This last week, two important things happened. First, the voters of North Carolina passed a State constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. And then shortly after, President Obama reversed his long-held position against same-sex marriage and said, “It ought to be legal.” In addition, the polls now show that the country is almost precisely divided in half for and against changing our laws on this issue.
All of which lead me to believe that we will soon reach or have already reached the last chance for both sides of this issue to lay down the all-or-nothing mentality they possess, and find a win-win scenario where each side gets the essentials of what they want.
Is it possible to have a win-win on same-sex marriage (SSM)? I think it’s not only possible- it’s imperative.
Because, at least at this point, neither side seems willing to try and see the issue from the perspective of the other and look for something other than a binary, up or down, yes or no kind of solution. And where will that lead us? Certainly no place good. Look for more protests of churches, more of those who speak out in favor of the biblical understanding of marriage to be labeled as “haters”… and fewer and fewer gay men and women even giving the Gospel a hearing because in their mind, the Church simply doesn’t care about them as people.
In order to avoid an exacerbation of this cultural war, some common sense compromise is going to be necessary- each side is going to have to give up something for the sake of the other.
On one side, the Church is going to have to realize that gay men and women, in wanting what everyone else has, are asking for something reasonable. Rights of inheritance and property, custody and visitation- all of the rights granted currently by the state in marriage are good things, things we can affirm, even in relationships that we wouldn’t necessarily endorse. After all, even if we hold a more conservative view on divorce, I don’t see many churches advocating for divorced couples to lose the right to have custody over their step-children should something happen to their spouse. We may not endorse the relationship, but we can certainly try to understand the desire of those in it to have the same legal rights as other couples. And more than understand it- I think we can advocate for it, and practically demonstrate that we do in fact “love everyone.”
At a bare minimum, those who claim the stance “Welcoming but not affirming” must come to grips with the very practical question of what that looks like not just on Sunday morning, but it the public/civic arena too.
On the other side, those pushing for SSM need to understand the depth of feeling involved in and around the word marriage- what is for many Christians a sacrament and for all Christians sacred. To have the State legislate an understanding of what is essentially a religious term, and to legislate it in a way contrary to the faith and practice of so many is profoundly offensive. This goes beyond legalization into the realm of endorsement and definition, and as such, is qualitatively different than many other culture war issues.
As long as we’re talking about “marriage” we’re going to continue to see a stalemate on this issue as those who believe in a traditional, biblical view of sexuality and those who want the basic rights afforded to others all around them each refuse to give an inch.
So what’s the solution?
The State needs to get out of the “marriage” business. It should recognize that as long as it uses that term, and continues to privilege certain types of relationships over others this issue is going to divide us as a nation, and is only going to become more and more contentious. We need to move towards the system used in many European countries where the State issues nothing but civil unions to anyone who wants them, and then those who desire it may seek a marriage from the Church. When I pastored in the Netherlands, this was the system- you got a civil union certificate at the courthouse and then a Marriage ceremony at the church. This division largely negated the culture war aspect, and allowed those churches who objected to same sex marriage on biblical grounds to not only opt out, but to be able to continue to teach their biblical view of marriage, uncontradicted by the State.
But more even than changing our system, we need to change our hearts. I don’t know how many proponents of gay marriage will be reading this, so I won’t make much of a plea to them beyond this: please stop labeling the other side of the argument as “hate speech” and bigotry. It’s not. It is a working out of deep convictions and a particular understanding of sexuality as a good gift from a good Creator, to be used within certain boundaries. Personal animosity doesn’t enter into the argument- and when it does, it deserves just as much sanction and rebuke from the Church as anything else.
And that means that in addition to rethinking how we talk about LGBTQ issues in the church, and what it looks like to actively welcome them in the name of Jesus, the Church needs to rethink its political strategies. We ought to stop worrying about ballot measures and propositions which declare same sex marriage illegal, and ought to start focusing on the new realities of this Post-Christendom world in which we find ourselves. Our efforts would better be spent on trying to get the government OUT of marrying anyone. Will this mean giving up one more piece of privilege and power in the public sphere? Sure- the Pastor’s signing of the “Marriage License,” a document issued by the State is exactly that. But if it gets us towards a place of peacemaking with a community we are not doing very well at sharing the Gospel with, isn’t laying that down worth it?
Ultimately, we in the Church need to change our hearts as well. It is our primary goal that the Gospel of Jesus be heard and understood and that the person of Jesus be esteemed. As we often say in marriage counseling, “perception is reality,” and the sad truth is that right now, the gay community in America doesn’t think much of us or our Jesus, not based on the offensiveness of our Gospel, but on the offensiveness of our fighting what they see as fundamental human rights. My fear is that we may (for a while longer at least) continue to win battles like The recent one in North Carolina… but ultimately lose the war in the hearts of a portion of our population who become convinced that the Gospel couldn’t possibly be Good News to them, based on what they do (or don’t) see in us.