The gates of hell will not prevail against the church, but lawsuits can be awfully expensive, distracting, and even detrimental to the work of a local congregation. A little over one year ago, on June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges held that same-sex couples had a constitutional right to marry. We saw it coming, but there was nothing like waking up to our newly transformed legal reality.
Churches presently enjoy a number of significant protections, but there is reason to believe that churches will be vulnerable to a variety of legal challenges in the years ahead, as anti-discrimination laws are updated following Obergefell. Thankfully, there are some simple things we can do to protect our gospel work against some charges of discrimination.
I’m writing this as a pastor on staff at Desert Springs Church, where our elders recently completed a four-month process of research, discussion, and writing. Our purpose was to make explicit in our employment, wedding, and membership documents what is assumed in our commitment to Scripture concerning gender, marriage, and sexuality.
Our aim was twofold: to shepherd our flock well, clarifying our teaching and strengthening our congregation’s unity on these matters; and, second, to protect our church against “easy” lawsuits claiming discrimination while strengthening our position should we encounter a legal challenge. Challenges may come, but the good news is that the more explicit a church is about what they believe, the stronger their defense against an accusation of discrimination. Churches that try to be faithful but discrete will actually be more vulnerable.
In this process we were helped immensely by a critical resource put out by Alliance Defending Freedom and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Protecting Your Ministry from Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Lawsuits. This guide is written for churches, schools, and ministries, and addresses issues specific to each type of organization.
Here are the four things we did:
First, We Updated Our Statement of Faith
Our Statement of Faith, to which all of our members subscribe, is purposefully limited to basic Christian orthodoxy. As we say, it’s about as wide as the door to the kingdom. But we decided to make explicit in our statement what is assumed in our commitment to Scripture on the specific issues of gender, marriage, and sexuality.
We believe that God created human beings in his image in two embodied sexual kinds—male and female (Genesis 1:26-27). We believe that God designed men and women to unite in marriage, which is complementary, involving one of each sexual gender, exclusive, and permanent (Genesis 2:18, 24; Matthew 19:4-6; 1 Corinthians 7:39; Hebrews 13:4).
Whereas convictions about lying, murder, and stealing remain assumed and yet our members are accountable to the Bible’s teaching on these matters, our present context requires us to make matters concerning sexuality and gender explicit. In as much as “we believe that the Scriptures … [constitute] the only infallible and sufficient rule for life and godliness,” we believe their clear testimony concerning gender, marriage, and sexuality. While we could say more than these topics, we concluded that we could not say less in the context of our Statement of Faith.
Second, We Published an Expanded Statement on Gender, Marriage, and Sexuality
It seemed appropriate to provide our congregation with a fuller explanation of what the elders believe and teach on the basis of our addition to the Statement of Faith. The assignment of this writing project fell to me, and the following statement is the result of that effort. The statement is divided topically into six parts.
Concerning Gender. We believe that God created human beings in his image in two sexual kinds—male and female (Gen. 1:26-27). Gender is a part of God’s good creation and is bound to its roots as a biological reality. It is identifiable at birth and is to be evident in the course of everyday life in expressions of masculinity and femininity.
Concerning Marriage. God designed men and women to unite in marriage, which is: complementary (involving one of each sexual gender), comprehensive (involving all of life, including physical sexual union), exclusive (monogamous and faithful), permanent (until separated by death), and a generative union (designed for and oriented toward the bearing and rearing of children) (Gen. 2:18-25). Through this union, a husband and wife picture for humanity the relationship between Christ and his church (Eph. 5:22-33).
Concerning Nature. A part of God’s benevolent design, marriage is basic to human flourishing and arises in cultures across history from realities that are discernible in creation (Rom. 1:18-27): the anthropological reality that men and women are different and complementary; the biological reality that they unite to create new life; the sociological reality that children deserve to be with the mother and father that created them. Only a man and a woman can unite in marriage since only a man and a woman can unite in a way that honors the nature of human sexuality.
Concerning Sexual Sin. Sexual intimacy is the exclusive privilege and responsibility of a husband and wife (1 Cor. 6:18; 7:2-5; Heb. 13:4). Because of Adam’s sin, every human being is born sexually perverted, creatively and destructively seeking sexual fulfillment in ways that ignore the Creator, reject his design, and distort his intent. Any form of sexual immorality (including adultery, fornication, homosexual behavior, incest, and use of pornography) is sinful and offensive to God (Matt. 15:18-20; 1 Cor. 6:9-10).
Concerning Redemption. While all people are sinners, God offers redemption to all who confess and repent of their sin, seeking His mercy for forgiveness through Jesus Christ. By means of God’s Spirit and his Word, in the context of the church, real transformation is possible for sinners of every kind, even though final glorification (and total victory over every sin) awaits us in the new creation.
Concerning Public Witness. All persons—regardless of what they may believe or practice—are worthy of kindness, dignity, and respect because they are made in the image of God. Love for God and people requires that Christians speak clearly about these things and that they do so in a manner consistent with the compassion and conviction of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Anyone familiar with the work of Ryan T. Anderson will recognize his influence over the paragraph “Concerning Nature.” This statement is helpful for our own membership, but will also be useful for anyone interested in visiting our church. While this statement is not binding in the same way as the paragraph we added to our Statement of Faith, this public statement helps us shepherd our membership while adding more strength to our position if challenged in court.
Third, We Updated Our Employment Policies
While churches and non-profits have historically had the freedom to hire according to their beliefs and the moral commitments of their faith, there is reason to believe that this may become more complicated should the definition or scope of “religious” work be narrowed in the future. There are indications that the government may distinguish between explicitly religious roles in a church and roles that are not spiritual in nature. Such roles, presumably, would not be protected in the same way.
For this reason, we made a few things explicit in our hiring process and employee handbook that have been assumed. For example, all employees are now required to sign the church’s statement of faith. All employees are expected to provide spiritual counsel from the Scriptures over the phone or in person as needed. And all employees are expected to exercise leadership, from time to time, by praying in staff meetings. In other words, every employee of our church represents Christ in their role and does so in concrete ways.
Fourth, We Updated Our Facility Use and Wedding Policies
Concerning the use of our facility, we wanted to avoid any scenario that would require our church to refuse or deny a request on the basis of any consideration tied to marriage or gender. Whereas previously we accepted and evaluated a variety of requests for our facility, today our facility is only available for ministries of our church or for ministries we formally partner with. For example, our elders have officially recognized the local Crisis Pregnancy Center as a strategic ministry partner and our facility is available to them as needed.
Weddings require a similar approach. Denying requests on the basis of sex could be considered a form of discrimination, therefore, we have adopted a new policy on performing wedding ceremonies. Our staff will only perform wedding ceremonies for members of our church. This eliminates the opportunity for charges of discrimination since members are required to adhere to our doctrinal statement. Likewise, our facility, property, and services are not available for other weddings or events. With these new policies in place, ministers in our church retain the freedom, as persons licensed by the state to perform weddings, to accept personal requests for weddings off site.
Yes, Christ will build his church, but sometimes that will include dealing with membership documents and facility policies. Churches and ministers would all do well to consider what steps can be taken to protect our ministries. This is what we did to protect our church, and it is our hope that it may help you protect yours.