To High Point Church in light of current events:
The majority of the New Testament books are pastoral letters written from a pastoral leader to a particular local church or churches with the intent of guiding them in how to think, feel and behave in reference to particular events of their day. While we normally teach from those letters, there is within the Church an important tradition of pastors from every generation following in that model of pastoral letters and speaking directly to their congregations in significant moments relevant to modern Christian life. As a pastor, I consider it my duty to help us reflect Christianly on the moment in which we live.
My letter this week is mainly in reference to the US Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, though it is also relevant more generally to other recent events. This letter revisits much of my sermon from Sunday, June 28th. To hear that message, follow this link.
As we set out to understand how we ought to respond as Christians, there is one very important piece we must establish. We’re all terrifyingly broken by sin in all of our orientations and desires, and we come here because we want to know Jesus and hear the gospel. People from all walks of life come to High Point Church for the same reason. They’re here, and they love Jesus, and they are wonderful. Don’t ever allow yourself to say a sentence anywhere, but especially in the church, which is not formed in love and empathy, no matter what truth you feel you need to speak.
And for those at High Point who do experience same sex attraction or trans-gender identity, I want you to know that I, and I think the vast majority of people at High Point, deeply love you and care about you. We strive not to be self-righteous and condescending in relationship to the experiences that you have as we all work through what it looks like to follow Jesus. If you have experienced otherwise, please tell our elders, staff, or anyone you trust to advocate for you, remembering to do so without gossiping or tearing people down.
Having established that, there are eight key pieces I would like to address.
1. Some people in the Church struggle to understand why others think this is a big deal. I suggest that the concern derives largely from what we fear this decision may signal about coming days.
First, these events signal a loss of cultural rationality. When arguments cease to be persuasive on the grounds of rationality, emotion and power become the dominating motivators. When we base our arguments on reason, we rely on truth to persuade. When we look primarily to emotion, we rely on power and force to persuade. That is always a dangerous recipe.
Second, when a law determines something to be a “right,” dissenting citizens lose their leverage. Disagreement becomes not just unpopular, but morally unacceptable and legally stifled. We expect that this shift will invite decades of litigation against religious institutions that resist this government mandate and any to follow. It is also very reasonable to expect that within two years churches will be among the first organizations to lose their non-profit status which will, on a financial level, threaten to put most American evangelical and Catholic churches out of business.
Third, this signals a further weakening of marriage and public virtue, by changing the definition of marriage. Certainly the definition has already fallen far from the Biblical standard with our perspectives on divorce and fidelity, the wedding industry, etc. Homosexual marriage is far from our first failing in the upholding of marriage virtue. But in this case, we are altering the core definition of marriage, which affects people’s perception of the nature of marriage and our expectations toward ourselves within it.
2. We must understand the perspective of others assessing this situation from different vantage points
Many of our neighbors see this as a uniquely triumphant moment in American society. In the span of one week, decades of advocacy combined with current events resulted in the banishment of what many see as a symbol of systemic racist oppression and the extension of marriage rights to an oppressed minority.
Many within the church sincerely believe that this redefinition of marriage will strengthen the institution of marriage, which ought to be celebrated. If we are going to have meaningful conversations with our neighbors who hold to either of these views, we must learn not to speak past their perspective.
Lastly, we must learn from the voices of our brothers and sisters around the world. Most global Christians have never held the illusion that their government and their faith are co-supportive. As we are forced to renegotiate our expectations about the relationship between faith and government, we will have much to learn from the church outside of America.
3. If we hold to the gospel, we are going to be on the bad side of public opinion, but we will not be on the wrong side of history.
Christians who resist the ideology of their day have always known that history is not morally progressive. The moral health of humankind has not in any way improved along a progressive incline. Instead, it is intermittent, littered with high and low points throughout, usually concurrently. Progressivism misunderstands the nature of progress. It is never unilateral, largely because of human nature. We naturally perpetuate a cycle in which, when things are terrible, we must be virtuous and diligent to survive. When the natural fruits of virtue arise, our sense of the necessity of virtue erodes and we parasitically devour our own foundations.
“Settled reason” and “settled science” have been notoriously wrong, especially where science and politics are intimately united as they are here. Both science and religion share a dangerous vulnerability. When they are allowed to be mingled with the political emotion of the day (whether it is nationalism, socialism, liberation, social engineering, or social Darwinism), they are captured and bastardized. “Settled science” has taught us that Jews and other races are inferior based on head-shape, the “Iberian Irish” are inferior due to isolation and inbreeding, and blacks are intellectually and genetically inferior. We’ve since rejected the “settled science” that helped generations of white Americans justify horrible abuse and oppression of blacks. With the painful clarity of hindsight, we now celebrate the removal of the flag that, to many, celebrates that horrible practice of slavery. “Settled science” assured us that concentrated inner-city housing would improve racial and poverty problems, and that no fault divorce and the sexual revolution would produce a more loving society. The best way to destroy the purity of science or religion is to capture it by emotional ideology and hubris.
4. Christians hold a radically different view of human beings, and we must take this more seriously.
Our culture largely assumes an instrumental view of human nature, meaning we define ourselves by what we choose to do and by what we call ourselves.
Christianity teaches a teleological view, which means that we are defined by what we are for, by our purpose and design. We are free to discover and live out our nature, but not free to determine it. I am defined by what God tells me I am, not by the desires I experience. My various and disordered desires must be either embraced and nurtured or crucified on the basis on their moral standing, not on the basis of the intensity of my orientation toward them. And it is important for us to understand that crucifying and repressing are not the same thing.
Gender matters. Half of the narrative describing our world before the fall is dedicated to the importance of gender – its necessity, its complementary design, and its importance in fulfilling the creation mandate of procreation and cultivation.
5. We have lost our moral authority. How did we lose it, and how can we regain it?
The pre-boomer generation of Christians lost their moral authority because of their position on segregation. The next generation looked at their parents’ response to segregation with outrage and, in their minds, their parents lost all moral credibility. When moral questions about war, feminism, and sexuality came to the public stage, the voice of pre-boomers was already disqualified from the public discourse in the mind of younger Americans.
In the area of sexual morality, we have forfeited our moral authority because we don’t own up to the reality of what little difference our stated faith has actually made in our sexual practices. Our rates of promiscuity, pornography, misuse of sexuality within marriage, and divorce are largely indistinguishable from general culture. We have invested far more energy in making war about marriage than in actually preserving our own marriages.
How can we regain moral authority? Peter gives us a clear solution:
1 Peter 2:12-16 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.”
1 Peter 3:15-18 But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.
We must be towers of virtue in the midst of the world.
We are not that, but we can be…
6. If we really “hunger and thirst for righteousness” – if we really want to be like Jesus – then this coming era is going to be really good for us.
If what you really care about is your own comfort, your own power, your own affirmation, approval, and achievement, and those aren’t rooted in Jesus and you’re not going to change your mind about that, you’d better just leave Christianity. Erase online traces that you ever associated yourself with Jesus Christ. Go through your whole Facebook account, every blog you comment on, everything. But if you really want the true righteousness that Jesus talks about, Jesus promises that you will be filled.
You will suffer a penalty for right belief. At the least, we can expect stigma and personal marginalization. This is predicted in Scripture – even promised – over and over.
The government will not police godliness. We will need to have the character to overcome the government’s incentives rather than be led by them.
Our true loves will be exposed. This shift will bring an attack on our idols of power, comfort, approval, and achievement.
Our love of the church will be tested. As churches lose their protected status and become more spontaneous, marginalized communities, we will need to reassess our theology of church. What does church look like, why does it matter, and what does it look like for us to be committed to it?
The good news is that, in the sunset of our idols is the glow of Christ.
7. We will need to (will get to) learn the truths of our faith – for real.
We are often impatient and disinterested in learning the deeper points of consistency and understanding within the Christian worldview, especially in “meddlesome areas” like sexuality, money, parenting, and marriage. We are naturally resistant to being told what to do, particularly in these areas, but God has told us clearly how to live regarding these things. We must go deeper in our understanding for the sake of clarity and fortitude. Misunderstanding erodes motivation rather than fostering it. When we have a shallow understanding of something, we are prone to give up on it. If you don’t have deep roots, the coming wind will blow you away.
8. Our lament of wickedness must be consistent.
We rightly lamented the racist shooting in South Carolina. We should equally lament all wickedness, including the institutionalization of rejection of God in our homeland in all its manifestations.
When David wrote about the goodness of God’s word in Psalm 119, he cried out, “My eyes shall shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law” (v 36). He lamented not only when people killed each other, but when they rejected God’s and his truth.
If you lamented this week but not last week or the reverse, there is a problem. We tend only to get angry while neglecting to lament, because we are not anchored in the big-picture reality of God’s truth and kingdom. The reality of God’s narrative in our world requires that we lament deeply, and that we do so in hope.
Written with contributions by Hannah
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11 thoughts on “A Pastoral Letter”
Superbly done. Lots to think about. Will print it off to have for re-reading, note taking, personal commenting and the like. A great “learning” piece. I sincerely appreciate your faith-filled effort.
Thank you, Nic, for clarity, conviction and courage.
Pastor Nic – this is very intellectually put, but could some select sentences or paragraphs be posted on Facebook? There have been lots of other commentaries on the subject going around and I’ve only “liked” or “shared” two that I thought were exceptional, that spoke the truth in love, rather than just bashing, attacking and hating. Perhaps you’ve already posted something or through HPC’s page, besides just the website and emails?