A Pastor’s Thoughts On The Latest Supreme Court Rulings

I’ve made no secret that I’m a huge fan of Adam Hamilton and I’m on his email distribution list.  Below is what was in my Inbox, and the only thing I edited out was all the church announcement kind of stuff.

It’s all after the jump . . .

Okay, so here’s an essay I wrote yesterday for this enote and my blog related to the Supreme Court decisions for those who are interested…

I’m sitting in front of my computer today finishing a chapter on the New Testament epistles for my new book on Making Sense of the Bible. The chapter is called, “Reading Someone Else’s Mail.” In it I am trying to help the reader understand the importance of reading and interpreting the 21 New Testament epistles in the light of the culture and circumstances in which they were written. The New Testament letters were written to answer questions, to give instruction and pastoral guidance, and to address concerns among first century Christians living throughout the Roman Empire.

To help readers think about what a difference time and culture make in one’s perspective and the kind of advice, guidance and instruction one might give, I invited readers to imagine a Christian leader writing a letter to Christians in America in 1950 versus the same leader writing today.

In 1950 the Cold War was going on and the Soviet Union was our enemy. In 1950, 3 out of 4 college grads were men and women were seldom found in leadership positions even in the church (women could not be ordained pastors in the Methodist Church until 1956). Separate But Equal had been the accepted norm for the races since the 1896 Supreme Court Ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson so that even in Kansas City African Americans could not swim in the public pools with white children. This norm was accepted by most white Christians. Though in 1948 the Supreme Court rendered them unenforceable, deed restrictions continued to keep Jews and other minorities from purchasing homes in many of the more desirable neighborhoods in our city. All of this in a “Christian” culture where more than 90% of the people who wrote the laws considered themselves Christians.

The world has changed a great deal in 63 years. The Soviet Union no longer exists, more than half of all college grads today are women, “Separate but Equal” is unthinkable to most Christians, and no one would dream of deed restrictions to separate people of different religion or race from a community. But many Christians could not imagine the world we live in today back in 1950.

How different our world is today from the first century Roman world. Yet often we read the New Testament as though the letters of the apostles were speaking directly to us. They do speak powerfully to our time, but there are elements of the letters that are clearly shaped by the cultural norms of the times. Slavery and the subordination of women are two of these norms reflected in the New Testament which 21st century Christians no longer believe reflect God’s heart and character even though they are recognized in the New Testament epistles.

One of the things that precipitated my decision to write this book on scriptures is the conflict over homosexuality in the church. As I’ve taught our congregation, within the Christian faith the question of homosexuality is not a question of biblical authority, but biblical interpretation. Both conservatives and liberals agree that there are places where the Bible reflects the cultural norms and needs of the times rather than the timeless will of God. Even the apostles recognized this, as we see in Acts 15 when they decided that most of the Law of Moses – the early church’s Bible – was no longer binding upon Christians. The apostles were recognizing that the needs of the children of Israel, and the expectations of God for his people were different in the first century than when Moses had led the Israelites 1,300 years earlier. The apostles continued to value the law of Moses and saw much of it as timeless, but there were sections they believed were no longer applicable.

The question conservatives, moderates and liberals in the church disagree upon is whether the handful of verses on same-sex intimacy, are like the passages on slavery, women’s subordination and those sections of the Law of Moses the apostles set aside.

This week there were three news making events that were focused on this issue. The first was a week ago when Alan Chambers, the President of Exodus International, publicly apologized for the ways that Exodus had hurt gay and lesbian people in its work. It’s board then voted unanimously to close down the ministry. Exodus International was founded 37 years ago and was the leading advocate in America of “reparative” or “conversion” therapy in which they held out the hope that same-sex attraction could be “cured.” You can read Chambers’ remarkable apology here. This created waves within large sections of the Christian community.

Then on Wednesday of this week the Supreme Court issued two decisions related to homosexuality. The first was concerning a case brought by 84-year-old Edith Windsor who was partner with Thea Spyer for 44 years. They married in 2007. When Thea died in 2009 the Federal Government did not recognize them as married because of the Defense of Marriage Act, despite the fact that the State of New York did recognize their marriage. Consequently Edith had to pay estate taxes on half of their shared property – something that married couples do not have to do when one mate dies. Edith paid $363,000 to the IRS and $275,000 to New York (who recognizes gay marriage but follows IRS tax practices).

The Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act that applied to this case and thus the Federal Government had to recognize a legal marriage because it was legally recognized in the State of New York and must return the taxes paid.

Had Edith lived in Kansas or Missouri she would have still been required to pay the estate tax as though she and Theo were not married because neither state recognizes same sex marriages from other states. The Supreme Court’s ruling has no effect on what happens in Kansas and Missouri.

The second Supreme Court decision was that private parties do not have “standing” to defend state constitutional amendments that the state itself refuses to defend. This related to Proposition 8 in California, a constitutional amendment that was passed in California with strong support from conservative and evangelical churches in 2008 that defined marriage as between a man and a woman thus overturning a state Supreme Court decision in 2008 allowing gay marriage. In essence the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday turned the case back to the lower courts, refusing to rule on its merits which had the affect of reinstituting gay marriage in California.

Because these are both limited decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court there will be more cases brought before the court in the years ahead.

There’s a major sea of change happening in our culture and world regarding our understanding of sexual orientation. Conservatives believe the church must stand its ground – its ground being an opposition to same-sex relationships. The basis for this are two Old Testament passages and three New Testament passages condemning same-sex intimacy as well as the broader model of heterosexuality found throughout the Bible.

Yet a large number of Christians are beginning to see the issue differently. This is particularly true for a younger generation of Christians.

I was recently in a meeting with ten pastors of large evangelical churches. Every one of them was wrestling with this issue in their congregation. Some were committed to “holding the line” while others were questioning, as I have been for some time, whether these passages in the scripture actually capture the heart of God toward gay and lesbian people, or if they might be more like those scripture passages that accepted slavery and the subordination of women – a reflection of historic cultural norms not necessarily the heart of God.

You can try to pretend that the issue will go away, but, as we’ve seen this week, that is highly unlikely. You can leave churches that are open to wrestling with the issue like ours in order to find churches that “hold the line.” But it seems unlikely that even those who “hold the line” will see this issue the same in the years ahead.

As a church we don’t all see eye to eye on this. Your pastors don’t all agree about this. And we’ve learned to be okay with that. We have to learn to agree to disagree on this issue as our society and the broader church are going to continue to wrestle with this issue – it is not going away and greater change is coming. As a church we’ve committed to be a place that welcomes everyone. We’ve committed to be a church where thoughtful, committed Christians on both sides will agree to disagree with respect and love.

I personally believe that twenty years from now most churches will welcome gay and lesbian families, will call gay and lesbian people to live lives of faithfulness and sacrificial love in their relationship just as they call heterosexual couples to do, and that they will see the passages on same-sex attraction as reflecting cultural norms just as the passages on slavery and on the subordination of women reflected cultural norm and not God’s heart and timeless will.

Adam Hamilton

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8 Responses to A Pastor’s Thoughts On The Latest Supreme Court Rulings

  1. Alex says:

    Keith, this comment isn't in relation to this post, but thank you for your thoughts. I have been reading over the last couple of years.

    Due to the death of Google Reader, I will have very limited access to blogs. I work 50-60 hours a week, and the internet is blocked at my work except for a few select sites along with all Google sites. Because of that, I was able to read the blogs that I subscribed to.

    With Google Reader being gone, I will have no access to your site at work and as a father of two, my time will be limited at home. In light of that, I don't think I'm going to be able to make many treks here anymore.

    Regardless, I appreciate your modest perspective on many things including your faith. I think I may disagree with about a quarter of the things you say, but it hasn't keep my experience reading your thoughts from being a pleasant one. Blessings to you and your family over the years.

    Alexandre Costa

    • Geeding says:

      Damn you Google!!!!!!

      Alexandre, thank you so much for being a reader for so long. I totally understand your circumstances, and being able to provide for the family and spend quality time with them are certainly more important to keeping up with a silly blog. I use to be in your position when I worked at Fidelity, they blocked the majority of website an it was only because of Google Reader that I felt like I had a secret passageway into the real world.

      I appreciate your kind words and letting me that you do disagree with me from time to time. I hope I don't come across as trying to get people to agree or think like me, but rather, provide an opportunity for others to get a perspective they might not normally see and gain a bit of understanding – not that they have to switch their point of view, but that they can understand why others might reason differently and that's not always a bad thing.

      Hopefully one day you will find an alternative to Google Reader that work will allow, or check me out from time to time on the mobile phone.

      Best of luck in the future, and blessings to you and yours.


  2. Abilene Reader says:

    Amen! Thanks for sharing this this, Keith. I really enjoy your blog and perspective.

    • Geeding says:

      Thanks for your kind words, folks like you keep me motivated to keep this thing going, because trust me, I've thought about shutting this thing down quite often ever since kids came into my life. Hope life is grand in the Big Country.

  3. DKC says:

    You'll notice this was never posted on Adam's blog. Wonder why?

    • Geeding says:

      His emails have never been posted on his blog, but all of them have been posted on the church's website. They usually run about three weeks behind before they hit the archive. Here's the archive page if you are interested: http://www.cor.org/about-resurrection/sr-pastor-a

      On that page you can also find a link to subscribe to the email distribution list.

      • DKC says:

        My point was, at the beginning of the email, he specifically mentioned that it was written for both the email and to go on his blog, yet it was never posted to his blog <a href="http://(http://www.adamhamilton.org/blog)” target=”_blank”>(http://www.adamhamilton.org/blog). I realize the weekly emails are not posted there.

        "Okay, so here’s an essay I wrote yesterday for this enote and my blog related to the Supreme Court decisions for those who are interested…"

        I feel like it's a 50/50 chance that it was erroneously not published (forgot to check the publish button, wrong date, etc), or that it was purposely not published so that he wouldn't have to deal with the outpouring of disagreement from the congregation at COR through the blog comments. That would expose some things and run counter to presumption many could make that his flock is all on board with his personal opinion on this topic.

        • Geeding says:

          I think it could be one of several things. He's on sabbatical writing a book and it could have been overlooked, as you stated. It could also be me doing him a disservice by only posting a portion of the email and badly explaining what I left out. But I totally agree that the part you quoted makes it sounds like it will be posted on his blog.

          I doubt he's trying to hide anything from his congregation as that email is sent to church members and others who subscribe to it and it will later be posted on the church's website in the archive area. He sent it out to his church members the day of the decision while on sabbatical. If anything, he's addressing head on directly to his church. I'm sorry if I made it sound like I'm on some kind of exclusive email distribution list, but it was just something I subscribed to when I found it on the church's website, and he's made mention in his sermons that he sends out a weekly email and how to subscribe to it. Not to mention, he's part of a Mainline church that is more accepting and open to this issue and has often discussed it in sermons and on his Facebook page to gauge where his congregation stands regarding certain areas within this issue. He's said many times that his congregation is free to disagree with him on the topic. With his past openness about it and stating it's OK to disagree with him, it doesn't seem like he's trying to avoid any confrontation from his flock.

          My apologies if I mislead you and for doing a poor job of explaining what I cut and pasted from it. And of course, you are open to disagree with me and think differently. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

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