About nine years ago, John Piper preached a message about “Discerning the Will of God Concerning Homosexuality and Marriage.” The message made an impression on me, and for many years now I’ve been reading a portion of this sermon every semester to my hermeneutics students.
I share the message now because it is astonishing to me how prophetic it is in light of the decisions handed down from the Supreme Court earlier this week. You can read the manuscript excerpt below, but I recommend that you listen to the audio. There is much more in the audio version than in what appears in the manuscript. Keep in mind that this was nine years ago:
[begin at 30:50]
What has changed dramatically in the last fifty years is the concept of meaning and truth in our culture. Once it was the responsibility of historical scholars and judges and preachers to find the fixed meaning of a text (an essay, the Constitution, the Bible) and justify it with grammatical and historical arguments, and then explain it. Meaning in texts was not created by scholars and judges and preachers. It was found, because the authors put it there. Authors had intentions. And it was a matter of integrity to find what a writer intended—that was the meaning of the essay, the Constitution, the Bible. Everybody knew that if a person wrote “no” and someone else creatively interpreted it to mean “yes,” something fraudulent had happened.
But we have fallen a long way from that integrity. In historical scholarship and in constitutional law and in biblical interpretation, it is common today to say that meaning is whatever you see, not what the author said or intended. To get right to the point, today the Constitution is being “amended,” whether we like it or not. That is, courts are finding there what never was there in any of the authors’ minds, namely, a right to marriage between two men or two women. This kind of so-called interpretation creates out of nothing a definition of marriage that has never existed. In other words, the question is not whether the Constitution will be amended concerning the meaning of marriage and the rights of homosexual people to marry; the question is simply how it will be amended. Will it be by the means established by the Constitution itself? Or will it be by the Supreme Court creating a meaning for the Constitution which was never there in the authors’ farthest imaginations?
I realize that there are many people who will read this and dismiss it as a passé throwback to modernism and its hermeneutical hang-ups. I beg to differ. Piper is right. It is in fact a matter of integrity to understand what an author intended by what he wrote. That principle applies to all literature, including the Constitution. It strains credulity—to say the very least—to imagine that the framers intended this document to become the legal basis for gay marriage. But the hermeneutical control of authorial intent has been almost completely sidelined in modern jurisprudence. Authorial intent is one among many factors in interpretation, but it is not the decisive factor for many judges. And therein is the loss of integrity that has led to rulings such as we saw this week.
Piper goes on to talk about how Christians ought to engage a culture that is rapidly undoing itself with sinful fictions like gay marriage. Piper says he is not happy with the political engagement that he sees among many evangelicals. Again, there is so much more in the audio, and I recommend that you listen to it. The manuscript version below is a bit more abbreviated.
[begin at 44:32]
We do not smirk at the misery or the merrymaking of immoral culture. We weep. Being pilgrims does not mean being cynical. The salt of the earth does not mock rotting meat. Where it can, it saves and seasons. And where it can’t, it weeps.
Being Christian pilgrims in American culture does not end our influence, it takes the swagger out of it. We don’t get cranky when evil triumphs for a season. We don’t whine when things don’t go our way. We are not hardened with anger. We understand. What’s happening is not new. The early Christians were profoundly out of step with their culture. The Imperial words of Christ were ringing in their ears: “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13). Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44).
I think these words will become more and more our lifeline as religious liberty erodes in coming days. This is a good word, and I recommend that you listen to all of it.
Thank you so much for posting this. Loving and responding to homosexual persons is not abstract for me. We are speaking of my family and coworkers.
I don’t have a problem with what the person does, that is between him/her and God alone, but what I do have a problem is when they come up to me and they try to say that those acts are ok for him/her to say that it is ok and that I am in their presence….That’s my issue…
Wow, thank you for posting this. Very needed today.
I’m on the conservative side with you on the homosexuality issue but I don’t think our best argument is to argue the intention of the framers of the Constitution. It is better to be an example (Anabaptist approach) or argue in the public square that it is healthiest for society to have marriages between a man and a woman (Reformed approach). I worry about the narrow literalism implied here of hewing to original authorial intent. I’m thinking here of Jesus and Paul interpreting the Old Testament in fresh ways beyond the understanding of the OT writers. I do not think the Constitution framers nor any of us would want their words taken literally in such a rigid way that they might impede the spirit of what they said. Again, this is not really related to the homosexuality issue but rather about whether the appeal to “a matter of integrity to find what a writer intended” works.
But people will not listen, nor will not agree, for the argument sake, even when it is healthy, they will say “well you can’t say that, it’s offensive”…..So what does a person do when the simplist thing that is being talked about, is not being herd?
I think the main argument that the church ought to make is not that society flurishes and that its healiest for society, but that homosexuality distorts the Gospel Ephesians 5, it distorts Gods love for his bride, they way Christ interacts with His People, the Church.
Piper has called out not just the sinful fiction of homosexual “marriage” but a whole host of other issues that stem from the distortion of the author’s intent. Thank you for posting this, Denny!
david j perrin
I believe in the bottom of my heart people are born straight or gay, due to no fault of their own.
@David J Perrin, The Bible says you gotta be born again 🙂
Fortunately we don’t look for truth in the bottom of anyone’s heart…
How is that even possible? We are made in the image of God, how can someone be gay?
The Image of God reference in Gen 1:27 is a spiritual reference, not a physical one.
In terms of our physical selves we are born with all manner of things. Some ppl are born with an ‘alcohol gene’ which makes them predisposed to alcoholism. Some ppl are born as intersex or hermaphrodites which makes them predisposed to bisexuality or transgendered behavior…. So science may indeed in the future find that there is a gay gene, or come up with some other biological explanation.
Even if science does that, however, it would not make homosexuality any less sinful (IMO). To paraphrase Rick Warren, just because my natural self wishes to have sex with every woman I meet doesn’t mean fornication and adultery aren’t sinful.
As the debates within SCOTUS have taught us these last 200 years there’s really no such thing as “fixed” meaning. Just like the victors of war write the history books, the majority determines the meaning of words…And in many ways the debate abt gay marriage is now less abt the historical meaning of the word “marriage” and increasingly more abt the meaning of the Equal Protection Clause.
As the majority changes so to does our meaning of words. Though at one time SCOTUS ruled that the Equal Protection Clause meant that we could be separate and equal, a different majority later ruled that the EPC meant that separate could never be equal. So this idea of “fixed” language.
Rightly or wrongly (and there have been cases on both sides) words mean what the majority says they mean. I mean, can we even count the number of churches that have been split over the interpretation of scripture these last 2000 years? Even the early church debated the meaning of scripture. How much more so us?
1) The gay marriage debate is basically all about the 14th Amendment, so it doesn’t matter what the framers thought.
2) The idea that authorial intent is the Holy Grail of constitutional law doesn’t make much sense, so I don’t think we can say that it proceeds from the Christian worldview. Laws aren’t like letters or novels. They don’t have single authors. They’re written and passed by scores of drafters and legislators who are beholden to a variety of different constituencies. It’s not like there is one sentient being behind every provision with one “intent” for how the law will be worked out in all future situations. This is especially true in constitutional law. Take any constitutional provision – it’s likely that the legislators didn’t all agree on all its meanings and implications the day it was passed, let alone 50 or 100 years down the road. So chasing authorial intent in constitutional interpretation is like chasing a ghost. It doesn’t really exist.
3) But let’s assume for a minute that we can divine constitutional authorial intent. Whenever people look for intent, they always seem to discover that the provision was intended to have one fixed meaning for all time. But why ignore the possibility that a provision’s drafters – e.g. the drafters of the 14th Amendment – intented the law to be vague so that its meaning could develop over time? Take the term “the equal protection of the laws”. That’s a pretty awesome concept, but it’s also pretty vague. My guess is the lawyers who drafted it probably knew it was somewhat vague, and they probably knew its meaning would shift. Did they have any idea that that phrase would end segregation in elementary schools (Brown v. Board)? No, they probably would have been horrified at the idea, but it’s a good thing it did. Vague provisions like this invite change over time. This kind of constitutional change isn’t dishonest, it’s roughly how the document is supposed to work
Chris writes: “To paraphrase Rick Warren, just because my natural self wishes to have sex with every woman I meet doesn’t mean fornication and adultery aren’t sinful.”
The question is not over the definition of sin but rather the extent to which the government can construct laws to reflect those evolving definitions.
Fornication might be a sin, but do we want it to also be a crime met with civil penalties like fines or imprisonment? Drinking to excess might be a sin, but the government shouldn’t be expected to break down the door of your home to confiscate your booze: it’s only interested in your drinking when you put a key in the ignition of your car and risk the lives of others. Idolatry might be a sin of the highest order (if you believe the Bible), but do we want to criminalize the free expression of those faiths and denominations when they do not meet our theological standards? Of course not.
I could go on but you get the idea. There are almost no Christians who are outraged by the fact that heterosexual Christians can marry Jews, that divorce can be obtained for unbiblical reasons or that Mormons, Catholics and Buddhists can receive tax exemptions for their houses of worship.
Why is a civil partnership between two men any different?
Hi, James, you make great points & I agree wholeheartedly. Sorry for any confusion on that. I try to distinguish between what’s “right” under our Constitution & what’s right under the Bible. That post reflects my Biblical views. My Constitutional view is that under the Equal Protections Clause people are entitled to marry whom they please.
Moreover, I don’t see any basis in the NT for Christians to try and restrict the government from legalizing gay marriage. Christ & the Apostles focused almost exclusively on personal salvation. There was a lot of sin performed by the Roman government–from idolatry to pederasty–yet how often did Jesus say, ‘revolt, overthrow your kings, and install a Christian government’? I don’t know of any time He said that. I figure if God gives ppl a choice as to whom to serve, then doing likewise is the least I can do..