Is the Same-Sex Marriage Debate “Roe v. Wade” or “Brown v. Board of Education”?

This week the Supreme Court is beginning to hear the oral arguments in a landmark decision which will either strike down all legislation banning same sex marriages, or it will uphold state prohibitions against same sex marriage. Most legal observers say it is likely that by this summer same sex marriage will become legal in all fifty states and be officially and legally the equivalent of what has historically been called “marriage.”

However, it is too superficial to think of the Supreme Court decision in terms of a simplistic “yes” or “no” to same sex marriage. The more important thing to notice this summer will be the REASON behind the “yes.” The accompanying legal opinion document will be one of the most scrutinized in American history. I had the privilege of spending a few days with a nationally known lawyer who explained to me why the grounds were so important to lawyers who will be watching the cases. I will try to sum up the gist of the conversation. There are two basic legal grounds upon which the ruling in favor of same sex marriage might be developed. Depending on which argument is used, the implication for Christians who affirm a historic Christian position regarding the definition of marriage is great. These two legal arguments are known as “animus” and “accommodation.”

An “animus” reasoning would argue that it is an unreasonable harm and an act of personal injury to deny anyone full access to same sex marriage, including every conceivable privilege associated with it, including photographers and flowers and dance floors, not just a state license. If the ground is “animus” then it is, essentially, a kind of “Brown v Board of Education” type decision. That 1954 decision was a landmark civil rights case. If “animus” reasoning is used, then homosexual behavior would legally become a civil rights issue, not a moral behavior issue. If that occurs, then no accommodations for those who disagree are allowed. To refuse to sell flowers for a same sex marriage would be a violation of their civil rights. (The point here is not about whether one should or should not sell flowers for a same sex marriage, the point is whether someone should be granted the freedom to not sell flowers if their conscience objects to it).

The other possible grounds for same sex marriage would be an “accommodation” ruling. This would acknowledge that America is a pluralistic country where people are free to choose their own state of happiness. Thus, same sex marriage will be accommodated right alongside of traditional marriage. However, (and this is the crucial point) an accommodation ruling does not require common consent. If the ground is “accommodation” then it is, essentially, a kind of “Roe v Wade” type decision. That 1973 decision accommodated abortion, making it legal in all fifty states, but because it was not argued on “animus” grounds, any American is free to oppose abortion, preach against it, and to refuse to support it if their conscience dictates otherwise. There are marches on Washington opposing abortion, even as it is available in all fifty states.

I hope that the Supreme Court will uphold our right to lovingly disagree with the broader culture on the issue of same sex marriage. We will surely get a landmark ruling this summer. I am hoping that those of us (personally and institutionally) who disagree with the wider culture on same sex marriage will retain the right to keep on disagreeing.

Would You Sell Your Church for $1?

The wonderful thing about language is that it grows and adapts to the linguistic landscape.  When I grew up, a “mouse” was a little furry creature that scurried around at night.  When I was growing up no one would know what a “blog” was, and certainly it would be mystifying if someone said in answer to a question, “just Google it.”  Our family lived in Britain from 1995 to 1998.  One of the new phrases we learned there was the term for a church which had dwindled down to nothing and eventually sold off to become a movie theater or renovated to become a condo.  There are so many churches closing in Britain that they had to have vocabulary to talk about it.  The phrase is a “redundant church.”

As the Western world moves into a post-Christian phase we will see thousands of churches close over the next few decades.  Perhaps we in North America will learn to use the phrase “redundant church” in the years to come.  There is already a Wikipedia page on it.  The good news is that the sunset of some parts of the church will be accompanied (simultaneously) by the sunrise of many new vibrant church movements who have rediscovered the potency and beauty of the Christian gospel.   This is happening all across the country.  The missional space where church “closings’ meets church “plantings” is the greatest sign of this transition.  It is truly remarkable to behold.  It is difficult to grasp in generalities, so perhaps it would be best just to give a single example and then you can imagine this multiplied by thousands across the country.  Let me give you one example from Massachusetts.

I spent almost 15 years of my life in Massachusetts.  I was a professor at Gordon-Conwell and I had the privilege of serving as interim pastor for five different churches between 1999-2009.  These wonderful congregations were some of the most vibrant and Christ centered people I have ever met (Grace Chapel, West Congregational Church, Hope Community Church, Osterville Baptist, 1st Congregational Church of Ossipee).  These are all different kinds of churches, but they all are thriving right in the midst of the tough spiritual climate of New England.  However, right across town—or right around the corner—of each of these churches there are churches which are dying.  One example was a church in Watertown, Massachusetts.  It was a beautiful historic brick church which had served the community for a hundred years.  But in recent years, the church had dwindled in numbers and the church was finally faced with closing its doors.  The economic vultures were soon circling the facility, wanting to purchase the property and turn it into condominiums.  However, the church decided they didn’t want to sell the church to a business and make it “redundant.”  As a small circle of a few remaining Christians, they only had one final act and they wanted to make sure it was an expression of their faith in the gospel.  They turned to Grace Chapel, a vibrant church in Lexington, Massachusetts.  They offered the entire facility, assets and land to Grace Chapel for $1.  Grace Chapel purchased the facility and this past Easter they had 500 people in worship there.  I thank God for those Christians who had the courage to sell their church for $1.  I also thank God for those Christians who knew what to do when they got it.