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Grace and Truth in Same-sex Marriage

images-6This week, the Supreme Court took up two cases involving same-sex marriage and the social media world went berserk. Christ followers and non-believers alike defined their positions on a very complex subject with tweets of 140 characters and a profile image. Friends were dropped and added based on whether you had an “equal” sign on your page or not. The traditional media joined social media in declaring those who believe in marriage only between one man and one woman as bigots and conservative churches and pastors as neanderthals. I have some thoughts on the subject. Feel free to get mad, de-friend, or do whatever you must. I will not waste a lot of time defending these thoughts. They are my thoughts and in spite of the politically correct world in which we live, for today, I can still think and say what I want to think and say. So, here goes….

  1. I believe the Bible clearly declares homosexuality to be sin. It is not the worst sin, nor the unpardonable sin, or even a particularly “icky” sin. But, if you consider yourself to be a follower of Jesus Christ and that the manual of your faith is the Bible, you cannot deny that homosexuality is therein declared to be sin. The book of Romans says it is “unnatural.”
  2. Because God’s word calls it sin, I cannot call it otherwise even if the Supreme Court, public opinion, and the law all line up against me.
  3. I believe there are Christian men and women who struggle with the sin of homosexuality. Those of my conservative friends who summarily declare that no gay person can be a christian set themselves above God and  limit God’s grace. All my life, I have struggled, failed, and rebounded from any number of sins. If God loves me and still calls me His child under those conditions, who am I to opine that “their sin” is outside the grace of God while mine is not. (Yes, I know the Bible says men who have sex with men will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but you might want to check out who else is on that list and read it in context. I Corinthians 6:9-10)
  4. I believe the Bible teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman and should last a lifetime.
  5. I believe it is not only possible, but necessary for the church to speak with a clear voice on this matter. According to John the Baptist, Jesus came preaching grace and truth. Unfortunately the church has decided we have to pick a side…to be people of grace who decide to go with the world and say it is not sin or people of truth and condemn those who struggle with this sin. Jesus would do neither. He would boldly declare the truth and he would love and welcome the struggler into his most inner of circles.

To be sure, the debate will be heated and vitriolic in the days to come and I am but one small voice, but I will be doing all I can to foster honest conversation among Christ followers and non-believers about grace and  truth.

Mitt Romney for President

On November 6, I will vote for Mitt Romney for many reasons, not the least of which are these 4:

1. I am pro-life. I am “pro” lots of other stuff too. I am also opposed to lots of stuff. I just happen to believe that God values life and that the right to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is a right extended to humans while they are in the uterus and in the nursing home. I don’t think Mr. Romney is as “pro-life” as I would like, and I know it represents a change of mind for him. However, President Obama publicly and loudly proclaims his pro-choice position. It is a legitimate difference of opinion and I do not hate him for it. I just believe it strongly enough though, that I could never vote for him. This president is likely to make two Supreme Court appointments that will tip the balance of that court dramatically. I trust Governor Romney to do that in a way that will defend life more than I do President Obama.

2. President Obama has proven to me during this term that he doesn’t value the historic freedoms afforded the church under the First Amendment. I know he and I would disagree and that many of my friends would disagree with me. I am angry about the 3 pages of definition of church in the law commonly referred to as Obamacare. Among 2000+ pages that the former Speaker of the House said they would “pass now and read later,” are these three little innocuous pages that slipped into this bill and show the disregard for this critical historical principle. The act tells us what is and is not a church for purpose of exemption. Having gone before the Supreme Court and been validated, it now is case law. The next time a lawyer for groups historically antagonistic to Christians wants to clamp down on the rights of churches, they will cite this case. I am voting for Mr. Romney in hopes he will stop Obamacare. (Ironically, I believe we need substantiative and thoughtful health care reform that involves all parties. I just don’t think this is it.)

3.  I have strong feelings about same sex marriage. I happen to believe homosexuality is wrong and marriage is designed by God to be between one man and one woman. I believe there should be laws enforced to protect those who are gay. They should not be harassed, degraded, or discriminated against in jobs, housing, etc. However, I don’t believe we have a right to redefine marriage. I am a Biblicist. While I know where the issue is headed and  what the law is doing, I just believe the legalization is wrong and that our presidents relentless move to that position is going to adversely affect the church very soon. Imagine how it might go. I pastor a church that owns a facility. It is simply a matter of time before the courts rule that as a pastor, I am discriminating against same-sex couples if I choose not to officiate at their wedding or allow it to happen in our Worship Center. How long will it be before a court decides I am discriminatory if I don’t hire openly gay staff members? I don’t think the tide will turn back on this issue, but I believe a vote for Mr. Romney is an attempt to stem the tide and slow it down.

4.  President Obama has shown an unwillingness to deal with the out-of-control national debt and deficit. It is not easy. Social Security, welfare, food stamps, defense spending, etc. all are important to a lot of people. The problem is that our system of taxation and government will not sustain it much longer and we need leadership. We need someone who will make some difficult decisions in the short term so there will be something for those who need it most in the long term. I am not sure Mr. Romney can do it but at least I have to vote for someone who I think may try.  If we had all the money and all the time in the world, I would not be so frustrated with this lack of leadership. However, we are spending borrowed money to do things we cannot afford and we don’t have any more time. We have to fix this NOW. I know it is a political minefield. I know it is painful. BUT, we need leadership. Please!

Regardless of who is elected on November 6, I will do what I have done for the past 4 years. I will pray for my nation, pray for my president, and do everything I can to advocate for a more civil, moral, and righteous America. May God’s will be done and not mine or yours. Please exercise your right to vote.

A Random Thought about the Penn State Tragedy

Let me be clear. I was/am a Joe Paterno fan. He obviously was a flawed man. Just winning football games doesn’t make you perfect, any more than pastoring a Baptist church does. I am just saying I am a fan. On the flip side, I am definitely not a fan of the NCAA. The get it wrong as often as they get it right, in my humble opinion. Having said that, even though he was 75 years old when this “coverup” began, you have to assume if he is sharp enough to run a major college football team, he should have known legally and morally that friendship could not take precedence over the health and safety of children. (By the way, I wonder how many of us that are pontificating during these days have looked the other way, choosing to believe the best about a friend at some point.) In the end, he chose friendship above all other considerations. Today, the NCAA responded by vacating many of his wins, fining the team, and imposing crippling sanctions on the football team and the university that he loved and served.

There is a lesson to be learned here. It is one that has been learned the hard way by too many people too many times. It is found in Proverbs 13:20. “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm.” JoPa was not the one that abused children, but his companion did and the coach’s legacy is destroyed. The young men who committed to play for Penn State did not commit this crime, but their foolish companions did and for that, they don’t get to pursue the goal they came to college to pursue – postseason play and a national championship. Even the non-athlete graduates of PSU have their degrees tarnished a little bit in the public eye and they did nothing-but the fool with whom they have associated themselves indirectly has brought harm to them.

In this age of friendship and loyalty as the ultimate virtue, it is probably a good reminder that the companion of fools suffers harm and a we would be wise to choose those companions carefully.

The Problem with the Affordable Health Care Act (Obamacare) for Churches….

What follows is a vast oversimplification of a very complex issue but such is the nature of blogs. After two years of court cases, PR, and media scrutiny, the nation is almost evenly divided over the signature legislation of President Obama. There are issues contained therein that make for strange political bedfellows, such as government overreach, commerce clause of the constitution, immigrant’s rights to healthcare, etc. Many men and women much smarter than me are championing their causes on both sides of this divisive issue and my opinion is largely irrelevant. However, for me and the people whom I serve, there are two critical and conflicting issues that need to be resolved.

The first of these is the understanding among Christians that it is inherent to our faith to care for the sick. Since its inception, Christianity has borne as one of its core tenants that to minister to the needy is the equivalent of ministering to Jesus (Matthew 25). In essence, real worship is to care for those who cannot care for themselves. The “how” of that is at the core of this debate, and it causes Christians to align on both sides, depending on their understanding of how that should be done and whether the responsibility lies in the hands of the church or the state. As a member of the religious right (I would rather be  called that than the religious wrong I guess.), I am convinced this assignment belongs to the church but in order for the church to do it at a local level, the government has to relax regulation and lower taxes. It is probably never going to happen and since that ship has sailed, this debate is more philosophical than practical.

However, the second issue that Christians need to see resolved is vastly more important. Included in the massive piece of legislation that is “Obamacare,” is a couple of pages that define who is a church in America for the purpose of allowing a religious exemption. For the first time, there is Supreme Court approved case law that allows the government to determine if your religious practices are in fact, religious. (Don’t panic yet, there may be good news on that front in the next couple of years.) The law states you are a qualifying church if:

● “The inculcation of religious values is the purpose of the organization”;

●  “The organization primarily employs persons who share the religious tenets of the organization”;

●  “The organization primarily serves persons who share the religious tenets of the organization”; and

●  “The organization is a nonprofit organization as described in section 6033(a)(1) and section 6033(a)(3)(A)(i) or (iii) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended.”

Here is what that means to Baptists. If we employ someone who is not Baptist, we are not a qualifying religious organization. If we serve people who are not Baptist, we are not a qualifying religious organization. Thus, a weekday school operated by a church or a high school or hospital operated by a denomination, would have to provide medical services contrary to their convictions if they did not limit their clients and students to Baptists. The law fails to acknowledge that for Christians, our service to the community, through education, healthcare, and benevolent ministries, is not done because THEY are Baptist, but is done because WE are Baptist. Thus to employ people and serve people who are not Christian is part of our mandate to advance His Kingdom. In effect, this service is our worship and should be exempt even if the employee or one served does not share our faith.

Lest this get too long, let me tell you the problem with that and what is on the horizon:

First, the problem. If this stands, it will be used in the future as case law that allows the government to define who is a religious organization in an ever tightening way and what convictions are legitimate and thus protected. Already, it is being applied selectively, granting the Amish an exemption, which they should, and denying the Catholics, which they shouldn’t. The government has always taken a wide berth around such issues, due to their reluctance to even appear to cross the first amendment line concerning the establishment of religion. This president and the congress that passed this bill has shown no such reluctance. That the Supreme Court has let it stand is a dangerous first step down a slippery slope.

The good news for us is that even in letting the entire act stand, the individual opinions of the justices of the Supreme Court indicated they are open to hearing challenges to various components of the law, including an indication by Justice Ginsberg, that she is uncomfortable with the religious exemption section. She typically is not one we look to for conservative causes and so we should be encouraged that this typically 5-4 conservative court will revisit this soon. Currently, there are dozens of cases winding their way through the district and circuit courts that will give them an opportunity to tackle this issue. One of the most promising seems to be the University of Notre Dame v. Sebelius. It will probably take a couple of years for it to wind through the system, and there will be much political theatre between here and there, but keep your eye on that one.

As conservative people of faith, we owe it to ourselves to read and understand the nuances of this debate and not let our opinions be dictated by CNN or Fox, depending on our bent. Thoughts anyone?


I have been slow walking through the book of Ezekiel in my personal quiet time for the last few weeks. I have read it but prophecy tends to escape me so I have never dug into it very deeply so this has been a good process for me. Recently, my reading brought me to chapters 25-28 where Ezekiel is instructed to prophesy against Ammon and Tyre. After scathing indictments and judgments on several nations for the ways they attacked God’s people, he prophesies judgment on  these two for simply rejoicing over Jerusalem’s demise. In fact, of each of them, He said, “Because you said, ‘Aha!’ over my sanctuary when it was desecrated…” Apparently, God takes it very seriously when people rejoice over the failure of His people.

I wonder what God thinks or what He might prophesy over us when we secretly (or not so secretly) smile when a fellow minister or church goes through a scandal, a splinter, or a split. I am amazed at the depravity of my own spirit when I hear of something going on in a sister church. I suppose it is a latent competitive spirit in my flesh that has yet to be crucified. I guess my flesh thinks if others fail, my job will be easier and I will be more successful. Now, on the surface, I know better than that, but convincing my flesh is more difficult.

Even when we don’t gossip or add to the confusion around such a church difficulty, we can just sit back and think, “Aha! I knew all that growth and success was too good to be true.” When you start unraveling it, it really boils down to some ugly sins. I am jealous of their status. I covet their success. I am skeptical of their systems. All of these point to a condition of the heart. We tend to see the failure of others in the Kingdom far differently that God does. In fact, his track record is that He HATES it when I feel anything other than care, compassion, and empathy when brothers and churches stumble. He felt so strongly about it that He completely obliterated and removed from human history two nations. That should be enough to make us think before we rock back on our heels and give a condescending “Aha!” when we hear of a sister church or minister in trouble.

Comments or thoughts?

Observations on Veteran’s Day

On Friday, November 11, our nation celebrated Veteran’s Day. In the town where I live and serve, the city took some time to dedicate a new memorial dedicated to the veterans, both living and dead, who have defended our freedom. As I stood in the overflow crowd, barely hearing the speakers for the distance, there were a few things that made lasting impressions on me.

First, I was reminded that my little niche of men were fortunate to grow up and pass through the age of selective service registration while our nation was not at war. That is not to say that men my age have not and are not serving, but to note I was born in a very narrow strip of time that allowed me to never worry about either being drafted or deployed other than by my own choice. From the time my dad returned from Vietnam until the Gulf War started, we lived in an unprecedented era of peace. I feel very grateful and very unworthy when I stand with a gathering of veterans and their families.

I was struck by the statement above the entrance to the memorial – “Freedom is Not Free.” Enough said. Our freedom in Christ was not free and our freedom as a nation was not free. That was particularly evident in the scars and crutches and wheelchairs wielded by men who once wielded guns to purchase and protect that freedom. That story is being played out as you read this in places like Afghanistan and Libya and Iraq.

Respect is not a word you hear or see in action much these days. Respect was present in spades on this Veteran’s Day. I saw a young man in uniform, there as a spectator, take it on himself to clear the way for men in wheelchairs and on walkers to get closer to the speaker. I saw it when the crowd parted for the Rolling Thunder Chapter to present the service flags. It was evident when the band played the service anthems and one by one, men stood to honor their branch of service and the crowd looked at them with what can only be described as respect. If ever there is anyone who as a group deserve our respect, it is our veterans. It was a high and holy moment for me.

I became a fan of Congressman Phil Roe when he made a few remarks. His assertion that being a fiscal conservative is not a license to balance our budget on the backs of our service men and women, coupled with his transparency in his faith when he prayed for our veterans and our nation, made me hope to be in East Tennessee long enough to vote for him.

I grieved a few minutes as I stood there. In addition to the empathy I felt for the men and women who stood there with tears for their fallen loved ones, I grieved for those affected in other ways by war. There is a reason they say “war is hell.” Not all casualties are evident in missing limbs and tombstones. Men and women come back different from war. Often, their families are the casualties of war. We see that in the growing number of vets who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. I hear it when young men just back from Iraq have a hard time being transparent with their spouses and embracing their children. It shows up in the divorce rate among veterans. It is proven by the thousands of homeless veterans living under bridges in our major cities. I grieved for them. They don’t feel much respect and honor on these special days. In fact, their goal is just getting through the day. While you honor veterans this week, think of them.

I am thankful to be an American, thankful to be free, and thankful for veterans this week.

As the younger bloggers say, “I’m just saying….”

Church Planting or Church Renewal

First, let me tell you I believe in church planting so try to refrain from shooting off a comment or email before considering the rest of this post. I have personally supported church planters for many years and have led each church I have served to do the same. I know there are places and cultures where the only way to spread the gospel effectively is through church planting. However, in the little corner of the world where I serve, Northeast Tennessee, there are not many examples of breakout church plants. Even the ones who are healthy and growing appear to be doing so on the back of disgruntled church members from already existing churches. I have seen few examples of church plants that are fast-growing, self-sustaining movements. Let me quickly say I am personally involved with a couple of men who are planting churches. I don’t think it is because these men are not called or that they don’t work hard enough or even that it cannot work. I am just making the observation that for the most part, it is not working. From my perspective, there are at least a couple of dynamics at work here.

  • I think in today’s economy and culture, you almost have to birth a big baby. The days of a small group gathering in someone’s living room and word-of-mouth attracting people so much that it turns into a movement that results in a church seemingly are behind us. People are so busy and our lives are filled with so much information, it takes a large up-front investment and a lot of people to just make enough noise to be heard, especially in the Bible belt, where consumers can choose from every flavor of church. (I know we have to consider the moving of the Holy Spirit in that group. I am just writing from a purely pragmatic level.)
  • I suspect that many of the “church plants” of the Bible belt are in fact, just a gathering of people who want to do church differently or have become disenfranchised by the churches they previously attended. The very real danger there is that those same people have the propensity to again get unhappy with leadership. Where do they go then? It has been my experience that people who leave a problem one time find it easier to do the next time.
My reason for writing this post is not to suggest that we quit planting churches in the southeast, but instead to make two recommendations, each of which I will address in coming articles. When it comes to spreading the gospel in those places that have already been tilled for a while, I think we would be wise to:
  • Plant Bigger Churches – I earlier used the phrase, “birthing big babies.” Our denominational agencies and churches have been using a 70’s model of a church planter, and a maximum investment of $50-75 thousand over 3-5 years. I think we are going to need to build larger networks of partners that pay the planter’s salary for up to five years and give him funds and people to work with on day one. I think we need to strategically select areas for church planting and send a pastor and 100 people into that community from the beginning. Again, I will address the specifics of this in a coming article.
  • Utilize Existing Resources – We as Baptists are as proud of the word, autonomous, as we are of the word, grace. Yet, we use that word to keep from stepping into each other’s stuff. Most of the areas where we are planting churches in the southeast already have churches, albeit many are dead. Perhaps it is time to raise up a new generation of young church “revitalizers” and give our mission strategists training and encouragement to steer existing churches toward some of these young men as pastors. I think it would even be advisable to offer funding in those situations so there would be some accountability. I know it is hard. I have spent the last year trying to help revitalize a church. I have also been flatly turned down on an offer to negotiate a merger by a church that was so low, they were heading to bankruptcy. I never said it would be easy. I just said it might be smart.
To Be Continued…

The Sky IS Falling

This week, you may have been amused to learn that the sky really was falling and we owe Chicken Little an apology. NASA’s admission that a satellite was falling back to the earth and they had no idea where it would land did not say much for the billions we spend on technology. Less noticeable in the news this week but more more serious to people of faith was an article in the Nashville Tennessean indicating that what we have feared and predicted for a long time is at hand. Turns out that spiritually and politically, for people of faith, the sky really is falling.

For some time, we have raised concerns in our pulpits that our nation’s worship of tolerance would lead one step at a time to the place where churches, synagogues, and religious organizations would be required to accept into membership and leadership people whose lifestyle and belief systems were polar opposites of the organization. I have often said there will come a day when it will be illegal for a Baptist minister or church to refuse to host or officiate at a wedding between gay partners based on religious conviction. This week, we took one giant step closer to that reality.

Vanderbilt University, located in the heart of the Bible Belt, has decided that the Christian Legal Society cannot require its president to lead a Bible study, presumably because that would require the officer to be a Christian and believe the Bible to be a leader in the CHRISTIAN Legal Society. The bottom line is this. In the name of diversity, a dozen faith groups are being told re-write their constitutions and bylaws to allow for complete openness and diversity or risk losing their provisional status on campus. In other words, a faith based organization can have no moral or lifestyle code for leadership or membership. You can read about it here.

Lest you think this is isolated and I am overreacting, the Supreme Court by a vote of 5-4 last year held that the University of California did not violate the rights of the Christian Legal Society chapter on their campus when they required them to admit anyone, regardless of belief. I suppose I really am Chicken Little. In the area of tolerance, common sense is dead, and the sky is falling. I think it is just a matter of time until a judge somewhere rules that because the city paved the street in front of the church and TVA provides us power and is partially funded by the government, they can tell us what membership and leadership requirements we can have.

To be absolutely clear, I do not believe the government should tell anyone they have to believe anything. I believe if God gives us free moral choice, so should the government. People should have a right to make bad choices so long as it doesn’t infringe on my liberty or rights. However, I believe I should have the right to choose my faith and belief system, equally free from the government so long as I don’t impose that on others that don’t freely choose it. It has become the norm to move beyond prohibiting citizens from imposing their faith on others to a place of suppressing faith as a legitimate voice in the community. If that faith doesn’t agree with the religion of tolerance and the faith of diversity, it must be stopped! God help us. This practice bears no resemblance to the freedom of religion established by moral men in the 1st amendment.

Truthfully, it is probably too little, too late, but as people of faith, we better ask some tough questions of the people we vote for in this next election cycle.

Just call me Chicken Little!

The Mother of all Change (at Least in Churchworld)

Perhaps you noticed yesterday that the president of the Southern Baptist Convention named a committee to evaluate the need for and cost of changing the name of the organization. To be perfectly clear, he did not name a committee to change the name of the convention. It is a committee that will study and may recommend to him who may recommend to the Executive Board who may recommend to the convention who will ultimately vote no to changing the name. I have an opinion both about the process and the end result, but will keep that to myself for now.

What amuses me today is the hue and cry of pastors after the announcement. To be sure, there are those who are open-minded about it, but so many immediately started tweeting, facebooking, and blogging about the dangers of it. These are some of the same pastors who  spend their Monday morning coffee times comparing war stories about church committees and leadership teams that continually say no to their ideas of change without giving them a legitimate hearing. Ironic, isn’t it?

What disappoints me more than that is my own reaction. I got to thinking about how hard it would be for me to learn a new language; how much trouble it would be to sell the church on the idea; what it would take to change a brand worldwide; could I trust them to choose an appropriate name, what about heritage, etc. Turns out I don’t like change as much I thought I did.

My friend, David Guinn, reminds me from time to time that the only people who like change are wet babies. I suppose he is right. Most of us are perfectly willing to change something in which we have little time or money invested OR to change something for someone else, but few of us are as excited about changes to our own life and organizations. I think the next few months with this committee will give SBC pastors on both sides of this issue a look into their own willingness to make necessary change to advance the Kingdom. It should be an interesting ride.

I would love to hear your opinion about the need for this change or why it should just be left alone.

No One Enters Heaven via the Side Door!

This post is a tribute to my friend, Bill, who died a few days ago. Bill had been a leader in the church where I am serving and in the community for many years. A successful business man and family man, he had the respect of almost everyone. No one really knows how and when the wheels ran off, but after contracting a chronic disease, his life spiraled and the wily and treacherous old enemy of our souls used it to get his hooks into Bill. He wound up divorced, estranged from his family and church, and all alone. Lots of people loved him and owed their spiritual maturity to his ministry, but no one really knew what to do to help him.

Thankfully, the church I am serving has a heart of grace and when Bill hit bottom in December of last year and reached out, the church and his family reached back. The next eight months were not easy but Bill was again walking with God, taking care of himself physically, and being restored to his family. In that season, Bill became more than a parishioner to me; he became a friend. We were all taken by surprise when the phone call came that his son had found him dead in his bed one Saturday morning.

Over the next few days, I had the privilege to love and comfort his family and friends with the gentle reminder that we serve a great God who never gives up on us. The greatest joy of a very difficult time was helping those who loved him remember the incredible accomplishments of his life. It is so easy for us to forget when someone struggles all the good they accomplished in earlier times. At the funeral, 75 people stood indicating they had been taught in Sunday School by Bill; we read letters from mission outposts around the world where Bill had led teams; and heard stories of how he had mentored young ministers.

Though I did not plan it, the statement most often mentioned from the eulogy were these words. “Remember, no one enters heaven via the side door.” Not Bill. Not anyone. We all enter heaven by the grace of God through His son, Jesus. Just because Bill struggled did not mean he was not greeted warmly as the wounded warrior he was and welcomed into his reward. The Bible teaches that our good works do follow us there and Bill was no exception.

Perhaps you have a Bill in your life. If so, there are two takeaways from this little rambling blog post.

  1. Don’t give up on them. I am so grateful for 8 months of walking in restoration with my friend Bill.
  2. Even what we see as failure doesn’t negate what God has done through them. No one gets demoted to the side door because of failures.