, associate general counsel, General Conference,
, director, public affairs and religious liberty department, North American Division
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that finds a constitutional right to same-sex marriage raises a lot of questions for the church.
This decision, reached on June 26, 2015, in Obergefell v. Hodges, is one that many Seventh-day Adventist members greeted with apprehension. In particular, many church members wonder what, if any, impact this decision will have on the church’s ability to conduct mission consistent with biblical principles.
The Supreme Court’s decision is unlikely to have a direct, immediate impact on the church. Rather, the concern is what collateral effects will appear down the road after a legal structure endorsed a different definition of marriage than the church affirms. Further, and perhaps more importantly, this decision will impact already changing societal attitudes and thus will require the church to find a path to operate in a changed society.
While it is important that we be vigilant on this issue — and some level of concern is warranted — we should not view this decision or even this entire issue with disproportionate concern. This is hardly the first time society has deviated from God’s ideal. We are called to be salt and light to this world and spread the gospel. Undue attention to the same-sex marriage ruling, or any other issue that distracts us from that mission, is as harmful as any law or court decision. God has asked us to do His work. He is not going to give us a society in which we cannot do it.
As Seventh-day Adventists we should be particularly equipped to deal with any challenges this case may lead to. While it may be easy to forget, we as God’s “peculiar people” are not fully part of modern society. In everything from the Sabbath, our diet, to our abstinence from alcohol, we have been moving away from mainstream society on our own path. Still we have found a way to continue our mission of spreading the gospel while still being part of a sinful world.
We do, however, face some specific challenges as a result of this shift in society, and we must learn to deal with them. It is as important to understand where the potential conflict between the church’s beliefs and government regulations will not come from as it is where they will. The conflict will not likely come in Adventist pastors being required to perform same-sex weddings. Adventist churches are not going to be required to allow wedding services for any couple that the church believes have no biblical right to marry. The First Amendment protections in the United States are strong enough that any law that tried to impose such requirements would be struck down by any federal judge.
In fact, raising this parade of horribles — pastors thrown in jail for preaching the gospel, or churches being shut down for not performing same-sex weddings — is not only nonfactual but counterproductive. Uninformed and alarmist claims have allowed those advocating for same-sex marriage to set up straw-man arguments that can be easily knocked down and then claim all religious liberty concerns are taken care of. An unsupported claim of religious persecution or religious liberty infringement doesn’t advance the cause.
The conflict is unlikely to be in the four corners of the church sanctuary or with the pastor. The first challenges will be with the church’s related ministries. Our schools, hospitals, community service programs, relief agencies, and any place that the church comes into contact with the larger society are the locations where government regulations and church beliefs will first collide. If non-Adventists are being hired, if services are being provided to non-members, or if government money is involved (including in the form of a tax exemption), the church will be at varying degrees of risk.
Exactly how and where the church and its members will experience legal pressure is uncertain. Anyone who claims to know where the line between religious freedom and gay and lesbian rights will end up is either claiming the gift of prophecy or delusional. Further, in the United States, different parts of the country will face different issues. Mississippi is not California, and while there will be issues on the federal level, much of this debate will revolve around state and even local city ordinances.
The issue of religious freedom came up both during oral arguments and in the Supreme Court’s decision. It was the subject of the church’s friend-of-the court brief filed in the case, which was cited in a dissenting opinion. Justice Anthony Kennedy in his majority opinion made some assurances, saying the First Amendment gives “proper protection” to those who disagree with the court’s decision. But exactly what constitutes proper protection is unknown, much like most other issues in this arena.
Kennedy’s description of these protections was less than reassuring. He wrote that individuals would be able “to continue the family structure they have long revered.” While it is reassuring to know that no one will be forced into a same-sex marriage, that was hardly a danger. More importantly, Kennedy also said people of faith would be able to “to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths.“
What was missing from the opinion, as Justice John Roberts pointed out in his dissent, was any assurance about being able to actually practice that faith. It is no accident that the opinion only talked about teaching — and not exercising — one’s religion. The Supreme Court has long held that you are free to believe whatever you want. But, as it said in United States v. Reynolds when it upheld a ban on polygamy, you aren’t always free to practice that belief.
In a more recent case, the court said the U.S. tax service, the IRS, could revoke the tax-exempt status of a religious school called Bob Jones University because its policy of not allowing interracial dating violated public policy. When asked if the same public policy considerations would extend to sexual orientation discrimination, the government lawyer acknowledged that that was a possibility.
Much of how the conflict of rights between religious rights and the rights of gays and lesbians unfolds will depend upon the ability to make the argument that religious rights are based on more than perceived animus toward gays and lesbians and that the interest of gays and lesbians are still going to be protected. Long gone is the era of simply making a claim of religious freedom and expecting the legislature or courts to accept it.
As Adventists we must recognize that the government has the right to make decisions that it feels are best for its citizens, even when those decisions conflict with our deeply held biblical views. What we can ask from the government, though, is that it takes the interests of all citizens into account, including those who view marriage as exclusively a relationship between one man and one woman.
The challenge of accommodating the needs of theologically and morally divergent groups is one Seventh-day Adventists should be uniquely qualified to lead. Since our founding, we have held beliefs unique among other Christian denominations. Whether it be keeping Saturday instead of Sunday as the Sabbath, not using alcohol or tobacco, or even our choices in entertainment, we have long found a way to carve out a space to live and do mission in a less-than-welcoming society. The more recent challenge is a little different, but it is one we should be up to.
The legal issues raised by this Supreme Court are not the only concerns same-sex marriage present and potentially not the largest. The rapid change in attitudes regarding gays and lesbians surprised people on both sides of the debate. No other issue has seen such a seismic change so quickly in U.S. history. The rapid shift in public opinion has left the church in a challenging position of how best to minister to gay and lesbian individuals while maintaining its biblical teachings on marriage and human sexuality.
Christians in general and conservative Christians in particular haven’t always gotten this balance right. Fairly or not, many gays and lesbians and many in society have come to view Christians and people of faith as the enemy. This is a dangerous view to allow to go unchallenged both legally and societally.
The law isn’t formed in a vacuum. Those who make and interpret the law are influenced by society and its views. If those who don’t recognize same-sex marriage are viewed as bigots or motivated by animus, the law is simply not going to provide any meaningful protection. While it’s not explicitly said in the opinion, there is little doubt that one significant reason Bob Jones University lost its case was because it was viewed by many as being racist and bigoted and not simply trying to follow its understanding of the Bible.
Those holding to a view of marriage as only being between a man and woman can’t allow themselves to be put in the category of bigot. If Christians are perceived as bigots, we can expect the most minimalist level of legal protection and no sympathy from society. We will be barely tolerated.
This concern about the Supreme Court potentially labeling our belief as being bigoted — something the court explicitly did not do — was a principal reason the Seventh-day Adventist Church filed the brief it did in this matter. Despite Kennedy’s language about “decent and honorable” religious beliefs, there is a very real threat of society applying this label.
If the church’s biblical position on marriage and human sexuality is labeled by society as bigoted or hateful, the threats are not just to its legal strategy. Such a label would also interfere with— if not actually destroy — our ability to witness to gays and lesbians and to society as a whole. Any church that is viewed as being bigoted will have a hard time even being heard, let alone convincing anyone to accept its message.
This problem is not one that can be solved by lawyers. It has to be addressed by all members of the church.
The Adventist Church’s position on human sexuality and how to relate to gays and lesbians is both balanced and firmly rooted in Scripture. Committed to the biblical truth that expressions of sexuality should be limited to monogamous heterosexual marriages, the church also calls for treating all with Christ-like love and compassion. It further makes clear that no one is to be singled out for scorn, derision, or abuse.
As Christ’s ministry on the Earth demonstrated, to reach people we must first make them feel that they are loved and respected. It’s not enough simply to say that we love someone or some group. We have to demonstrate it. Congregations — including Adventist ones — haven’t always been the best reflection of Christ’s love to gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Rhetoric and deeds have sometimes been unnecessarily harsh and critical. We’ve also missed opportunities to minister to same-sex attracted individuals.
When the HIV/AIDS crisis first hit in the United States in the 1980s, those afflicted with what was then a fatal and horrific disease found themselves cut off from most traditional support systems. The gay men who were predominantly affected by the disease in its early years were often alienated from family or any of the usual sources of support. Gay men eventually created an entire host of social service organizations to meet these needs, but it took time, and many men died alone and without anyone before that happened.
In the gospel stories of Jesus’ encounters with lepers, Christians have a powerful example of how Christ related to people suffering from a fatal disease with significant social stigma that most believed was the result of personal sin. While many individual Christians and some congregations made a concerted effort to minister to those dying of AIDS, that wasn’t the usual response. Had the response of the Christian community been to fill in this gap, the witness would have been unimaginable, if, for example, local churches had brought meals to those dying at home, helped to bathe them, or held their hands as they died terrible deaths in unimaginable numbers. The Adventist Church and many other Christian groups have effective and robust HIV ministries today, but we missed a chance by not doing it much earlier.
Our challenge today is to find a way to not only obtain the legal exemptions and accommodations we need to carry on our ministry and maintain our biblical faith. We need to truly minister to a group of people we haven’t typically been comfortable around. There is no biblical record of Christ not associating with any class of sinners.
As Adventists we must put our words of love and compassion for all into action in a way that allows people to feel love and compassionate. This no more requires compromising our beliefs than Christ compromised His during his ministry. But it is going to require a lot of prayerful soul-searching and effort. May we point ourselves and all others to Christ who can bring full restoration into His image which is the object of Christ’s saving mission and ministry culminating with His soon return when all things will be made new.