The Cultural Conundrum
The pastor of a large and influential church was recently asked about his stance on gay marriage. He gave what I thought was a very astute response. He said that on such matters, there are three things that must be considered: “There’s the world we live in, there’s the weight we live with, and there’s the Word we live by.”
That’s actually quite right.
Consider the world we live in. Its position on gay marriage has changed seismically over the last few years. Churches have never failed to have the moral high ground on this matter…until now.
Consider the weight we live with. Who isn’t heartbroken that people of any orientation or lifestyle, color or creed, is bullied, discriminated against, hated or terrorized? Speaking to the issue of gay marriage in a manner that would consciously add in any way to such repugnant behavior would be unconscionable.
But then we must consider the Word we live by. By this, he meant “what the Bible says.” Where the Bible stands, we must stand.
And then came the awkward moment.
“It would be much easier if you could feel like all of those three just easily lined up. But they don’t necessarily….The real issues in people’s lives are too important for us to just reduce it down to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer in a media outlet.”
Now before you rush to a cry of “Compromise!,” once again, he’s actually right.
First, they don’t line up. At all.
Second, anyone who works with people – I mean, really works with people – knows that there is a serious pastoral side to such issues. Simple declarations of your stance at conferences filled with the already convinced is not the real world. Nor are they particularly helpful to those we are trying to reach.
To give an answer that truly serves the historic Christian position on such an issue takes more than a tweet. Further, when you are being asked such a question in a secular context, it becomes even more careful to finesse.
Why? Because there is a thin line between maintaining an earned voice through which to speak to culture, and compromising the very message you long to share. There are certain things you know you can say that will shut the other side down.
And you don’t want them to shut down.
But you don’t want to compromise, either.
So when dealing with the secular world you pick your way through such conundrums with care. Never lying, never compromising, but picking your battles – answering in ways that let you maintain a voice so that you can continue to have a listening ear when it’s time to shout the voice of challenge.
I'll give you a somewhat less controversial example. If you were to ask me, point blank, if I had a denominational heritage, I would answer “Baptist.” But I don’t lead with “Baptist.” I lead with “Christ follower.” And when asked about Meck, I lead with “inter-denominational,” and stress that we have people coming from all backgrounds including no background at all.
Many of you would know why. While I hold to such classic theological tenets as congregational participation, believer’s baptism by immersion and biblical inerrancy, the tag “Baptist” is one of the more pejorative, jarring, discomfiting labels around. For reasons, I might add, that have more to do with social and cultural missteps from various leaders than its actual theological and ecclesiastical sinew.
This is one of the things that Jesus did masterfully. He refused to get pulled into Roman politics, even when baited. He didn’t rise to many of the theological squabbles within the Jews. But when He did, it was always for something significant. Like the debate between Pharisees and Sadducees concerning the resurrection.
To Jesus, that one mattered.
And when those times come – the time for a truly prophetic voice – cultural relevance be damned. If it’s time to be prophet, simply expect a prophet’s reward. And any study of the Old Testament will tell you what such rewards tended to be.
Let’s just say don’t expect to be heralded.
So returning to our pastor, should he be affirmed for his response to the question on gay marriage?
Because the nature of marriage and family lies at the heart of the created order.
Because the nature of sexual expression lies at the heart of physical morality.
Because the nature of the prophetic voice is to speak to that aspect of culture that is most at odds with God’s intent at the moment in history.
And most of all because the third leg of the cultural conundrum, following the world in which we live and the weight with, is the Word we live by.
And when you consider the Word, you find that it does offer a concrete position. It is, no matter how much we might need to explain it, a simple “no.” And to his credit, the pastor in question later added a clarifying word: “My personal view on the subject of homosexuality would line up with most traditionally held Christian views. I believe the writings of Paul are clear on this subject."
But as Jonathan Merritt rightly pointed out in covering the matter, “In a moment when so much is at stake a non-statement statement is, well, quite a statement.”
Yes, it was.
And that is the challenge of the cultural conundrum to us all.
James Emery White
“Hillsong's Brian Houston on Gay Marriage: 'I Believe the Writings of Paul Are Clear on This Subject',” Nicola Menzie, Christian Post, October 18, 2014, read online.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.