Let me make several things clear, in response to all the conversation that’s erupted over my Question of the Week on Monday: Is it Time for Evangelicals to Stop Opposing Gay Marriage?:
- I believe that the sexual union for which we were created is the union of male and female in the context of the marital covenant. This is not merely a moral but also a theological conviction, profoundly rooted not only in my understanding of human nature and the imago Dei but also — eo ipso — in my understanding of the Triune God and how we image God together in marital union.
- Other forms of sexual expression, including homosexual sex, I believe to be sinful. I do not believe it sinful to experience homosexual desires or to possess an inclination (orientation) toward same-sex desires. I believe it is sinful to act upon those desires. I am not eager to come to that conclusion, knowing that it comes between me and gay friends I love and respect, but I am compelled to this conclusion by my understanding and interpretation of scripture. However, I do not believe that acting on those desires is more sinful (which is not to say that it cannot have worse consequences) than when I act on my own sinful desires. I also believe that Jesus Christ is God’s provision for reconciliation.
- I can go into a long excursus on (i) why I believe that we were created by God, (ii) why I believe that God communicated to humankind through Christ and the scriptures, (iii) why I believe those scriptures ought to be interpreted in certain ways, and (iv) why I believe the proper interpretation of the scriptures leads to this doctrine of marriage and human sexuality. I am fully aware of the counter-arguments on (i) to (iv). My present purpose, however, is to ask whether it might make sense for Christians who believe that homosexual behavior is sinful and who believe that marriage is the covenantal union of male and female to, nonetheless, no longer insist that the law express that belief.
- I am not suggesting now, nor would suggest ever, that we alter our theological convictions for the sake of social convenience, much less political expediency, or that we cease to declare those convictions as clearly and compellingly as possible. I believe it is objectively true that marriage is the covenantal union of male and female and that individuals and society at large would best flourish if the law reflected this objective truth.
- I also believe, in light of survey data, demographic trends, and the recent election and its implications for the Supreme Court, that same-sex marriage is likely to be permitted in the United States as a federal matter — or at least in many states — within the next decade, and potentially within the next few years. I wish that it were otherwise, because I do not believe that this is in the interest of the common good.
- I do not believe that same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue. Two persons of the same sex are free to bind themselves to one another for life and call it marriage or whatever they wish. There is, however, no civil right requiring the state to sanction this relationship as a marriage. There is also no civil right to have one course of action (marrying a person of the same gender) treated equally with another course of action (marrying a person of the opposite gender). Gay individuals should have all the same rights as heterosexuals, and should therefore be equal before the law to heterosexual individuals; the law is not a respecter of persons, and Christians should stand against true anti-homosexual discrimination whenever they encounter it. But the law does distinguish between different courses of action.
- I do not believe it’s necessarily “hateful” to oppose the legal enshrinement of gay marriage. Certainly those who oppose gay marriage out of enmity toward homosexuals are rightly condemned as prejudiced. For myself, and I suspect for most, the opposition to same-sex marriage is simply due to a belief that marriage is divinely ordained for the covenantal union of male and female. Beliefs may be correct or incorrect, justified or unjustified, but a belief cannot be hateful any more than a rock can be emotional.
- Since I am neither suggesting that we should alter our moral and theological convictions nor that we should cease confessing those beliefs publicly, responses along these lines — “Well then, why don’t we just give up the doctrine of hell since that’s unpopular too!” — are off point. The question here, the only question I’m raising, is this: (P1) Should we hold fast to our convictions, profess those convictions publicly, and organize legally and politically to ensure that the laws reflect our convictions – OR (P2) should we hold fast to our convictions, profess those convictions publicly, and accept a legal definition of marriage that does not preclude same-sex marriage? In my view, this need not be contradictory. It would merely entail explaining that we believe homosexual behavior to be sinful, and we believe gay marriage is not really marriage, but we are not going to compel others legally to act in accordance with our convictions.
- I’m frequently told, “We’re not angry that you believe homosexuality is sinful, you can believe whatever you want. We’re angry that you try to impose that viewpoint on everyone.” The first statement is demonstrably false. Even in contexts where same-sex marriage was not under discussion, I personally on many occasions have frequently received heaping mounds of scorn and animosity for the moral primitivity of believing that homosexual behavior is sinful. So even if we merely pursue P1, evangelicals will remain scorned by some for their moral and theological convictions. That’s fine. It would not be courageous or loving or worthy of the example of Christ to betray or conceal the truth that God has revealed. However, it’s also demonstrably true that there are many areas where Christians do not seek to enforce their moral and theological convictions legally. I believe it is objectively wrong, and against the common good, for people to use the name of the Lord in vain, to drink to drunkenness, to scorn the Sabbath, to worship other gods, and so forth, but we do not compel other people to live according to our beliefs on those topics. Or to take a more proximate example, I believe it is wrong, harmful for the individuals involved, and harmful for others and for society in general, when unmarried partners cohabitate, or when parents divorce without just cause, and yet our laws do not enforce Christian convictions on these points.
- I do not believe there’s anything necessarily wrong with the American people seeking to enshrine their collective moral convictions in the law. While the rights of the individual must be protected, our laws frequently (and I would say inherently) represent not merely a kind of legal minimum needed to keep people from tearing one another apart, but our shared moral vision of the common good. However, it is a prudential judgment for Christians on when they should and when they should not seek to enshrine their views in the law. So I raised the prudential question of whether it might now or someday be better — more conducive to our most fundamental purposes — to stop insisting that American law reflect our vision of marriage (to the extent it even does so now). This, I think, requires a cost/benefit analysis.
I would rather be despised for believing and professing the truth than for compelling a growing number of others in a secular democracy to live according to laws they find morally (and in many cases religiously) unconscionable. Christians should always seek to shape the culture and impact the marketplace of ideas. But I don’t think there’s anything inherently contradictory in Christians professing their convictions but understanding that we live in an increasingly secular society representing multiple moral and religious philosophies and accepting that our laws on marriage will reflect that diversity. Also, if gay marriage is going to become the law of the land (which, I grant, is not a given), I would rather it come about through legislative than judicial means. If it is framed judicially as a violation of civil rights to treat same-sex couples any differently from opposite-sex couples, then Christians will have very little ground to stand upon for religious conscience protections. But if it is framed legislatively, and that legislation is fortified with safeguards for religious freedoms, then Christians may find themselves in a much better position in the long run.
Finally, as I said, I raised this question in good faith. It’s an earnest question for me. I have not settled on an answer. I wanted to show that questions are permissible even amongst committed evangelicals and I wanted to show that we could hold a thoughtful conversation. So I look forward to reading more as our discussion continues.