that means loving your neighbor as yourself (see Mk 12:31; Lev 19:18, 34). And, remember, the context of this Old Covenant command was for Israelites and foreign Gentiles who had, in some form or fashion, joined the Old Covenant community. These commands have always been for Covenant people, and also for those on the way to likely becoming part of this community.

John’s preaching is right in line with the Old Testament prophets who pleaded with Israel to return to the Lord and live faithfully:

Her officials within her
are roaring lions;
her judges are evening wolves
that leave nothing till the morning (Zeph 3:3)

The prophet Zephaniah wrote an entire book, where he recorded his own sermons against this kind of externalism. He paints a picture of moral corruption at the highest levels of society in the Southern Kingdom.

Her prophets are wanton,
faithless men;
her priests profane what is sacred,
they do violence to the law (Zeph 3:4)

Yahweh, however, is a stark contrast to their treachery:

The LORD within her is righteous,
he does no wrong;
every morning he shows forth his justice,
each dawn he does not fail;
but the unjust knows no shame (Zeph 3:5)

This message, and John the Baptist’s preaching, is an indictment against this kind of fake “faith.” John’s sermon (and Jesus’ own commands from the Sermon on the Mount) aren’t a manifesto for Christians to sally forth and provide food and shelter or the homeless. It’s a call for God’s true people to return to covenant faithfulness, which means doing what His word says, because we love Him.

“I have cut off nations;
their battlements are in ruins;
I have laid waste their streets
so that none walks in them;
their cities have been made desolate,
without a man, without an inhabitant.
I said, ‘Surely she will fear me,
she will accept correction;
she will not lose sight
of all that I have enjoined upon her.’
But all the more they were eager
to make all their deeds corrupt,” (Zech 3:6-7).

This is the true context of John’s message; a call for God’s people to “prepare the way of the Lord” and “make his paths straight” (Lk 3:4; cf. Isa 40:3) so they’ll be ready for Yahweh to lead them back from exile.

Rightly dividing the word

So, what should Christians do with John the Baptist’s message, today? How do we translate this to a modern context? Well, you have to remember the original context, and accurately translate it to a New Covenant context:

  • John was preaching to Old Covenant Israelites, and calling them to repent and actually live according to the law out of a pure heart.
  • John’s commands for ethical behavior must be understood in that context; he’s telling Jews how to live according to the law out of a pure heart, and he agrees with Jesus that the most basic fruit of love for God is to love your fellow covenant members.
  • So, John is teaching them to show love for one another, according to their own particular context, while they wait for the Messiah to show Himself.

So far, so good – but what about right now?

  • In a New Covenant context for today, we’d direct this message to Christians in a local church. We’d call them to repent and actually live according to God’s Word out of a pure heart.
  • The most basic fruit of love for God is to love your fellow covenant members. The New Covenant only has one tier (see the chart, above), and this means you show your love for God by loving the brethren in your congregation most of all (see 1 Pet 1:22 – 2:3)
  • So, we should use John the Baptist’s message to teach Christians to show love for one another according to our own particular contexts, while we wait for the Messiah to return.

Does this mean we shouldn’t feed the homeless, or help the poor? Heavens, no! It just means these passages don’t teach that. These social programs are good and fine, but they’re nothing more than vehicles for the Gospel. The Good News is all that matters, and we can deliver it in many, many ways. Social programs are one way, but they aren’t the only way.

Notes

[1] Make no mistake, the Sermon on the Mount issue is “complicated,” and it would take a great deal of time to address the topic well. I don’t have that time. My only goal here is to sound a note of caution about a default “social justice” interpretation of the ethical commands in John the Baptist’s preaching, and (by extension) Jesus’ own preaching.

Letters from Legion (No. 1)

letterDear Frederick:[1]

Well, it’s Christmas – that time of the year when the Enemy’s Forces celebrate the Cursed One’s birth. Because you’re new at this game, I felt it was high time I send you some tips to help you along. I know, from the texts we exchanged this past week, that you think this is a terrible time of year for us; a time for us to retreat to a corner, lick our wounds, and wait for the storm to pass.

You couldn’t be more wrong!

Take heart; Our Father Below knows this is actually one of the best times of year for our work. You see, Frederick, we know much more about Christmas than the Enemy’s Forces do. We were there, you know, in the beginning. They weren’t, and this is their greatest weakness. All this business about incarnation is abstract to them; weird and impersonal. They can’t conceive of it. And, even if some can, it’s still theoretical and conceptual to so many more. Don’t underestimate this advantage.

You’re young, Frederick – but that’s why I’m here. Christmas isn’t a time of despair for our cause; it’s a time of great opportunity. Our Father Below knows this! So, here’s what you should do with your subject:

Forget about the Cursed One

Keep him focused on the presents and the food. Above all, don’t allow him to dwell on the Cursed One for any length of time.

Don’t worry so much about the Enemy’s Pastors; so many of them are in the bag that we don’t really have to worry about them. They’ll drone on about fluffy nonsense this morning, and barely mention the Good News (which, really, is Bad News for us).

Encourage this.

If the thought of reverent worship to the Cursed One even flits across his mind, crush it, smother it and suppress it. This isn’t hard; think of the books, games, movies and trinkets he’s received today. Let him think church can wait. Let the kids whine about wanting to play. Let the wife fuss about prepping dinner.

Do anything you can to keep his mind off the Cursed One, and on the material things. Our Father Below has worked very hard to subvert this “holiday” with stuff. Use it, Frederick – it’s one of your best weapons. If he falters this year, and pushes the Cursed One to the sidelines, you can be sure he’ll do it again next year. And then, my young apprentice, we’ll have his heart forever.

The cold “religion” his parents taught him will be pushed aside; it’ll be something remote, aloof and distant. That’s what we want.

Let him doubt the Cursed One

Every year, Our Father Below makes sure to plant salacious, ridiculous and idiotic stories in the press to distract the Enemy’s Forces. We must do everything we can to undermine any confidence your subject has in the truth of the Scriptures. Doubt and skepticism are the order of the day.

It could be a story about how Jesus was really married. Or, the one about the “secret gospel,” that the church has “kept hidden” for years. Even better, you could use one that says the Cursed One’s birth is actually a myth, copied from ancient pagan sources.

Of course, it’s all nonsense – the Cursed One is just as alive and eternal as the Enemy Himself. In fact, He is the Enemy Himself! We know that, even if so many of the Enemy’s Forces don’t.

The point, dear Frederick, is doubt. Let that worm of doubt creep into his mind. Let it hibernate, like a ticking time bomb. When the time is right, you can use it to your advantage. It’s a Trojan horse. The best kind of Trojan horse!

But, whatever you do, don’t let him come into contact with Enemy Forces who can actually answer these objections. Keep him away from those people; especially from the leaders in his church.

No, let him surf FaceBook, YouTube or Twitter for answers. He won’t find any, of course, but that’s the point. Let this doubt, like a poisonous seed, germinate. Idiots on FaceBook will plant it, Twitter will water it, and Our Father Below will give the increase.

Let them believe in another “Christ”

This one, Frederick, might be the easiest thing of all to do. The Enemy is very specific on who His Son is. And, Our Father Below is just as generic as the Enemy is specific. Some Enemy Leaders are keen on doctrine, on right belief, and on knowing who the Cursed One actually is.

Keep your charge away from these men. They’re infinitely dangerous.

Let him believe lies about the Messiah. Let them believe he came into existence when He was born in Bethlehem. Let them believe He’s really an angel. Let them think He didn’t really die at all. Let them think He and the Father are actually exactly the same, that there isn’t any distinction between Divine Persons. Do everything you can to confuse matters.

If we can make him believe in a false “Christ,” then our work is basically done.

Let him think doctrine is cold, boring and a waste of time. Direct his energies to those FaceBook groups, YouTube comment boxes or Twitter threads. Do anything to keep him away from what the Enemy’s Forces call “right doctrine.”

Farewell, for now

I have so much more to tell you, Frederick. You have so much to learn! But don’t worry – I’ve given you more than enough to get you started. Employ these methods, and see if they don’t have an immediate impact. The goal is to drive the Cursed One away from his mind; to keep Him abstract, aloof and remote from real life. Keep Him “in church,” and not out in the real world.

Times like these are our greatest opportunities, Frederick. You’ve taken your first steps into a larger world. Our Father Below greets you, and wishes you well. May the Enemy be defeated, and the Cursed One be blasphemed.

Your dearest uncle,

Legion

Notes

[1] Some readers will recognize this letter is inspired by C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece The Screwtape Letters, which is a fictional set of letters between a high-ranking demon (Screwtape) and his young nephew, Wormwood. In these letters, Screwtape offers young Wormwood some practical advice about how to ruin the life of an ordinary young man who has recently become a Christian.

Lewis was a Christian, and this work functions as sort of a mirror into one’s own soul. It’s one of the most brilliant pieces of literature written, I believe. I can’t hope to match Lewis’ style and content, but I can at least give it a shot.

Obergefell v. Hodges – An Analysis of the “Gay Marriage” Supreme Court Decision

courtOn Friday, June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a landmark ruling about same-sex marriage. Here is what it determined:

The Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-State.[1]

What does the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution state? Here is Section 1, which is the portion relevant to this discussion:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.[2]

What exactly did this Supreme Court decision determine? What were the legal arguments both for and against the point at issue? This article will introduce these issues and present the legal arguments, from both sides, strictly from the court decision itself.

What was this case about?

This case was an amalgamation of several individual cases from Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee – all States which define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. The petitioners were 14 same-sex couples and two men whose same-sex partners are deceased. The respondents were officials from the States in question. The petitioners claim the respondents (i.e. the respective States) violated the 14th Amendment by denying them the right to marry or by not recognizing their same-sex marriages which had been lawfully performed in another State.[3]

The petitioners argued they were being denied the right to “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” and that they were being denied the “equal protection of the laws,” specifically with regard to the legal benefits traditional married couples enjoyed.

What questions did the court rule on?

Each District Court in each State denied the petitioner’s claims, and dismissed the cases. Each petitioner then appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which promptly reversed the District Courts and consolidated all the cases together. The individual States appealed this decision, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments related to two critical questions. These questions are what the Supreme Court decided, and they are:[4]

  1. Does the 14th Amendment require a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex?
  2. Does the 14th Amendment require a State to recognize a same-sex marriage licensed and performed in a State which does grant that right?

The Supreme Court answered “Yes!” to both questions – a moral evolution so profound that President Obama remarked that it was “justice that arrive[d] like a thunderbolt!”[5] Each State in this country is now (1) required to license same-sex marriages, and (2) required to recognize same-sex marriages from other States.

The court on traditional marriage

There is a worldview issue here which cannot be ignored. Is there an objective definition of marriage to turn to, or are we left with social mores? The Christian turns to God’s revealed word. The secularist turns to the shifting winds of culture. In the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy revealed he has no concrete definition of marriage.[6] He acknowledges that supporters of traditional marriage will be horrified at the Court’s decision, but assures us that the respondents do not seek to demean the institution at all – indeed, they seek to honor it:

To the contrary, it is the enduring importance of marriage that underlies the petitioners’ contentions. This, they say, is their whole point. Far from seeking to devalue marriage, the petitioners seek it for themselves because of their respect—and need—for its privileges and responsibilities. And their immutable nature dictates that same-sex marriage is their only real path to this profound commitment.[7]

Kennedy went on to state that “new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations.”[8] It is obvious Kennedy views the widespread secular acceptance of same-sex marriage with satisfaction, a righteous reversal from a bygone era when homosexuals were not allowed to have “dignity in their own distinct identity” and “a truthful declaration by same-sex couples of what was in their hearts had to remain unspoken.”[9]

In his dissent, Chief Justice Roberts cut right to the heart of the matter; “The real question in these cases is what constitutes ‘marriage,’ or—more precisely—who decides what constitutes ‘marriage’”?[10] Roberts believed that it is certainly “no historical coincidence”[11] that human society, across millennia and across cultures, has always recognized marriage as being a union between one man and one woman. He appears genuinely befuddled by this moral revolution, observing “the premises supporting [the traditional] concept of marriage are so fundamental that they rarely require articulation.”[12] He tied marriage to procreation, and observed that it is a basic fact that:

  1. humans must procreate to survive,
  2. this procreation occurs when a male and female have sexual intercourse,
  3. children’s prospects are immeasurably strengthened when the parents form a lasting bond, and
  4. society has recognized that bond as “marriage.”[13]

Individual states, Roberts reminded us, always defined marriage in the traditional, biological way until about a dozen years ago.[14] He fired back at Kennedy’s statement that marriage is an institution of both “continuity and change” by observing that not one Court decision related to marriage in this country’s history has ever redefined the “core meaning” of the institution itself – until now.[15]

The court on its role in society

Is it the Supreme Court’s role to interpret the law as it currently is, or to determine what it ought to be? This was the basic question Chief Justice Roberts asked,[16] and it is really the crux of the matter between the two parties on the Court. What is the role of the Court? The democratic process has been thwarted, he warns: “Five lawyers have closed the debate and enacted their own vision of marriage as a matter of constitutional law.”[17] He believes the Court is confused about its role, and sees no legal grounds for the majority decision. The Court is not a legislative body which enacts policy.[18]

Roberts believes the Court dangerously overreached on this decision, and most of his ire is directed at this point. Indeed, his entire dissent is not about the validity of same-sex marriage per se; it is about what he believes is a very dangerous overreach of authority by the Court:

Understand well what this dissent is about: It is not about whether, in my judgment, the institution of marriage should be changed to include same-sex couples. It is instead about whether, in our democratic republic, that decision should rest with the people acting through their elected representatives, or with five lawyers who happen to hold commissions authorizing them to resolve legal disputes according to law. The Constitution leaves no doubt about the answer.[19]

The Court’s rationale for this “overreach” is chilling. Justice Kennedy acknowledged that “democracy is the appropriate process for change.”[20] However, “when the rights of persons are violated, ‘the Constitution requires redress by the courts,’ notwithstanding the more general value of democratic decision-making.”[21] It is the Court’s job, Kennedy believes, to take the fundamental issue of human dignity and rights out of the capricious hands of legislatures, elected officials and majorities, away from the “vicissitudes of political controversy” and establish them as legal precedent.[22] In effect, Kennedy believes in an activist Court. Apparently, so does the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court.

This decision makes it clear the Court is deeply divided not only over issues of morality, but over its basic role in American society.

Roberts’ arguments are both laudable and depressing. They’re laudable in the sense that he points out the absurdity of this wholesale re-definition of a sacred institution:

[T]he Court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the States and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs. Just who do we think we are?[23]

Yet, Roberts’ dissent is also depressing because it betrays the bankruptcy of secular morality, even “traditional” morality. His entire argument is from history, from the “way things have always been.” He has no positive argument to make beyond the issue of procreation. Like Kennedy, Roberts has no objective standard to turn to. Socially-constructed mores function by inertia; they may endure for a long time, but when the brakes are removed nothing can stop it from moving. It may teeter and wobble a bit in its original position for a time, but it will topple sooner or later.

In this country, the God-given definition of marriage has toppled, and conservatives like Roberts who have no objective foundation for morality are left befuddled, frustrated and speechless. Ultimately, Roberts has no answers. All he has is a secular, allegedly “outdated” cultural construct of morality that America in 2015 has left behind.

The court’s legal justification for this ruling

The Court justified its ruling requiring States to both license and recognize same-sex unions on four pillars. They are:[24]

  1. individual autonomy
  2. a two-person union is important to individuals
  3. it safeguards children and families
  4. it safeguards social order

These arguments, and the dissenting opinion, are analyzed below.

Pillar #1 – individual autonomy and liberty

Justice Kennedy’s argument on this point is remarkable because it is not a legal argument at all; he simply made blanket statements as though they were brute facts. “The right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy.”[25] His entire argument here, which quite literally consists of three short paragraphs, is that people must be allowed to do what makes them happy. He makes it a point to use the word “freedom,” possibly to establish a subtle link to the concept of “liberty” from the text of the 14th Amendment:

The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality. This is true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation.[26]

The question is – who gets to determine whether a given construct of “happiness” is socially acceptable? Kennedy anticipates this objection and has no answer. He merely states, “There is dignity in the bond between two men or two women who seek to marry and in their autonomy to make such profound choices.”[27] The Court has decreed that homosexual relationships are dignified, therefore they are. Kennedy does not explain why this is a dignified pursuit and provides no legal rationale for supposing it is one. As Chief Justice Roberts observed, the Court’s decision is a more of a policy statement than a legal document.

Roberts tore into this “freewheeling notion of individual autonomy.”[28] The Court’s position on this is smoke and mirrors, a rhetorical gloss with no legal substance. The Court’s decision is nothing more than a statement of moral philosophy, a naked quest for policy preferences. He marveled that “nobody could rightly accuse the majority of taking a careful approach.”[29]

The truth is that today’s decision rests on nothing more than the majority’s own conviction that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry because they want to.[30]

Roberts’ issue is that no legal argument was actually presented for the redefinition of marriage. No “right to marry” case ever heard before the Court, whether it concerned inter-racial couples, individuals with child-support debts, or incarcerated prisoners,[31] has ever re-defined the institution itself. Every “right to marry” case presupposed the traditional definition of marriage. To Roberts, this is the death blow to the Court’s majority opinion. “None of the laws at issue in those cases purported to change the core definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman.”[32]

Thus, there is simply no legal precedent for the sweeping claim to personal autonomy championed by the Court. The personal accounts of the homosexual petitioners were “compelling,” Roberts admitted. “As a matter of constitutional law, however, the sincerity of petitioners’ wishes is not relevant.”[33] There is simply no legal basis for a constitutional right to redefine the entire institution of marriage in the name of individual autonomy. “None exists, and that is enough to foreclose their claim.”[34]

 Pillar #2 – a two-person union is “important” to people

Kennedy continues his quest for individual autonomy; “this Court’s jurisprudence is that the right to marry is fundamental because it supports a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals.”[35] In essence, Kennedy’s argument here is as follows:

  1. Homosexual marriage is important to the petitioners,
  2. to deny what is important to the petitioners infringes upon liberty and autonomy,
  3. to infringe upon personal liberty and autonomy violates the “due-process” clause of the 14th Amendment,
  4. therefore homosexual marriage must be sanctioned

Couples wish to define themselves by their commitment to each other, and homosexual couples are entitled to the “right to marry” because this is how they define reality.

Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.[36]

It is not enough to merely de-criminalize homosexual acts, as the Court did in the case of Lawrence v. Texas; Kennedy believes homosexual couples are entitled to the “full promise of liberty.”[37] That full promise means legally sanctioned marriage, because it’s what makes them happy.

Pillar #3 – it safeguards children and families

This is the pillar which will probably surprise Christians. What basis does the Court have to rule that legalizing same-sex marriages actually safeguards children and families? Kennedy offers a handful of reasons:

  1. By granting official recognition and legal standing to homosexual parents, their children can now “understand the integrity and closeness” of their family.[38]
  2. This recognition offers “permanency and stability important to children’s best interests.”[39]
  3. If their homosexual “parents” are not allowed to marry, “their children suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser.”[40]
  4. Likewise, such children will suffer “significant material costs” because of a “difficult and uncertain family life.”[41]

Kennedy hangs his hat on a quote from Zablocki v. Redhail , which stated, “[T]he right to ‘marry, establish a home and bring up children’ is a central part of the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause.”[42] Kennedy chose a particularly flimsy hook to hang his judicial hat on. Here is the argument:[43]

  1. Homosexual couples exist
  2. They already establish homes
  3. They already adopt and raise children
  4. Because the right to marry, establish a home, and bring up children have each been considered as a “unified whole,”[44] the Court therefore has precedent to extend the “right to marry” to homosexual couples.

This weak and vacuous argument goes far beyond special pleading. Kennedy betrays a pitiful willingness to grasp at any straw, any legal precedent – not matter how tenuous the link is. The Court actually advanced the argument that (1) because homosexual couples already establish homes, and (2) already adopt and raise children, that (3) they should be granted the “right to marry” because these three privileges have been interpreted as being part of a “unified whole” in previous “right to marry” court decisions! The Court missed Roberts’ entire point – no “right to marry” case has ever sought to re-define the institution itself!

Again, the reader is left with the impression that this is not a legal document; it is a poor man’s attempt at moral philosophy. In that light, Roberts’ warnings about judicial overreach are particularly relevant:

Stripped of its shiny rhetorical gloss, the majority’s argument is that the Due Process Clause gives same-sex couples a fundamental right to marry because it will be good for them and for society. If I were a legislator, I would certainly consider that view as a matter of social policy. But as a judge, I find the majority’s position indefensible as a matter of constitutional law.[45]

Pillar #4 – marriage maintains social order

If a society does not pledge to both protect and support married couples, then a critical “building block of our national community”[46] is threatened. If American society withholds formal legal status from same-sex couples, they are “denied the constellation of benefits that the States have linked to marriage.”[47] Basically, society harms homosexual couples by withholding that right from them. By harming them, society thereby damages itself.

Same-sex couples are consigned to an instability many opposite-sex couples would deem intolerable in their own lives. As the State itself makes marriage all the more precious by the significance it attaches to it, exclusion from that status has the effect of teaching that gays and lesbians are unequal in important respects. It demeans gays and lesbians for the State to lock them out of a central institution of the Nation’s society. Same-sex couples, too, may aspire to the transcendent purposes of marriage and seek fulfillment in its highest meaning.[48]

The Court is well aware of Roberts’ objection – no previous “right to marry” case ever sought to re-define the meaning of the institution itself. That, Kennedy argued, is missing the point. The question is not, “Do they have the right to marry?” The question is, “Why don’t they have the right to marry?”[49] This brings us full circle to the historical argument for traditional marriage, which Kennedy brushes aside with breath-taking arrogance. Definitions change, society changes, and “rights come not from ancient sources alone. They rise, too, from a better informed understanding of how constitutional imperatives define a liberty that remains urgent in our own era.”[50]

In the end, Kennedy is a good secularist who believes that morality is a shifting target. He personally feels homosexual couples are being denied a fundamental right and “it would disparage their choices and diminish their personhood to deny them this right.”[51] On that note, Chief Justice Roberts warns us, “allowing unelected federal judges to select which un enumerated rights rank as ‘fundamental’—and to strike down state laws on the basis of that determination—raises obvious concerns about the judicial role.”[52]

These four pillars are the sum of the Court’s legal opinion. Kennedy summarized as follows:

It is now clear that the challenged laws burden the liberty of same-sex couples, and it must be further acknowledged that they abridge central precepts of equality . . . The imposition of this disability on gays and lesbians serves to disrespect and subordinate them. And the Equal Protection Clause, like the Due Process Clause, prohibits this unjustified infringement of the fundamental right to marry.[53]

Conclusion – moral revolution?

The Court’s decision on 26JUN15 has only raised more questions.

An activist court

There is no doubt that the Court has bought into a purely secular view of morality, which fueled its activist stance in this case. The Court acted out of what it perceived to be a moral duty, one that could not afford to wait for the democratic process. Chief Justice Roberts was horrified at the Court’s activist stance in this case, especially the cavalier way it simply brushed aside the definition of marriage a millennia in the making. While Kennedy points to referenda, legislative debates, grassroots campaigns, studies, papers, books, and “more than 100 amici[54] as proof that this issue has been debated long enough, Roberts couldn’t disagree more about the Court’s “extravagant conception of judicial supremacy.”[55]

The fact is that five lawyers on the Court personally believed that homosexual marriage is a fundamental right, and ruled accordingly. It was their duty to rule the way they did – justice demanded it. “Of course, the Constitution contemplates that democracy is the appropriate process for change, so long as that process does not abridge fundamental rights.”[56]

What other activist decision can the American people expect, on the basis of some perceived “moral imperative” from a few lawyers in Washington D.C.? As Roberts observed, “there is indeed a process due the people on issues of this sort—the democratic process.”[57]

The legal “slippery slope”

Many observers have warned about the “slippery-slope” the Court’s decision has opened up. What about plural marriages? What about polyamory? The Court has slipped badly here, jettisoning all vestiges of tradition and history, “preferring to live only in the heady days of the here and now.”[58] Chief Justice Roberts recognized this, and warned:

If the majority is willing to take the big leap, it is hard to see how it can say no to the shorter one . . . It is striking how much of the majority’s reasoning would apply with equal force to the claim of a fundamental right to plural marriage.[59]

The petitioner’s counsel betrayed his own moral bankruptcy when he was asked, during oral arguments, whether his position opened the door to plural marriages. Counsel dismissed the idea out of hand by stating that no State had such an institution. Roberts then observed that this was precisely his point – no State at issue in this case had an institution of same sex marriage either, and yet the Petitioner was arguing to force them to adopt one![60]

Tax-exempt status for churches and para-church organizations

Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.”[61] This is quite true, and it is rather horrifying to see how little thought or care the Solicitor General had given to this potential landmine at the time of oral arguments. I will let the following exchange from the oral arguments speak for itself:[62]

JUSTICE ALITO: “Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled 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 same­sex 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.”

Going forward, the Court’s ruling has created an atmosphere of immense uncertainty among Bible-believing Christians in the United States. It will take the next several years, and likely decades, to appreciate the full impact of this decision. It also brings to mind the old arguments over what the local church’s role is in political life. Is it legitimate to attempt to “impose” Christian values on a secular state? Should Christians continue to try to have a voice in the political arena, or should local churches simply preach the Bible, keep their heads down and “mind their own business”?

None of these questions are new, but the Court’s decision has given them a new impetus. All these questions will be debated now, and for years to come because of this decision.

Notes

[1] “Syllabus,” in Obergefell et al v. Hodges. Supreme Court of the United States. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/urIhon. 26JUN15. Pg. 1.

[2] “Constitution of the United States – Amendments 11-27,” from archives.gov. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/BST2fT. 27JUN15.

[3] “Opinion of the Court,” in Obergefell et al v. Hodges, 2.

[4] “Opinion of the Court,” 2-3.

[5] The White House, “Remarks by the President on the Supreme Court Decision on Marriage Equality.” Retrieved from https://goo.gl/K6CDO0. 27JUN15.

[6] “The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change. That institution—even as confined to opposite-sex relations—has evolved over time,” (“Opinion of the Court,” 6).

[7] “Opinion of the Court,” 4.

[8] “Opinion of the Court,” 7.

[9] “Opinion of the Court,” 7.

[10] “Dissenting Opinion,” in Obergefell et al v. Hodges, 4.

[11] “Dissenting Opinion,” 4.

[12] “Dissenting Opinion,” 5.

[13] “Dissenting Opinion,” 5.

[14] “Dissenting Opinion,” 6.

[15] “Dissenting Opinion,” 8.

[16] “But this Court is not a legislature. Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us. Under the Constitution, judges have power to say what the law is, not what it should be,” (“Dissenting Opinion,” 2).

[17] “Dissenting Opinion,” 2.

[18] “Although the policy arguments for extending marriage to same-sex couples may be compelling, the legal arguments for requiring such an extension are not,” (“Dissenting Opinion,” 2).

[19] “Dissenting Opinion,” 3.

[20] “Opinion of the Court,” 24.

[21] “Opinion of the Court,” 24.

[22]  “The Nation’s courts are open to injured individuals who come to them to vindicate their own direct, personal stake in our basic charter. An individual can invoke a right to constitutional protection when he or she is harmed, even if the broader public disagrees and even if the legislature refuses to act,” (“Opinion of the Court,” 24).

[23] “Dissenting Opinion,” 3.

[24] “Opinion of the Court,” 12-17.

[25] “Opinion of the Court,” 12.

[26] “Opinion of the Court,” 13.

[27] “Opinion of the Court,” 13.

[28] “Dissenting Opinion,” 19.

[29] “Dissenting Opinion,” 19.

[30] “Dissenting Opinion,” 19.

[31] These cases are, respectively, Loving v. Virginia, Zablocki v. Redhail and Turner v. Safley.

[32] “Dissenting Opinion,” 16.

[33] “Dissenting Opinion,” 15.

[34] “Dissenting Opinion,” 17.

[35] “Opinion of the Court,” 13.

[36] “Opinion of the Court,” 14.

[37] “Opinion of the Court,” 14.

[38] “Opinion of the Court,” 15.

[39] “Opinion of the Court,” 15.

[40] “Opinion of the Court,” 15.

[41] “Opinion of the Court,” 15.

[42] “Opinion of the Court,” 14.

[43] It’s worth noting that Kennedy’s legal argument is so vague and badly written that he never actually defends it. He simply states it in an off-hand way in one single sentence before waxing eloquent about the harm being done to children of same-sex couples. His entire legal argument for this pillar is here: “A third basis for protecting the right to marry is that it safeguards children and families and thus draws meaning from related rights of childrearing, procreation, and education. See Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U. S. 510 (1925); Meyer, 262 U. S., at 399. The Court has recognized these connections by describing the varied rights as a unified whole: “[T]he right to ‘marry, establish a home and bring up children’ is a central part of the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause,” (“Opinion of the Court, 14).

[44] “Opinion of the Court,” 14.

[45] “Dissenting Opinion,” 10.

[46] “Opinion of the Court,” 16. “For that reason, just as a couple vows to support each other, so does society pledge to support the couple, offering symbolic recognition and material benefits to protect and nourish the union.”

[47] “Opinion of the Court,” 17.

[48] “Opinion of the Court,” 17.

[49] “Rather, each case inquired about the right to marry in its comprehensive sense, asking if there was a sufficient justification for excluding the relevant class from the right,” (“Opinion of the Court,” 18).

[50] “Opinion of the Court,” 18-19.

[51] “Opinion of the Court,” 19.

[52] “Dissenting Opinion,” 11.

[53] “Opinion of the Court,” 27.

[54] “Opinion of the Court,” 23.

[55] “Dissenting Opinion,” 25.

[56] “Opinion of the Court,” 24.

[57] “Dissenting Opinion, 22.

[58] “Dissenting Opinion,” 22.

[59] “Dissenting Opinion,” 20.

[60] “Dissenting Opinion,” 21.

[61] “Dissenting Opinion,” 28.

[62] Oral Transcript of 14-556, Question #1, pg. 38. Supreme Court of the United States. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/PPtV1U. 27JUN15.