But recent political trends, such as the push for same-sex marriage and federal mandates that organizations and companies provide abortion-inducing contraceptives to employees despite religious objections, has broadened the scope and urgency of the group's mission, according to the Rev. Peter Gregory of St. Paul's Lutheran Church.
“This isn't particularly about elections, and it's not meant to be political in a partisan sense, although society may make it that way,” said Gregory, St. Paul's associate pastor. “Each pastor will handle these issues differently, but we wanted to issue a public statement about what we believe to encourage them to talk about these things and to let them know they are not alone.”
That statement, which commits participants to “working together to reclaim humanity's inherent worth” despite their theological differences, asserts that innocent life, the dignity of marriage and the right to religious liberty are under assault and will be increasingly threatened as states legalize such things as assisted suicide and same-sex marriage and the federal government fully implements “Obamacare.”
“God, who is the author of life, is also the author of marriage,” the statement reads. “Today, our societal situation is worsened by laws that take aim at our religious liberty. The health care mandate … strikes at the heart of Christian conscience by limiting our free exercise of religion in the public sphere. Christian charities, schools and hospitals are required to choose between helping their neighbor and violating their conscience.”
Many religious organizations and companies are challenging the contraception mandate in court, and some have proposed an amendment to the Indiana Constitution prohibiting same-sex marriage. Gregory said Shepherds United members may be encouraged to address those and other issues, although the details of how members will remain in contact with each other are still being worked out.
It will be up to clergy members whether to address these issues from the pulpit or in some other way, Gregory added. Participating clergy represent a variety of Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic Church, including officials with the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.
Although influencing current events is not the church's primary mission, Gregory said both the church and its members have the right and obligation to engage the culture around them.
He hopes the creation of Shepherds United will produce dialogue on these and other topics that could involve people or groups who disagree.
And although Gregory knows discussion of hot-button cultural issues can result in charges that traditional Christians are “judgmental,” the group's statement takes a more conciliatory approach.
“We know that we live in a fallen world (and) … suffer from the effects of sin, even as we are all sinners … Our society must be a place of forgiveness and reconciliation … But even as we recognize our weakness, Christ calls us to be strong and to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.”