By One Vote



By Walter Fenton –

Even though traditionalists saw it coming, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision regarding same-sex marriage was still shocking. Five justices redefined a bedrock institution that had stood the test of time for millennia. With little understanding of the social and cultural consequences of their actions, the five justices usurped from the various states and their peoples the task of defining marriage. They legitimized with the term “marriage” unions that, until very recently, were opposed by leading members of both political parties. They opened a Pandora’s Box they will find very hard to shut as people involved in polyamorous relationships petition the courts to legitimize their understanding of marriage. And finally, they have set the religious rights of faith communities on a collision course with those demanding that their newly declared rights be honored anywhere and everywhere.

How should Christians who hold to a biblical understanding of marriage serve as Christ’s disciples in a nation that has redefined that understanding? And what does this all mean for the future of The United Methodist Church?

Some have jumped to the erroneous conclusion that the Court’s decision will inevitably lead the delegates at General Conference 2016 to liberalize the church’s teachings on same-sex marriage. This is to connect two things that almost certainly should not be connected, namely, that what happens in the U.S. culture eventually becomes permissible in the church.

Perhaps there was a time when the UM Church was reflective of the U.S. as a whole, but that is no longer the case. Forty percent of UM members now live in Africa, Europe, and The Philippines. Their votes on petitions in favor of same-sex marriage will be driven by their theological and moral convictions, not by a U.S. Supreme Court decision. Of course, plenty of U.S. traditionalists will join them, and therefore it is more likely the GC 2016 delegates will maintain the UM Church’s present position on same-sex marriage.

Still, UM traditionalists in the U.S. will increasingly find themselves living in a wider culture that finds their views on same-sex marriage bewildering at best, and bigoted at worst. They’ll have to be very discerning about what they say and don’t say in the workplace, at civic meetings, at extended family gatherings, and of course, even at church. This is not fear mongering, it’s just simply recognizing what has already happened in some places, and will become the norm for Christians who believe marriage is between one man and one woman. They’ll have to think carefully how they respond in a changing cultural environment.

white house rainbow nick amoscato via flickrSince the Court’s decision there has been no shortage of proposed ways socially conservative Christians might respond. Writer Rod Dreher, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, has gained attention for what he calls the “Benedict Option.” Named after Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480-547 AD), the saint widely recognized as the founder of western monasticism, Dreher proposes Christian conservatives spend less  time fighting the culture wars and more time and energy turning inward, “thickening habits and community bonds, and building institutions.”

Some have criticized Dreher by comparing his proposal to the broad retreat of fundamentalist evangelicals from the public square after the Scopes Monkey Trial of the 1920s. Others have warmed to it, arguing that social conservatives have become too enmeshed in national politics. They believe the church’s witness and reputation has been damaged (particularly so among people in their late teens and 20s), and they point out that conservative Christians in the public square have failed to win any major battles in the cultural wars.

Dreher has been quick to respond to critics who claim he’s calling for surrender. He’s not advocating socially conservative Christians quit politics, he says, so much as advocating for a strategic retrenchment. He believes social conservatives should concentrate on repairing and rebuilding its institutions so they can properly catechize and prepare the next generation for a future sure to be more challenging and perhaps bleaker than previous periods in our culture’s history.

On the other hand, any number of social conservatives have argued for doubling-down and continuing to fight for social principles rooted in Scripture. This is most obvious in the presidential campaigns of figures such as Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, and Rick Santorum. All three have advocated for reversing the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision with a Constitutional Amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

Plenty of Christian conservatives appreciate their pluck and tenacity, but most believe the bar is now too high for passing such an approach. Nevertheless, many culturally conservative Christians believe it is imperative to keep fighting, even if the best strategy is not readily apparent.

Still other Christian conservatives believe opposition to same-sex marriage is not a hill worth dying on. To be sure, they are opposed to it, and have no interest in supporting a denomination that accommodates it. However, they believe far too much attention has been given to the issue. They fear continued opposition will harm the church, making it an easy target for progressives to portray it as the last bastion of homophobia, an institutional dinosaur that will pass from the scene in due course. People in this camp argue for “changing the conversation” and emphasizing what culturally conservative Christians are for, rather than what they are against.

H. Richard Niebuhr’s timeless classic Christ and Culture (1951) comes to mind as we navigate our way forward. Some of the options considered above track with Niebuhr’s ways Christians have and will continue to contend with culture. Christians are always asking, or should be asking, do we adopt a stance against the culture, one that works within it, or one that simply stands apart from it?

As Niebuhr demonstrated, Christians have deployed each approach down through the centuries and around the world. And they have seldom adopted one so as to entirely exclude the others. All have their strengths and weaknesses. Trying to get the mix right is not a science, but rather the task of a community of faith as it seeks to be open and responsive to the work of the Holy Spirit.

Dreher’s “Benedict option” is surely correct in calling culturally conservative Christians to a time of rethinking and retrenchment. It’s not a sign of weakness or surrender to make a tactical retreat to reform the lines, and to prepare to come at culture in different and perhaps more effective ways.

The key, of course, is not to fall into a state of perpetual retreat. That’s why we need people who are willing to prod and poke us back to the front lines. It’s all too easy to convince ourselves our retreat is strategic, when in reality it is a quiet accommodation with culture or a fearful huddle that simply grows smaller by the year. As uncomfortable as they can make us, we do need social activists in the spirit of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison – and even John Brown – to stir us to action.

Of course, we cannot always be railing against the culture. Culture is not something God wants us to destroy. He loves the world, and is at work transforming it through power of Gospel. Christianity at its best seeks to follow Christ in the kingdom work of transformation. Martial metaphors naturally come to mind when thinking about the church and culture. Given that Scripture and Church tradition are steeped in them, it’s appropriate for us to use them. However, it’s important to remember we are not engaged in a war of destruction. We are fighting for the hearts and souls of men and women, and even for the cultures in which they live, work and play. “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). Ultimately, we are for God’s great creation, for all God’s people, and for the cultures God has given his creatures the imaginations to create.

When Jesus sent his disciples forth, he told them to be wise as serpents – and gentle as doves. Living out the faith is neither for the naive nor the cynic. It’s for people who love God’s people as Jesus loved them, and for those who recognize that truly loving people always comes at a price. At a minimum, loving people will eventually break your heart, and at a maximum, it will demand your life.

In the midst of living the faith, it’s easy to underestimate or overestimate how to respond to the forces currently around us. The temptation after something like the Supreme Court’s dramatic and truly disappointing decision is to think we live in the worst of times. We don’t.

In truth, the state sanctions a number of things we find problematic and even wicked. But we dare not pretend our challenges are all that unique or that our situation is all that trying. Some of our ancestors in the faith lived through far worse, and even today Christian brothers and sisters are being forced to make the ultimate sacrifice for their faith in Christ.

Elijah was a truly great prophet, but he wasn’t above engaging in self-pity. But God was not amused. And if God did not coddle Elijah, we can be sure he will not coddle socially conservative Christians in the U.S. Quite the opposite. He has blessed us with rich communities of faith, endowed us with more than enough resources for the challenges we face, and he has given us every reason to live with hope and joy.

He has equipped us to be happy warriors, and is doing us the honor of expecting our very best.

Walter B. Fenton is a United Methodist clergyperson and an analyst for Good News.


  1. In response to Mr. Fenton’s “analysis” I would have to ask for clarifications. He states that these are not the worst of times, but for me they are. My individual relationship with God is the driving force behind my involvement with society, at this time. He states that “…God didn’t coddle Elijah and we can be sure he won’t coddle socially conservative Christians in the U.S.” What does that even mean? For me, as a Christian, I believe in God’s Word and I’m not going to support those people/societies/laws which ignore God’s Word. The consequences of my decision are mine. He has not offered me any options nor reasons why I should compromise God’s instruction. We either find a way to “live” with the world where we don’t compromise our beliefs or we don’t (don’t compromise or don’t have any beliefs). Those seem to be the options.

  2. The “problem” with Rod Dreher’s proposal is that too many of us “turn inward” toward authors, churches, web page blogs, even live mainly with those with whom we agree. I’ve personally been associated with the Methodist and Untied Methodist (spelling intentional) Church for 59 years – and have outlasted some “very interesting” viewpoints held by clergy in the various churches to which I belonged. I’ve told at least one pastor who espoused theology which was very foreign, and in ways quite warped, that “I’d be at the church long after he was gone.” I celebrated at his departure gathering, because he was leaving, not sorry that he was leaving. We should engage each other, engage those with whom we disagree, as well as those with whom we agree. That is the only way to achieve consensus, mutual respect, and understanding.

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