What the Future Holds
by Denny Burk
President Obama was correct when he said the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision landed like a thunderbolt. The decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized gay marriage nationwide, is indeed a watershed in our national life. Although a majority of Americans now support gay marriage, many of us regard this decision as a moral and judicial tragedy.
From a legal standpoint, it represents five unelected justices’ imposing on the nation a new definition of marriage. The judgment is not rooted in sound legal principle but in the opinions of five lawyers arrogating to themselves the right to enact social policy. The Supreme Court has no right to redefine marriage for all fifty states, but that is exactly what it did.
From a moral standpoint, the decision is a complete subversion of the good, the right, and the true with respect to marriage. Marriage is the covenant union of one man and one woman for life. Its connection to procreation and children has been revealed to us in nature, reason, and common sense. The Bible further reveals that marriage is an icon of the gospel—a symbol of Christ’s covenant love for His church (Eph. 5:31–32).
The court’s decision attempts to turn all of that upside down. As a result, it stands against reason and common sense. More importantly, it stands against the purposes of the One who created marriage to begin with (Gen. 2:24–25).
A New Reality
Although I am disappointed with this decision, I remain confident that Christians will continue to bear witness to the truth about marriage—even if the law of our land is now arrayed against us. Still, many Christians are left wondering how to move forward into this new reality.
I am a pastor, and this question is exactly what I have heard from the people in my church. Our members by and large don’t have questions about the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality and marriage. They get that. Nor do they have questions about their obligation to love their neighbors, to seek their good, and to be at peace with everyone (Mark 12:29–31; Luke 6:33; Rom. 12:18). They get all of that as well.
Their question is how to live out what Jesus has called them to be when people treat them with hostility. I recently talked to one church member whose boss is gay. About half of her coworkers are also gay. They are her friends, and she loves them. She wants to keep a relationship with them, and she hopes to remain a part of their lives. But she’s concerned that her Christian beliefs on marriage and sexuality will alienate them once they become known. The last thing on her mind is waging a culture war or winning a debate with them. She just wants space to be their friend, even if they ultimately disagree about these fundamental issues.
I could tell other stories of brothers and sisters in Christ who are not only concerned about maintaining relationships with friends at work, they are also concerned that they will face professional suicide if their Christian views become known among their coworkers. Again, they don’t want to pick a culture war fight with anyone. But neither do they want to face losing their job or a reprimand in their HR file when they fail to show up for the office party for their coworker who just married his same-sex partner. They are trying to figure out how to be faithful to Jesus, a faithful friend, and a faithful employee when those obligations seem to be in tension.
That is the challenge that I’m seeing among our members. What they are wondering is whether their Christian faith will be tolerated in the public space. And I’m not talking about any desire on their part to engage in aggressive and obnoxious proselytizing. They are wondering if a genuine pluralism will exist in post-Obergefell America, or if Christian views on sexuality and marriage are now being excluded from our national life.
I am so grateful for these dear brothers and sisters in my church. None of them have expressed any thoughts of forsaking Jesus’ teaching because of these difficulties. They are going to walk with Christ no matter what the cost. I praise God for that. But still, I am concerned for them, and I am praying for them. They are silent casualties on the frontline of a culture war they don’t want to be in. They just want to follow Jesus in peace. And as the implications of Obergefell trickle down into their lives, I pray that they will be able to do just that (1 Tim. 2:2).
Christians are beginning to realize that their place in American life is now being adjudicated in the court of public opinion. And it is not at all clear whether this will end well for the Christian church.
Earlier this year, we saw the governors of Indiana and Arkansas abandon Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA) in their states. It was a signal moment in our national life that revealed how profoundly America has changed in its attitudes about homosexuality, how out of step evangelicals are with the new sexual orthodoxy, and how willing many Americans are to punish evangelicals for their transgressive beliefs.
We saw two Republican governors back away from state RFRAs that would have been completely uncontroversial just ten years ago. We saw a national media snarkily dismiss our first freedom in the Bill of Rights with scare quotes or as “socalled” religious liberty. We saw politician after politician either unwilling or unable to make a coherent case for religious liberty. And we saw countless talking heads denigrate religious liberty as a euphemism for bigotry and discrimination. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote that Christians should be “made to take homosexuality off of its sin list.” It is no wonder that Nicholas Kristof has said that “evangelicals constitute one of the few groups that it’s safe to mock openly.”
Religious liberty has taken an epic beating in American life, and it feels like we’re just getting started. And the focus of the attack seems to be on evangelicals. Evangelicals are beginning to feel open disdain from our cultured despisers, who find our ancient faith to be freakish and discordant with post-sexual-revolution America. There is no “silent majority” for Christians to appeal to for succor. Evangelicals are a bona fide minority when it comes to our commitment to Jesus’ teaching about sexuality. It’s not merely that people don’t like our views. It’s also that people don’t like us because of our views. In fact, a recent poll has found that there are more people who view gay people favorably than there are that view evangelicals favorably.
Retreat or Engage?
Without question, evangelical Christians face a new reality in post-Obergefell America. And they are wondering how to move forward. They hear some leaders counseling retreat and disengagement from the culture. They hear other leaders say that we need to engage the culture war with the kind of politicking that marked the old Moral Majority of the 1980s.
Neither option really captures what Jesus taught us about our enduring relationship with the world. John 17 records the words of Jesus’ prayer just before He was handed over to be crucified. His prayer focused not only on the eleven remaining disciples, but also on all those who would believe in Him through His disciples’ testimony. In short, Jesus was praying for us.
Among other things, Jesus prayed that we would be in the world, not of the world, for the sake of the world.
- Jesus prayed, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one… . As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (vv. 15, 18). This means that disengagement from the world is not an option for Christians. He has sent us into the world knowing full well that we will face opposition: “In the world you will have tribulation, but take heart; I have overcome the world” (16:33).
- But being in the world does not mean being of the world. In John’s gospel, “world” is not a generic word for planet earth. It’s a technical term denoting humanity in its fallenness and rebellion against God (see also 1 John 2:15–17). So when Jesus sends us into the world, He knows that He’s sending us into a realm of active rebellion against His Father’s purposes. But His expectation is that our presence in the world will be a “sanctifying” influence. Why? Because our allegiance to Jesus and His Word “sanctifies” us in the midst of the rot (John 17:16–17). And that is the point.
- We are in the world yet not of the world for the sake of the world. Jesus says that He sends His sanctified disciples into the world so that “the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (v. 23). Ultimately, our sanctification in the world is for a mission: to show the world—in all of its fallenness and rebellion—that God sent His Son to die for sinners.
Yes, we face a new reality in the aftermath of Obergefell. But we know how to move forward into this new reality because Jesus has already given us our marching orders. He has shown us that opposition from the world is the norm, not the exception. And we know that we will overcome in the end because Jesus did (16:33).