Gay Marriage and the Posture of the Gospel

Perhaps because of what I do for a living, I have been asked about gay marriage many times over the last couple of years. With very few exceptions, each of the questions I’ve been asked is some variation of the same question: What is your position on gay marriage? Some ask to make sure I’m on the right side of the issue; some ask because they are conflicted about which side is right, but they feel pressure to choose a side (and to choose the right side, obviously).

I understand the desire to be right. I understand the pressure to choose. I understand that right and wrong still matter. The question that all of the questions seem to be asking still makes sense to me.

And yet the more I am asked the question, the more I am convinced that we are so collectively obsessed with position we have forgotten that Jesus has at least as much to say about posture. My observation of the Church is that we usually give our first and best energies to formulating, asserting, and defending our positions, and on our most charitable days we footnote those positions with a small-print reminder to “speak the truth in love” or some such. And conveniently, we have so convinced ourselves that our positions are right that we believe the very act of articulating them is love. Posture is mostly an afterthought.

This is a problem, and it’s not a small one.

Orthodox Christian belief insists the Gospel is necessary because of God’s position on our broken ways of living (sin). But the heart of the good news is God’s posture toward us as we continue to break things, including ourselves.

My position on gay marriage is that we ought to respond to the world around us the way God responded to us when we didn’t do what He thought we should do. Even if we believe gay marriage is at odds with the way God intends us to live, and even when we feel compelled to say so, we ought to assume the same posture toward the world that God assumed toward us (and that He assumes toward the world). That posture looks something like this:


If Christians have been convinced of anything, it is that…

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

But here’s the sucker-punch of a next sentence that we tend to ignore in our myopic rush to leverage our salvation to assume and assert correct positions in the world:

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Paul describes God’s posture toward us this way:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

And boy do we love that verse when it’s talking about Jesus dying for me.

But if it’s true that “whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did,” and “in this world we are like Jesus,” then the punch-line is unavoidable.

No matter how correct your position, if your posture toward a world you believe to be “still sinners” is anything other than a love that stubbornly refuses to condemn, but instead gives itself away to point to Jesus giving himself away, you are on your own. You are not standing on the truth of the scriptures or the shoulders of Jesus. Right position without the posture of God revealed in Jesus is not the Gospel.

Carry on with the discussions of gay marriage, morality, and culture. We need those conversations. Just remember that if we claim the name of Jesus, we are not ambassadors of moral positions or good behavior; we are ambassadors of a transcendent reconciliation possible only in Jesus, who made God’s love for sinners known not by a posture of condemnation, but of cross-shaped love.

A post-script word to those outside of the Church looking in: If you have been on the blunt end of a professing Christian’s position on this or another issue and were not shown the sacrificial posture of Jesus demonstrating God’s love for you, that person was not representing Jesus. They probably thought they were doing the right thing, but just as I have done dozens of times, they were confusing position, posture, and probably a few other things. They need Jesus as much as you do, and so do I. Forgive them and forgive me, please.

Depreciating humility: The importance of being the best at being right

The words below, originally published on GRACE’s blog, contain my thoughts about an issue I consider critical to the life of the Church. They were prompted by a specific situation that continues to develop, both within a particular stream of the American Church and in broader venues, including the national media. While I believe this post will make sense even if you aren’t aware of the very public issues surrounding Sovereign Grace Ministries and C.J. Mahaney, I have posted some context and the story of how I came to write this piece down below. Feel free to read it before or after continuing with this post.

I empathize with those inclined to steer clear of these kinds of dramas; I usually am one of you. I am unable to turn away this time for two reasons: the details of this story are too grievous, and I believe they expose a deeper, growing epidemic within the Church that is in utter opposition to our identity as the people who exist to say to both one another and the world: “This is who Jesus is, this is what He is like, and this is how He loves you.”

I haven’t slept well in a week. I just cannot shake some of the recent developments in the unfolding saga of apparent abuse and, by many accounts, systematic breach of pastoral trust within Sovereign Grace Ministries. So in my bleary-eyed, restless state, I have two confessions:

I am a bit annoyed that this story is keeping me up at night.

I am just as annoyed that this story isn’t keeping more of us up at night.

See I have no real affiliation with anyone involved — not the victims, not SGM, not C.J. Mahaney, and not Together for the Gospel or most of what is commonly referred to as the neo-reformed movement. While I have many friends who travel in those circles and we share some common roots, I’m far enough removed that I should be able to grieve over the harm done and move on. To be frank about it, I honestly don’t have time to be preoccupied with the drama of other churches. I am a pastor among a beautiful, healthy, but predictably flawed community of believers in Texas, and we have plenty of drama all our own, thank you very much.

Still, I can’t move past this one, and not only because of the horrendous nature of the sexual abuse allegations. I’m stuck because this is not just a story about one church or one pastor or one ministry. This is a story about what could become of any church and any pastor and any ministry. More to my point (and insomnia), it is a story about what is becoming of many churches and many pastors and many ministries.

Let me be clear, the allegations of sexual abuse in this story are horrifying, and stories like these are more personal to me because my wife was abused as both a child and a teenager. By God’s mercy she lives in remarkable freedom from the weight of those experiences, and she graciously and gracefully tends to others who are hurting and broken in those (and many other) ways. But for her and any survivor of abuse, the journey toward freedom is long and indescribably grueling. For those of us who know that road, whether from our own pain or from sharing in the suffering of those we love, stories like these still cause us to ache in a different way. There is little that simultaneously grieves and angers me more than abuse, oppression, and the perpetuation of shame by those claiming to be the Body of Christ.

But that’s not what’s keeping me up at night — at least it’s not the whole of it.

As soul-churning as the stories of abuse are, and though I have every reason to be consumed by them, there is another scratch on the record of my heart and mind that won’t let me move on, and the line that keeps playing over and over is this:

It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor [oppressed]
    than to divide the spoil with the proud.

This is the killing-me-softly, lesser known sentence following one of those verses from Proverbs we’ve paraphrased and misused for so long it no longer has much bite for us (“pride cometh before a fall”). It is a sentence that haunts me.

That began the night that Al Mohler, Mark Dever, and Ligon Duncan released their statement regarding C.J. Mahaney and the partial dismissal of the civil suit against him and SGM (of which he is a named defendant). Just before I went to bed, I read their words on the Together for the Gospel facebook page, along with dozens of comments that were removed from public view a few hours later (a bizarre, suspicion-arousing move given that almost all of them were simply civil expressions of disappointment from folks within the camp). [Edit: I have since discovered that they also edited the statement before they reposted it on the T4G website. I detail a bit of that in the post below this one.]

I read. I reread hoping I had missed something crucial. I hadn’t. And then Proverbs 16:19 began its relentless march…

It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor [oppressed]
    than to divide the spoil with the proud.

The chasm between these words and the statements released by both Together for the Gospel and The Gospel Coalition is immense. Boz Tchividjian’s important response to the the two statements rightly diagnoses much of that gap, and I applaud his courage. Like him, I believe both statements reflect either naiveté or overt blindness to the need for a deeper humility on the part of Mahaney and his friends, even if only a fraction of the accusations are true — even if only what already has been acknowledged is true.

I fear those public statements reflect the private thoughts of men who, whether by will or ignorance, are clustering around the spoils of the proud when their calling is to be of a lowly spirit with the poor and oppressed. Even if Mahaney is a victim of some false accusations, his rush back to the platform and the efforts of his friends to protect his place at the head table ought to prompt some deep, Gospel-driven questions about how insulated some of these men seem to be from the thousands of sincere, Gospel-loving followers of Jesus they lead, formally and informally.

While the temptations to love being right, to yield to pride, and to tolerate or even celebrate arrogance are always lurking for the Church universal, I believe that they present some unique challenges among a group who assumes a vanguard identity (in this case the preservation and resuscitation of the true Gospel). In other words, in a movement where correcting error is a central task, these temptations loom large. And, when they are indulged, they easily can be mistaken for virtue and become almost self-sustaining.

The cycle goes like this: The urgency of the cause reinforces the importance of being right, which further fuels the notion that the most important people in the cause are those most skilled at being right in front of the most people. And if that is true, then those people must be protected and kept on stage at almost any cost.  Question them without an air-tight case of disqualifying sin, and you risk being sacrificed for the greater cause.

It’s all very logical. And it’s very common. It just isn’t biblical.

I don’t intend to imply that this is a significant struggle for all (or even most) churches who would place themselves somewhere in this particular camp, but I believe it is sufficiently prevalent, chronic, and serious to demand a wider conversation. While the details of this case and its context matter, again, this is not an anomaly of the neo-reformed movement. Other local churches may be free of the sexual abuse stories apparently so prevalent in SGM’s history (though these too are painfully widespread), but there are many, including some of our flagship evangelical churches led by beloved, well-known personalities, who are following very similar plot lines. The church’s identity becomes deeply entangled with the names and teachings of popular Christian leaders who members of the church will never truly know (and therefore whose authority is rooted as much in personality and skill as personal character). Narrow, extra-orthodox notions of what one must believe and do to be “right” crop up. Pastors, elders, or deacons sit at the head of a relatively impermeable and inaccessible group of leaders, and, often with success and mission as justifications, become either removed or authoritarian (or, far too regularly, both).

When shepherds refuse or fail to live humbly among the people – when leaders are consumed by agendas (however noble those agendas may be) other than caring for the community of God’s people “like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thes. 2:7) – when pastors are inaccessible, unapproachable, or just too busy to listen to and know their people…these are not secondary ecclesial breakdowns. They are an abandonment of primary pastoral calling that signals a stunning disconnect from the evangelical ethos Jesus declared (Matt. 22, Jn. 13) and prayed into being (Jn. 17) and that John affirmed as central to Gospel identity (1 Jn. 3).

Our zeal and skill for expanding the doctrine of the Gospel simply cannot obscure or replace our humble submission to life in the crucible of the Gospel’s work — the community that the Gospel creates where the greatest become least and the last become first. (And if that does not mean that the vulnerable, the weak, and the exasperating folks in our churches get at least as much attention from us as our successful friends and heroes, I do not know what it means.)

The Church is not first and foremost an audience for our sermons and our books; it is the people of God among whom we are our real selves. If we live above or apart from that Church in any way, our doctrines and words about the Gospel become theory and conjecture, not a testimony to a truth we know by experience. As pastors, teachers, leaders, and authors in the Church, for the sake of our churches and for the sake of our own souls, we ought to weigh carefully the words of the Lord delivered through Obadiah:

The pride of your heart has deceived you,
    you who live in the clefts of the rock,
    in your lofty dwelling,
who say in your heart,
    “Who will bring me down to the ground?”
Though you soar aloft like the eagle,
    though your nest is set among the stars,
    from there I will bring you down,
declares the Lord.

If those words expose us to be drifting from the simple and clear message of Jesus, the time for coming clean — that time was yesterday. Yet by God’s mercy we have been given another day, so may we heed the prophetic call:

Repent, for the Kingdom of God, which belongs to children and the lowly of spirit who dwell among children, the poor, and the oppressed — that Kingdom is at hand.

Note: I hope to add another post soon, including my thoughts on discernment in publicly addressing allegations like those made against Mahaney and others with care for the possibility of false accusation. More to come.

Context for the post above this one: Depreciating Humility

Though I wrote this post to offer some context for the one directly above, it absolutely is not meant to serve as an objective or comprehensive summary of the events to which it refers. In fact, it is a subjective telling of both my perception of those events and the story of why I’ve written about them at all. Summarizing this very complex saga fairly and briefly seems an impossible task, so consider this my explicit acknowledgement that the words to follow do not accomplish (or seek to accomplish) that task. I defer to Google to fill in the gaps for anyone interested in doing the research to be further informed.

Over the past few years, Sovereign Grace Ministries, which describes itself as a “family of churches passionate about advancing the Great Commission through church planting” and self-identifies as “evangelical, Reformed, and charismatic,” has come under heavy scrutiny. Numerous stories of sexual abuse within SGM churches have surfaced, accompanied by descriptions of a culture in which abuse was overlooked and minimized and children were not adequately protected or cared for. The details of the allegations, both of the abuse and the way children were treated by church leaders responding to the abuse, are brutal. Some criminal charges already have been filed, and there are indications that more are forthcoming. A class action suit also has been filed against SGM, two of its churches, its school, and several pastors and leaders. Some have questioned the motives of such a suit, and I will be the first to acknowledge that litigation between Christians is always complicated and unpleasant, no matter what its motives. That said, those behind the suit insist its primary goal is to bring the truth to light and prevent similar tragedies in the future.

Intertwined in this story is the personal legacy of C.J. Mahaney, the former president of SGM and founding (again former) pastor of SGM’s original and long-time anchor church (thought it recently ceased affiliation with SGM). Mahaney is named in the suit and is accused in broad and specific ways of overseeing the cycle of negligence and shame within SGM churches (including the church he pastored). Alongside the legal issues, Mahaney faces other significant and growing criticism of his personal and pastoral dealings with members of his staff and church. His long-time right-hand-man, Brent Detwiler, left SGM in 2009 and went public with very detailed descriptions of Mahaney’s behavior, and they are complicated and, on the whole, not terribly flattering. Detwiler says he attempted to address these issues privately over a long period of time, but after being ignored and manipulated, decided a public rebuke was his only recourse. How accurate his claims are is a matter of debate. Some of Mahaney’s friends and admirers insist he has acknowledged and repented in all necessary ways and that his character is sound. Yet stories corroborating and adding to Detwiler’s continue to surface, many of them painting a very different picture. In 2011, Mahaney took temporary leaves from both his church and SGM; the former became permanent, the latter did not…and then it did after all.

About a year ago, after 30 years in Maryland and with both legal and ecclesial storms brewing, SGM and Mahaney picked up and moved to Louisville. They were welcomed publicly by Al Mohler, a friend and ministry partner of Mahaney’s and the president of Louisville-based Southern Baptist Seminary. Along with some other long-time associates, Mahaney planted Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville, where he is now the senior pastor. Mahaney and Mohler are two of a number of nationally known leaders of the growing cross-denominational movement of churches who are Reformed in doctrine and whose primary public banner is a return to the centrality of the true Gospel (that sentence contains several terms that beg definition, but I am summarizing). These leaders have formed alliances — Together for the Gospel (T4G) and The Gospel Coalition (TGC), among others — and they host conferences and churn out vast resources related to their collective missions. This spring, with a lawsuit pending and many unanswered questions about the other public accusations against Mahaney, he preached at Together for the Gospel’s national conference. He was not a minor presence, functioning in both in a keynote role and as a participant in multiple panels. It’s fair to say that move raised some eyebrows, even within the camp.

On May 17, a Maryland judge dismissed the civil suit because the statute of limitations had expired for several of those filing suit. In Maryland, if you are abused as a minor, you must file suit within three years of turning 18. The dismissal was not a surprise to the plaintiffs’ attorneys, as a challenge to the application of the statue of limitations is actually part of their case. They argue that the statute is unreasonable since it takes years for most victims of sexual abuse to acknowledge and address what they endure — a fact completely void of controversy among those who deal with the aftermath of sexual abuse. They also argue that blocking such cases from continuing based on the statute actually rewards abusers and those who protect them, since their primary goal is to prevent the abuse from being reported until it’s too late for anything to be done about it. To be clear, the court made no ruling whatsoever on the truth of any claims in the suit; it simply declined to hear the case because of the statute of limitations (and, for two other plaintiffs, because they describe their abuse as happening in an SGM church in Virginia, not Maryland). On May 28, a Motion to Reconsider was filed. If the judge rejects it, appeals to higher courts will follow. The legal part of this is a long, long way from being over.

On May 23, six days after the initial dismissal, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, and Ligon Duncan, the other three founders of Together for the Gospel (Mahaney being the fourth) released a statement in support of Mahaney. When initially posted on its Facebook page (captured here), that statement read, in part:

A Christian leader, charged with any credible, serious, and direct wrongdoing, would usually be well advised to step down from public ministry. No such accusation of direct wrongdoing was ever made against C.J. Mahaney. Instead, he was charged with founding a ministry and for teaching doctrines and principles that are held to be true by vast millions of American evangelicals. [bolding for emphasis is mine]

Comments — most of them apparently from within the T4G camp — came quickly, almost unanimously expressing disappointment with the statement. More than one person pointed out that the second sentence I have quoted here (“No such accusation…”) simply is not true, pointing out numerous examples to the contrary. Others noted that the third sentence (“…he was charged with founding a ministry…”) read like a serious distortion of the allegations made against Mahaney by those who claim to have been abused in his church and ministry, then manipulated into not reporting the abuse and, in a number of cases, sitting with their abuser in order to “forgive” them and move on as though nothing had happened. Apparently uncomfortable with the open discussion on the statement, T4G pulled it (and all comments) down, later reposting an edited version on its main website. The two bolded sentences above were altered or removed, though the remainder of the paragraph was left in tact:

For this reason, we, along with many others, refused to step away from C. J. in any way. We do not regret that decision. We are profoundly thankful for C. J. as friend, and we are equally thankful for the vast influence for good he has been among so many Gospel-minded people.

The morning after the T4G statement was released, three leaders of The Gospel Coalition released a very similar statement.

Before I continue, I want to be very clear about something: I have not met C.J. Mahaney or the men who authored those statements. I do not know their hearts, and I do not condemn them. In fact, I love them. This does not prevent me from doing whatever small thing I can do to say out loud that I believe this has been fumbled, and not only in the form of the public statements.

I believe an ethos has crept into our churches (and movements of churches) that, despite our claims to take the Bible and its authority seriously (and usually literally), has de-literalized much of what Jesus actually said. At the top of that list is His very clear description of the movements and coalitions the Gospel creates: communities where the best and brightest among us are (literally) not assumed or portrayed to be more important to Jesus or His cause than the least and where the most feeble and vulnerable are (literally) treated with particular care and celebration, never condescension.

If the teachings of Jesus are taken literally, men and women of apparent significance will search for ways to dwell among and, yes, even behind the overlooked. Precisely because what Jesus describes here runs counter to both human nature and the flow of social darwinism (alive and well in evangelical culture), it must be embraced and modeled with clarity and enthusiasm by those who lead. This is not easy; I struggle daily to figure it out and trip over the inertia of what comes naturally as often as not. But this upside down Kingdom cannot be preached with any credibility until we choose to live into its reality, and that means turning in our exemptions. I love C.J. Mahaney and the men standing with him, and I have labored without hesitation to maintain a spirit of respect and charity toward them. I simply believe they are wrong, and I believe this matters too much to the Church to not talk about it.

Whether or not all claims in the lawsuit (or the accusations leveled by Detwiler and many others) are true, I found the tone, timing, and content of these two statements to be more than a little troubling, and I wasn’t alone. T4G pulling down their statement and erasing the public response (which was almost universally civil, just not affirming) only compounded that. As you can see the in screen capture of the original T4G statement, Boz Tchividjian was one of those who commented. This was the first time I had heard of Boz, though his name caught my attention because I know of his brother, Tullian, a Presbyterian (PCA) pastor and author in Florida. I also knew that Tullian is the grandson of a 94-year old North Carolina preacher named Billy whose name might ring a bell.

To be honest, Boz’s post piqued my curiosity because I knew Tullian had some loose affiliations with some of the other leaders of this movement. I want to be clear that he was not involved in either statement and he is not, to my knowledge, officially connected to either group. I don’t intend to even passively link Tullian to the statements. I just knew he overlapped their circles some, and it was coincidence enough to cause me to pay attention to what Boz wrote.

The next day (May 24, though somehow I did not see it for a few days), Boz authored what I believe is an important response to the T4G and TGC statements: Where are the Voices? The Continued Culture of Silence and Protection in American Evangelicalism. I was moved not only by Boz’s objections to the statements, but by his call to the Church to wake up and speak up. His words poked at the part of me that already was restless over what I saw unfolding. In a weird blur of gratitude and frustration, I fired off an email to Boz intended to thank him for what he wrote. I ultimately did get around to that, but only after several rambling paragraphs of my thoughts on what is happening in the Church. Unusual for me, I didn’t even bother to reread what I sent him. In fact, I couldn’t find his email address on the GRACE site, so I guessed at it, unsure if my note would ever make it to him, and hit send.

That evening, I stood in the kitchen and whined to my wife about the way this thing was eating at me. Why can’t I just move on? There’s nothing I can do about this anyway. We talked about the ever-present pastoral dilemma of rightly dividing time and attention. I expressed frustration that something like this was invading a season of deep contentment in serving among our local community. Though my love and concern for the Church universal continues to grow, in recent months I have been less distracted than ever by discerning my role, if any, in what was happening “out there.” What was happening right here — among our people and our cities — has been calling enough for me. (I even wrote about it recently.) Suddenly being so affected by something that had no obvious immediate connection to our right here was a pain. And even if this was important, what could I do about it? “Not much” seemed to be the answer. So we ate.

Two hours later, I received a reply from Boz. He thanked me for my note, said some other nice things, and asked me if I would tweak it a bit and allow him to publish it as a guest post on GRACE’s site. Honestly, I was a little shocked. I like to write, and I confess that sometimes when I write to someone I admire or would like to impress (because I’m still trying to give Jesus that part of me that wants to impress people), I hope they like what I write. But this honestly never crossed my mind when I made my raw external processing Boz’s problem.

Perhaps no one but me will find this sequence of events terribly significant, but as I told Boz, his response sounded more or less like a, “Hey, dummy” from God to me. Yet again it appeared God was doing something unexpected that I could not orchestrate myself and I was the dummy who was surprised. Though I had no idea what impact my words might have, it seemed foolish to then side-step whatever avenue I’d been offered to address something I really believe matters. And I really believe this matters.

The result, of course, is the post that was published on GRACE’s site and that now sits above this one, here on my site. I already have heard or seen numerous folks, including various pastors and Church leaders, express the same or similar sentiments. Some are happy to do so publicly; others are less convinced that what they say or write matters or they aren’t eager to wade into the fray. I understand that. I’ve felt and acted out of both before. Yet my sincere hope is that my words will prove to be but a few among a gathering answer to Boz’s question: Where are the voices?

Note: I hope to add another post soon, including my thoughts on discernment in publicly addressing allegations like those made against Mahaney and others with care for the possibility of false accusation. More to come.