Yesterday I gave a simple overview of the recent Supreme Court opinions on same-sex marriage. I suggested that from a purely legal standpoint the arguments of the slim majority, in these two 5-4 rulings, were stretched beyond the normal limits of a (historic) legal understanding of marriage. I’m not sure, however, that this response will solve much in the end since we are culturally headed toward redefining marriage whether we agree with this direction or not.
Today I suggest that there are three simple steps that we should follow before we consider how to respond to these particular rulings and the massive culture-changing shift that is clearly underway at this time in history.
First, we should take a deep breath. Instant responses, filled with rhetorical flourish and passionate emotions, are not necessary. In fact, such responses generally solve nothing and often make matters much worse. It is easy to get caught up in the latest “hot-button” social issues and miss the much bigger picture, namely that we are waging a deeply consequential struggle with secularism. This struggle ought to be at the forefront of our response to the whole issue of marriage, which is only one part of a larger direction. Most serious Christians, progressive or conservative, recognize this problem. A growing number are earnestly seeking to do something about how secularism impacts the church and what we can do about it. The rapid decline in church attendance, our schools and seminaries and the number of people willing to enter pastoral ministry is alarming people on all sides to take a much harder look at secularism and how faith should response to it in a more holistic way.
I suggest that we resist all appeals for funds and support that are rooted in the emotive language of fear. If an appeal speaks of a battlefield, or of saving our modern culture, I instinctively throw it away. We have already poured billions of dollars into these modern “crusades.” They have not stopped a single aspect of the secular agenda from advancing, at least so far as I can tell. While we have elected a few leaders who agree with conservative moral values this has had nothing to do with Christ’s mission or kingdom, at least in the long run. Personally, I warned about this danger in a 1976 sermon, on Independence Day. I explained in that sermon on 1 Peter 2 what I saw happening to our culture, and the role that conservative Christians were going to play in this change. I felt like I was among a tiny minority at that time. To raise your voice about the toxic mixture of Zionism, American nationalism and Christian culture wars, is costly and easily misunderstood.
Second, consider deeply what these Supreme Court rulings actually mean. Has everything changed overnight? The answer should be obvious. We have been redefining marriage (legally) for nearly fifty years. It all began with Ronald Reagan as governor of California, not with President Bill Clinton. The reaction of Christians to this issue has generally been unwise in the public marketplace of ideas and dialogue. The balance between church and state has not been overturned by this ruling. There may be a discernible shrinkage in personal liberties (privacy comes to mind here) underway as I write but on the whole the First Amendment stands strong and the courts are not likely to alter this oft-debated tension soon. We should resist fear mongering at this point like the plague and resolve to stick to the real issues. (This is also true with regard to the legal debate over the HHS mandate and required abortion coverage, a deeply contested point that is now working its way through the court system.)
The Founders of this nation constructed a co-equal-three-branch scheme of government to keep everybody and everything in check and balance. As broken as Congress is right now we are still protected from the kind of radical decision making that impacts us on a daily basis as it does currently in Egypt and Turkey. The Founders understood that humans have a tendency to abuse power and intended to create a system that balances this problem wisely.
Third, consider all that is not changed by these two decisions. There is no shortage of opportunity for Christians to disagree, and to express this openly because of freedom of speech. There is plenty of room for us to disagree among ourselves and not resort to name-calling and self destructive patterns. The most fundamental of moral choices still remains ours. No Christians are being forced to personally embrace same-sex marriage. We will have to tolerate a new (untried and problematic) cultural context in which social and conventional mores are changing at breathtaking speed. Whether or not we can tolerate this new secularism, and the expanding inclusion of “new” views of legal marriage, is up to us.
What I believe we need is a timeless response to these issues, not a timely and emotionally charged one. This can only come by careful, reasoned and charitable dialogue that leads us to a much deeper consideration of the ancient moral foundations of confessing Christian faith.
I strongly support the historic Christian position that marriage is an intimate union between a man and a woman (cf. Matthew 19:1-9) that creates a new entity, namely a family that has (at least in natural theory) the prospect of producing children as offspring. I believe we need to teach those who follow Jesus what this means and why it matters. This is best done in discipleship and spiritual formation, not in political debate.
I do not hate homosexuals. The truth is that I count many gays and lesbians among my best friends. Many are my Christian brothers and sisters. I fully recognize the arguments on most sides, even about what I’ve just written. I have read and struggled with this issue for decades. My thinking is changing too. What I cannot understand is how anyone can say they have not had to think about all of this in new ways in the face of what is going on in the United States and, for that matter, in much of the developed Western world. I’ll say more about this tomorrow.
If the legal opinions of our highest courts ever become the moral norm for people of faith then we have lost the role of true faith. Matters of faith, and ultimately of faithful practice, are not subject to human laws, good or bad. If we are called to follow Jesus, and this means that we will suffer persecution, then we should love and not fear. We will not be the first Christians to affirm that “we must obey God and not man.”
The church is much more than this debate about same-sex marriage. In fact, it is primarily not about such an issue at all. The church is about advancing the mission of Jesus Christ. This is so because the church, as Emil Brunner once said, “exists for mission as fire exists for burning.” Let us keep this in mind while we continue to struggle with the biblical texts about marriage and our response to divine revelation and Christian ethics as brothers and sisters in Christ.
My challenge to you is simple: Spend time with Christians who do not share your viewpoint, or express their angst about same-sex marriage as you do, and then prayerfully ask, “How do I practice John 13:34-35 in a way that truly points the world to the community of Christ’s followers who love one another just as they have been loved by Jesus?”
This debate cannot be reduced to love alone but it must always begin and end here. The way we discuss it going forward, and thus the way we respond to each other in the midst of this huge secular shift, must always reflect the love of Jesus for all his people, indeed even for the whole world (John 3:16).