By John Pierce
There are those who are celebrating the Supreme Court decision on the legality of same-sex marriage. There are those who are deeply disappointed, even alarmed, by it.
These persons often share the same profession of faith and even belong to the same church.
Of course, that means they share the same minister who has his or her own opinion about the matter — but, more importantly, a calling to minister to the entire congregation.
It is not easy to balance the roles of prophet and priest when social media and the 24-hour news cycle stir continuous, often conflicting reactions within those who are sisters and brothers in faith.
Everyone wants to recruit the minister — as well as God — to his or her side. What can a minister say or do to build bridges, encourage compassion and provide pastoral care amid such a mixture of emotions and responses?
There are no perfect words — in the sense that all parishioners will be pleased. But avoiding the presence of such conflicting reactions doesn’t lessen the heated discourse or slow the gloating. Something constructive needs to be said.
Bill Coates, pastor of First Baptist Church of Gainesville, Ga., starting getting calls from media (including The Wall Street Journal) as soon as the decision came down yesterday. More pressing pastoral needs — the first of three funerals between yesterday and Sunday, as well a wedding — kept him from expending too much time and energy answering reporters’ questions.
Instead, Dr. Coates released a statement that reflects the needed sensitivities (the priestly role) and calls to compassion over condemnation (the prophetic role). Like many ministers — except those in congregations where diverse thinking is not present or, more likely, not a permitted expression — his pastoral calling is to serve both those celebrating yesterday’s court decision and those alarmed by it.
Dr. Coates wrote:
People of deep faith and convictions exist on both sides of the LGBT and gay marriage question. Ultimately, it comes down to how an individual interprets Scripture and how churches interpret Scripture. If read with strict literalism, one can always point to passages that appear to condemn many kinds of behavior. For example, Malachi 2:16 says, “‘I hate divorce,’ declares the Lord God of Israel, ‘and I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as well as with his garment,’ says the Lord Almighty.” But does this mean that God hates the divorced person? The person who may have resorted to violence? Of course not. Other Biblical passages make this clear: “God so loved the world” (John 3:16), “none is good but God alone” (Mark 10:17), “love one another with mutual affection” (Romans 12:9). Jesus also warns us about judging others when we ourselves are far from righteous in our own thoughts and actions. Reading the Bible literally can lead us to the embracing of attitudes that in fact move us from Christlikeness. I had a deeply spiritual and Godly professor who taught me my greatest lesson in seminary: “We are all going to err in life either on the side of grace or on the side of law. Since we are going to err anyway, always go with grace.” That perspective is the one I have chosen to live by. It is also the one churches should choose. Each church will have to decide how to walk through this marriage equality debate. I think we should respect those who choose to allow their ministers not to perform same-sex weddings out of their own deep convictions, and I think we should respect churches that choose to allow their ministers that right, for they make their choice out of deep convictions, too. Baptist congregations, with no bishop over us, must decide individually which choice they will make. Our own congregation, First Baptist of Gainesville, Georgia, will have to make that determination, and I, as minister here, will abide by that decision. As with most things in life, we have to balance. In this case, we must balance our esteem for the dignity of every person, gay or straight, with the harmony of the congregation we are part of. It is not easy, but it is possible. Jesus teaches us to love God and love our neighbor, just as Moses taught. We cannot love our neighbor and treat him or her as a second-class citizen at the same time. I say this: I do not always know what the truth is, but I can always tell what love is. I believe love is the greatest of all, and to do the loving thing will always be the right thing. Most congregations will eventually find their way there.
Now my added word: Help your minister to serve the whole congregation by being supportive and encouraging — even if you wish she or he would say something different (i.e., only what I believe). It is not easy to provide pastoral care and share prophetic convictions amid high emotions and conflicting passions.