Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Some Thoughts on Same Sex Marriage

I think it's important to state from the top that the Bible teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman for life.  Things can happen that break that bond, but the standard remains. In Matthew 19:5 (ESV) Jesus said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh'?  So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate."  Homosexual activity and marriages are therefore sinful.

How should we approach this issue?  First, we need to understand what the Bible says about marriage.  Second, we need to understand that our secularizing world will not care what the Bible says, and so the arguments we make for heterosexual monogamy ought to be primarily apologetic in nature.

From the first, we must admit that the evangelical church has done a lousy job on marriage in its own ranks.  Well might the homosexual activist say that evangelicals believe that marriage is between a man, and a woman, and a woman, and a woman....  It is wrong to argue that homosexual marriage will kill the institution of marriage.  The sexual revolution and the rampant divorce that followed in its wake have all but killed the stabilizing institution of marriage.  We need to give kudos to the Roman Catholic Church on this point --they have not yielded to popular pressure or practice.  Yes, there is some hypocrisy --granting annulments and so on, but their stance remains:  the Catholic church is firmly against divorce.

Some Christians have wrongly sought to abandon any public or legal protections for the institution of marriage.  If marriage were not a government issue, then we would not be having this discussion.  This is true, but hardly consistent with a Christian world-and-life-view, which is why I say that we must come to understand marriage Biblically.

Rome is wrong here:  marriage is not a sacrament.  Sacraments are means of grace for believers and marriage is for all men and women.  It is not a private religious contract between a man and a woman, but something undertaken for both private benefit and public good.  It is good for children to be raised in two-parent homes.  It stabilizes society and prevents poverty and every study ever done bears that out.  That is an apologetic argument for why government should recognize and sanction marriages, though it does not answer the question of why  two men or two women ought or oughtn't to be able to marry.

Theologically, we understand that marriage is a common-grace ordinance.  It is written into creation itself, and not just for Christians.  A pluralistic society can never grasp this teaching, since it believes that the Bible is simply one religious book among many.   Some point out that the current institution of marriage (one woman and one man, for life) is of relatively recent vintage and that Scripture itself contains abundant examples of believers who did not follow this example.  Genesis, however, is an ancient document (roughly 3500 years old) and Jesus draws his teaching from the very beginning of Genesis.  God's original intent and design was not polygamy, though believers did certainly engage in it.  Yet, without exception, polygamy introduced grief into the households where it was practiced (the deadly rivalries between Isaac and Ishmael, Joseph and his brothers, and among the children of King David).  It did so because it departed from God's design.

Although somewhat tangential to the main case, apologetically we might argue that polygamy creates nothing but problems: rivalries among wives and among the children of different wives, and a shortage of marriageable women (since the birthrate of males and females is roughly the same, polygamy inevitably creates too few marriageable females).  Those who would argue that the federal government's interest in "traditional marriage" is relatively recent might consider that the Federal Government denied Utah statehood from at least the 1850's in large part due to the LDS practice of polygamy.  The government has long realized that it has a vested interest in promoting stable monogamous heterosexual marriages.

What we must draw from this is:
1.) God has a particular design for marriage.
2.) Departures from that design bring misery (as in the case of polygamy and divorced and unwed motherhood).

Yet, living in a pluralist society, how can we make a commonsense apologetic case for the protection of monogamous heterosexual marriage in law?  I think too often our arguments are weak.  For instance,  the "marriage is chiefly for procreation" argument is deeply flawed.  Theologically, we understand that marriage is not chiefly for procreation but companionship.  You do not have to be capable of procreation to marry.  Infertile people can marry; people past childbearing years can marry.  Likewise, the definition argument fails --it is mere semantics to argue "Well, the definition of marriage is a union between a man and a woman, therefore marriage can only be between a man and a woman."  It's a sad day when we have to resort to a dictionary to make our arguments, and definitions change over time.  We don't have an unchanging language authority.

We must understand, too, that we are losing this battle, and are probably going to lose it definitively and for good in the very near future.  It shouldn't be a cause for rejoicing that 60% of North Carolinians who voted did so in favor of protecting heterosexual marriage.  Our focus should be on the 40% who didn't.  40 years ago, that would have been unthinkable.  20 years ago, the number may have been 90/10.  

That said, it is important we make the case.  We need to make it to our own children.  The younger generations of evangelicals are softening towards homosexual practice and we need to teach carefully how we in the church are to regard homosexuals and their desire to marry.  Too often, our stance has been motivated by somewhat of an "ick" factor (conservative Christians who were unruffled when pastors in their denominations were exonerated while preaching that Jesus did not rise from the dead are leaving their denominations in droves for ordaining and marrying homosexual persons, which I find troubling).  Mark Yarhouse's book Homosexuality and the Christian is a good place to start.

Why is it, from an apologetic standpoint, that state recognition of homosexual marriage is a bad idea?  Theologically we understand --God created man and women to be together in a one-flesh, companionship, head-helper relationship.  We know that any deviation from the norm brings misery.  Therefore, we ought to want to prevent people from experiencing misery.

How do we, then, make the argument?  I think presuppositionalism helps us here --in other words, the best way to win an argument is to look for the weaknesses or inconsistencies in your opponent's argument.  You don't have to be harsh or unloving as you do this, but gently pointing out inconsistencies in his case will build the case for the truth.  Presuppositionalism is built on the premise that the truth is a coherent whole and any false system will have cracks and flaws --find those and you can advance the truth.

I think the case might advance this way.  What is marriage, after all, and where does it come from?  Is it mere social convention, or something more?   What does it mean?  Why is it significant?  Is it only an emotive response --somehow solemnizing the fact that humans have some desire to mate for extended periods of time, not unlike geese or cardinals?  Why is it a desirable state to be sought by anyone, let alone homosexual persons?  Nothing hinders homosexual men or women from living together, committing to one another for life, from engaging in  sex, or solemnizing such with a ritual.  Why is it that civil marriage is a desirable state?  Is it for tax purposes?  Is it for the right to make end-of-life sorts of decisions for a much-beloved companion?  

In short, it is generally true that the burden of proof falls upon the one introducing the novelty.  What argues in favor of the change?   If modern Western society has upheld heterosexual monogamy as the ideal for two millennia (and arguably much longer), and, moreover, this practice also prevails in the Orient, why is it so?  Is it merely an evolutionary response --that it's better for offspring to pair for extended periods?

I would hazard a guess that most homosexuals would argue that marriage is of far more significance than the benefits listed above.  Here is where the point could be pressed --but why is it more, what invests it with such significance?  How can it really "mean" anything apart from its religious moorings?  And how could it mean anything if those religious moorings are just made up?   What is it in us that makes us desire a relationship that causes so much pain, is so unstable, calls for so much self-sacrifice, and so often fails?  

I am just putting this out there.  I don't know how strong it is, really, but I have yet to see it tried.  We must realize, however, that rationality doesn't always win the day.  One could make a rational and logical case, but if another person is heavily personally invested in his lifestyle, rationality won't change his mind.  The Holy Spirit, however, just might.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Lord Gave, and the Lord Has Taken Away, Blessed Be the Name of the Lord

Many of you already know that my wife and I lost a baby in the womb this past week.  We discovered that the baby had died at a doctor's visit on Tuesday.  The procedure for removing the baby was scheduled for tomorrow.  In God's great mercy, that procedure is no longer necessary.  The baby came today.  I am glad that he did (I say 'he' though we do not know if he was a boy or a girl).  What a privilege it was to see him, tiny, perfectly formed, with delicate and perfect little hands, arms, legs, feet, and toes.  Truly we are knit together in the secret places, fearfully and wonderfully made.

I think the hospital procedure, while often necessary, would have separated us from the reality of what had happened.  We got the privilege of seeing him, of crying.  If the child had been a girl, her name would have been Zoe --life.  And he or she does live, before God.

Grief is such a strange thing.  There is no comparing the intensity of grief over one loss to another.  I have grieved friends and church members and grandparents, but not yet a parent, nor have I grieved a born child.  I will say this --there are different forms of grief.  Beyond that, I cannot characterize it.  It is grief and it is real, because it was the loss of a life, the life of a child unseen in life, and yet loved, both by us and by our Savior.

Our church's Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes Biblical teaching on such things this way:

10.3  Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how He pleaseth. So also are all other elect persons, who are uncapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.

A. A. Hodge, in his commentary on this section, summarizes thus:

The phrase "elect infants" is precise and fit for its purpose.  It is not intended to suggest that there are any infants not elect, but simply to point out the facts --
1.) That all infants are born under righteous condemnation; and
2.) That no infant has any claim in itself to salvation; and hence
3.) The salvation of each infant, precisely as the salvation of every adult, must have its absolute ground in the sovereign election of God.
This would be just as true if all adults were elected as it is now that only some adults are elected.  It is, therefore, just as true, although we have good reason to believe that all infants are elected.  The Confession adheres in this place accurately to the facts revealed.  It is certainly revealed that none, either adult or infant, is saved except on the ground of a sovereign election; that is, all salvation for the human race is pure grace.  It is not positively revealed that all infants are elect, but we are left, for many reasons, to indulge a highly probable hope that such is the fact.  The Confession affirms what is certainly revealed and leaves that which revelation has not decided to remain without the suggestion of a positive opinion upon one side or the other.
The judge of all the earth will do right, and we leave such matters to him.  Whatever God's disposition towards the children of unbelievers, in Christ he is our Father, and his covenant promises to be God to us and our children are sure and true.

David Dickson gives the Biblical reasons for the teaching of this section:

1.) Because John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother's womb.  (Luke 1:15)
2.) Because the Prophet Jeremiah was sanctified from his mother's womb (Jeremiah 1:5)
3.) Because the promise is made to believing parents and to their children conjointly (Gen 17:7, Acts 2:39).
4.) Because of such, says Christ, is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 19:14)
5.) Because the apostle calls children which are descended but of one parent in covenant with God, holy (1 Cor. 7:14).
6.) Because God hath promised in the second commandment, that he will show mercy unto thousands that are descended of believing parents (Exo. 20:6).

In The Help, Celia buries her unborn children among the roses.  We put our unborn child in the ground, too, near the flower garden.  A seed is not given life unless it falls to the ground and dies.  We have a sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead --and a body, born or unborn, young or old, is the seed planted in hope.  Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust....but with a sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Some Thoughts about Ministry, Particularly for Those in Seminary

I know two older ministers who began to write books about ministry based on their own experiences.  One didn't finish before he died, and I am praying the other will!

Here are some thoughts from me at year sixteen, with hopefully thirty more to go:

1.)    Ministry is frequently lonely.
2.)    You will be compared unfavorably to your predecessor, because you were in part a reaction hire (you had strengths where he had weaknesses).  Your successor will be unfavorably compared to you, and will likely be a reaction hire.
3.)    Preaching is the greatest, awfulest thing in the world.
4.)    It is hard to be productive when you are the one in charge of your own schedule.  Using time well is difficult, when you are the master of your own schedule.
5.)    You will feel guilty about the time spent doing the very things you need to do to be a productive pastor.

6.)    A lot of the scary myths of seminary just aren’t true (unrealistic expectations of your wife, on your time, on your children).  Usually, a church wants to love you.  You will always be held at a bit of a distance, but this is part of being in the ministry.
7.)    Be more patient about change.
8.)    But don’t be too patient about change.
9.)    Every church has a personality and a set of unwritten rules and assumptions about pastors.  Be careful not to misread this.
10.)                        It can be difficult to find ways to inject yourself into your peoples’ lives.

11.)                        Some people will profoundly dislike you, and neither you nor they could verbalize why.
12.)                        You will get very close to some people towards the end of their lives.  They will die, and you will grieve deeply.  Don’t underestimate the power of that grief.
13.)                        Understanding the expectations of any particular church is a tricky thing.
14.)                        God will often give you a few folks who serve as your surrogate family.  Develop those relationships and be grateful for them.  Sometimes these people will eventually pull away from you, and you will be reminded again that one of the costs of ministry is being separated from your family.  Let this help you long for heaven.
15.)                        You will discover ugly ambition in yourself and it may show itself in pettiness, jealousy, and bitterness.

16.)                        When people leave your church, it hurts.  When they leave because of you, it hurts double.  This will happen.
17.)                        Sometimes you will be paralyzed by an overwhelming sense of your own inadequacy.
18.)                        At some point, somebody will probably accuse you of not preaching the gospel.  Make sure they’re wrong.
19.)                        If you can’t hold people’s interest with Scripture for twenty-five minutes, it’s not the Scripture that’s boring.
20.)                        Short notes of encouragement to people who are going through tough times or serving the Lord faithfully mean a lot.  A pastor who notices and is thankful is appreciated.

21.)                        Expect to go through the well of grief and suffering to make you useful to others.  I was just reading about the late Dr. Henry Bast, the paragon of expositors among the Dutch Reformed in the middle part of the twentieth century.  He buried two wives and a son, and Parkinson’s caused him to lay down his career and he languished his last six years unable to walk and only talking with great difficulty.  Make sure it makes you useful and not bitter or withdrawn.
22.)                        God does not promise that faithful churches will flourish.
23.)                        Reach out to people.  This is hard if you are introverted as many Reformed people are.  Find ways to compensate for your introversion.
24.) Work to improve your preaching.  Many pastors think about what to preach but stop thinking about how to preach.  Yet, the 'how' dictates how the 'what' is heard and is of equal importance.