I will begin posting a Question of the Week here on each Monday. This is intended as a way of inviting Patheos bloggers, or other bloggers for that matter, and all of our readers collectively, to address a question together and offer different viewpoints. But it’s hoped that we will go beyond offering an array of opinions. It’s hoped that there will be an actual conversation, and perhaps sometimes the emergence of a consensus.
The question this week is a provocative one: Is it time now, or might there come a time soon, when evangelicals should decide that the cost of carrying on the battle against same-sex marriage is simply too high?
I asked this question of Jim Daly – head of Focus on the Family — about eighteen months ago. Jim is a famously irenic figure: earnest, thoroughly likable, palpably compassionate, and absolutely devoted to causes such as adoption and immigration reform and opposing human trafficking. He also helms an organization that, its reputation on the Left notwithstanding, devotes the vast majority of its resources into serving families and children and only a tiny proportion to political advocacy. So I asked him privately: Is it possible that the cost of opposing same-sex marriage might one day grow so severe, so extremely damaging, that Christians should make a tactical decision to stop opposing same-sex marriage as a matter of law?
Since I put him on the spot, I don’t want to hold him to this, but his answer was simple: We should, humbly and winsomely, never stop contending for the things that matter to God.
I agree with him on that point. Absolutely. Marriage matters to God. We must humbly acknowledge the limitations of our knowledge, and recognize the possibility that we are mistaken, but for those of us who believe it’s biblically and theologically clear that marriage was created and ordained by God for the union of male and female, there should never come a time when we reject or conceal what God has made known to us.
Our critics should understand this. We do not regard marriage as a social contract, an arrangement established by cultural convention, and therefore susceptible to renegotiation. We regard marriage (whether or not it is perfectly understood in any given culture) as an institution made by God — and Christians in general are critical realists. We understand there are difficulties in perceiving the facts of the world, but we believe there are facts in the world, and most evangelical Christians, and most Christians worldwide, still believe it’s a fact — as objectively true as any other fact — that marriage is the union of male and female. In the same sense that a hydrogen atom simply is constituted by the creative complementarity of a proton and an electron, a marriage simply is constituted by the creative complementarity of male and female. And just as you can put other particles together in other relations, but those will not be simple hydrogen atoms, so you can devise other human relationships and call them whatever you like — and yet they will not be marriages. Marriage simply is a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman.
And yet…the question at hand is not whether we should abandon the historical Christian teaching on marriage. The question is whether we should contend for laws and regulations that give this vision of marriage the sanction of government. And to make one more distinction: the question is not whether Christians have the right to promote their views, just like everyone else does, and to support or oppose laws on any grounds they wish, including religious grounds. There’s nothing categorically wrong with supporting laws and politicians who recognize and affirm what marriage actually is, even if your view of marriage is religiously informed. The question, rather, is whether it is still wise to press for American law to recognize only heterosexual unions.
It is, in other words, a question of prudence. Granted, we should continue to profess the truth as best we understand it. But are we so losing the culture on this issue that continuing to fight against same-sex marriage legally will so harm our witness, and thus harm our broader mission and our most important purposes, that the time has arrived to abandon the fight over American law? Is it now the case, or could it ever be the case, that Christian opposition to same-sex marriage laws would become such a massive obstacle to our mission that it’s no longer worth it?
I have to confess: I’m not confident that this fight is worth the cost. Amongst the overlapping circles of the young, the religiously unaffiliated, and cultural elites, much of the animus against Christians today derives (or at least claims to derive) from Christian “bigotry” against gays. We are told repeatedly that it’s “hateful” to “deny gays equality” (what we would call “insisting on the actual definition of marriage”). It strains countless friendships, comes between countless children and their parents, and erects altogether a monstrous hurdle for many people who might otherwise be open to hearing the gospel.
Is this just weariness on my part? I don’t mind being mocked on issues of first importance, but I confess that I’m tired of being hated for my stance on something I consider secondary, especially when that gets in the way of communicating over the primary matters. Am I too personally involved? I do love and respect many gays friends and former students, and I do hate that my position on same-sex marriage comes between us. Am I being heartless here? Perhaps I am. Abortion has clear victims. The victims of SSM are less clear. The gay partners are going to persist in their homosexual relationships whether or not they have a legal imprimatur; their children may be better off with fathers and mothers together, but there are millions of children for whom two parents of the same gender, parents who often have to go to great lengths to have or to adopt the children, would be a substantial upgrade; and society in general may indeed suffer for disintegrating the definition of marriage, but the culture appears to be headed that way with or without us. Perhaps confession and cultural redemption are better tools against the deterioration of our social structures than legal opposition.
Again, the question is NOT whether we should surrender our theology of marriage, and NOT whether we should cease standing up for the truth on God’s intention for marriage and sexuality. The question is MERELY whether we should cease the legal and political fight to protect the proper definition of marriage as a matter of law — perhaps in return for ironclad assurances over religious freedoms.
I can imagine several responses:
- The legal implications of legalizing same-sex marriage are vast. Many hundreds of laws and regulations depend on the legal definition of marriage, and there will be no “ironclad” protection of religious conscience forthcoming. So I’ve invited the Alliance Defense Fund to write a piece on what the legalization of gay marriage more broadly would mean for religious freedoms, and other legal implications. Let’s explore this together.
- Christ warns us that the world will despise us. He did not seem overly concerned about his “witness” when he drove away the crowds that wanted to follow him for the wrong reasons. Besides, the people who despise us now will simply find another reason to despise us, since the source of their antipathy runs deeper. If we abandon this hill today, we’ll have to abandon another hill tomorrow, and nothing will have been gained.
- The spirit of the times is fickle, and we may actually turn the cultural trend in our direction. We should fight for laws that reflect biblical truth. A society that honors God and whose laws reflect God’s truth will fare better than one that does not. But we’ve largely failed to make the case that same-sex marriage will be harmful to society, in an increasingly secular culture, and in a non-sectarian structure of government such as our own, might there come a time when we stop insisting that the rest of society live according to our understanding of marriage, because the enmity it creates so obstructs are greater mission?
So what do you think? I’m eager to hear people’s thoughts.