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Church Leadership: Remember When Jesus Took a Stand on Marriage Equality

Take a stand. That is the battle cry of the opposing sides in the pot-boiling church debates over same-sex marriage as churches leave denominations and members leave local churches. Family pitted against family as ministers try to hold divided flocks together amid pressures to leave or not leave the denomination. Beleaguered pastors face a steady stream of meetings with congregants wanting to know where their leader stands – often pressing them to take a stand. The two-sides, “righteously” opposed, unwittingly collude to expand congregational divide that has seriously wounded our churches.

Hurt-people – hurt people. Besides disagreeing theologically, both sides feel greatly demeaned by the other side. The same-sex marriage supporters feel attacked by those who demonize same-sex orientation, exclude them from religious community and block their attempts to legitimize their loving relationships. Conversely same-sex detractors feel run over by a culture, media and Supreme Court ruling that crams a gay agenda down their throats and ridicules their biblical beliefs. This ugly fight inflicts considerable spiritual, emotional, and financial pain inside the church. To outsiders, this bitter infighting increasingly is the face of the church.

What stand would Jesus take? Actually Jesus did take a stand. In Matthew 22, he was asked: what is the greatest commandment? His answer was simple: Love God with all your heart, mind and soul; and, love your neighbor as yourself. He added, “All law and prophesy hang on these.” In other words, if there is any question about the law, understand that its purpose is to enable us to live in loving relationships. Jesus prioritized neighbor-loving over law-keeping.

In Luke’s version (Luke 10) a young lawyer who wanted to justify himself asks the killer follow-up question: Who is your neighbor?

Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan: A man, probably Jewish, is traveling down a road and gets robbed, beat-up and left half-dead. A Jewish Priest followed by a Levite church-person each pass on the other side, ignoring his plight. Then along comes a Samaritan who bandages his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He takes the man to a lodge, spends the night caring for him, pays his lodging and promises to check on him on his return trip. Jesus concludes by asking which of the three – Priest, Levite or Samaritan – was his neighbor? The answer: the Samaritan; go and do likewise. Jesus and his listeners were fully aware the Jews and Samaritans were bitter religious enemies, originally divided over – approved marriage! The Jews considered themselves strict followers of the law. When they were hauled away to bondage in Babylon, some Jews remained behind and began marrying non-Jews, counter to Jewish law. They became known as Samaritans. God’s definition of acceptable marriage was at the center of the dispute. Each group considered themselves righteous, the other group unclean and each built their own temple. Sound familiar?

Jesus could have rendered judgment on marriage law and who was scripturally most righteous, but he didn’t. Instead, he placed love and relationships above legal doctrine. His earlier instruction, all law and prophesy hang on these – love God and love your neighbor – becomes flesh in his remarkable parable. His stand was simple: love your neighbor even when you disdain their theology. In this key parable being on the right side of the neighbor-love commandment by forming loving community was what mattered. He passed on judging marital equality – who was equal or accepted or not under the law.

As parents, we get it. When Jesus sees his children fighting, his priority is not the theological righteousness of their arguments, but rather them loving one another.

Was this on purpose – even inspired? He repeatedly baffles the Pharisees by “passing on the other side” when it comes to legalistic judging: the prodigal son, the adulteress caught in the act, questions on the Sabbath. They apply the law to judge lawbreakers. Jesus is no more impressed with their self-righteous theology than he is with ours. He raises the bar by re-purposing the law for enabling love. Does that discount the law? Absolutely not! The law is crucial in building stronger relationship: his instructions involving fidelity and honesty are his substantial gifts to help us love our neighbor and our God. His intention: use the law as a tool for love and accountability, not a weapon to bludgeon and separate ourselves from others – even our enemies.

How? He brings us into community as his workshop to stimulate, challenge and develop us in neighbor-love. Predictably as the late Henri Nouwen said, “Community is the place where the person you least want to be with always lives.” Jesus hung out with those who were different – outcasts. He seems to prefer our efforts to love those who are different over our efforts to seek righteous sameness.

What if we dropped the decibels on what we stand for theologically and amplified Jesus’s teaching to love our neighbor? What if we decided that sitting next to someone in church whose views on same-sex marriage are very different than ours – Jew- vs. Samaritan-different – is exactly what Jesus commanded as his highest order? What if our church and our faith became known for following his highest law: loving our neighbor, differences and all? At the height of sectarian violence during the Iraq war, former head of the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff General Peter Pace uttered a truth that carries guidance for the ages: “If the Iraqi people as a whole decided today that, in my words now, they love their children more than they hate their neighbor, this could come to a quick conclusion.”

What if we made it our stand: to love what unites us more than we hate what divides us. Our angry, divided world hungers to see that word become flesh. Perhaps these religious wars leave us wounded like the man robbed, beaten and half-dead on the side of the road. What we desperately need to give and receive is Good Samaritan love.

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