Gay Unions and Christian Divisions

Gay Unions and Christian Divisions June 16, 2015

It’s always a pleasure to post a piece from the terrific Pete Wehner, whose sojourn has led him through three Republican presidential administrations, to the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and now to a position as a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. Full bio below.


A recent Washington Post story on gay marriage and evangelical Christianity describes some of the splits that are emerging. (Tony Campolo, a liberal evangelical leader, and former Christianity Today editor-in-chief David Neff declared their support for same-sex marriage.)

The article quotes Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who said, “This issue [gay marriage] will eventually break relationships: personally, congregationally and institutionally.” He referred to this as a “crucial moment,” adding, “There’s not going to be any way around it.”

It’s not clear whether Mohler, whom I’ve had cordial exchanges with in the past, was being descriptive or prescriptive in his comments. Whatever the case, I find the notion of breaking relationships over the issue of gay marriage to be quite unfortunate. Not because I don’t understand the theological point of view of Mohler. He believes, like most evangelical Christians that gay marriage can’t be reconciled with biblical teaching and that for the church to embrace same-sex marriage would be to undermine biblical authority. I understand, too, that this issue will have the effect of causing some churches to leave denominations because they feel a fundamental breach has occurred. There are responsible people who hold differing opinions on this issue.

But what caught my attention is Mohler saying that differences over gay marriage will break personal relationships. If it does, it will be a regrettable development. I say that because I know Christians who are open to gay marriage, some who are struggling with the issue, and many who oppose it with varying degrees of intensity. (My own views can be found here and here.) The idea that relationships would (or should) be shattered over differences on this issue is troubling. On what grounds? Because we disagree? Is that a justifiable reason to break off relationships? If so, what are the other theological and cultural issues over which we should sever ties? Where exactly does this end? The role of women in church leadership? Baptism? Divorce and re-marriage? Abortion? How evangelicals and Catholics view Mary?

I understand people wanting to maintain institutional and theological identity, which I consider in a very different category than maintaining personal relationships. I recognize, too, that I’m open to the charge (made against me before) that I’m pitting “moral rectitude” against love and welcome, and equivocating when I should stand strong. Which is entirely possible; my views contain at best only partial truths. Still, the reflex to fracture relationships strikes me as antithetical to the one Jesus took in his dealings with people. He not only didn’t break with people for holding the wrong doctrinal beliefs; He didn’t break with people who were living lives contrary to biblical teachings. The most difficult relationships Jesus had were, in fact, with the religious authorities of his time – not because they held doctrinal views He disagreed with but because they were self-righteous and hypocritical. Jesus even maintained relationships with those who, like Peter, personally failed him. After Peter’s three denials, Jesus didn’t treat him as persona non grata. Rather, he went on to say, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” Breaking relationships wasn’t Jesus’ way; it probably shouldn’t be ours, either.

I want to conclude on a somewhat more personal note that may help explain my reaction to what Mohler said. I’m someone for whom the Christian faith is interwoven into my life, for God’s grace (and the Cross) won my heart over a long time ago. Yet my faith pilgrimage has not been a particularly easy one, at least in the sense that I’ve long grappled with theological issues. It’s nothing I’m particularly proud of, and I rather wish I were hardwired another way.

In any event, people I’m close to – ministers, theologians, people in my Bible studies, and my wider circle of faithful friends – have heard me express uncertainty and confusion, puzzlement and even doubts about certain theological matters and Scripture verses. The list of questions I’ve had over the years is long and not worth belaboring here. My point is that these inquiries have been with me for much of my adult life. And my more important point is this: I’ve benefited mightily from people who are willing to engage with me on these matters rather than try to shut me down. They haven’t responded with platitudes, exasperation, lectures or intellectual contortions. They don’t personalize differences. And thankfully no one has ever broken off relations with me because I held what they perceived to be misguided views.

Many years ago I wrote a very close friend, Steve Hayner, who was president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and later president of Columbia Theological Seminary, concerned that a different view we had on a topic might injure our friendship. (I have written about Steve, who passed away earlier this year, before.) It was an issue that was important to both of us, and I expressed my worry: I’ve been around long enough to know that differences over issues can put strains on relationships. Relationships matter more than politics to me, I told him, but I realize, too, that sometimes politics can adversely affect relationships. I didn’t want that to happen in this case. I still have his response. “I want to assure you that I don’t think that our disagreements on most anything could affect our relationship,” he wrote. “My love for you has nothing to do with your views.”

My relationship with Steve was probably much deeper than the ones Dr. Mohler has in mind, but it seems to me the general point still holds. On the issue of gay marriage, Christians need not jettison their tradition or moral convictions. But they can act in a way that leaves open the path to greater understanding and even reconciliation; that creates the conditions for possible compromise on matters of public law; and that signals to the world, and to others within the faith, that the church is what the author Philip Yancey calls a “nourishing culture of [God’s] grace.” Stridency is not counted among the fruits of the spirit (for the record, the list includes love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness).

What the same-sex debate highlights is much more than simply people’s views on this particular issue or even the authority of Scripture. It also reveals our views toward Christian communion and community. It shows how we understand relationships and friendships in a broken world. We should not expect, and need not insist on, agreement on a wide range of matters. What I think we need is to aim for something else, and something essential: staying in relationship with people despite deep differences of opinion. In the Christian story, after all, God didn’t give up when it came to staying in relationship with us. And He had far more reason to give up on us than we have to give up on others.

Screen Shot 2014-08-08 at 1.23.30 PMPeter Wehner is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times and Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. After serving in the Reagan and the first Bush administrations, Mr. Wehner led the Office of Strategic Initiatives in the George W. Bush White House. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues and is coauthor with Michael Gerson of City of Man and with Arthur Brooks of Wealth and Justice


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  • Phos Zoe

    The author writes, “On the issue of gay marriage, Christians need not jettison their tradition or moral convictions.” and “It also reveals our views toward Christian
    communion and community. It shows how we understand relationships and friendships in a broken world.”

    One thing is clear. In rejecting two thousand years of Christian tradition we jettison tradition in this broken world for the new understanding. We set ourselves on a pedestal and break communion with all the saints that have gone on before. Sacraments and covenants with God cannot change and should the Church be so bold as to try to do so, then the message to the world is incoherent. Gay marriage brings this to the forefront because the secular world, which supports gay marriage has been leading the Church, rather than the Church leading the world. And it is at this point that the voice of the Traditional Church is silenced and the world at some point will recognize it no longer needs liberal Christians either.

    • Sometimes breaking with 2000 years of Christian tradition is a good thing. Here’s one cogent argument for that:

      • Phos Zoe

        Thank you for the link to the well written and well thought article. I must confess that argument comparing anti-Semitism to anti-gay is intriguing. However, I must disagree with the premise on these grounds. One, natural marriage with the union of male and female is unique. Two, marriage is a sacrament and sacraments cannot be changed. Anti-Semitism and mistreatment of LGBT people has never been a sacrament. Certainly there are plenty of examples in 2000 years of historical Christianity of mistreatment of others. But this only confirms the truth of Christianity that we are all sinners and miss the mark; it does not deny that truth. May the Lord forgive us all for our behaviors that are frequently unlike Christ.

        • Hi Phos Zoe –

          In full disclosure, I am a Christian man married to a man.

          The covenantal partnerships of gay people are aligned with God’s creative intent for humanity to live in intimate relationship. So the marriages of gay couples are “natural marriage”. I understand appeals to natural law, but such appeals fall far short of cogent because they ultimately reduce covenantal partnerships down to sex, and they reduce sex down to procreation. Such arguments ignore the unitive property of sex entirely and the role it plays in deepening the the bonds of coupling.

          The covenantal partnerships of gay people are cruciform. They are a vow of lifelong mutual self-sacrifice and fidelity in the service of community. The morality of gay relationships does not hinge on the moral permissibility of gay sex. Rather, the moral permissibility of gay sex is grounded in the sanctity of covenantal partnership.

          Also, for Protestants, marriage is not a sacrament; and for Catholic and Orthodox, marriage wasn’t identified as a sacrament until the 12th century. So if you’re Protestant, you misunderstand church teaching. If you’re catholic or orthodox, your tradition is only 900 years old and, therefore, has changed.

          With that said, how do you propose that LGB people can be loved well by the church under a doctrine that says we are uniquely and profoundly flawed in a way that makes us unsuitable for even the possibility of romantic intimacy, and deems the relationships we form immoral and inferior? Contempt for our most important earthly relationships will not lead to reconciliation – only to continued maltreatment. Traditionalist doctrine compels its adherents to stigmatize and marginalize people who are gay.

          It’s time to believe in a way that doesn’t cause harm.

          • Frank

            A sinful relationship, like yours, will never line up with God’s Intent. No getting around that.

          • Phos Zoe

            Hello Ford!
            You ask how LGBT people can be loved by the church under a doctrine that says (they) are uniquely and profoundly flawed. . . The Church does not say you are uniquely and profoundly flawed. It says we are all flawed. God made none of us this way and we are all broken. Only through repentance can any of us come to the Lord. As difficult as it is to humble ourselves, that is what we must do. God forbid that any of us should continue in any sin that grace may abound.

            Human sexuality is a very complex subject with all sorts of nuances. Natural marriage and natural law arguments do not appeal to you; neither do sacramental views. And yet, these are the teachings of the Church so you feel traditional doctrine stigmatizes and marginalizes people. Would you believe that divorced people in the Church feel that way too? People in extra-marital affairs feel that way. People in elicit sexual situations feel that way. A user of drug and alcohol I brought to Church felt that way because he said he wasn’t worthy. Truly I thought what he said was beautiful because it was humble and a recognition that Christ is the great physician. The various ways people choose alternatives to Christ’s teaching always causes a break in communion without repentance. Communion cannot be restored by shifting beliefs and doctrines when “The Way” is built into all of creation. Again, only through repentance is any of us restored.

          • I am a sinner in need of grace. That’s for certain. We have definite agreement there. But not because I’m gay and married.

            In my life, rejecting God’s gift of sexuality and living contrary to his creative intention was sinful – it was ultimately a barrier to relationship and separated me from him. My marriage has been a part of the sanctifying work of the Spirit.

            The big C church is more than just Roman Catholicism. So long as Rome continues to, as you’ve done here, view gay people as “intrinsically disordered” and gay covenantal partnership as a “grave depravity”, you will continue to push people away from the cross.

            I don’t know what hardness of heart it takes to look into the lives of gay people, see our life-giving relationships, and equate them to infidelity, addiction and lasciviousness. The traditionalist teaching is the teaching of contempt for gay people. This comment illustrates David Gushee’s point perfectly.

            I pray that the (big C) Church recognizes the harm we’ve caused, humble ourselves, admit we got it wrong, repent, and pray for God to show us a way to believe that doesn’t cause harm. Phos Zoe, I invite you to join me in that prayer.

          • Phos Zoe

            Question: Would a gay individual living in a heterosexual marriage be living contrary to “God’s” creative intention?

          • I can’t speak for others in mixed orientation marriages. I can tell you that for me not only would it be incongruent with God’s creative intent, it would be unfair and possibly harmful to my wife. I couldn’t in good conscience enter into such a covenant.

          • Stephen Drain

            I note that nothing you have really said in any of your responses ties in with God’s Word. There’s a lot of talk, but no Scripture to back up the things you are saying (2 Timothy 3:16, Hebrews 4:12, Psalm 119:105).

          • Proof texting in comment boxes is a distortion and disrespect of scripture. It equates to bumper sticker theology. Sorry to disappoint.

          • Stephen Drain

            Ford, that’s a copout. As the verses tell us plainly and simply:

            “God’s word is a lamp unto [our] feet” (Psalm 1991:105).

            “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged
            sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and
            marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

            “Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

            The things you say simply do not line up with the bible which is the only rule for our faith and practice.

          • You prove my point spectacularly.

          • Stephen Drain

            And you prove mine. Your talk, then, consists in nothing but the “eloquent speech” of a Humanist couched in a few terms that sound Christian.

          • Are you saying the bible doesn’t show God’s creative intent is for us to live in intimate relationship? Are you saying that the point of Christian discipleship isn’t sanctification? If so, you’ve missed the biblical forest for the proof-text trees.

          • Stephen Drain


            Stop ignoring the obvious.

            “You have nullified the word of God on
            account of your tradition” (Matthew 15:6).

            I hope you will acknowledge that there was a fall, and because mankind became sinful and separated from God that God had to give instructions (commands) as to how we can best relate to Him and others. Violating those commands violates intimacy, first and foremost with God and secondly with one another. So, when you speak of God’s creative intent, it has been marred and humans are self-bent and self-destructive. Sin destroys intimacy.

            And the point of Christian discipleship Is sanctification, to become more and more holy, which means “set apart”, to become more and more Christ-like, righteous (which means living and doing rightly). These things CANNOT happen when we live in blatant violations of God’s instructions.

            Let me ask you: What exactly do you think Christianity is? Please explain it to me.

          • Christianity is the religious practice of the disciples of Christ who aver Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah who has ultimately redeemed humanity.

            Common ground?

            Your com-box lecture is certainly morally certain if nothing else.

            So, just to add to the conversation, I’d point out that we are all dealing with post-fall sexuality. Why do you insist that gay people’s sexuality is any more broken than straight peoples’, or that gay covenantal partnerships are necessarily more sinful than straight covenantal partnerships?

            Yes, sanctification is the goal. Are you arguing that marriage is not cruciform?

          • Out of curiosity, why would you ever put God in quotation marks?

          • Phos Zoe

            I used the quotes as a substitution for the word “his” you used.

          • Stephen Drain

            Phos Zoe,

            Good answer.

  • Frank

    It will be the people who demand that their unrepentant sin be accepted and even celebrated that will break the relationships.

    • Father Thyme

      Sin, defined by your talking-snake fable? Sorry, Frank, that has been thoroughly debunked by geneticists. Your bronze-age middle-eastern holy book’s sin premise needs to be checked against facts of science.

      The facts first. Sheehan et al., building on earlier work by Li and Durbin (references in margin), calculated that the minimum population size associated with the worldwide expansion of humans out of Africa roughly 100,000 years ago was 2,250 individuals, while the population that remained in Africa was no smaller than about 10,000 individuals. For population geneticists, this is the “effective population size,” invariably smaller than the census size, so these are minimum estimates, and ones derived from conservative assumptions. The population sizes are estimated by back-calculating (based on reasonable estimates of mutation rates and other genetic parameters) how small an ancestral population could be and still give rise to the observed level and structure of genetic variation in our species.

      Note: 2,500 is larger than two.

      This means, of course, that Adam and Eve couldn’t have been the literal ancestors of all humanity. Normally, such a scientific trashing of scripture could be absorbed, at least by liberal theologians. They’d just reinterpret Adam and Eve as metaphors. But that causes big trouble on two counts…

      Jerry Coyne (2013) Scientists Try to Reconcile Adam and Eve Story, Whiff. Again. New Republic.

      • Frank

        How embarrassing for you.

        • Father Thyme

          It’s not embarrassing, and I’m sure you’re not embarrassed by your abject ignorance of science either.

          • Frank

            That’s what’s most embarrassing, your cluelessness.

          • Father Thyme

            You’re learning not to say “fool,” aren’t you, jackass?

  • KJ_P

    Pete– I’d like to see how you square the what you say here: “What I think we need is to aim for something else, and something essential: staying in relationship with people despite deep differences of opinion. In the Christian story, after all, God didn’t give up when it came to staying in relationship with us. And He had far more reason to give up on us than we have to give up on others.” with what the Apostle Paul had to say in I Cor 5:1ff.

    1. It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife [most commentaries suggest that this is the guy’s step-mother]. 2 And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.

    3 For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. 4 When you are assembled bin the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.

    6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are
    unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

    9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”

  • I think what Mohler probably fears the most is that such relationship splits will *not* widely occur. I think even if institutions split over this issue, people will still maintain their personal relationships. And this is dangerous to Mohler’s position. They may not agree, they may even view the positions of the other person in error or harmful. But while Christians in either camp maintain relationships, it is the Achilles’ heel of those who are against gay unions/marriage. Because as in the culture at large, LGBT folks are proving in their lives and conduct that the anti-gay union position is not holding up – that, at best, it is incomplete. And the more people experience that by becoming their friends, the harder it will be to widely maintain the view that gay unions constitute living in sin. This is true of many groups which appears alien and wrong at first impression. The more familiar, the more accepting people will be in general (there are people I’ve met who are able to compartmentalize, but not consistently). And that’s the danger for Mohler. He ought to be concerned. And that’s why he is focusing on more and more doctrinal rigidity.

    I appreciate the view expressed here, but I have to warn you that I think it is fatal to an anti-LGBT position in the long run. So my advice to anyone who is hardline on this, the best thing you can do is keep yourself and your congregations from being exposed to those who affirm their LGBT friends and neighbors. Do not become their friends, do not eat and drink with them, and only keep people around you who agree with you. Isolation will maintain your doctrinal stance, for a time, if that is what is important to you. And for those who are not hardline or are struggling over this issue, it is a good season to ask what is important to you, as well.

  • Father Thyme

    The evangelical haters, in my opinion, are acting exactly like Bad Jesus,* mongering their hate, fear, and strife.

    JESUS: Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.

    JESUS: Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.

    JESUS: I have come to set the world on fire, and I wish it were already burning!

    JESUS: If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.

    JESUS: anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life

    JESUS: Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

    JESUS: But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.

    Bad Jesus!

    * Avolos, H. (2015) The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics. Sheffield Phoenix Press Ltd.

    • Father Thyme

      And the Progressive Christians? While one may greatly appreciate their attempts to whitewash the Bad Jesus, their efforts haven’t been all that effective, which is why Hector Avalos, professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University, “criticizes his colleagues for applying a variety of flawed and specious techniques aimed at maintaining the illusion that the Bible is still relevant in today’s world” and for “being more concerned about its self-preservation than about giving an honest account,” in his text The End of Bible Studies.

  • OZ_in_TX

    Evangelical: I choose to believe in an interpretation of the Sodom and Gomorrah story that says that God obliterated an entire region because of people like you (while ignoring scriptures that contradict that view), but gosh, can’t we just agree to disagree?

    Me: No.

    Evangelical: I choose to believe that anyone – even government employees – can and should say to your face ‘we don’t serve your kind here’ (but will scream to anyone who will listen about ‘Christian persecution’), but gosh, can’t we just agree to disagree?

    Me: No.

    Evangelical: I choose to believe that you exercising your right to marry will bring the wrath of God on our country, and that you are working to destroy the institution of marriage (while ignoring the divorce rate among heterosexuals like myself), but gosh, can’t we just agree to disagree?

    Me: No.

    Evangelical: I choose to believe that verses in Leviticus that both condemn you as an ‘abomination’ and demand that you be rounded up and slaughtered like cattle are ‘scriptural truth’ while ignoring the numerous *other* verses in Leviticus, but gosh, can’t we just agree to disagree?

    Me: No.

    Evangelical: I choose to believe an interpretation of Paul’s writings that automatically condemn you to Hell unless you ‘change’ your sexual orientation – just don’t ask *me* to make that same choice because it’s impossible to change sexual orientation… for *me*… but gosh, can’t we just agree to disagree?

    Me: No.

    Evangelical: I choose to believe in the ‘literal truth’ of scripture that denies you, denigrates you, demands you must be slaughtered like cattle, and will automatically condemn you to Hell, while sputtering ‘context’ about any scripture that affects *me* and *my* rights in 21st-Century America, even if those rights completely counter scripture, but gosh, can’t we just agree to disagree?

    Me: No.

    Evangelical: If you don’t tolerate my intolerance, then you’re just an intolerant bigot! Now I’m demanding that you agree with me!

    Me: No.

    As long as Evangelicals hold to a view that would be considered horrible, discriminatory and un-Christian when applied to any other group, then yes, there *will* be ‘personal relationships’ that will be broken by Marriage Equality and non-discrimination. And that’s the way it *should* be.

    • Warren

      Anti-LGBTQ discrimination has caused immeasurable pain and countless broken relationships. Gay children have died because of it. If you see this as some low-stakes game where “agree to disagree” is an acceptable compromise, then you need to step aside and let the people who are actually affected take over.

  • lady_black

    Churches can choose to embrace same sex marriage or not. Governments won’t have that choice, nor should they.