Everyone with any knowledge of current affairs has heard of the North Carolina Same-Sex Marriage Amendment (Amendment 1), which defined marriage as a union of one man and one woman, and which was overwhelmingly passed by popular vote on Tuesday. Less well-known is the kerfuffle, instigated by Southern Baptist Seminary President Al Mohler over megachurch pastor Andy Stanley's sermon, "When Gracie Met Truthy", over Stanley's apparent failure to condemn the homosexual relationship at the center of an illustration featured prominently in the sermon. To be frank: the responses of Evangelical Christians to these events have not been unexpected. But they have been, from my vantage point, disappointing. Jesus, when authorizing his 12 disciples for a (paradigmatic) short-term mission campaign, said: "Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." My contention is that we Evangelicals have been neither wise nor innocent in our response to this issue.
First, the Stanley issue. Denny Burk has called Stanley's illustration "shocking" and "troubling ... It was ambiguous at best. It was a total capitulation to the spirit of the age at worst." Mohler himself was more careful, being circumspect enough to take the illustration in the context of Stanley's main point that Jesus' command to love one another carries within it a basic and unresolvable tension between grace and truth. Nevertheless, he proceeds to cite Harry Emerson Fosdick as an example of the temptation to lay aside biblical "faithfulness" in the attempt to "reach people." He even asks the question as to whether today's megachurches, one of the largest of which is Stanley's, is the "New Liberalism."
To be sure, I would have used a better illustration to make his point. But I was a classmate of Stanley's at Dallas Seminary, and would be shocked were he to deny the clearly articulated sexual standards found in the Bible. Is there a temptation to soft-pedal certain strands of culturally-antagonistic scriptural standards in a desire to win human praise or increase the stature of one's ministry as measured by human standards? Of course there is. Perhaps Stanley is guilty on this count. It is not for me to judge. But it would have been preferable for the guardians of truth to have approached him personally and privately before casting potential aspersion on his reputation because of what Burk himself describes as an "ambiguity."
There is the opposite temptation as well, viz., the temptation to snap the tension between grace and truth in the self-righteous zeal to remain, or to be seen as remaining, "faithful" to Scripture. Many Christians today—especially younger Christians—marginalize, reinterpret, or ignore what the Bible teaches about issues such as homosexuality (more on this anon). In my experience, many more—especially those of my and previous generations—are manifestly guilty of failing to show mercy and grace or to love their homosexual neighbor as themselves. It is better, so apparently they believe, to be righteous than to be good.
The issues surrounding Amendment 1 are more difficult, even intractable, and the Evangelical responses have been, as I said earlier, not unexpected. Who doubted but that so-called "Conservative Evangelicals" would be stridently in favor of the amendment? No "Christ against Culture" old school fundamentalists here!
Mohler, for example, takes on the New York Times's editorial of 29 April in which they decried the proposed amendment as "bigotry" and "obvious discrimination," pointing out (rightly, I might add) the disingenuous question-begging involved in their argumentation, designed no doubt to sway its readers emotionally to their view of the issue. Today, in yet another post, he scolds President Obama for both flip-flopping on the issue and, ultimately, coming down on the side of gay marriage. Such a "radical redefinition of marriage," says Mohler, "subvert[s] society's most central institution."
James White similarly complains how the "media" have framed the debate, which complaint is echoed by the National Review's Ryan T. Anderson, who frames the issue thus: "Voters in North Carolina today are not voting to ban anything. They are voting to define what marriage is. They are voting to protect the union of a man and woman as something unique and irreplaceably important." Criticising Vice-President Biden's view that marriage is about (to quote Bo Diddley) "Who Do You Love?", Anderson writes, "No one would deny that marriages are about love, but notice what Biden has left out: children. One of the most important things marriage does is attach a man and a woman, as husband and wife, to become father and mother to any children their union brings forth." (One wonders if Anderson would thereby cast aspersion on men marrying post-menopausal women).
The argument is a simple one: traditionally marriage has been defined as the permanent union of one man and one woman as the foundational social unit, and there is no compelling reason or warrant to change that definition. That the Bible also defines marriage in such terms (Genesis 2:24) is the cherry on top of the sundae. Faithfulness to God and Scripture, so the argument goes, demands that we as Christians use the power of the ballot box to slow the progression of what appears to be an inexorable societal evolution.
On the other side, Rachel Held Evans laments such Evangelical posturing in a powerful post entitled "How to win a culture war and lose a generation." She begins by summarizing the findings of David Kinnaman in his powerful book unChristian:
When asked by The Barna Group what words or phrases best describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was “antihomosexual.” For a staggering 91 percent of non-Christians, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith. The same was true for 80 percent of young churchgoers. (The next most common negative images?: “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” and “too involved in politics.”)Evans, noting that North Carolina law already defined marriage as the union between a man and a woman, asserts that the express point of the amendment initiative was "to serve primarily as an ideological statement." And the effects are devastating: "amendments like these needlessly offend gays and lesbians, damage the reputation of Christians, and further alienate young adults—both Christians and non-Christian—from the Church." She seems to be saying—and she may well be right—that the victorious North Carolina ballot initiative will ultimately prove to be a Pyrrhic victory hastening the inevitable loss of the culture wars her generation of Christians are tired of fighting.
I said above that this issue is an intractable one for one simple reason: there isn't a simple answer. To be sure, the Bible is clear in its denunciations of homosexual behavior (more on this is in a later post). As is often noted, the Bible knows nothing of the concept of sexual "orientation." It deals only with sexual behavior, both acted out and mentally imagined. Nevertheless, even if it can be conclusively demonstrated that there is a biological component to at least some people's pattern of sexual attraction (as I believe probable for a number of reasons), this will have no ultimate bearing on the authority of the Bible's prohibitions for Christians. The reason, once again, is simple: science may explain the indicative, but the indicative cannot legitimately define the imperative. In other words, it is philosophically and theologically illegitimate to deduce an "ought" from an "is." In Pauline theology, sanctification involves a progressive and continual "putting to death the deeds of the body" (Romans 8:13), i.e., "what comes naturally." It is here, I suspect, that many young Christians, turned off to the church's prevailing condemnation of homosexual behavior by virtue of having unwittingly assimilated the world's view of sexual entitlement and biological determinism, will once again need to return to Scripture with humility, even if they are right in condemning the regnant "Christian" hostility to gay people.
Such biblical teaching will, of necessity, have a definitive bearing on how churches deal with practicing homosexuals internally. Christ was a noted friend of tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. But he explicitly demanded repentance from all who signed on to follow him. The story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11) is certainly not part of John's Gospel as originally written, and hence may be apocryphal, but the sentiment of Jesus' concluding statement is nonetheless true to the tenor of his teaching elsewhere: "Then neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more" (8:11). Jesus accepts us as we are, to be sure, but he will not abide us staying as we were when we came to him. Loving one's neighbor involves, as Andy Stanley said, the maintenance of the tension of grace and truth.
But what bearing does this have on the issue of gay marriage as a legislative concern? Here is where the matter gets tricky. Some have tried to evade the issue by claiming that Christianity is apolitical. But this simply will not do. The confession, "Jesus is Lord," is by definition political because it says, as Tom Wright has frequently argued, that whatever form of Caesar we live under is not. The gospel is indeed political, but I suspect that the way most Evangelicals go about the business of politics—that is, to use the world's methods of operation and ram home the "Christian" view via ballot box or judicial fiat—is self-defeating and, as Evans argues, alienating to the very people we are called to love. The modus operandi of the Kingdom of God is cruciformity, the very opposite of the pursuit of power that the has characterized so much of Evangelical political action over the past 30 years.
One perspective I have found helpful is the recognition that one cannot simply identify the kingdom of God with the kingdoms of this world. As Fuller Seminary professor Daniel Kirk has rightly stated, citing 1 Corinthians 5:12: "We have a responsibility to guard the morality of the church in a way that God has not given us responsibility to guard the morality of the entire world." We live in a de facto pluralist society, where God's law is not the law of the land as it is in our churches. We must, if we are to be honest, be up front with our religious motivations when we take our arguments to the public square. Moreover, we cannot simply impose our views on people who do not share our faith convictions. Rather, our Christian communities need to be missional outposts in a hostile world, embodying the values of God's kingdom and spreading the message of Christ in the context of sacrificial neighbor love. If our neighbors, including our gay neighbors, don't see this love, all our evangelism will ring hollow and our political posturing will breed the resentment it so manifestly has.
Where does this leave us? I have no definitive answer. To the chagrin of many, I have always been an advocate of civil unions between same-sex partners. The term "marriage," on the other hand, has a clear religious background and so, I have argued, the state should simply get out of the marriage business. Civil unions at least would guarantee health insurance coverage, inheritance rights and similar matters that all of us who claim to follow the Golden Rule (like President Obama) should be quick to affirm out of simple compassion and human decency. In that respect it is indeed a Civil Rights issue. However, I also know that such an option, as most middle-ground options have a tendency to do, seems dead in the water in today's political climate.
Let me be clear: I believe that "marriage," as God has designed it, is defined in terms of the uniting of a man and women in a "one flesh" relationship (Genesis 2:24). Hence I believe the church should never be forced to acknowledge the legitimacy of same sex "marriages" within the church and in the eyes of God. Whatever happens, the church's inviolable right to conduct their business on the basis of Scripture must be safeguarded.
Nevertheless, I am convinced that it is only a matter of time before same-sex marriage is affirmed in the United States. And this possibility does not, for me, constitute an apocalyptic scenario. The issue, as I stated earlier, is whether there is compelling legal warrant not to redefine the term "marriage" so as to provide matrimonial equality for homosexuals. And the argument, as in all judicial cases, must be a legal one, not a theological one. Simple observation tells me that the handwriting is, as Simon and Garfunkel sang 47 years ago, already "written on the subway walls and tenement halls."
Ultimately, as I said, this does not concern me. My hope does not rest on the United States any more than Saint Paul's did on the Roman Empire. My hope rests in the Kingdom of God, the agents of which the followers of Christ are called to be. Whatever happens, my concern will be to love my homosexual neighbor as myself as a fellow human being made in God's image.