A Pastoral Case for Christian Same Sex Marriage

This week, the Supreme Court takes up two important cases on the issue of same-sex marriage. The cases may, or may not, fundamentally change the legal understanding of marriage in our nation. Whether or not they do, decisions are not expected for months.
(UPDATE 6/27/13: Yesterday, the Supreme Court came back with decisions in both cases. I will not cover them here. Sufficed to say, the rulings absolutely validate everything I am about to say here…EF)

And, whether or not they do, make no mistake about it: legal same-sex marriage is coming to the United States of America. All of it. Maybe it will be through the courts. Maybe it will be through the legislative process. (Maybe whatever happens, we will always and forever lament that the other process wasn’t used instead…) But it is coming. (1)

As a Christian minister, I consider this to not only be a movement of Civil Rights (it is that) but also a great moving of the God’s Holy Spirit through our nation today.

A Pastoral Case for Same-Sex Marriage in United Methodism
In practice, marriage is often (but not always) a hybrid institution. In our minds, it’s not only a legal institution, but a religious one as well.(2)

The main point of this blog entry is to pivot. I hope to pivot the conversation away from legal civil same-sex marriage (which, every conservative friend I have concedes is coming…) and toward the concept of same-sex marriage in the Church. For this will, indeed, be the final frontier for same-sex marriage.

As a Christian minister –as someone who serves a church where members yearn to be able to host same-sex weddings– same-sex marriage in the church cannot come too soon. In fact, many of us argue it’s already very, very late.

Because this essay argues for same-sex marriage in the Christian Church (and the United Methodist Church), let me assure you that I know some readers will not at all be helped…

If you are a Christian brother or sister, still struggling to accept the idea that the Bible does not condemn homosexuality or homosexual people in their personhood, this particular blog is not for you.
I will not debate the “clobber” passages of scripture here, nor the specific traditions of specific denominations. However, if you are genuinely seeking understanding along these lines, there are resources that can help you learn why many Christians, unreservedly, embrace LGBT persons in their full humanity. (3)

If you are an LGBT activist or ally who supports civil same-sex marriage for legal reasons alone, if you’re an atheist friend of mine(and I should say: I love my atheist friends), or anyone else who finds religion repugnant, irrelevant, or dangerous, this blog may not be for you either.

For everybody else, especially United Methodists, please read on…

The Key Questions Before The Church Are Changing.
For many of us, same-sex marriage is moving from a legal question, or even a moral one, and to a question of Pastoral Care.

It will continue to do so, and with increasing speed in the coming months/years.

When civil same-sex marriage becomes legal, the questions for churches who minister with gay and lesbian persons become:

How can we not provide same-sex marriage as a part of  pastoral support to families in our care?
How can we not provide same-sex marriage as a support to families who make a commitment to monogamy and fidelity?
How can we not provide same-sex marriage to committed Christians who, in every other respect to our straight families, are building healthy, strong and stable families for themselves and their children?
How can we not provide same-sex marriage so these families may understand that God loves them, their church loves them, and that we stand with them as we move through life together?

Very soon the questions will pivot for all of us in the Christian Church (and United Methodist  Church).

The pivot will be away from the question “How can we do this?” (And the never-ending arguments about tradition, procreation, etc…), and toward “How can we not?”

Frankly, in many states, this is already happening. Over 1,000 United Methodist clergy, most in states where same-sex marriage is now legal, have signed statements, pledging to do same-sex weddings if asked. Other churches have pledged not to do weddings of any kind, until marriage is available all. (By the way, a special shout-out to our friends at Trinity UMC in Austin, who made this decision in response to the United Methodist Church, back in 1996.)

All of this is analogous to civil disobedience over racial inequality. It’s saying “our church-law is unjust” and must change.

Pastorally, how can we not?
I get that in your specific church, there may never ever be a same-sex wedding. If your church is generally closed to LGBT folks, or if you never talk about homosexuality at all, don’t expect hoards of same-sex couples beating down your doors, demanding to be married there once it’s a legal right.

But in our church? In hundred of Methodist churches like us across the nation? When same-sex marriage becomes legal, God’s Spirit will increasingly call us toward providing it as pastoral care, as symbol of Christian community, for our people.(4)

We are asking “How can we not do this?”

Let Me Tell You The Stories of Some People In Love, That I Love

Right now, in our United Methodist Church (and in hundreds across the nation), we have almost twenty same-sex couples who have already legally married in other states. Not twenty people. Twenty couples. They have a marriage license that is just as legally binding and valid as the one my wife and I cherish. In other cases, we have gay and lesbian families who are not yet married, but considering it. They are living in monogamous relationships, getting up and working their jobs, raising healthy children.

In this section, and with their permission, I have included the pictures of a few gay and lesbian families at Northaven. In two cases, these pictures were taken the last time Northaven did a “pictorial directory.” In one case, it’s black and white shot from their wedding in another state a few years back.

Some of these couples have been together twenty or more years. (We have dozens of couples like that). We have several couples that have been together thirty or forty years. In one case, we have a couple who has been together fifty-plus yearsliterally one of the longest surviving partnerships in our church, gay or straight.

These couples, these families, are teaching me about love. They are teaching me about how to build loving Christian families, even when a state or denomination do not officially recognize their unions.

I have witnessed the love between these couples. I have watched –in awe– as they create beautiful families. I have watched them nurture children and grandchildren. I have sat with them in the hospital ICU in the middle of the night, as they held the hand of their gravely ill partner. And I have been back in that same ICU room, when the other partner was sick, and theirs was the hand being held.

I have celebrated the baptisms of their children. I have celebrated the confirmation of those same children. They have shown me proud pictures of their grandchildren. I have listened to the care they are giving to their own elderly mothers and fathers, and the worry they have for them.

I have watched LGBT persons teach Sunday School, lead (not just join) every committee of our church, given generously to our annual budget, and journey to foreign lands with us in mission.

Theologically, How Can We Not?
My point being: In literally every respect, except sexual orientation, these families are completely identical to our straight families.

Therefore, how in God’s name can we not offer marriage? Not as legal right, but as a pastoral necessity: to support, challenge, encourage, and journey with, gay and lesbian couples who choose to make that lifelong commitment to each other, their families, and the community at large. They deserve God’s blessing in their union. They deserve the support of a loving Christian community around them.

In the United Methodist Church today, it is the only blessing of pastoral ministry that we deny same-sex couples!! Think about that. That is wrong. As times moves on, it will seem more and more wrong to more and more people.

Let me put on an evangelical hat, and ask the question this way: If salvation and sanctification are by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and not by doing the works of the law (see Galatians 3:2-5), then on what basis does the church judge same-sex persons as being unfit to access any of the means of grace, including the institution of marriage?

If in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, Slave or Free, Male and Female (Galatians 3:28), then why is the Church continuing to try and insert “gay or straight” into the scripture as an exclusion?(5)

Remember, Couples Marry Each Other. A Brief Primer on the Theology of Marriage
The final insanity of opposing same-sex marriage is that couples marry each other. All couples do. Let’s be, ahem, straight on this. If you’re a minister, despite what you tell your family when you go off to do a wedding on a Saturday afternoon (“I’m going to marry Bill and Sue…”), you don’t “marry them.”

They marry each other in the presence of God and a congregation.

The minister does four important things during a wedding:
a) Asks: “Does the couple want to marry?” (Declaration of Intent)
b) Leads them as they say the vows (to each other…they marry each other)
c) Announces that “Yep, these two folks just got married.” (Declaration of the Marriage)
d) Blesses the marriage on behalf of God and the community.

Please note that none of these creates marriage “ex-nihilo.” We are not that powerful. When two people join in marriage, the union is between them and God, not them and us. Not them and the church either. They don’t marry the church. They don’t marry the minister. They marry each other, “in the presence of God and these witnesses.”

In United Methodist tradition, when we “preside” over a wedding, it’s like what we say about Baptism: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

So, as Gamaliel once asked the High Council, I ask all United Methodist clergy:
Who are we to stand in the way of love?
Who are we to stand in the way of “two people, whom God has joined together?”

While we can technically prevent ceremonies from happening in our sanctuaries, while we can tell our clergy they cannot “preside” over such ceremonies, we cannot stop a movement of God and God’s Spirit working in the hearts of two loving people.

We believe otherwise at our own peril, not theirs.

Marriage, As “Conservative” Challenge to Us All
Marriage is inherently a conservative social institution. It “conserves” a couple’s financial, emotional, social and spiritual resources. When loving, it provides stability to children like almost no other social institution does.

That’s why I’ve always been shocked that conservatives (economic, especially) are often against same-sex marriage. It’s a conservative, not liberal, institution!!

It promotes fidelity, monogamy, stability. And to those who claim that LGBT persons are simply not capable of such things, think of the “Catch-22” have presently, where we fail to provide the very social institution (marriage) that allows straight families to last, while simultaneously criticizing LGBT people for “excessive promiscuity.” LGBT persons are no more or less promiscuous, no more or less capable of monogamy, than straights are.(6) But straights have marriage, and its challenging message, to assist them along life’s way.

One of the most beautiful paragraphs I’ve read on marriage has come from Ted Olson and David Bois; the very lawyers who presented the case for same-sex marriage yesterday.

Much as I am doing with respect to the United Methodist Church in this essay, these two did with respect to conservative politics, in a fine essay arguing for same-sex from a conservative point of view. (“The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage”) Read it here.:

“Marriage is one of the basic building blocks of our neighborhoods and our nation. At its best, it is a stable bond between two individuals who work to create a loving household and a social and economic partnership. We encourage couples to marry because the commitments they make to one another provide benefits not only to themselves but also to their families and communities. Marriage requires thinking beyond one’s own needs. It transforms two individuals into a union based on shared aspirations, and in doing so establishes a formal investment in the well-being of society. The fact that individuals who happen to be gay want to share in this vital social institution is evidence that conservative ideals enjoy widespread acceptance. Conservatives should celebrate this, rather than lament it.”

Yes! Exactly!
We should apply that equal standard to all our church families. The Christian Church is a part of what helps many people’s marriages work.

Marriage is Difficult. So, Do All the Good You Can, and Do No Harm.
These are two of the oldest “rules” in our United Methodist tradition. We should apply them to same-sex marriage. Increasingly, it’s a “good” we should embrace. Withholding it is a “harm” we should avoid. There is absolutely no “harm” to traditionally married couples by supporting same-sex marriage.

At Northaven, because neither the state nor church recognize the unions of some of our same-sex couples (who have even still remained monogamous for decades) I consider their continued existence to be a miracle of God.

Yes, I mean that literally. A miracle of God.

You see, as everyone knows, marriage is incredibly difficult. Straight marriages end. (Fifty percent of them do) Even when there is careful pastoral care before a wedding, extended family nurture during, and a caring church family providing support, marriages sometimes end.

Therefore, please extrapolate what a miracle of God’s Spirit it truly is when these couples have mentioned today have made it twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years often without some of these key areas of support!!

One of the most compelling lines of testimony in yesterday’s same-sex marriage case, came from Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. The anti-same-sex marriage forces were arguing about the “harm” it might bring to traditional marriage. Justice Kennedy responded with the following line:

“There are some 40,000 children in California” with same-sex parents and “they want their parents to have full recognition and full status. The voice of those children is important in this case, don’t you think?”

As I was listening to the testimony, on the Supreme Court podcast, I literally shouted “Amen!” and almost drove off the road. Because it’s exactly how I feel about these issues and the Church.

The voices of our same-sex church families are important. The voices of their children are important. In our church, these children are an important part of our youth group. They are smart, healthy, well-adjusted, and creative kids who love their families and love their church.

They deserve the institution of marriage in the church –symbolizing the love and support of God, and the institutional church– just as much as they deserve the legal right of civil marriage.

Increasingly, as Justice Kennedy suggests, withholding religious same sex marriage will be a violation of “do no harm” to families within the Church’s care.

Therefore, it will be a violation of one of John Wesley’s most cherished rules.

In many of our churches, these same-sex families are a part of our “mission field.” They are the families God’s Holy Spirit has brought in our doors, and we are attempting to be the Church together.

As such, in our congregation gay and straight worship, pray, serve, and belong together. Our straight couples (literally every straight couple with young children) have also been drawn to Northaven because of this openness. We are attracting new “straight” couples who want this still relatively new and “blended church” …who expect to raise their families alongside same-sex ones.

They Ask For Your Blessing
The Church, and the United Methodist denomination, have always formed a safety-net of support for married couple and make marriage possible. It should not fail to do so in our present day.

In our United Methodist Hymnal, as a part of each wedding ceremony, the congregation makes a vow too. Here’s how it appears:

The Minister: The marriage of (Name and Name) unites their families and creates a new one. They ask for your blessing…Will all of you, by God’s grace, do everything in your power to uphold and care for these two persons in their marriage?
The People: We will.

Christian Marriage exists to provide this kind of support to couples.
Same sex couples need, and deserve it, just as much as straight ones do.

And, increasingly, the question will change from “How can we do this?
To: “How can we not?”

I have every faith that one day United Methodist Churches across the land will proclaim, as we do in that Hymnal service:

“We will!”

Notes:
(1) If you don’t believe same-sex marriage is coming, once again, I invite you to believe Nate Silver. Silver, the Jedi Master of modern political statistics, has projected out the support for same-sex marriage over time in our nation. It’s coming even to the reddest of red states. (And, as Silver points out, what we are seeing now is just the leading edge. There is an “approval tsunami” coming among the young. Get ready.)

(2) One of the main points I make about marriage, when the subject arises, is that it’s actually misunderstood by almost everybody. In our nation, “for better or worse” the Civil and Religious sides of marriage have been hopelessly linked together, to the point that ordained minsters sign civil marriage licenses, acting in that moment to authorize a legal state document. Other nations, especially Europe, have long separated the civil and religious, allowing their citizens to analyze both individually, from the respective fields of law and theology.

(3) If you would like resources to better understand the Bible, and why many Christians no longer believe it’s credible to slam LGBT folks with the Bible, if you are genuinely seeking to learn more, Northaven Church has produced a great study on the topic, called “This I Know.”
You can find it here.

(4) I am sure, you have already gathered that this essay assumes there is no chance of the United Methodist Church changing on marriage “first,” i.e., before civil marriage becomes law. Christ’s organized Church, as I have said many times, is “chicken.”
We have lost our moral voice to lead on great social issues of the day.
However, these issues will not go away from us once civil marriage is legal. That’s the whole point of this essay: Eventually, playing “ostrich” won’t do.

(5) My thanks to Dr. Greg Neal for almost all of these last two paragraphs.

(6) And if you think Gay Pride parades stand as counter-evidence, I will “see” your Gay Pride Parade (in any American city you name) and “raise you” a Mardi Gras in New Orleans or St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Picture for picture, trust me: the sexual libertinism of straight culture far supersedes gay culture in number and reach. And if these parts of gay culture offend you, then why aren’t you advocating for monogamous marriage for all?!!

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He has been Senior Pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas since 2001. During his tenure, church membership has grown almost 30 percent, and a completely new church facility (sanctuary and education building) has been constructed. Northaven is a leading progressive Christian congregation in the Southwest. Northaven is an eclectic collection of gay and straight families, artists, musicians, theater folks, academic theologians, lawyers and judges (go figure), socially conscious community activists, people who don't "check their brain at the door," and a wide array of others who either see it as their "last chance" inside the "institutional church," or their first trip back in decades. Eric is an avid blogger and published author.  Eric is also an award-winning singer-songwriter, who performs throughout Texas and the Southwest. He's an engaging live performer whose first CD was released in 2000. His songs have won honorable mention in both the Billboard and Great American song contests; and he's been a finalist in the 5th Street Festival and South Florida Folk Festival songwriter competitions. Eric is also a leader of Connections, a unique band comprised of United Methodist clergy and layfolk from throughout North Texas. Connections performs "cover shows" of artists like Dan Fogelberg, Chicago, Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and others. Their shows draw crowds of between 300 and 1,000 fans, and they have raised more than $240,000 dollars for worthy charities. Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He's a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named "best judge" by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County. She was re-elected for a third term in 2010. They have the world's best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. (As always, if you like this post, then "like" this on Facebook by clicking the box below, so others can see too...)

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