I’ve been thinking about the issue of gay marriage lately. It seems like an issue that is going to be an increasingly divisive one in our culture, and in other post-Christian cultures, as secular and religious values become more and more polarized. Obviously its a hot issue in America in light of President Obama’s recent change of position, the Chick-Fil-A controversy, and the upcoming election. I recently watched a brief clip about how the issue fares in Australia. The majority of the public there supports legalizing gay marriage, and the news program showed four anchors interviewing a politician who favored gay marriage, and then discussing the issue among themselves afterwards. All four anchors were in favor of gay marriage, and spoke about it in such a way that made the issue sound obvious: if people are in love, shouldn’t they have the right to get married like everybody else? Shouldn’t people be treated fairly and equally? At one point one of the anchors even expressed impatience at having any more debate about gay marriage. The way the issue was cast seemed to have the subtle effect of making gay marriage look humane, compassionate, and fair, and the traditional view out of touch and even bigoted. As one who holds to a traditional definition of marriage, I remember thinking, “if I were there in that studio right now, I would probably be viewed as intolerant and judgmental before I ever opened my mouth, simply because of the view I hold.” It was quite an odd feeling, and it has motivated me to think through how I would seek to defend my view on this issue. Its not an easy issue to speak to, partly because some Christians have done so without love and humility, and partly because the issue itself seems to me to be a bit more complicated than some other social issues (such as abortion). I share these thoughts to seek the truth in my own thinking, and to offer some encouragements for others who hold to the traditional view, but may not have thought about how best to defend it. If anyone who supports gay marriage reads this post, I hope it comes as across as a courteous and respectful explanation as to why so many of us have not abandoned the traditional view. Even when we don’t change our minds, its still productive to seek to understand each other better.
First of all, I think its extremely important for those of us who come at this issue from a Christian worldview to be sensitive to our context when we are dialoging about it. If Christians are talking with other Christians, they naturally reason from the Scripture and from other aspects of a Christian worldview. But when Christians are dialoging in the public forum, quoting Bible verses is probably not going to make for a winsome or helpful case. It may even do more harm than good. Instead, there must be an appeal to arguments premised in common grace and natural law, and a case that will be compelling to someone who does share Christian presuppositions. We must start with sociology and statistics, not with Scripture. We must being with where people are already at, like Paul did in Acts 17. I don’t think this means the Bible can never be used in a debate, but too often Christians start with special revelation in a context when it would be wiser to argue from general revelation. Part of a Christian doctrine of love, it seems to me, defined in light of the Incarnation, is the entailment that we are intellectually generous in dialogue with those who think differently. This means we listen carefully. We rejoice over common ground. We eagerly seek to understand. We move towards people. We build bridges. We show concern. We think strategically about what will work in a given scenario, or with a particular person or group of people. We present the truth in a way that is least difficult (without compromising the truth). We seek not merely to be right, but to be persuasive – not merely to be faithful in proclaiming truth, but also to be effective in how we do so.
In addition, our speech must display compassion, tact, and humility. Christians have often offended the gay and lesbian community by speaking to issues related to homosexuality with a loveless self-righteousness that singles out homosexuality as a greater sin than their own. That is a violation of the heart of the gospel. It gives an impression of what Christianity is all about that is the exact opposite of the impression we want to give. That is like a pacifist spreading his message by picking fights, or charitable ministry funding itself by stealing from the poor. Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). The gospel should so constrain our words and our tone that we are gracious in the face of hostility, and totally lacking in smugness or superiority. That is itself part of our case, and it alone will probably be more effective than any argument.
Before giving any reasons for or against gay marriage, I think its helpful to frame the issue historically. Until recently, virtually no civilization in the history of humanity advocated a definition of marriage including two people of the same gender. Various kinds of same sex-unions have existed in certain cultures in one form or another, but the idea that same sex unions be granted the same legal recognition as traditional heterosexual marriage is a recent, Western idea (and even here we are torn on it). This is helpful to draw out because it adds some weight to the traditional view: if it is inherently bigoted, then that means that the vast majority of human beings who have ever existed have been bigots. The traditional view may look like it is on the defensive in certain parts of the world today, but when seen against this broader historical backdrop, it is gay marriage which stands out as the radical minority view. Unless we assume that our cultural values in the modern West are superior to those of other cultures (and that would be bigoted), shouldn’t we humbly consider why so many other civilizations saw this differently, and be cautious about making a radical, unprecedented change?
In addition, I think its helpful to distinguish between the official definition of marriage and same-sex unions. Some people frame the issue as, “why should the government tell me who I can have a relationship with?” But the issue is not whether people are free to have same-sex relationships, but whether the official definition of marriage should be altered. This is a minor point, but its important because many people speak of the traditional view as though it were the government over-stepping its bounds. In reality, it is those who support gay marriage who are asking the government to do something, namely, alter the definition of marriage it has always had, which establishes the fundamental and most influential building block of society, the family. The issue is not simply about people being free to make their own choices. Its about the government making a radical change in how society is structured, which will exert significant influence on society as a whole. (As a youth pastor, I am passionately convinced that youth workers, social workers, and teachers can only ever have a fraction of the impact on a child’s life that their family has. I believe in what I do. But my ability to influence a teenager vs. their parents’ ability to influence them is about 3% to 97% at most. A person’s family is the primary molding influence on them.)
I think the strongest argument for traditional definition of marriage stems from a complementarian understanding of gender roles. I believe that male and female function in complementary ways towards each other: they are equal, but not interchangeable. You don’t need the Bible to see that men and women are different. The sociology is overwhelming. And if men and women are different, then it makes sense that they each have something unique to offer within the family. You can’t swap male and female in and out of roles without consequence. If your football team is comprised entirely of players who are more skilled at offense, or entirely of players who are more skilled at defense, you won’t have as strong of a team. Its not because defense or offense is better than the other, or more important. Its simply because they play different roles, and therefore you ideally want them both. Similarly, on the question of adoption, I think gay couples can be great parents. But on balance, an adopted child who had 2 dads or 2 moms is going to miss out on something that a child has with a mom and a dad. The two dads can be great dads, and two moms can be great moms, but no matter how great they are, you don’t have the complementarity a mom and a dad offer. (Of course, this doesn’t mean that all gay couples are bad parents, or all heterosexual couples are good parents.)
This complementarian understanding of gender is also why gay marriage cannot be compared to racial equality. Gender and race are not the same. There are no essential, structural differences between people of different race. There are essential, structural differences between male and female, and making that recognition (which is basic to the sociology) does not make one a sexist unless one believes the differences entail superiority and inferiority.
There are other arguments that can be made against gay marriage, but this is the one which I find most convincing. Its helpful for me to formulate my thoughts, and maybe its helpful to someone else out there. I fear that the debate over this issue will grow increasingly rancorous in the years ahead. Hopefully those of us who hold to the traditional view can make our case in a calm, reasonable, gracious, and effective way.