Ministering among mixed responses

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.



  1. Superbly written Johnny.

  2. Politics vs Religion. A major separation. My personal opinion is relevant to the Supreme Courts decision for the rights of citizens of the United States.

  3. I take exception to the statement and disagree strongly with…………”I do not always know what the truth is, but I can always tell what love is.”………the Truth is God’s word and it is a Loving Act to tell people the truth about what affects their eternity. i suppose the question is, “do you accept the sufficiency of God’s Word or not. Personally, i do.

    • Dr Tom, thank you for being a shepherd to your congregation who relies on the truth of God’s word to lead, not public opinion or the shifting sands of political correctness. The strength of your conviction to stand up for Jesus is an encouragement to others to do the same. God’s word is clear on this matter, homosexual relations are a sin. Marriage, as defined by God alone, is between one man and one woman. I am perplexed and beyond sad that Christians are struggling with this issue.

      Knowing Bill and reading between the lines of his statement, it’s no mystery to me where he stands personally on this issue. My prayers will be for my friends at FBC Gainesville to know the truth and to be courageous to stand firm as they are now called upon to shepherd their own pastor.

      • I do not believe there was any meaning “between the lines” of Bill’s statements! I believe very openly, he made his stance clear, and that is that he is not the Judge! Neither are you, nor am I, the Judge! I would imagine you do not believe in divorce. I would imagine you do not believe in the separation of church and state, as well as other fundamentalist, conservative traps of religion. Do you believe that a woman should be a head minister or lead men in a church? THAT is in the Bible, as well, and I would imagine that you believe not by your statements here! I also believe in the tradition of religious belief to defy science, as well as, the MANY Biblical passages that were you to interpret literally, would leave MANY in a state of eternal damnation! It was VERY clear, without reading into what was not there, that Bill was leading a congregation to LOVE! Which was what Jesus taught! I think it takes a very unsophisticated eye to judge the matter simply, as well as the Biblical statement simply, and to not see who indeed is the shepherd here! I know Bill as well, and what he will do is in the love represented by Christ throughout His ministry, as well as His words on the matter, present a solid Biblical stance on it, and he will open the decision to the congregation. SO, go through your Bible again, and revisit at all of the words written in red, and try not to make polarizing public statements revealing of your own ignorance of not only your target in person, but also of Scripture! Personally, I will say that I believe wholeheartedly Jesus covered it all in His 3 years of ministry and testimony! AND it is just not in there, what it is you are advocating and for what you are condemning others!

    • Yes the truth is God’s word but Tom….you have sinned and your eternity is not affected by that sin. You and I both know that sin is not the deciding factor as to where you spend eternity. It is one thing and one thing only…believing that Jesus died for your sin, that he was born and raised again and that you have are a follower of the one and only Almighty.

    • Once again Rev. Smiley has taken it upon himself to judge people for their beliefs, even though it says in the very Bible that we all read, “Judge not, lest you be judged.” Let me say, I don’t always agree with my pastor (Dr. Bill Coates) but I support him, love him and am proud to know his heart is not that of hate, condemnation and judgement, but that of love, compassion and grace. I am glad that MY pastor is one who teaches us to love one another the way Christ loves us. We are not here on earth to condem others based on what we believe, that’s God’s job and to be honest, we should let him do his job…he’s excellent at it!

  4. Tom- Let me check the all-sufficient scriptures for Paul’s note where seeing through dark glass excludes you. It’s the sufficiency of our biblical interpretations that is in question.

    • John, there are many enduring mysteries that are not fully revealed by the Bible. For instance, that God can predestine an elect to become heirs with Christ (Ephesians 1, among others) and yet still require us to take responsibility for our response to the call to repentance, when it comes (John 3, also among others). Who wrote the book of Hebrews? What was Paul’s “thorn”? Can we discern a clear demarcation between God’s irresistible and ultimately sovereign will of decree, and His will of desire?

      Similarly, there are many things taught in the Bible that are crystal clear and are meant to be so. We are to love one another. That love is defined for us in 1st Corinthians 13 and exemplified by the love of the Father for His Son and the Son for the Father. The over-arching attribute of that love is a constant seeking after what is best for the other, a selfless behavior that accepts inconvenience, revulsion, pain and even death on a cross in order to bring the best “good” to the beloved. This, among other scripture, also points to a clear need to behave with patience and grace to ALL those around us, despite our equally clear directive to “not rejoice in wrongdoing but [to] rejoice in truth.”

      Also clear is a definition of the proper context, socially and spiritually, for sex. Marriage was the very first covenant, reaching all the way back to Genesis. All forms of union outside of that covenant have, from that moment forward, been condemned as “sexual immorality,” from Abram and Hagar, the awful suggestions of the crowd outside Lot’s home in Sodom and the stomach-churning union between Lot and his daughters, to David’s illicit affair with Bathsheba, Solomon’s lustful downfall, and on it goes. It didn’t stop with the coming of the Messiah in Jesus Christ, either, because despite his gracious and discerning intervention in the stoning of the adulteress at the beginning of John 8, his last words to the woman were as poignant as they could possibly be: “go and sin no more.” So also were his words in Matthew 19 when the Pharisees asked Him about divorce. Paul continued this teaching throughout his epistles to the Greek churches, admonishing the church at Corinth to actually excommunicate a member engaged in unrepentant, impenitent sexual immorality (1st Corinthians 5).

      So, while Dr. Tom and I disagree on some things, I have to take his side on the sufficiency and clarity of scripture to teach those things God decided to make clear to us. The context for that “dark glass” is specifically the impermanence of our Earthly wisdom, which Paul says will be blown away by the perfect wisdom of the Father when we meet Him face-to-face, when juxtaposed with true Love, which Paul says is eternal. It is improper and incorrect when taken out of context and used to obscure that which God has chosen to make clear to us in the Bible.

  5. To expand the conversation beyond Lake Lanier, Bob Browning, pastor of First Baptist Church of Frankfurt, Ky., had some helpful words for his congregation this morning:
    “This is my response to the ruling of the Supreme Court on Same-Sex Marriage. I delivered this Sunday morning at FBC in Frankfort. I told the members the era of “Don’t Ask-Don’t Talk” in churches is over, and this is my attempt to begin a healthy and helpful discussion in our church.
    I grew up making fun of homosexuals and lesbians. I called them names—bad names—to their face and behind their back.
    I passed on rumors about them—how did I know if they were true? Didn’t matter.
    I sneered, jeered and laughed at them.
    And I did it without a hint of guilt or shame.
    I feel that shame now…45 and 50 years later.
    I have looked back on my behavior and wished for two things. I wish I could undo the things I said and did.
    I wish I could apologize to those I embarrassed and hurt.
    But I can’t. Most, if not all of them, are dead.
    They died young. When I was taking my kids to Little League baseball games, they were struggling to survive. Most didn’t make it.
    Why my change of heart?
    After I became a preacher, people started talking to me about the most sensitive and delicate parts of their lives: their sexual attractions. They told me things they probably told no one else, or at least a select few. I will carry those confidential conversations to my grave.
    These were good people: intelligent, industrious, ambitious, hard-working and productive. They were doctors, lawyers, teachers, military officers, neighbors, friends…
    Their conversations began sounding similar. Every one of them was telling me three common things.
    I did not choose to be this way. Anyone would be a fool to choose this lifestyle. I tried to appear normal by dating the opposite sex. I am lonely and miserable and live in fear of losing my family, my friends or my job. I live a life of secrecy and pretense.
    I have buried some of these people.
    You don’t have to walk away from many cemeteries to start making changes in the way you think, live, believe and behave.
    This was the time I coined the phrase, “When you put a name and a face and a story with issues and decisions, it changes everything.” At least it does for me.
    Perhaps this is why Jesus walked the dusty Palestinian roads listening to people’s stories and responding with empathy and grace. No other religious leaders did this, and they didn’t like the fact he did.
    Many of Jesus’ peers became angry with him because he was kind and good to the wrong people. It was one of the reasons they killed him.
    What did I change after I began listening to people’s tragic and heartbreaking stories?
    For starters, I confessed my youthful sins. I begged for mercy. I am convinced God was far more upset with me than the people I taunted.
    I made a commitment to God and these past friends that I would never become a Bible bully and beat people over the head with hurtful clichés.
    I vowed to read and learn more about how sexual preference is determined. I haven’t even scratched the surface, but I know it is far more complex, complicated and confusing than I thought.
    I dug into the scriptures to see what they had to say. When I did, I discovered the most unusual thing. Jesus never mentioned anything about homosexuals and lesbians. Nothing.
    He mentioned marriage once in the Sermon on the Mount, but that was a reference to divorce.
    So years ago, I set out to discover what Jesus did talk about. What was important to him? What was he passionate about? What was his agenda?
    Here is what I discovered.
    Jesus offered an alternative vision for the world, one which valued love over hate, serving over being served, sacrifice over self-indulgence, truth over deception, justice over injustice, inclusion over exclusion, generosity over greed, humility over arrogance, forgiveness over revenge, healing over hurting and peace over war.
    Jesus, like God, was passionate about confronting evil, righting wrong, lifting up the lowly, finding the forgotten, liberating the oppressed, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, comforting the grieving, loving the unlovely, encouraging people to achieve their potential, forgiving people who made mistakes, giving people a second chance, teaching people how to live peaceably with one another and inspiring people to build bridges of goodwill, understanding and reconciliation instead of walls of suspicion and hate.
    On the day I made this discovery, I made a commitment to respond anew to Jesus’ invitation to ‘follow him’. I meant it literally this time. I would become passionate about the same things he did. This has been the focus of my ministry since.
    What does all this mean in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling last week? I’m not sure. I am just beginning to process it.
    For me it means being candid and honest with you. This is my journey and my experience. I don’t know where it will lead.
    I am not asking you to be like me. You can’t; you have not walked in my shoes, heard what I have heard and studied what I have.
    You may have strong convictions about this issue that lead you in an entirely different direction from where I am now. That’s fine.
    I don’t subscribe to the theory that says for me to be right everybody else has to be wrong. Like a prism, there are many ways to look at any issue.
    This is why civil discussion is crucial. We need to hear one another’s perspective.
    So, follow your passions and convictions. Your voice needs to be heard, too. I need to hear it. You have a lot you can teach me.
    Just hang in there and struggle along with me like the disciples did with Jesus. Let’s all grow together in ways that make our faith and church stronger.”

    • You, as a study er of the bible, found no reference to homosexuality or lesbianism. Could it be there was no H or L back when the bible was written? Maybe it was kept under wraps? H and L is a non violent state. Unobtrusive? In the healthy form ( purely objective ) H and L is practiced in the monogamous way. HMMMMMM. Why is there no H or L in the bible? There is mention of unrighteous sexual behavior. Is it used just to set the attitude of a story or parable it’s using as a moralistic example???????

  6. Christians DO NOT celebrate habitual sin, (or any sin for that matter.) Instead, Christ died and has risen so that we will weep for our sin and short-comings. We ask and express gratitude toward the forgiveness of sin and find our grace in blood that was spilled as the greatest Sacriment. What “bible” are you reading, you “theologians” of the Living Word? Apparently, it excludes 2Corinthians and Romans. Make no mistake, Jesus the Risen Christ has left NO room for interpretations on neither sin, nor love. I will pray for us all.

  7. Several years ago, a mother came to me and told me she was leaving the church. She could no longer listen to the hate that was spewed by the “Christians” of her church. She left. I stayed. I just did not talk about my son. When the crude hateful remarks were made, I just bit my lip. But now, I will no longer deny my child. I too have left the church…not God, no my love for Him or His son is still strong. My God is still with me. What is not with me is the intended harm to another individual who God has created and made. God does not make mistakes…his creations are perfect. My son is a wonderful human being who only wishes to be himself. He too attends church and praises God, just not with those who can only condemn and not allow anyone different into their church. A person who interprets the Bible literally told me that my son would burn in hell and I would also. (This coming from a woman who is a deacon in her church and is on her third marriage.) As I told her, I will now tell all of you who are so sure of your perfection and correctness. I would rather spend eternity in hell with my son then eternity in heaven with people like you!

  8. Gary, go back and reread what John said. Nowhere did he say that he found no reference to H and L in the scriptures. If he did could you point it out to me where
    he said he could find “no reference to H and L” (your words) I believe he did say, that Jesus never mentioned anything about H and L. Nothing. That is a lot different than
    saying he found no reference.

    • Semantics

  9. I don’t believe he is looking for the meaning or studying the word homosexual – He said he was looking to see I am a what Jesus said about it. I am a redeemed child of God
    and he told us to love others as he has loved us. Hard to do when people are so different from us isn’t it? After 75 years I have learned that I am not going to be final
    judge of those who come before Him — I have finally decided to leave that to Him. But
    I have done a lot of it my life time – been wrong about 9 out 10 times So since I have done my share I will leave it to Him Do you think we might be surprise to see some who remain that we just knew would not make it as one of his own – or do you think when we look around we will say, Lord you got it right – you judged everybody just the way I did. Just wondering

  10. This is an honest question for those people who believe biblical interpretation is crystal clear? Does your church allow the following as members, deacons, and or teachers:

    1. Women who cut their hair?
    2. People who work on Sunday?
    3. Divorced people?
    4. People who eat shellfish?

    If all of these are allowed, shouldn’t the members and pastors of these churches be sheperded?

  11. I forgot to add to the list:
    1. Can women talk or teach in your church?
    2. Are women forced to wear hats in your church?

  12. The issue is gay marriage and church menbership.
    This is a lot more imortant that is it OK to eat at RedLobster.
    Those important but non-related like questions were dealt with by competant Sunday School teachers in my youth.

    This issue of gay marriage according to Scripture in the New Testamentthis matters about a person’s inheriting the kingdom of God. This issue is much more important than Lobster Fest.
    This issue is if a lifestyle activly preventing people from the kingdom of God according to Scripture.

    In the New Testament the church celebrated those repenting of sinful lifestyles and directly to THE issue..
    I Corintinans 6:11 (NIV) “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
    And now the Christian Church has to decide about this issue? After 2,000 years?
    An issue early the earliest Christans celebrated being washed of?

    This issue is tethered to other sins that have to be delt with today as specifically stated >sexually immorality, Idolatry, adulterery, men who have sex with men, thieves, greed, drunkards, slanderers and swindlers In 1st Corinthians 6:9-10.

    Is the church supposed to celebrate what is listed with other actions that will keep those we love from the kingdom of God? That is not love winning.

    The the CBF needs to answer.
    The CBFneeds to be firm in more than the unofficial slogan “We are not the SBC.”
    Does that mean anything or view goes since it is not SBC?
    The view of of living by Scripture or not must be more than drawn out jargon.
    Here is the question.
    Will churches and individuals who claim redemption go against the Word of God?

    1 Corinthians 6:9-11New International Version (NIV)

    9 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men[a] 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

  13. Read the scriptures more. Clear answers to this issue are there. This is a time of reformation in politics and religion.


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