Loving Our Neighbor

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In the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling that redefined marriage in America to allow for any committed relationship between any consenting persons, I posted a Connecting Points calling myself and others to “Being Christ-like in an Anti-Christian Culture.” I have received a flood of responses to that article, both supporting and attacking. I had intended to follow that post with additional posts to develop and clarify some of its key concepts, but as the negative and positive reactions escalated into a public media storm, it seemed wise to wait and return to those ideas after learning from the comments. A request from a local pastor and a letter from a local community development organization convinced me that it was time.

The pastor asked if I could come and speak with a group of his parishioners who objected strongly to what they thought I meant or was trying to imply in that post against faithful covenant same-sex marriage. The invitation was sincere and I agreed to join them.

The letter from the organization informed me that it had decided to withdraw an invitation for me to be a keynote speaker at a big annual event. The organization is committed to including all persons in all aspects of their organization, and concluded that I had spoken in favor of excluding people based on their sexual preference.

Unlike many critical messages I have received on this issue, this letter was kind rather than hateful, gentle rather than abusive and conciliatory rather than divisive. I sensed how carefully the writer had labored to find the correct words to explain why they had to cancel their invitation to me. As president of a private Christian organization like Fresno Pacific University and Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, holding a historic Christian definition of marriage, I could not properly publicly represent this secular political action organization that must seek to affirm and unite all people and organizations in a shared effort to improve the quality of life for everyone in our community.

The letter writer did not tell me that Fresno Pacific could not continue to support and work with the organization to improve the community where we both are located. We hope to continue. He did not tell me that I and others from Fresno Pacific could not attend the organization’s events or partner in its important community building initiatives. We hope to attend and engage. The writer did not accuse me personally or my university of being hateful, bigoted or mean-spirited. He was respectful and gracious to me and to Fresno Pacific, and he acknowledged that they regretted needing to exclude me from speaking publicly for them. He did what he felt his organization had to do for their public image, but he did not prevent us from collaborating on issues and needs where we share values and vision for a better community.

The world of power politics and conjured images lives by dividing and polarizing, by demonizing and excluding your enemies and glorifying and including only your friends and neighbors who agree with you. That worldview is fundamentally anti-Christian and does not understand or tolerate people who try to live as Jesus taught and modeled. Jesus said love your enemies and pray for those who despitefully abuse you. Jesus told us to love God and seek his kingdom first and foremost, and to love others as we love ourselves. We are called to sincerely demonstrate our love for God by loving our neighbors, even our neighbors—and friends and family members—whose behaviors we cannot approve, even our hateful neighbors who do not care to understand us and do not even want to tolerate us unless we agree with every point of their ideology and approve all their behaviors—political, economic, social or sexual. Jesus calls us to respect every person and show his love to them, and especially those whose behaviors offend us as sinful.

Historically the American Constitution has ensured the free exercise of religion, a principle that allows those of us at Fresno Pacific to maintain a distinctive academic and spiritual community of people who voluntarily agree to live and behave in ways that align with our deep religious convictions. We do not try to force our beliefs or behaviors on anyone who does not share our convictions and who does not want to join our particular community of faith and life. That is why I wrote that our real hope is not to make America a Christian nation that would impose our beliefs and behaviors on all citizens. Our real hope is to see America increasingly become a nation of people who have freely committed themselves to becoming more like Christ.

That is why I also wrote that we must find new ways to be truly Christ-like in reconciling people to God and to each other in the context of an anti-Christian environment that thrives on divisive partisanship, coercion and the rejection of any divine authority that claims to be above the authority of the government. True Christians choose to live under the authority of God and accept the authority of the Bible as God’s revelation of himself and his wise will for our lives.

Jesus told me to love and show kindness to my neighbors even if I disagree with their beliefs and morally disapprove of their behavior. The reason is that I also need to be loved, and I am too often the willfully sinful neighbor. I am too often not good at holding firmly to what I believe the Bible teaches, while also demonstrating gracious Christianity to those I believe are wrong. Because each side of the same-sex marriage issue sincerely believes that the other side is sinning on this matter, feelings are justifiably strong. We are learning in new ways how to love those we believe are sinning or approving of sin. So where sin or the concern about sin abounds, so much more must gracious love for our neighbor abound.