Last Chance For a Win-Win on Same-Sex Marriage?

Last Chance For a Win-Win on Same-Sex Marriage? May 15, 2012

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.


Bob and his beard.

bob hyatt

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  • wiskers

    My only comment is that the Gospel is offensive to anyone not wanting to submit to God, if anyone living in sin be it of any kind as described in the NT, doesn´t like to hear it that doesn´t mean we have to water it down to make it less offensive to them. If God is offended by sin and tells us why then surely that is the way forward. G & Ls need to know how God sees their lives. If they don´t like God´s plan then like any other person rejecting the Gospel for any other reason -they will do the same. We can´t be ashamed of the harshness of the message, we must be ashamed of breaching God´s will for us. That brings repentance and forgiveness and life everlasting. Don´t try to accommodate the message. It won´t fit.

  • “wiskers”… please please watch this: Tim Keller on this issue:

  • The Episcopal Church, like some other denominations, has been prayerfully studying and discussing this issue for forty years now. While some faithful members of our church may still disagree with our conclusions, I think it likely that our General Convention, meeting this summer in Indianapolis, will approve trial use of a liturgical rite for the blessing of same gender unions. No priest or parish will be required to offer these rites, but for those prepared to move forward, the resources (including pre-union counseling sessions, parish study materials, etc) will be available.

    In the background material, our church states quite clearly – as we have for many years – that we denounce promiscuity, exploitation, and abusiveness in such relationships. We also insist on fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful and honest communication, and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God.

    Now, if only heterosexual marriages would begin to follow suit.

    Chris Epting
    Davenport, Iowa

  • Ron Tilley

    Interesting that evangelicals didn’t tell the govt to stop using the term marriage when the govt was granting unbiblical divorces…but when gays get close to the right to marry we as Christians want to take it off the table. Marriage (and divorce) has long been the ward of the State. Eventually the Supreme Court will rule for SSM and when it does we won’t have anything for our efforts to get SSM
    proponents to stop using the term “marriage” except animosity due to our hypocrisy. Besides, with so many churches performing SSM it’s possible for those against SSM to say “your churches can’t use the term marriage because we are offended.” if you use the line of reasoning you suggest. Churches that don’t believe in SSM should have that belief protected and they can define and recognize (or not recognize) marriage in any way they see fit. The term “marriage” as a secular legal term isn’t going away. Let’s start dialoging with Emergents in Canada to learn from them.

  • Ronald Reagan

    I might suggest the opposite–that the church should get out of the marriage business, or at least the legal aspect of it. Let the state issue marriage licenses to whomever it deems qualified. Let the church sanction whomever it wishes to sanction. In this scenario, couples who desire to do so would undergo two ceremonies–a civil ceremony whereby the marriage becomes a legal entity, and a religious ceremony that both the couple and the religious institution could opt in or out of. This would preserve church’s right to abstain from sanctioning marriages that they do not think fit the description of Christian marriage, while still allowing couples whom the state decides, whether by referendum, legislation, or court decision, are eligible to be married to do so.

    • Ronald Reagan

      Please disregard my previous comment–after reading more carefully, I realize that we are suggesting basically the same solution. The only difference is that my suggestion would still involve the use of the word “marriage” to describe unions. In that sense, it would involve the Church (and other religious groups) letting go of their exclusive claim to the word “marriage.”

  • Charity Brighton

    I think the problem with the argument that the main problem that some Christians have with same-sex marriage is the use of the word, “marriage” is belied by the fact that so many conservative groups have pushed for and (in places like Colorado, North Carolina, and 17 other states) have enacted Constitutional amendments abolishing not only the word “marriage” but civil unions and in fact any other package containing similar rights and privileges that could be granted to same-sex couples. It seems for me that in order for compromise to be possible we have to be clear on what is actually at stake here. It’s not just the word “marriage” — if it were, people would not be fighting so hard to abolish civil unions and hospital visitation rights and rights of inheritance and custody and adoption. It’s a little misleading to pretend that the main objection of the Christians who back these bans is to merely protect the use of the word “marriage”, when the laws they have written actually go far beyond that.

  • AndyM

    Personally, i think that a reasonable reading of the bible would lead you to believe that the only sort of sex that God approves of is one man and one woman within the confines of marriage. that being said, leaving marriage to the church, and civil unions to the state would be a way for people to have reasonable property rights for whatever relationship they wish to have while not hijacking the word marriage.

    if we were as vocal in our opposition to other sins, we’d probably be equally despised in the wider community. people don’t want to hear that they are sinful, that they are irreparably broken and in need of a saviour, but that’s the message we are called to proclaim.

    • Travis

      Well said! Such a middle road is hard for some to fathom, however. One side wants to keep state-sponsored marriage, while the other seeks to focus on a single attribute of God (love) to justify whatever seems to be culturally expedient.

  • Linda

    The Gospel message is that “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everylasting life”. We are called to reach out with that message in LOVE (as Jesus did). Judgement and changing hearts and lives is God’s job as His Spirit works in us. It is really quite liberating/uplifting to view people through Christ’s love and lead them to a place where they can meet God without feeling the needs to change them.