The Great Divide: Same-Sex Marriage and the Evangelical Christian
The Great Divide, as geologists call it, is a rocky ridge that runs from the mountains in Alaska all the way through South America. The water on the west side of the Divide runs into the Pacific Ocean; the water on the east side finds its way toward the Atlantic. Water that at one time was flowing in the same river is now separated, and never again the twain shall meet.
The decision of the Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states has confronted us with our own great divide: on the one side are those who hold to a biblical definition of marriage, and on the other are those who are “same-sex affirming,” insistent on providing a loving and welcoming stance toward these now-honored unions.
As one conservative law professor said, after the backlash regarding the March 2015 RFRA ruling in Indiana,
Cultural pressure is going to radically reduce orthodox Christian numbers in the years to come. The meaning of what it means to be a faithful Christian is going to come under intense fire, not only from outside the churches, but from within. There will be serious stigma attached to standing up for orthodox teaching on homosexuality.
~quoted in “After Obergefell, Revisiting Prof. Kingsfield”
His words are already coming true today, just a few short months later.
The purpose of this article is to identify three arguments many evangelicals are using to justify same-sex marriage, and then to show why, in my opinion, these arguments are fatally flawed. First of all, though, let us pause to lament the fact that some of our own brothers and sisters no longer stand with us, but have defected to join the celebration of the Supreme Court ruling.
Evangelical author and pastor Kevin DeYoung rightly says that it is grievous for evangelicals to rethink their convictions on same-sex marriage under the banner of love. He points out that yes, we are grieved because our liberties will be taken away and we will be ostracized and marginalized; however, he then continues:
But of all the things that grieve us, perhaps what’s been most difficult is seeing some of our friends, some of our family members, and some of the folks we’ve sat next to in church giving their hearty ‘Amen’ to a practice we still think is a sin and a decision we think is bad for our country. It’s one thing for the whole nation to throw a party we can’t in good conscience attend. It’s quite another to look around for friendly faces to remind us we’re not alone and then find that they are out there jamming on the dance floor.
~from “40 Questions for Christians now Waving Rainbow Flags”
So let’s respectfully listen to what the celebrating evangelicals have to say. Below is a Facebook post by Rachel Held Evans, a popular author and contributor to CNN. Please read it carefully; I suspect she speaks for many Christians and non-Christians when she writes:
Here is what I genuinely don’t understand about the argument against civil rights for same-sex couples: The argument holds that because some citizens believe that their religion forbids same-sex marriage, it should be illegal for everyone. Okay. Some citizens believe that their religion forbids remarriage for divorcees (Matthew 19). Should we make that illegal? Some citizens (and MANY citizens up until the 1970s -correction: 1990s) believe their religion forbids interracial marriage. Did the Supreme Court overreach when it declared in 1967 that state laws banning interracial marriage were unconstitutional? Still others believe their religion teaches the sole purpose of marriage is procreation. Should it be illegal for infertile people to get married or couples over 60? Nothing about yesterday’s decision forces people with religious convictions against same-sex marriage to perform those marriages. That freedom is preserved, just as it remains totally legal for a church today to refuse to marry an interracial couple. Yesterday’s ruling simply allows for those who do not share that same religious conviction to enjoy the same civil liberties that the rest of us enjoy. Furthermore, is it not a more serious violation of religious liberty to tell a same-sex couple whose religion allows for, and in fact celebrates, marriage that they cannot practice that religious conviction because some of their fellow citizens do not agree with their particular expression of it? Civil rights aren’t up to a vote. They aren’t up to public opinion. Civil rights are part of what it means to be an American citizen. Theological arguments around marriage set aside for another day, I simply cannot find a single compelling argument in support of denying civil rights to LGBT people that does not rely on an unhealthy marriage (sorry!) between church and state.
How should we respond?
1. Is same-sex marriage a matter of civil rights?
The heart of Ms. Evans’ argument is simply this: Civil rights are not up for a vote, and since marriage is a civil right, we have no right to deny marriage to same-sex couples. She is saying that same-sex marriage is an expression of fairness, equality, and even justice. After all, why should same-sex couples in a loving union be denied the privileges the rest of us enjoy?
The error in this thinking is simply this: Same-sex marriage is not a civil right. Civil rights are based on natural law that upholds the intrinsic worth of each individual before God, which explains why civil rights should be offered to all people, not just those who believe the Bible. Laws against interracial marriage have always been wrong because people of every color and nationality are demonstrably created equally in the image of God, so to ban interracial marriage because of color or race is clearly an example of prejudice.
However, same-sex marriage does not qualify as a “right” because it is a clear violation of natural law. When a man and a woman cohabit, it is according to nature. When two men cohabit, it is clearly contrary to nature, as a short lesson in anatomy verifies. As further proof, it is a man and a woman who produce a child. When same-sex couples want to have a child, they have to depend on natural law to fulfill their desires. In fact, they themselves are the product of natural law, a relationship between a mother and a father, not the unnatural relationships that they want to elevate to the status of marriage. This is why marriage between a man and a woman deserves the protection of society and the courts. Equality of personhood does not guarantee equality in normal vs. abnormal relationships and behavior.
In fact, not even heterosexuals have an absolute “right” to marriage. For example, it is unlawful to marry a close relative, or for a son to marry his mother. Even though it would be a man-woman relationship, it is contrary to what is known intuitively and what is best for the propagation of the family. In the case of same-sex marriage, the Bible affirms what we know intuitively; namely, that same-sex relationships are abnormal. Even pagans recognize this, though this truth is suppressed (Romans 1:18).
The bottom line: we affirm the equal value of each person before God, but “marriage equality” does not address the obvious differences in same-sex relationships. Equality under the law means that every citizen is assured of equal treatment under the laws of the land. But it is the function of law to discriminate, to distinguish similarities and differences. Marriage has its privileges and responsibilities for those who are able to meet its requirements. Marriage laws in the United States have never discriminated against homosexuals, but always have applied equally to both groups. No one has said homosexuals can’t marry, however when they do, they have to meet the requirements of marriage, namely to marry someone of the opposite sex. The Constitution makes no provision for those who want to call unnatural relationships marriage.
No wonder Chief Justice John Roberts, in his dissent from the Supreme Court’s majority decision, said that those who had won could celebrate their new freedom—but he added, “Do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.” In the words of Dr. Albert Mohler, the President of the Southern Baptist Convention, “This Chief Justice’s point is an urgent warning: If the Supreme Court will arrogate to itself the right to redefine marriage, there is no restraint on the judiciary whatsoever.”
The five justices who made up the majority created a new “right” out of thin air. In doing so, again in the words of Al Mohler, they have “confused and greatly weakened the single institution that is most central to human society and most essential to human flourishing.”
2. Since we no longer accept the Bible’s teaching about slavery, why should we hold to its teachings about homosexuality?
The argument is repeatedly made that since slavery was condoned in the Bible, and since we have changed our minds about that practice, we are free to change our minds about what the Bible teaches regarding homosexuality.
Here again we are confronted with the fact that slavery is wrong because of the equality of each individual created in the image of God. Thus it is wrong for one individual to enslave another. This is true no matter the color of one’s skin.
The reason the Bible does not condemn slavery outright is because its message is first and foremost one of personal reconciliation with God; it is concerned only secondarily with social transformation. If, for example, the early church had begun a campaign against slavery, its message of redemption in Christ would have been lost amid the uproar. Given the millions of slaves in the Roman Empire, it is difficult to see how slavery could have been overthrown in that social context. To put it more clearly, the Bible does not address the matter from the standpoint of government reform, but demonstrates that social transformation comes about by personal, individual transformation.
Now, by no means is the New Testament silent about how slaves should be treated. Let’s not overlook the beautiful example of how the Apostle Paul treated the slavery issue in his day. Philemon was a Christian slave owner, whose slave Onesimus evidently robbed his master and fled. We don’t know how this runaway met Paul, but the two connected and Paul listened to the slave’s story. In response, Paul wrote a letter to Philemon urging him to welcome his slave back. What Paul said in that letter will surprise many people who think that the Bible does not address the issue of slavery.
In his letter written to Philemon, Paul makes several points: First, as he urges Philemon to welcome his slave back, he (Paul) promises to personally repay the value of the goods stolen. Second, and more importantly, Paul urges Philemon to welcome Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Philemon 16).
Paul then even goes further. “So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.” In other words, this slave was to be welcomed back as if he were the Apostle Paul himself! Paul adds that he believes Philemon will do even more than requested. In other words, the New Testament addresses the issue from the standpoint of heart transformation.
The New Testament condemns any racial, social, or ethnic classism within the Church. Before God, all are equal. No wonder Christianity eventually became the motivation to wipe out slavery, as demonstrated by the dedicated Christian parliamentarian William Wilberforce in England. When making his case before the British Parliament, he repeatedly referred to the writings of Scripture and the implications of the gospel, with its insistence on the equal value of all peoples.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. led his crusade for equal rights, he often referred back to the Scriptures, calling the church to return to the biblical teachings on justice, fairness, and equal standing before God. We humbly confess that during the civil rights movement many churches, bound by prejudice, had lost the clear message of Scripture. If they had been reading their Bibles, they would have read these powerful words: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13). Again, “For he himself is our peace who has made us both one…that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace” (Ephesians 2:14–15).
Slavery as it was practiced in America is a horrid blot on our history and an indictment of the church. The civil right of freedom from slavery is based on the equality of personhood before God. However, to equate this with the supposed “right” to enter into an unnatural relationship and call it marriage is not merely to overreach but to totally misunderstand the nature both of civil rights and of marriage itself (more discussion is needed on this point, but must be left for another time, another day). The struggle of African-Americans for racial equality bears no resemblance to the demand of same-sex partners that their relationship be called marriage, despite the oft-repeated attempts to connect them.
3. Should love dictate what we believe about same-sex relationships?
Some evangelicals are embracing same-sex marriage because they accept the cultural narrative that says, “If you love me, you have to accept my lifestyle.” This, of course, is fallacious reasoning. It is obvious that while God may love all people, He certainly does not love all behavior, nor does He love all ideas. We might disagree about whether Christian parents should allow their homosexual son to bring his male lover to a family gathering, but we cannot allow our love to overshadow the clear biblical teaching about morality. Love and truth are not enemies, but two essential motivations that must be held in balance.
Of course we must be genuinely loving toward those who struggle with same-sex attraction; parents must assure their LGBT children that they will be loved forever, regardless of their lifestyle. But to capitulate to the acceptance of same-sex sexual relationships is hardly loving. It is not loving to affirm what God has condemned. No wonder the phrase “Do not be deceived” is used by Paul before he gives a laundry list of sins (which includes both hetero- and homosexual immorality) that will bar people from the kingdom of heaven (1 Corinthians 6:9–10). Paul knew that in the realm of sexuality we are most prone to deception—we end up embracing the lies we long to believe.
Yes, churches can be welcoming without being same-sex affirming. Former lesbian Rosaria Butterfield says,
The idea that a church cannot be welcoming without being gay affirming on membership issues runs exactly counter to my experience … Welcoming people to sin—and twisting the meaning and purpose of church membership in the process—does not welcome anyone to Christ.
~ quoted in “Be On Guard”
Today it is fashionable to say that the law has been done away with in Christ, and so therefore we can ignore the warnings about homosexuality in the Old Testament. This reasoning is based on the notion that all aspects of Old Testament law are the same; the argument goes that just as the laws against eating shellfish don’t apply to us, therefore neither do the laws against homosexuality. (Thankfully it is doubtful that people who reason this way would say the same about the laws against bestiality, having sex with one’s mother, etc., all of which are condemned along with homosexuality in Leviticus 18.)
The answer is simply this: since the earliest times Bible scholars have differentiated between the civil, ceremonial, and moral laws of the Old Testament. The moral laws clearly transcend the Old and New Testament era. This is why the moral law is elevated and clearly reinforced in the New Testament era.
Consider: When the Church was founded in Rome in the first century, homosexuality was widely practiced. The Roman Empire did as well as any culture in justifying homosexual relationships (though there is no evidence that it was ever thought of as marriage!). At any rate, there is little doubt that the believers in Rome struggled with how to relate to the homosexuals in their culture, and almost certainly within their church. Interestingly, when Paul wrote to them he did not tell them to be affirming in their acceptance of same-sex relationships, but rather openly and clearly laid out God’s perspective on the practice (read Romans 1). He did this for one reason: he loved the people in the church enough to tell them the truth. He did not let his love for homosexuals negate the warnings he was led by God to give them. When this letter—which we now know as the book of Romans—was publicly read in the Roman church, you can imagine that it caused tremors in the congregation between those who affirmed same-sex relationships and those who bowed to the truth, whether they liked it or not.
Thankfully, the same Apostle Paul clearly declared the grace of God in the city of Corinth, whose immoral lifestyle almost certainly superseded that of Rome. Yes, he wrote that those who practice sin—idolaters, thieves, drunkards, those who practice homosexuality, and the like—would not inherit the kingdom of God. But then he added, “And such were some of you. 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” (1 Corinthians 6:11).
David French puts it well in a recent article that is worth a careful read:
“Christians often strive to be seen as the ‘nicest’ or ‘most loving’ people in their communities. Especially among Evangelicals, there is a naïve belief that if only we were winsome enough, kind enough, and compassionate enough, the culture would welcome us with open arms. But now our love … is hate. Christians who’ve not suffered for their faith often romanticize persecution. They imagine themselves willing to lose their jobs, their liberty, or even their lives for standing up for the Gospel. Yet when the moment comes, at least here in the United States, they often find that they simply can’t abide being called ‘hateful.’ It creates a desperate, panicked response. ‘No, you don’t understand. I’m not like those people—the religious right.’ Thus, at the end of the day, a church that descends from apostles who withstood beatings finds itself unable to withstand tweetings. Social scorn is worse than the lash.”
~ from “The Supreme Court Ratifies a New Civic Religion That Is Incompatible with Christianity”
Our calling as evangelicals is not to affirm same-sex relationships; it is to present the grace of God to those who are mired in the homosexual lifestyle. Let us not be deceived by rhetoric about civil rights, the Bible’s teachings about slavery, or “love” that condones what God has condemned. Let us heed Jude’s warning to refuse to identify with “ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4).
All that being said, I as a pastor must acknowledge that the church has often failed in welcoming and loving those who struggle with same-sex attraction. Young people growing up among us who identify as gay or lesbian have often been shunned, and they are left with nowhere to turn. They have suffered in silence, fearing “coming out” and seeking acceptance and help. As a result many have come to identify with the more radical aspects of the gay community. In our desire to uphold the truth of the Scriptures we have often been harsh and judgmental, with an air of self-righteousness, acting as if we have no sins of our own. Our failure to celebrate singleness has contributed to the sense of rejection experienced by many who have a homosexual attraction.
Someone has well said that it is easier to repent of our sins than of our self-righteousness. Let us repent of our own sensuality, greed, and pride, and humbly reach out to the world with a message of hope and reconciliation. Meanwhile, we as evangelicals need each other, standing as one, determined not to cower away from engaging our wayward culture.
Before us is a great theological and cultural divide. This is not a time to buckle under pressure, but we must instead remain united with both truth and grace.