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Seeking the renewal of all things through Jesus Christ

Letter from Greg Thompson re Recent SCOTUS Decision

News for 07.13.15
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Dear Ones,

Greetings from the end of a warm week. I hope that you're all well as you journey through the wilderness of midsummer heat, and that you walk with Christ as you do so.

Over the past few weeks many of us have found ourselves in more than one conversation—with friends, children, neighbors, and co-workers—about the recent Supreme Court ruling regarding same-sex marriage. And many of you have deep questions both about how we should think about this historic decision and about how we as a church should live in light of it. In response to this—and after several weeks of listening to you—I wanted to write you with some thoughts about these things that I hope will be of some help to you. I've tried to be as concise as possible, but because of both the complications and the stakes of the issue, I'm afraid it took four pages.  Alas for the preacher's curse.

First, how should we think about this decision? Many of you have told me that you feel overwhelmed by the complicated character of this issue and about its implications for both our country and our church. You are not wrong to be overwhelmed or confused. This is as complicated an issue as most of us will face in our lifetimes, and even the most reflective among us are still at the beginning of untangling the meaning of this moment. The reason for this, of course, is that this decision was not about one thing, but about many things, and teasing each of these out is hard work.

At the most basic level, this was a decision about the nature of marriage in our country. On the one hand, the Supreme Court made a strong affirmation of marriage as both a good in its own right and as a foundational element of our social order. In this sense, it was a surprisingly strong affirmation of the importance of the institution of marriage in the United States. On the other hand though, the decision of the Court profoundly redefined marriage by asserting that both the intrinsic goods and social functions of marriage could be equivalently embodied and expressed in the context of same-sex marital unions. From the Court's perspective, this decision was both a strong reaffirmation of marriage and a redefinition of marriage by expanding it to include same-sex couples. And by virtue of this decision, the laws of this country will reflect both this reaffirmation and this redefinition of marriage.

At another level, though, this was a decision about defining the moral sources behind our nation's laws. For a very long time the laws of this nation have reflected the conviction that monogamous male-female marital relations were reflective of a natural, if not a theological, order. That is, the law assumed—for a host of reasons—that this is the way things were supposed to be. The importance of this was that the law assumed itself to be, in some sense, a reflection of a larger moral vision to which it ought to correspond. It is important for you to understand that though some have argued that in making this decision the Supreme Court renounced all moral sources, this is not true. What they have done is actually much more significant than this: they have set aside one set of moral claims and embraced another. Rather than anchoring the law in a natural or theological order, they have anchored it in what is—and in truth has been—the basic moral source of secular-age American life: the right of the individual to seek his or her fulfillment on his or her own terms. I will say more about this below, but it is important to understand that the logic of this decision is not a rejection of moral norms as such, but a redefinition of those norms to reflect what has always been an American cultural theme, but is now our culture's greatest good: the right of the individual to self-fulfillment.

At still another level, and as a consequence of what I have just described above, this was a decision to limit the reach of those moral sources that seek to constrain the right of the individual to pursue self-fulfillment. In this case, this means that moral sources that seek to constrain the rights of a same-sex couple to marry are themselves to be constrained. The most obvious example of this is, of course, religious communities that oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage. The implication of this is that while it is not likely that the government will force religious communities to change their practices (although some commentators, I believe prematurely, claim otherwise), it is absolutely the case that religious communities will no longer be permitted to constrain the practices of their neighbors. There are, as you know, many concerns about whether the first amendment rights of religious people—particularly the freedoms of religion and assembly—will themselves be constrained. But in truth neither the nature nor the extent of these constraints is clear; the future character of religious freedom remains to be seen.

At the most basic level then, this decision is best understood as both a reaffirmation and redefinition of marriage based on a basic moral conviction that the basic responsibility of the laws of the state is neither to reflect nor to be constrained by a natural or theological order, but to guard the right of the individual to live in accord with his or her own ideals.

Second, how we will we, as Trinity Church, respond to this decision? This is a very important question, not least because my sense is that members of our congregation have different expectations as to how we ought to answer this question. Some of you, believing that God's word prohibits same-sex marriage, and believing that the laws of the state should reflect this moral source, believe that we should oppose this decision both theologically and politically. Others of you, believing that God's word prohibits same-sex marriage but believing that a secular democracy, by the nature of the case, does not reflect the law of God, believe that we should reject it theologically but permit it politically. Others of you, believing that God's word allows same-sex unions and therefore believing that this decision reflects God's intentions, believe that we should affirm it both theologically and politically. Because of this, the question of how we will respond is important not only for the life of our culture, but for our own life as well.  While I am sure that I cannot answer every question that you have, I do want to outline the general contours of what I believe our approach will (and should) be.

First, we will continue to embrace the Christian church's historic teaching on marriage and the household. We are a Christian congregation whose identity is rooted in the Trinity, the Scriptures, and the historic teachings and practices of the Christian faith.  In our judgment, the overwhelming Scriptural and historical teaching of the Christian church is that marriage is created by God to be a permanent and monogamous relationship between a man and a woman. And we also believe that outside of this institution, all of us—whatever our gender and whatever the object of our sexual desire—are to live lives of celibate chastity.

We say this knowing full well that each of us has complicated sexual desires and that the constraint of those desires is an act of agonizing self-denial for each of us. And we also know that many in our congregation are struggling with this self-denial—in both heterosexual and homosexual form—every day of their lives. And we also know that too often the church has failed to help its people with this struggle, and—to its shame—has only made it more terrible. Because of this, we are committed to helping one another— the married and the unmarried, the heterosexually attracted and the same-sex attracted among us—live into this Christian ethic together. And we are committed to doing so with grace, patience, and hope. In this respect, it is important that we recognize that Trinity Church is now and will continue to be a place in which each of us, with all of our complicated sexual experience and desire, will be both welcomed as we are and nurtured into what God has called us to be. One of the implications of this is that, while Trinity Church has—and will continue to have—same-sex attracted people as a vital part of our body, we cannot and will not perform same-sex unions. This is very important for you to understand: While the Supreme Court changed the character of marriage in this country it did not in any way change either the confession or the practices of Trinity Church. I know that this will both be a relief to some of you and a disappointment to others of you.  But I hope that it will not surprise any of you. I have often said to you that we are here for our neighbors, and we are: to dwell with them, to love them, to serve them, even to die for them. But we will not follow them.

Second, we will continue to equip you to follow our Lord under the conditions of a secular age. One of our church's greatest struggles over the past decade has been our struggle to come to terms with the fact that we do not live in a Christian but in a secular age. In my own judgment, the Court's decision is little more than the latest and wholly predictable evidence of this fact, and I urge you to see it as such. In light of this, I want to urge you to be deeply realistic about the nature of our time. We are not representatives of a majority whose task is to reclaim a Christian America. We are representatives of a minority whose task is to re-evangelize a secular West. In light of this, we will continue to do our best to equip you intellectually, morally, spiritually, relationally, and strategically to live as a missionary people. Because this is who we are.

Third, we will continue to seek the good of our neighbors, laboring not only toward their intellectual, physical, emotional, and economic good, but also toward their spiritual union with our Lord, who loves them deeply. Because of this, I want to urge you to do two things: On one hand, I want to urge you to renounce the instinct to self-protection. I have seen you do this—even at cost to yourselves—and it is beautiful. Please continue. The implications of the Court's decision for the Christian church may be profound and problematic. I think it is both appropriate and wise for the church to continue to safeguard matters of religious freedom—both for our own good and for the good of others. But even so, please remember that as Christians, our freedoms cannot be our fundamental concern; a self-interested church is a contradiction in terms. Because of this, I want to urge us in these days to think first not of ourselves, but of those we are here to love. On the other hand, I want to urge you to redouble your efforts to self-giving, to view your lives as vessels of love: your own households, your vocations, your financial resources, your very selves. I do not know what kind of cultural changes are possible in our time, but I do know this: whatever they may be, they will come only through a community of self-giving love. And this is who you are too.

Lastly, we will continue to rejoice that Christ is our Life. We all know that we live in a moment that entails profound challenges for the Christian church in the West. But even so, this cultural moment also brings with it a wonderful grace. And that grace is this: for many of us, the experience of being stripped of the false consolations of being a majority —consolations of ease, power, acceptance, and affirmation—may open us up to the possibility of the only true consolation that there is: delighted union with the Holy Trinity through Jesus Christ. He is the Source of our every good, the Presence in our every joy, our Keeper in every trial, and our Refuge in every moment—both now and forevermore. Because of this, I want to urge you to greet these days not simply with alarm or even with resolve, but with joy. Christ is our Life. Christ is our Life. And our calling together is to live in such a way that this Life might, through us, become the Life of the world.

There is more that could be said; there always is. But for now I offer these words to you in hopes that they will help us not only understand the nature of our moment, but also the nature of our calling within it. As ever, if you have questions or concerns, please do let the pastors and elders know; we benefit so very much from your wisdom and your love. But in the meantime, I want to ask you to take a moment and to meditate on what is true: "We are a Christian people. We are missionaries in a secular age. We are called to love those around us with self-giving love. And to do so rejoicing that Christ is our Life." Of the many confusions of this moment, this much is clear. Alleluia.

Grace and peace,

Greg Thompson