Today the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to legalize same-sex marriage in all fifty states. And here to talk about the fallout, we are joined by guest Dr. Don Carson for a special weekend episode of the Ask Pastor John podcast. And we will run long this time — about twenty minutes or so. Dr. Carson, I want to get your thoughts on some specifics about what today’s ruling means for the church. But first, more generally speaking, what would you say to someone who came up to you and asked for your initial thoughts about the SCOTUS ruling?
A lot would depend, to be quite frank, on who was asking me. If it were a non-believer in favor of the decision, then I would say I think that it is not well grounded in the Constitution itself. Really, it’s taking the Fourteenth Amendment and trying to expand it by appealing to equal rights. And it’s, in some ways, a bizarre ruling that probably will do damage on the long haul to freedom of religion and the First Amendment.
Kennedy does have a paragraph in there about the importance of religious freedom but follows it up with a sentence saying that where the exercise of that freedom seems to harm the rights of others, then government has the right to curtail it, which really means, as far as I can see, that he wants the kind of religious freedom that is allowed in church buildings and worship, but not on a broader cultural view.
‘Truth Will Out’
So on the other hand, if somebody came up and were part of the loony right-wing fringe that is full of hate and raising money and this sort of thing, what I’d want to say is don’t buy into the secular culture’s insistence that this is the inevitability of history. We know who’s in charge of history. On the long haul, the truth will out. On the long haul, every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2:10–11). Short-term, there are going to be some difficulties and challenges, but this is no time for panic or resentment, and it is certainly no time for hate. We’re still to love our neighbors as ourselves, and that doesn’t matter whether they’re gay or not, whether they’re Muslim or not, whether they’re sectarian or secular or fundamentalist or leftish or whatever. We’re still to be a community of the transformed of the redeemed. We will be courteous. We will be kind.
And so somewhere along the line, we need to take great pains to make it clear that our views on marriage do not come from within a community that’s merely traditionalist or merely old-fashioned, or from a community that’s driven by hate or judgmentalism, but it’s tied finally to what we hold to be revelation from God, and how God made us in the first place, and how marriage is supposed to mirror the relationship between Christ and his church. And therefore, regardless of what happens in terms of tax penalties or anything else, or being criticized by the left or the right, we simply don’t have the option to change those values; from the beginning it was not so. And so our stance must be resolve, determination, perseverance, faithfulness, courtesy, love, displaying a better way, and recognizing that this is not the first time the church has confronted those kinds of things. In Rome in the first century, after all, although homosexuality was not, so far as we know, hugely common in every sphere of life, in some spheres of life, it was very common. And especially in the upper classes, it was very common. And Christians stood over against that, just as Christians insisted on the exclusiveness of Christ in a society that had many, many, many ways to God or to the gods, and Christianity was black billed then as being right wing and narrow minded and exclusivistic and hate filled. And Christians, by the quality of their living, gradually overcame those kinds of things, even though it took about three centuries of persecution to get there.
So what will take place, who’s to say? But my guess is that there will be a lot of individual things now about taxes and education and exemptions and marriages and what can be allowed and what can’t be allowed and whether something’s denominational or not denominational. All those kinds of things I suspect are going to get tested in the courts, many of them all the way up to the Supreme Court. So we’re going to be facing an array of challenges for years to come. And how that will all play out, well, I’m neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet. What I am sure about is Jesus is Lord, this is a time to be faithful and gentle and firm and evangelistic and loving and principled, and not driven by malice or hate or condescension or anger, but simply to be Christians.
Amen. I want to talk more about religious freedom in just a moment. So this Supreme Court ruling today really opens up a big can of worms.
Knowingly. And in other words, I don’t think they’re naïve about what they’ve done.
One More Step
Would you say this landmark ruling today marks a new era for the church in America?
I’m always nervous about these “new era” things, to be honest, because in some ways this is merely an extension of a change in public perceptions of anthropology, sex, science — a lot of things. One could say that some of it begins with the pill. We could say that some of it begins with Roe v. Wade. We could say that some of it begins with the loss of confidence in the heritage of a widely accepted, in some ways, Christian morality. So in one sense, this is just one more step.
Those who have thought of America as being more distinctly Christian than it is will view this as a massive new thing. And it is new in certain respects, there’s no doubt about that. But it’s new only in the sense that state after state after state after state has insisted that gays and lesbians can marry each other, and what has happened now is that this has been affirmed by the Supreme Court for the whole fifty states. What makes it so desperately new? Well, not much really, except that it’s a little more universal.
So it depends how you look at things. You can use it as a marker if you like, but there has been a transmogrification of perceptions about sex and anthropology and fertility and family and children and so on that has been going on a long, long time now.
What would you say to Christians who feel angry right now and who feel betrayed by the courts for today’s ruling?
I’d be inclined to say you haven’t been reading your newspapers. In other words, this was largely predictable granted the decisions of the courts on recent decisions. I mean, I can’t see how anybody who’s well informed on recent history would be surprised by this.
“Betrayed” — that language presupposes that we have always been a deeply Christian country, and our history is more complex than that. There have been some hugely wonderful Christian values in it, but some things with which to be ashamed too. And in any case, the locus of the people of God is not America, it’s not Israel, and it’s not Britain in this new-covenant age; it’s the genuine church of Jesus Christ.
And so it really is very important to keep saying that our first allegiance is not to being American or to being Western; our first allegiance is to being Christian or Christ. And insofar as a gauntlet is being laid down to say choose between the Supreme Court and Jesus, we’ll follow Jesus. And then whatever falls out of that in terms of sanctions or opprobrium or difficulty or accreditation or tax exemption or whatever, we’ll work those things through and try as well and honestly as we can to handle them. And if we lose on them, so the apostles were glad because they were counted worthy to suffer for the name (Acts 5:41).
It’s just not the sort of thing that is well answered by anger; it’s the sort of thing that is well answered by a certain kind of serenity, confidence in God’s sovereignty, in his ability to make us stand and be wise, persevering, clear on these matters and eager to teach the new generation growing up in our churches that we’re not fuddy-duddies; this is what the word of God says, and that’s non-negotiable.
To Preach, or Not?
This ruling hit on Friday and Sunday is coming. If you were to preach on Sunday, what text would you choose?
As it happens, I am preaching this Sunday at a church in South Carolina that probably should remain nameless, but it’s got two services, and between the services they had asked me to give a public lecture of about fifty minutes on current trends in culture. Well, probably in South Carolina after this Friday, I can find one or two cultural things to comment upon. So it promises to be an interesting Sunday. During that short lecture, I will end up with Acts 17 and Paul’s address to people who are biblically illiterate in his own day, and who had all the reigns of power and whose views are very different from his own. I will probably end up there.
For the two morning services, I’m simply preaching from one of the parables. I’ve decided not to change the text as an evangelistic approach, partly because, although you want to answer wisely and address the current debacle, you don’t want to set your agenda by SCOTUS’s decision. It’s important, but it was predictable. It doesn’t change much; it merely universalizes trends that have been going on for quite some time. And so something has to be said, and in this case, they’ve given me an hour to say it, but the regular preaching of the word of God in the morning services, I’m not going to change.
That is really good counsel for pastors.
Follow Jesus to the End
Back to religious freedoms, what do you predict will be the fallout from this SCOTUS decision for religious freedoms in America?
I’m not a prophet nor the son of a prophet, and I’m not a legal scholar. My guess is that there will be fewer threats for churches than for para-church organizations. I don’t think somebody is going to come down and say that you can’t officiate at heterosexual weddings unless you are also going to officiate at homosexual weddings. I doubt very much that’s going to happen precisely because when things are really tightly tied to church, the First Amendment is probably still strong enough in the foreseeable future to preclude a decision that would take that away.
What will be in jeopardy probably sooner or later is tax exemptions of a religious sort, and there will probably be more threat for, for example, tertiary education institutions, especially if they’re independent. I suspect that they’ll be a little safer if they’re tightly tied to a denomination, but the farther out you go into the para-church world — the Church of Rome will not be seen in law to be exactly the same as an independent seminary or an independent Bible college. There’s going to be a big shakedown before this one’s over.
In the worst possible case, the state could eventually bring in legislation that might ultimately be justified by the court that would treat Christian institutions the way Bob Jones was treated over its racism decades ago; that is, all financial support would be taken away. That’s possible but by no means inevitable or certain. Partly, it was one institution, whereas in this case, there are thousands of institutions, and it’s not just evangelicals: it’s Catholics, it’s Mormons, it’s Muslims, it’s a far more complex situation.
And moreover, if that’s the price to be paid, then it will be the price to be paid. What can you say? It should have no bearing on what Christians do; that is to say, we follow Jesus, we follow Scripture, and we will try to be courteous and respectful, but disagree with those who are redefining marriage in this way. And it’s quite possible that the Lord in his mercy will bring along a change in the pendulum in the culture, even possibly Reformation that could swing the country in another direction. Who knows? I have no idea. But as it stands right now, it’s hard to imagine that there won’t be some shakedown that will affect some Christian liberties. Yes, I think that’s probably right.
Finally, you travel extensively across the world. As the international community watches so-called “same-sex marriage” become the law of the land in America now, how is the international community viewing the United States right now? And especially from the perspective of the global church, what are they thinking?
Well, it depends what country. There are Christians in Canada, which is farther down the pipe than we are, and in Scotland, who look at us somewhat bemused and say, “Why are you making such a big deal of it? I mean, we’ve learned to cope with it. Why can’t you?” And there is a sense in which there are things to be learned by talking to Christians in some of these countries that have gone a little farther down this road than we have.
What is more discouraging is countries in Africa, for example, I could name, where increasingly American aid has been tied to policies in those African countries that will soften their stances on homosexuality and the like. So in other words, aid is increasingly being tied to manipulation of majority-world countries adopting our changing moral standards. There’s something shameful, I think, about that, but I’m sure that those who support this decision view this as a way of using our financial power to do what is right.
So internationally, people are going to look at us out of a framework that will vary enormously from country to country. I mean, some countries are really very secular in their outlook. Russia’s not going to be affected in the slightest by any of this. European countries are moving in this direction or have gone farther than we have in this direction. Many countries from which we get aid that are, in fact, culturally more conservative, and sometimes, in some cases, actually more Christian (some cases not), feel manipulated by the American government.
It’s a complex set of reactions depending on what country you’re talking about. The Muslim world will see this as further confirming evidence of America’s moral decay. Much of the Muslim world thinks of the West as essentially and deeply sleazy. And who’s to say that they’re entirely wrong? On the other hand, it has to be said that at least in some of these countries, there is a lot of double standard that’s operating too. But it certainly gives grist for the popular press in their own countries.
It does, yeah. And just to be clear, you’re not just talking about ISIS and radical Islam right here?
No, no, it’s not just ISIS, but, for example, the Wahhabis or Sufism. There a lot of conservative Sufis and Sunnis who view the moral standards of the West as being one of the least attractive elements here. I mean, they like our technical prowess and they like the jobs, they like the technical skills on the science and this sort of thing, but are frankly appalled at nudity and sexual innuendo. And I’ve just come back from two Middle Eastern countries that will remain nameless and turned on their television, and it’s amazing what they block. And I have a certain amount of sympathy for what they bleep out and block just because it’s sleazy; it is sleazy. And so this will confirm their perception of American sleaziness.
It sure will. Dr. Carson, thank you for your time today. That was Dr. Don Carson speaking with us from his office at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois. Dr. Carson is the author of many wonderful books over the years and most recently he served as the general editor of the forthcoming NIV Zondervan Study Bible. We’ll be talking more with Dr. Carson later this summer on the Ask Pastor John podcast.