Obergefell v. Hodges—Fear Not

by
July 8, 2015

“Fear not.”

If that phrase is good enough to open angelic messages, my little essay probably deserves no better. Jesus used it to preface prophecies about the end of the world; I doubt that today’s circumstances call for excessive dourness.

But that’s not to say that nothing momentous happened when the Supreme Court unilaterally redefined marriage.

Each time a commercial airliner departs a runway, the passengers in the back experience the rushing noise of the wind and the forces of takeoff—either exhilarating or terrifying depending upon your opinion of manned flight. Likewise, the sexual revolution of my lifetime has been marked by building momentum, increasing volume, and intense feelings for everyone taking the ride.

Up front in the cockpit, however, takeoff is a much more technical, mathematical process. Pilots, to be sure, still generally enjoy the thrill of flight, but the physics and engineering of a takeoff rather than the aesthetics demand their attentions. Careful monitoring of the gauges prompts a number of staccato “callouts” on the flight deck:

“Airspeed alive.”

“80 knots. Crosscheck.”

“V1.”

“Rotate.”

“Positive rate.”

“Gear up.”

Of these milestones in the flight, “V1” is perhaps the most cryptic (to the observer who is not a pilot) and most important. For each takeoff, the pilots calculate the velocity (V) at which the airplane is moving so fast that aborting the takeoff is no longer possible. When he hears the co-pilot announce “V1,” the pilot takes his hand off of the throttles. Stopping is now out of the question. Whatever problems develop after V1, the pilots are going to have to try to remedy them in the air.

The landmark Supreme Court case Obergefell v Hodges represents the V1 moment of the sexual revolution. If some modern-day triumvirate rivaling Whitefield, Edwards, and Wesley were to bring upon us a Third Great Awakening, it still would be too late to prevent this nation’s social experimentation by way of the removal of sexual taboos. Sure, God could do it, but it would take His doing more than even bringing revival to our land. It would take a revolution. Just as the pilots’ options and strategies change at the V1-moment, followers of Christ must acknowledge a changed universe of possibilities in the aftermath of this decision.

Advocates for same-sex marriage think that they have taken us into the future. Actually, we’ve regressed into the past in some significant ways, and history will be a great teacher for us in the days to come.

Legally, they’ve taken us back to the 1780s in terms of the fight for religious liberty. As in the 1780s, today most Americans are sympathetic toward the general idea of religious liberty. We are not back in the 1600s, some people’s lugubrious prognostications notwithstanding. As in the 1780s, the government’s will to pursue religious dissenters is probably not very strong. But just as in the 1780s, today the legal status of religious liberty is precarious. No, I do not have a law degree. I am a mere pastor, historian, and theologue. Nevertheless, when four Supreme Court Justices, including the Chief Justice himself, tell us that this decision imperils religious liberty in our nation, the idea is not a mere overreaction. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.” And, indeed, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy’s writings make little effort to prove him wrong. When the five-justice majority can find nothing to affirm in their majority opinion about religious free exercise that couldn’t have been covered under freedom of speech, what was a concern grows into an unmistakable destabilization of religious liberty.

Thankfully, a destabilization is not a loss. No matter what happens in upcoming elections, same-sex marriage is not going away anytime soon, but because the religious liberty questions that arise out of this ruling are untested and will be decided by future courts, upcoming elections could make a significant difference on these questions of religious liberty. Justices Scalia and Kennedy are nearly eighty years old. Justice Ginsburg has already passed that milestone. Justice Breyer is not far behind. Four justices are sympathetic toward religious liberty concerns. The next President of the United States will decide whether that number grows to the needed five or slips down further to three. To say so is not some political hack’s insistence that you must Go Out There And Vote REPUBLICAN!! Indeed, the author of today’s opinion was a Ronald Reagan nominee, so blind party allegiance is no likely solution.

Instead of committing themselves to doctrinaire party politics, the leaders of John Leland’s generation carefully and winsomely engaged the political world to lobby on behalf religious liberty for everyone. They walked away from that engagement with a pretty important accomplishment: the First Amendment. We ought to follow their examples.

We don’t do this frantically. We will serve the Lord with gladness no matter what becomes of American law, but we have an opportunity to make our nation a kinder place. This is not an act of self-preservation; religious liberty is a gift of love given to others. We can give it by making certain that the next president is someone committed to the fixed enshrinement of a full-throated religious liberty in our nation. The various candidates’ campaigns may not have much to say about that, but we owe it to our children in the faith to find out where they stand on these issues before we cast our ballots.

Socially, the advocates for the sexual revolution are quickly taking us back to first-century Rome. There and then we knew we were a minority, which we’ve always been whether we recognized it or not. Our church rolls contain many unregenerate members. That situation is about to change. A red-hot commitment to Christ is about to become the only reason why anyone would join one of our churches. We are becoming the ultimate “alternative lifestyle,” and the aftermath of today’s decision could be freeing for us, if we will allow it to be.

In order to be the liberating moment it needs to be, we must let it do more than just keep us where we are. I’ve read today from many brothers in Christ declaring that they will stand firm. Respectfully, standing firm is not what we need to do. The spot the American church occupied yesterday is not a good position to defend today. Like an ambushed soldier, we need to move—and move quickly—to some defensible piece of high ground. We need a twenty-first-century Christianity that is identifiably and radically trans-racial at the local church level like the first-century church. We need a twenty-first-century Christianity embracing the first-century positions on divorce and extramarital sex, not just from the pulpits, but also in the lives of individual Christians. We need a twenty-first-century Christianity that has conquered the greed and materialism of the twentieth century without lapsing into the unbiblical asceticism that plagued the fourth century, for example. We need a twenty-first-century Christianity featuring more stories of scandalous love than stories of scandalous love-affairs.

We need these things because we know something that the Supreme Court has failed to realize: The further our neighbors run away from God’s plan, the less—not more—happiness they are going to know. Not all those who find despair at the end of sin’s trail will know what to do about their plight, but if we will faithfully live out a first-century type of minority Christianity, many of them will see the contrast between the darkness and the light and will come to a joy they’ve never known.

A few years ago Southwest Airlines took me on a memorable journey into Houston’s Hobby Airport. Never have I known such turbulence (and I, holding a private pilot’s license, have spent quite a few hours in small planes). Upon disembarking, I looked up to the TV in the concourse and saw that the airport was under a tornado warning related to the cell through which we had just flown. Some flights make you not want to fly any more. This journey into the progressive whirlwind of marriage-can-mean-anything and meaningless-sex-as-ultimate-meaning will not forever endure. Jesus has promised us that He will work it—even it—together with everything else for the good of we who love God and are called according to His purpose.

A group of Moravian missionaries once found themselves on a terrifying journey, not in an airplane but in a vessel on a stormy sea. Everyone else panicked, but they serenely prayed. Most of the crew paid them little mind, and small was the audience in those cramped maritime quarters to witness their demeanor. Only one man’s life felt the impact of it, really, but that young man’s name was John Wesley. Seeing their radical faith and their dogged obedience, he recognized something that was missing from his own life. Could it be that God will use these times of tempest to raise up more great evangelists like him through our faithful testimony in the years to come? When the bedraggled passengers disembark this journey that will have served them so poorly, will we stand ready to welcome them into something that actually DOES restore human dignity: the gospel of Jesus Christ? If so, no matter what else attends it, that’s certainly no cause for any follower of Christ to have fear. As J. D. Greear tweeted today, “Love does win, and He has a name.”


Bart Barber
Bart Barber is the pastor First Baptist Church of Farmersville, Texas.