Mark S. Mitchell

Pastor, Writer, Follower of Jesus


The Church, the State and Gay Marriage

I’ve been thinking a bit about the decision before the Supreme Court regarding gay marriage. I recently read an article by Tony Campolo in which he asked, why is the government at all involved in marrying people? If marriage is a sacred institution, why is the government controlling it, especially in a nation where we believe in separation of church and state?

These are good questions. I’ve been officiating weddings for over 30 years. As part of the ceremony I’ve always said, “And now, by the authority given to me as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and according to the laws of this state, I do now pronounce you husband and wife.” As far as I know, that’s the only thing I do as a pastor (preaching, praying, leading, counseling, funerals) in which I am required to act as an agent of the state. Campolo asks, “Doesn’t it seem inconsistent that during such a highly religious ceremony, I should have to turn the church into a place where government business is conducted?”

I also fear that someday this could lead to the government dictating to ministers who they can and cannot marry. Recently, I sat with Evangelical believers in the Dominican Republic who have dealt with a similar problem. Historically, in the Dominican Republic, the government stated that only Catholic churches had the authority to officially marry couples. Evangelical Churches could only bless religious marriages after couples had been officially married elsewhere. As a result, many Evangelicals have been forced to live in “common law” marriages without the official sanction of the government. Do we really want the state deciding who can and cannot get married?

Campolo suggests a way out of this apparent conflict and the tough questions being raised about whether our nation should approve of gay marriages. He believes that the government should get out of the business of marrying people and just give legal status to civil unions. This would apply to both gay couples and straight couples, while marriage would be left in the hands of the church. So if a couple wants to be united in the eyes of the law, whether gay or straight, they go down to city hall and register, securing all the rights under the law. But, if the couple wants to be married, they go to a place of worship. Marriage is viewed as an institution ordained by God and is out of the state’s control.

Of course, gay couples could go to churches that support gay marriages and get married there, but those like myself who believe marriage should be between a man and a woman would go to places of worship where conservative beliefs about marriage are upheld. Marriage would be preserved as a sacred institution for all of us who want to view it as such, and nobody’s personal convictions about this controversial issue would need to be compromised.

Read Tony Campolo’s full article.

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Standing the Strain

In my last blog post, I promised I’d share more about why I believe shared elder leadership is the right way to lead a church. The most obvious reason is that I believe it is biblical. For now, I won’t try to prove that, but it’s worth mentioning that not everyone agrees. Many seminaries teach pastors that there’s really no one model of church government in the bible. As a result, some churches are organized more like a business than a church. I think the church suffers as a result.

From a purely practical standpoint, I simply can’t imagine all of the responsibilities for leading a church being placed on the shoulders of one man. Shared leadership lightens the load. We see this principle at work at an important juncture in the history of Israel. Moses was leading the people of Israel through the wilderness. There were a lot of them! We’re talking 600,000 men, plus women and children (Exodus 12:37-38)! Each day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people. One by one they’d come to dump their problems on him and he’d render a judgment. When his father-in-law Jethro paid him a visit, he wisely questioned Moses, “Why are you doing this all by yourself?” 

That’s a good question! It would be appropriate to direct this same question to many pastors who insist on being the sole decision makers in their church. Perhaps they’d answer in a similar way as Moses. I can imagine Moses shrugging his shoulders as he explained to Jethro how the people came to him with their disputes to seek God’s will and it was his job to decide who was right based on God’s word. It seems Moses felt he was the only one who knew God’s word well enough to make an informed judgment.

But Jethro wasn’t buying it. With words that have become legendary in leadership circles, he confronted Moses: “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.” He went on and advised him to select capable, godly men, teach them God’s word and show them how to live it out. The most difficult cases would still come to Moses who would bring them before the Lord. Jethro concluded, “That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied” (Exodus 18:17-23).

We can all see the wisdom of Jethro’s advice, and Moses was smart enough and humble enough to put it into practice. Who knows how long he’d have lasted in the wilderness if he insisted on doing it all himself!

Shared leadership in a church lightens the load on those in leadership. Instead of wearing out, leaders are able to “stand the strain.” It’s not just a matter of spreading the work around, it’s also having others to share the emotional burden.

Shepherding God’s people is hard work. It takes a toll both physically and emotionally. Consider the sheer variety of things a pastor does in a given week: long hours of study, preaching, leading meetings, counseling, prayer, strategic planning and far too many potluck dinners! Pastors need others to bear the load.

Not only will this help them “stand the strain,” it will also increase effectiveness. Jethro said something to Moses that’s easy to miss. He implied Moses wasn’t doing a very good job all by himself. Why else would he say, “If you do this…all these people will go home satisfied.” It seems to me that when Moses was trying to do it all himself, they weren’t satisfied. It’s no wonder! When you spread one guy that thin, how can he possibly be effective?

Without a doubt, the Apostle Paul’s favorite metaphor for the church was the Body of Christ. Like a body, the church is one with many members. “Just as the body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12). Paul usually discusses spiritual gifts in this context. As members of Christ’s body, no one man has all the gifts. Having a group of elders to lead a church under the headship of Christ allows for a variety of gifts to be modeled, utilized and valued. Furthermore, as elders work together in the shepherding of God’s people, the larger body has a chance to see the beauty of both unity and diversity at work within the elder team itself.

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Election Day

It’s Election Day and we all have our hopes set on one candidate or another. Our church is used as a polling place in our city and the folks working there report a lot of people are showing up to vote this year. That’s a good thing, for sure.

A week ago Sunday I preached on 1 Kings 4, which describes Israel under Solomon’s reign. It was a golden age; an ideal kingdom. It reminded me of family vacations as a kid. Every year we went to the same place up in the gold country of the Sierra Nevada. We’d stay in a small resort built on the North fork of the Yuba River, called Shangri-la. It was a kid’s paradise. We caught Brook trout with salmon eggs, we rode the rapids into town on old inner tubes, we hung a swing on a tall tree that allowed us to fly out over the river and jump into deep, cold waters. There was even a General Store in town where we bought real rock candy out of a jar.

We all long for a place like that. Perhaps that’s because God has promised us such a place; a perfect kingdom. Jesus once said to his followers, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Lk 12:32). The Apostle John had a vision of this kingdom: “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:4).

Solomon’s kingdom is a foreshadowing of the Kingdom Jesus came to establish. It’s also a reminder of the fact that we’ll never achieve such a place this side of our Lord’s return. Even Solomon’s seemingly perfect kingdom didn’t last for long. At the end of his life, Solomon strayed from the Lord and Israel was eventually divided and conquered (1 Kings 11:6, 14). It’s a reminder that, regardless of the many blessings we enjoy, we live in a fallen world. Every earthly kingdom and king will eventually fall and fail to meet the longings of our heart.

I believe there is a warning in this for all of us; a warning we especially should be aware of on the eve of knowing the outcome of this election. Solomon’s kingdom seemed so perfect. Do you think he would have been reelected? Of course! But eventually the people who voted for him would be disappointed. We tend to look for earthly leaders like Solomon to create earthly kingdoms and for a while it may all seem to work, but eventually they all fail. They fail because we live in a fallen world with fallen people and fallen leaders.

We all care about our country. There are important issues at stake: the right to life, health care, national defense, our role in the world, religious freedom, education. I hope we all do our best to study these issues and vote. But the warning is not to put your hope in any earthly kingdom or any earthly candidate because eventually they’ll all let us down. Even a king as great as Solomon teaches us that.

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Holy Inefficiency

I’m not sure when I read my first book by Henri Nouwen, but I had to read more.  In many ways this was odd because Henri was a Catholic priest and I an Evangelical pastor. But there was a depth and insight Henri had into our life with Christ that resonated with my spirit in a unique way.  Over the years I read more, devouring most of his 40 or so books on the devotional life.

Several years ago, I wrote to Henri and asked his advice on some areas I was struggling with in my walk with the Lord.  Within a few weeks He wrote me back, inviting me to spend a week with him in Toronto.  I was amazed that this prolific author who had taught at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard would write me back, much less take the time to invest an entire week with me.  Needless to say, I went to Toronto and had a life changing week of learning from Henri and a small group of about 25 others he had invited.

Henri taught me most of all from his example.  He taught me the value of downward mobility.  Like our Lord, Henri descended into greatness.  Though a highly educated man, Henri chose to live in obscurity with a community of severely mentally handicapped people in Toronto.  He was their pastor.  Each week he spent his time bathing, feeding, and praying with people who couldn’t care for themselves.  I vividly recall sitting around a large dinner table of these men and women, feeling very awkward, and watching Henri feel right at home.  These men and women did not care how many books Henri had written or where he had taught, they just appreciated Henri because he loved them enough to be present with them.

I think the reason I related to Henri so much is that he and I shared a common struggle.  We both tended to base our worth and our identity on our performance.  In the midst of that struggle, Henri taught me what Philip Yancey called “a holy inefficiency.”  Living with the handicapped instead of teaching at Harvard was inefficient, but it was also holy.  Spending each morning in silent prayer in the basement of his house was inefficient, but it was also holy.  Henri’s holy inefficiency taught me the value of being rather than doing.  He taught me the value of prayer, not as a way to accomplish something for God, but as a way of drawing near to God and allowing Him to love me apart from my performance.  Henri taught me that all ministry must flow from that place where I am in communion with God or else it is just another vain attempt to earn my belovedness.

Henri also taught me graciousness.  The day before I left Toronto, he invited me into his simple little room where all his earthly belongings were stored.  He took my hand and told me that I would always be a part of his community and I could return any time for help or friendship.  It sounds so simple, but it was one of the most gracious and sincere things anyone has ever done for me.  His graciousness was also demonstrated to me a couple of years later when I wrote him a hard letter after hearing him speak in San Francisco.  I felt that he had compromised the truth, and I told him so.  Within a few days, Henri’s reply came in the form of another letter.  He explained why he said what he said, but more than anything else he was humble and gracious in his reply.

Though I continued to read his books, I never heard from Henri again.  On September 21, 1996, Henri died of a sudden heart attack in his native Netherlands.  Though I know he was far from perfect and there were many things we would disagree on, I still miss his example of holy inefficiency.

If you would like to read a book or two by Henri, here are a couple of my favorites: “The Return of the Prodigal” and “In the Name of Jesus”.