Homosexuality


By now, any number of people are familiar with Misty’s paper defending same-sex marriage. I think most people understand that she wasn’t seeking status for such marriages in the church. She was proposing a civil remedy. Then again, maybe I’m overly optimistic about what people do and don’t understand. In any event, the paper provoked an uproar in Reformed circles and gave rise to many responses, a lot of them quite vicious.

Why?

Many would say the answer is obvious. They don’t even understand why I’m asking why. They would say the Scriptures make it clear that gay marriage is wrong wrong wrongity wrong wrong wrong (and if I’ve misrepresented the position by not throwing enough “wrong”s in there, I apologize). Therefore, civil government cannot rightly allow it.

There’s a massive assumption in that “therefore”.

If the Bible defines something as sin, does that automatically mean the State cannot permit or regulate the activity? I trust everyone immediately sees the absurdity of such a position. But in case my optimism is once again clouding my view of reality, let’s take a look at the problem.

Specifically, let’s look at an example that may prove instructive in the same-sex marriage discussion–building permits. May the civil government issue a building permit for a mosque? A synagogue? A Roman Catholic church that will include a statue of Mary for people to bow down to? Scripture defines idolatry and false religion as serious sins. These sins get a lot more Biblical attention than same-sex couples. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say the civil government may rightly issue permits for such buildings. Christians ought to support and protect the civil rights of Muslims to build mosques, Jews synagogues, and Roman Catholics churches.

I’ll go further out on a limb and predict I’m not going to get a lot of hate mail for taking that stance. I probably won’t even get my husband kicked out of the church. (Um. If you don’t know the context to that joke, just move along.) Yet I just openly solicited Christian support for false religion and idolatry. Do Christians not worry about those sins as much as they do about homosexuality?

Seriously. Why am I allowed to support building permits for idolaters, but Misty isn’t allowed to support marriage licenses for gays?

Now some people will respond that the issues of same-sex marriage and idolatry are different. I’ll even grant that up to a point. But this still doesn’t explain the furor that erupted against Misty’s view.

I’ve heard some suggest that the State doesn’t regulate our duty to God, only our duty to our neighbor. Let’s concede that distinction at least for the sake of argument. And let’s further pretend that this theological distinction fully accounts for conservative Christian calmness at the thought of worshiping Jews versus their hysteria at the thought of married gays.

If we make this distinction, then marriage is within the State’s purview and worship isn’t. Civil government need not prohibit sins of worship and may cheerfully regulate false religion by granting building permits, providing roads that service idolatrous facilities, etc. etc. But the government under this theory may and must prohibit marital sins and issue permits for right marriages only. It’s simple.

Or is it?

Let’s think a little further. At the very least, this means the state needs to outlaw adultery and prohibit divorce except in the case of sexual immorality. (Also, divorce where an unbeliever leaves a believer would not be contested. We won’t go down this rabbit trail, but it helps point out the absurdity of attempting to govern by “Biblical” law.) Now a lot of conservative Christians who read this will be unperturbed. “That’s fine,” they’ll say. “Outlaw adultery. Prohibit divorce except in the case of sexual immorality. We’re cool with that. Bring it on.”

Ok, let’s explore that.

First, why aren’t Reformed and evangelicals up in arms over these issues? Why aren’t they enraged to the point of hysteria that some of their elected representatives are divorced or have committed adultery or both? How can they practically canonize Ronald Reagan while refusing to vote for a gay candidate on “moral” grounds?

Why aren’t conservative Christians clamoring for anti-divorce laws and harsh sanctions against adultery? They may claim they’d like to see such laws, but look at their actions. The only thing that’s got them screaming is same-sex marriage. The only thing they really oppose is something that doesn’t even tempt them. How are gays supposed to take us seriously when we demonize them and give our own kind a free pass?

Second, consider this issue of divorce. Jesus said it’s not permissible to divorce except in the case of sexual immorality (Matthew 5:31,32). Should the state hold its citizens to that standard? Must it? What if I said no? What if I said people are inclined to divorce and laws against divorce won’t stop them? So the State may as well regulate the process. Would that suggestion unleash an avalanche of vicious emails? Would I get called a heretic? Maybe, though I doubt it. Most conservative Christians wouldn’t be incredibly upset by my attack on the institution of marriage (if I may borrow terms ironically from the other debate). Some wouldn’t be upset at all. They might even agree.

Not to drop names, but if I took such a position, I would only be advocating what God did under Moses. When God set up a government under Moses, He lowered his standards for marriage. That’s right. If you don’t believe me, listen to Jesus:

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

Matthew 19:3-9

The Pharisees are asking about the command of God in Deuteronomy allowing a man to to leave his wife by writing a certificate of divorce. Jesus replies by saying that this permission was given because of their hardness of heart. God knew they were a stiff-necked people and would be inclined to divorce. Rather than prohibit divorce outright, he regulated the process.

But as Jesus points out, this is not the creational norm for marriage. As God created marriage, he intended it to be a permanent bond between a man and a woman. How dare a civil magistrate lower that standard? Well, when the civil magistrate is God, I guess we have to let things slide. Not only did the sin of divorce go unpunished under his theocratic rule, the sin was permitted and regulated without comment.

Wow.

Even in the theocracy, God watered down the institution of marriage in the interests of civil order. We’re talking Israel, a holy people set apart to God. Even there God permitted and regulated divorce.

Do you see where this is going?

Is it perhaps possible that, given the current political and social situation in the US, it would be better to permit and regulate gay marriage than to ignore it?

Remember, you can’t make the argument that civil government can’t permit and regulate anything sinful. We’ve shown that to be false. And you can’t make the argument that with the institution of marriage, at least, civil government can’t permit any deviation from the creational norm. The institution of marriage is the one thing where we know definitively that God himself once lowered the standard when setting up a government. If that makes you uncomfortable, take it up with him. But I’d suggest you not try the old “holier than thou” stance when you do so.

So if you’re going to speak against State regulation of gay marriage, you’ll have to come up with a different argument. More important, can you see that it’s possible to support governmental regulation of gay marriage without being a heretic or compromising with sin? You don’t have to agree with Misty’s view to agree she’s not sinning or committing heresy by suggesting it.

Where do I stand? I don’t know. The older I get, the more I realize I’m a terrible political theorist. But I’m a good exegete and theologian. So I stick with those strengths. And speaking from those strengths, I’m saying that Scripture does not offer us much in the way of political theory. What it does offer does not prohibit a civil government from permitting and regulating gay marriage.

If the US legalized gay marriage tomorrow, it wouldn’t bother me at all. I might even breathe a sigh of relief. It would put the believers in “Christian America” one step farther from their terrifying goal. That’s got to be worth something.

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Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

Matthew 16:24

These are hard words to hear for those of us who live in middle class, suburban America. I don’t mean the words are hard to take. I mean it’s difficult for us to even process these words of Jesus and imagine they are directed at us. The words enter one ear, search for purchase and, finding no soil, they exit the other ear. We claim to be followers of Christ. Yet what aspects of our lives seem to correspond to this command to take up the cross?

The words of our Lord are typically stark, unrelenting, and global. He does not propose taking up the cross as one way to follow him. Cross-bearing is the only way to be a disciple. Jesus calls every believer without exception to take up that cross.

To put it another way, the Christian life is a matter of sacrificing our lives for our brothers and sisters, of showing love to those who hate (or claim to be indifferent toward) us, and of being persecuted for our faith. Discipleship is costly. When we proclaim the Gospel we must make this clear. Our hearers must be allowed to consider the cost. As Bonhoeffer famously said, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.”

But if we aren’t suffering ourselves, we may feel foolish delivering such a message. “Come to Jesus and suffer!” we cry from our comfortable homes. “We lack nothing, but on behalf of Christ, we call you to give up your lives!” I suppose we could point to the minute and barely perceptible ways in which we do suffer. If we are believers at all, there must be some suffering to point to. But if our suffering isn’t obvious, it seems foolish and petty to draw attention to it.

Our lack of suffering–and our lack of willingness to suffer–makes it almost impossible to bring the Gospel to certain segments of society.

Take the poor. How do we call them to discipleship if we won’t sacrifice our luxuries, comforts, and even necessities for their sake? Shall we call them to take up the cross on Christ’s behalf when we won’t take up the cross on theirs? The response of the church to this dilemma is depressingly predictable. When was the last time your denomination or your congregation tried to plant a church in the inner city or any poor area? Even if we give lip service to such “projects,” how much are we willing to sacrifice to make them happen? Are we willing to become as poor as they if somehow we might make them them rich in Christ? To take some of Paul’s words out of context, “I am talking like a madman!”

Or what about calling people from other religious traditions? A Muslim who converts, a Buddhist, a Mormon, even a Catholic will face immediate rejection and persecution by their former coreligionists.

Or take homosexuals.

This is the worst situation of all. We don’t suffer, yet we call gays to a lifetime of suffering. And we behave as though we, unlike they, don’t need to suffer. We’ve redefined discipleship so it isn’t about bearing the cross, it’s about family. Now the Christian life is centered around a husband and father who’s the head of his house, a wife who submits, and children who obey. It’s hard enough for straight singles to latch onto this paradigm. But at least singles have hopes. One day they too may enter the ranks of full-fledged Christians by becoming a loving husband or a submissive wife with children in tow.

But what about gays? We call them to become eunuchs for the kingdom while we live comfortable lives. Or perhaps we tease them with the enticement that God will “cure” their homosexuality if only they have faith. That’s even less kind than telling cancer patients they’ll be healed if they convert.

As gay marriages and civil unions become more common, that call to costly discipleship gets even tougher. We’re calling them to abandon the family they have (or at least to complicate that family life rather severely). And for what? So they can come to a place where they’re not allowed to have a family. When we define the Christian life in family-focused terms, that essentially means we’re calling gays to be second-class citizens in the kingdom of heaven. Come to Christ! You can sit in the back of the bus. The call is snobbish and condescending if, indeed, we bother to make it at all.

But if we define the Christian life as bearing the cross, suddenly we’re calling gays to be among the greatest in the kingdom. To make that call, we have to be bearing the cross ourselves. We need credibility. Otherwise the call will still seem snobbish.

But wait. It gets worse.

The problem is more than calling gays to suffer when we don’t suffer ourselves. The problem is that Reformed and evangelical Christians have been the cause of much suffering among the gays. Sure, we say we hate the sin and love the sinner; but do our words and our actions really reflect that? How many gays would look at the evangelical church and say “Those Christians sure do love us”?

Why don’t they see our love for them? Is it perhaps because the love isn’t there? Or is it that the love is unexpressed? At the very least we’ve got a serious communication breakdown, don’t we?

So here’s a partial answer to that ridiculous question I posed in an earlier post: How do we start suffering? Let us begin to love gay people as we ought to have loved them all along–deeply, sacrificially, and without condescension.

This will probably involve finding ways to make our repentance for past failures to love them. It will mean standing apart from those who hope to restrain gays with the sword of the State and conquer them via culture war. (The way the Spirit subdues us to himself is sweeter and far different.) The likelihood is that others who claim to follow Christ will misunderstand, misrepresent, ridicule, and despise us for this stance. Very good! When our own discipleship is costly, perhaps we will gain the beginnings of credibility with those we hope to call.

Let us have gays into our homes and into our lives. Let us introduce them to our children, to our neighbors, to our churches–not as some sort of project or as evidence that we deserve a medal for going “above and beyond”–but as our friends whom we love.

I’ll want to talk more about the subject of homosexuality as the days go by. Conservative Christians need to do a lot of thinking and a lot of repenting on this score. (This post constitutes a little bit of both on my part.)

Meanwhile, let me direct you to the web site and the blog of my good friend Misty. She’s done a lot more thinking and acting on this subject than I have. Further, Misty has some of that credibility I’ve been talking about. The Lord has been gracious enough to allow her to suffer for the sake of these friends whom she loves. Thus, Misty is uniquely situated to help you work through the issues involved using Scripture and the love to which Christ calls us all.

And finally, as you seek to have your heart affected concerning this subject, remember the other things I’ve mentioned. Remember the poor and seek to suffer with and for them. And remember those whose culture or religion would make it particularly costly for them to hear the call of Christ. Let us seek to serve them as well.

The world is filled with opportunities to bear the cross if only we aren’t afraid to find them.