A few months ago, when Eugene Peterson, in an interview with Jonathan Merritt, said he would perform a same-sex wedding if two gay members in his congregation asked him to, the Evangelical world thought the world was coming to an end, and Progressives Christians exploded in celebration on social media. Peterson was called a heretic by some, and some bookstores threatened to take all his books off their bookshelves.
But then 24 hours later, Peterson issued a clarifying statement: he wouldn’t perform a same-sex marriage, and that he supported biblical marriage: “To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.” Immediately, Evangelicals rejoiced, and Progressive Christians took to social media, accusing Peterson of inflicting untold hurt and damage to the LGBTQ community, and of only saying that because he didn’t want to lose book sales.
It struck me how quickly an ideological stance can cause people to utterly condemn and reject someone whose work they had loved for decades, simply because that person voices an opinion that doesn’t square perfectly with their own take on a controversial issue like gay marriage. Inevitably, if you try to express your honest opinion on a topic like gay marriage or transgenderism in a public setting, at some point you’re going to hear words like bigotry, abusive, perversion, unnatural, and tempers are going to at least flare up a bit.
That is precisely what has happened over the past few weeks regarding the initial Nashville Statement, and the subsequent progressive responses, like that of the Denver Statement. As I read about the fallout of Peterson’s comments, and then recent statements like Nashville and Denver, I came to realize that I don’t really fit into either camp. As my previous two posts have shown, I think there are glaring problems with both the standard Evangelical and progressive responses to issues like homosexuality, gay marriage, and transgenderism. I’m not a medical professional, I certainly am not a pastor, and I don’t speak for anyone other than myself, but I thought it would be good for me to share the place I have come to concerning issues like gay marriage and transgenderism.
Hold on to your hats, Evangelicals
First off, I don’t think being gay or being transgendered is a sin. I don’t “get it,” and I don’t know why some people are attracted to the same sex or why some people don’t feel their identity matches their biological sex—but it’s a reality, and it’s wrong to condemn someone as a “sinner” simply because of how they honestly feel. I doubt a homosexual “chooses” to be attracted to the same sex; I doubt a transgendered person “decides” to feel the way he/she feels. Furthermore, I’m not going to say such feelings are “unnatural” or “abnormal.” Yes, for me they are unnatural, but for the gay person, such feelings are natural to him.
And, just as Eugene Peterson said in his interview with Jonathan Merritt, I too know a few gay people who have a rich spiritual life and who I have no doubt are Christians. I don’t personally know any transgendered people (at least I don’t think I do), but I’m sure the same holds true. A few are even married and are active in their church.
Now I know there is the issue of a number of Bible verses that specifically say same-sex sex acts are sinful (Romans 1:26-28; I Tim 1:8-11; I Cor. 6:9-11; Lev. 18:22; 20:13). I’m not going to go into a detailed exegetical analysis of them, but I’ll just make a few basic points. First, specifically, they all are condemning chosen sex acts, and are not condemning in any way what we call today “same-sex attraction” or “transgenderism.” Furthermore, it is likely that all of them are specifically condemning specific sexual practices associated with pagan idolatry, and hence are not commenting on “monogamous homosexual relationships.”
That being said, I’m pretty sure that the Apostle Paul would say that same-sex sexual intercourse was sinful. In fact, the Church has always deemed it to be so, along with a number of other sexual practices. But let’s face it, in reality, we deem some actions to be worse than others. For example, you feel differently about a man and woman living together without being married yet in a monogamous relationship than you do a single man routinely going to strip clubs, brothels, and engaging in orgies on a regular basis. And to the point, those verses are condemning homosexual practices more like the latter example, and cannot be directly applied to the former. You might not like it if your son ended up living with his girlfriend, but I’m sure you’ll be hoping that they stay together and eventually get married; and I’m also sure you’d prefer that situation to your son working in the porn industry.
In any case, I think it is safe to say that the singular obsession some churches and Christian organizations have with homosexual sex acts is way out of line. I would love it if all churches, denominations, and Christian organizations would just produce statements of faith that focused on the actual core tenets of the faith that the Church has always held, and not go out of their way to include their “stances” on a variety of current social issues like homosexuality. I mean, what purpose do it serve? What if the Nashville Statement took a stand against the sexual sin of masturbation, and Evangelical churches treated people who masturbate the way they treat homosexuals? I’m thinking you’d have a whole lot of empty churches. Blanket condemnation might make you feel superior, but it is also really successful at driving people away from Christ.
The Marriage Question…C.S. Lewis and the Apostle Paul
On top of that, when it comes to the issue of the State legalizing gay marriage, I’ve come to accept it and don’t really have a problem with it. Back when the Supreme Court ruled on it, I had a number of discussions with a variety of people on the topic, and I remember one of my more liberal friends made the point that because there are a number of legal privileges linked to marriage (i.e. tax benefits, estate planning, benefits, social security benefits, medical benefits, etc.), that homosexuals should be afforded those same legal rights and privileges. The more I thought about it, he had a point, and he helped change my mind on that issue.
That being said, I see a difference between State/civil marriage and Christian marriage. Years ago, when I first read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, I was struck by something he said in his chapter on Christian marriage. He said that he thought there should be a difference between state marriage and Christian marriage. Furthermore, he said it was probably a better thing for two people who don’t intend to stay together for life to just live together, rather than making marriage vows they don’t intend to keep. His point was that the distinctives of Christian marriage shouldn’t be forced upon civil marriages. Now, he wasn’t talking at all about the issue of gay marriage, but I think the distinction between civil marriages and Christian marriages can apply to the gay marriage issue.
Now, we should remember that in the pre-Christian world, both Jews and Pagans permitted marriages that weren’t limited to just “one man-one woman.” Men could have many wives, and a lot of times those brides were literally children. The thing we need to realize is that Christianity was unique in that it redefined marriage that had been commonly accepted throughout history up to that point. The Apostle Paul expressed that Christian redefinition as to be a marriage between one man and one woman, united in respect and love for one another, and he then taught that Christian marriage was to act as a symbol of the mystery of union between Christ and the Church. Christian marriage was markedly different than the marriage expectations and practices of the surrounding culture.
Over time, the Christian view of marriage, as well as its repudiation of the ancient institution of slavery, gradually put an end to how the pre-Christian understanding of marriage and slavery. But the fact is, here in the 21st century West, the traditional Christian understanding of marriage is no longer held by a wide section of the population, and gay marriage is now made legal throughout most of Europe and here in America. My attitude is, “Okay, let it happen. If society wants to no longer hold exclusively to the Christian understanding of marriage, fine. The Christian understanding of marriage shouldn’t be forced on anyone.”
And, like I said, since there are a variety of benefits attached to marriage, the argument that homosexuals should have the right to get married and have access to those same benefits makes sense. On the civil level, gay marriage is a Constitutional right.
Having said that, I still think Christian marriage is, and should always remain as it has always been throughout Church history. In Christianity, marriage isn’t a right, nor a gift. It is a sacrament. It teaches that sexual relations between a man and woman in a loving and healthy marriage most reflects the relationship between Christ and the Church. Christianity has indeed re-defined marriage and has infused it with sacred meaning and theological significance, to where Christian marriage functions as a living symbol that bears witness to the “great mystery” of the relationship between Christ and the Church. In that regard, I see it somewhat of a prophetic sign-act that reveals something about a deeper reality within the life of God Himself. Because of that, any other kind of marriage simply isn’t Christian marriage.
A Caveat on Marriage
I imagine someone might think I’m still trying to keep homosexuals and transgendered people as second-class citizens within the Church because I’m saying that Christian marriage should remain as it always has been. I don’t think so, because personally, I think too often churches do not treat marriage as a sacrament. In Christianity, marriage should not be a right. Just because a man and woman want to get married in church shouldn’t mean they automatically get to. Getting married in the Church should be seen as a holy, serious, and life-long commitment to live out and reflect that “great mystery” of Christ and the Church. And personally, I feel far too many men and women are allowed to get married in Church that shouldn’t be allowed to.
If I was a pastor, and a couple who didn’t attend my church asked me to marry them, I’d say no—I don’t know them, and I don’t know anything about them. I would only perform the marriage if they were truly a part of the Church, and if I was convinced that they really understood what Christian marriage was, and were truly committed to it. As a minister, I would view it as my holy duty to preserve the sanctity of marriage, and not set the bar so low that the only criteria was, “Is it one man and one woman?” Because let’s face it, we all know couples who should not be married. The Church should not oblige couples simply because they’re heterosexual and want to marry.
That being said, if a couple (heterosexual or homosexual) were married through the State, I would welcome them to be a part of the Church family in a heartbeat. Furthermore, I would do everything I could as a pastor to make sure everyone realized that “getting married” did not make you more favored by God or more welcome in the Church. I think a lot of single people, for that matter, often feel tremendously lonely and not truly part of their church for this very reason. Getting married is seen by many single Christians, not only as something you can do so you can have sex without God getting angry, but also as something that will make you really be accepted in church. I find that tragic. Having felt that way when I was single, then having gotten married and having suffered through a divorce, I see how anorexic that view of marriage truly is. And unfortunately, far too many churches present marriage as nothing more than that.
So How Should Churches Respond to These Things?
In some of my discussions on this topic, sometimes there is an attempt to link LGBTQ issues with slavery. Essentially, the argument goes like this: “Slavery was condoned in the Bible, but now we know it is wrong, and Christians have changed their opinion on that topic. Similarly, Christians have historically been prejudiced and abusive against the LGBTQ community, but now we see that is wrong, and so Evangelicals have to get with the program and repent of their bigoted stance toward homosexuals and transgendered people, treat them as full human beings.”
Now, I think there are a number of problems with that argument, but it did get me thinking. It would be wrong to say that the New Testament “condones” slavery. Since Jesus, Paul, and Peter were not emperors, they were not in any kind of position to do anything about it. What we do know is that over time, Christians were able to exert enough moral influence on the pagan world, that they eventually put an end to the ancient institution of slavery that was, up to that time, universal. That alone should tell you about Christianity’s opinion of slavery. But in any case, in the first century, the early Church was left to work within the system of their time.
And within that system, they encouraged Christian slaves to obey their masters as if they were obeying Christ, and they encouraged Christian masters to treat their slaves kindly, with dignity, because both the master and the slaves were ultimately “fellow-slaves” to God. Slaves were told that if they could gain their freedom, by all means do; but the driving message was this: in whatever situation or cultural institution you find yourself in, be Christ-like, love God and love your neighbor.
A very telling book in the New Testament is Paul’s letter to Philemon. Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, had run away and made his way to Paul. Paul had sent Onesimus back to Philemon with a letter that encouraged and persuaded Philemon to take Onesimus back, no longer as a slave, but as a brother. Paul didn’t order Philemon to do it; he didn’t say, “Philemon, you disgusting slave owner! You’re such a hypocritical bigot and abuser!” The fact was at that time the institution of slavery was a cultural norm, and not considered particularly immoral by society. Obviously, Paul didn’t agree with slavery, but he accepted the cultural reality he was in, he accepted both slave and slave owner as Christian brothers, and he allowed room for the Holy Spirit to do His work within the heart of Philemon whenever the Holy Spirit may choose to do so.
And so, if I could tell conservative Evangelical Christians anything, it would be this:
- Don’t condemn homosexuals and transgendered people as sinners simply because they feel a certain way that you don’t understand, and if they want to grow in Christ and worship with you, welcome them in your churches.
- Accept gay marriage as a Constitutional right, and if gay couples want to grow in Christ and worship with you, welcome them in your churches.
- Even if you think gay marriage is wrong, or homosexuality and transgenderism is wrong, don’t issue statements or condemnations. Be welcoming in your churches and allow the Holy Spirit to change lives, both theirs and yours, however He sees fit, through the common worship of Christ.
- Simply put, if homosexuality and transgenderism is wrong, healing will only come through the work of the Holy Spirit, and that requires you to treat everyone as you would treat Christ. Issuing condemning statements won’t do any good, other than stroke your own egos.
I end with this. A few years ago, I saw an interview a news reporter had with an Orthodox bishop. (I’ll be paraphrasing what was said). When she asked him what the Orthodox Church’s stance on gay marriage was, he said, “We don’t believe in it. That’s not what the Church has taught.” Then, she asked him if they spoke about issues like homosexuality from the pulpit, and he said, “Oh no.” When she asked why, he basically said, “Because there are probably homosexuals there, and we want them with us. We don’t want to issue condemnations and drive them away. We say, ‘Come, worship Christ and be a part of the Church. Be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading and be willing to change if the Holy Spirit speaks to you.” I thought that was very wise, because really, that applies to everyone, without prejudice.
And so…accept reality; accept everyone who wants to grow in Christ and worship God; and let the Holy Spirit blow where He chooses.