The elders and their families spent some time in the afternoon with D. A. Carson this past Sunday (4/14/2013). Among several matters discussed was the issue of homosexual marriage. The following article appeared on the Gospel Coalition blog the following day (4/15/2013). Written by Jonathan Leeman, the article offers helpful analysis and exhortation.
More and more commentators are saying that we have passed the tipping point on same-sex marriage in the United States. Almost daily another politician or public figure stands before a microphone to declare his or her support. It feels like the dam has burst; the paradigm shifted.
Whether or not same sex marriage is a political fait accompli, I don’t know. What concerns me in the present hour is the temptation among Christians to go with the flow. The assumption is that the nation no longer shares our morality, and that we must not impose our views on others and blur the line between church and state. Besides, we don’t want to let any political cantankerousness get in the way of sharing the gospel, right? So we might as well throw in our lot. So the thinking goes.
How hard Christians should actively fight against same-sex marriage is a matter for wisdom. But that we must not support it, I would like to persuade you, is a matter of biblical principle. To vote for it, to legislate it, to rule in favor of it, to tell your friends at the office that you think it’s just fine—all this is sin. To support it publicly or privately is to “give approval to those who practice” the very things that God promises to judge—exactly what we’re told not to do in Romans 1:32.
Further, same-sex marriage embraces a definition of humanity that is less than human and a definition of love that is less than love. And it is not freedom from religion that the advocates of same-sex marriage want; they want to repress one religion in favor of another.
Christians must not go with the flow. They must instead love the advocates of same-sex marriage better than they love themselves precisely by refusing to endorse it.
I am saying this for the sake of you who are Christians, who affirm the authority of Scripture, who believe that homosexual activity is wrong, and who believe in the final judgment. I don’t mean here to persuade anyone who does not share these convictions.
My goal in all of this is to encourage the church to be the church. What good is salt that loses it saltiness? Or what use is light under a bowl? Rather, blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Deeper Understanding of Humanity
I believe Voddie Baucham is exactly right to say that “gay is not the new black,” and that we should not formally equate sexual orientation to ethnicity or sex as an essential component of personal identity. It is amazing to me that recent legal battles simply take this equation for granted without holding it up to the light and looking at it.
There are several assumptions behind the idea that a person with same-sex attraction might say “I am a homosexual” in the same way someone might say “I am a male” or “I am black.” First, one assumes that homosexual desires are rooted in biology and therefore a natural part of being human. Second, one assumes that our natural desires are basically good, so long as they don’t hurt others. Third, one assumes that fulfilling such basic and good desires are part of being fully human.
All the talk about “equality” depends upon these foundational assumptions about what it means to be human.
Marriage then becomes an important prize to be won for people with same-sex attraction because, as the oldest and most human of institutions, marriage publicly affirms these deep desires. Everybody who participates in a wedding—from the father who walks a bride down an aisle, to the company of friends, to the pastor leading the ceremony, to the state who licenses the certificate—participates in a positive and formal affirmation of a couple’s union. It is hard to think of a better way to affirm same-sex desire as good and part of being fully human than to leverage the celebratory power of a wedding ceremony and a marriage.
Make no mistake: The fundamental issue at stake in the same-sex marriage debate is not visitation rights, adoption rights, inheritance laws, or all the stuff of “civil unions.” Those are derivative. It is fundamentally about being publicly recognized as fully human.
Biblically minded Christians, of course, have no problem recognizing people with same-sex attraction as fully human. There are members of my church who experience same-sex attraction. We worship with them, vacation with them, love them. What Christianity does not do, however, is grant that fulfilling every natural desire is what makes us human.
Christianity in fact offers a more mature and deeper concept of humanity, more mature and deep than the person engaged in a homosexual lifestyle has of him or herself.
It is more mature because Christianity begins with the frank admission that fallen human beings are corrupted all the way down, all the way in. A child assumes that all of his or her desires are legitimate. Adults, hopefully, know better. And a mature understanding of fallen humanity recognizes that our fallenness affects everything from our biology and body chemistry to our ambitions and life loves. Same-sex attraction is but one manifestation. This is why Christ commands us to go and die, and why we must be born again. We must become new creations, a process that begins at conversion and will be completed with his coming.
Also, the fact that Jesus is Lord means his authoritative claim on our lives reaches all the way down, all the way in. We have no right to stand before him and insist upon our definitions of masculinity, femininity, marriage, love, and sexuality. He gets to write the definitions, even when they go against our deepest desires and sense of self.
Rooted in biology or not, there is a difference between gender, ethnicity, and “orientation.” Orientation consists primarily of—is lived out through—desire. And the fact that it involves desire means it is subject to moral evaluation in a way that “being male” or “being Asian” are not.
Here is what’s often missed: neither the fact of the desire, nor its possible biological basis, gives it moral legitimacy. Don’t mistake is for ought. We understand this quite well, for instance, when it comes to the behaviors associated with some forms of substance addiction or bipolar disorder. The biological component of these maladies certainly calls for compassion and reams of patience, but it does not make their attendant behaviors morally legitimate. To assume they do means treating human beings as just one more animal. No one morally condemns a leopard for acting instinctually. Yet shouldn’t our moral calculations for human beings involve something more than assent to the biochemistry of desire? We are more than animals. We are souls and bodies. We are created in God’s image. To legitimize homosexual desire simply because it’s natural or biological, ironically, is to treat a person as less than human.
All of this is to say, Christianity not only offers a more mature concept of humanity, it offers a deeper concept. It says we are more than a composite of our desires, some of which are fallen, some of which are not.
Remarkably, Jesus says that our humanity goes deeper even than marriage and sex, and certainly deeper than fallen versions of them. He says that, in the resurrection, there will be no marriage or giving in marriage. Marriage and sex, it appears, are two-dimensional shadows that point to the three-dimensional realities to come. A person’s humanity and identity in no way finally depends on the shadows of marriage. Dare we deny the full humanity of Christ because he neither consummated a marriage nor fathered natural children? Indeed, wasn’t the full humanity of this second Adam demonstrated through begetting a new humanity?
There is something inhumane about the homosexual lobby’s version of the human being. It is inhumane to morally evaluate people as if they are animals whose instincts define them.
And there is something inhumane about the homosexual lobby’s quest for same-sex marriage. It is inhumane to call bad good, or wrong desires right. It is inhumane to equate a person with the fallen version of that person, as if God created us to be the fallen versions of ourselves. But this is exactly what same-sex marriage asks us to do. It asks us to publicly affirm the bad as good—to institutionalize the wrong as right.
Christianity says that we are not finally determined by ethnicity, sex, marriage, or even sinful desire. We are God-imagers and vice-rulers, tasked with showing the cosmos what God’s triune justice, righteousness, and love are like. The Christian message to the person engaged in a homosexual lifestyle is that we believe they are even more human than they believe.
Christianity offers a more mature and deeper concept of love, too. Love is not fundamentally about a narrative of self-expression and self-realization. It is not about finding someone who “completes me,” in which I assume that who “I am” is a given, and that you love “me” authentically only if you respect me exactly as I am, as if “I” is somehow sacred.
Christian love is not so naïve. It’s much more mature (see 1 Cor. 13:11). It recognizes how broken people are, and it loves them in their very brokenness. It is given contrary to what people deserve. We feed and clothe and befriend them, even when they attack us. But then Christian love maturely invites people toward holiness. Through prayer and disciple-making, Christian love calls people to change—to repent. Christian love recognizes that our loved ones will know true joy only as they increasingly conform to the image of God, because God is love. This is why Jesus tells us that, if we love him, we will obey his commands, just like he loves the Father and so obeys the Father’s commands.
Christian love is also deeper than love in our culture. It knows that true love was demonstrated best when Christ laid down his life for the church to make her holy, an act which the apostle Paul analogizes to the love of a husband and wife and the husband’s call to wash his wife with the word (Rom. 5:8; Eph. 5:22-32). The Bible’s central picture of gospel love is lost in same-sex marriage, just like it’s lost when a husband cheats on his wife.
The progressive position might call the orthodox Christian position on gay marriage intolerant. But Christians must recognize that the progressive position is unloving and inhumane. And so we must love them more truly than they love themselves.
Public Square and Idolatrous Religion
What then shall we say about the public square? Shouldn’t our understanding of the separation between church and state and religious freedom keep us from “imposing” our ideas upon others? Why would the church being the church affect our stance in the public square among the non-church?
What people can miss is the distinction between laws that criminalize an activity and laws that promote or incentivize an activity. The laws surrounding marriage belong to the latter category. The government gets involved in the marriage business—to the chagrin of libertarians—because it thinks it has some interest in protecting and promoting marriage. It sees that marriage contributes to the order, peace, and good of society at large. Therefore, it offers financial incentives for marriage, such as tax breaks or inheritance rights.
In other words, institutionalizing same-sex marriage does not merely make government neutral toward unrighteousness; it means the government is promoting and incentivizing unrighteousness. The 2003 Supreme Court decision to overturn laws that criminalized homosexual behavior, by contrast, need not be construed as a promotion or affirmation of homosexual behavior. The irony of the progressive position on same-sex marriage is that it cloaks its cause in the language of political neutrality, when really it is just the opposite. It is a positive affirmation of a brand of morality and the whole set of theological assumptions behind that morality.
To put this in biblical terms, institutionalizing same-sex marriage is nothing other than to “give approval to those who practice” the things that God’s word condemns (Rom. 1:32). And behind this moral affirmation, Paul tells us, is the religious “exchanging of the immortal God for images” (Rom. 1:23). To establish same-sex marriage, in other words, is an utterly religious act, by virtue of being idolatrous.
For the Christian, therefore, the argument is pretty simple: God will judge all unrighteousness and idolatry. Therefore Christians should not publicly or privately endorse, incentivize, or promote unrighteousness and idolatry, which same-sex marriage does. God will judge such idolatry—even among those who don’t believe in him.
God Will Judge the Nations
Let me explain further. Both the Old Testament and the New promise that God will judge the nations and their governments for departing from his own standard of righteousness and justice. The presidents and parliaments, voters and judges of the world are comprehensively accountable to him. There is no area of life somehow quarantined off from his evaluation.
Hence, he judged the people of Noah’s day, Sodom and Gomorrah, Pharaoh in Egypt, Sennacherib in Assyria, Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, and the list goes on. Just read of his judgments against the nations in passages like Isaiah 13-19 or Jeremiah 46-52.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that Psalm 96 and many other passages make the transnational, omni-partisan nature of God’s judgment clear: “Say among the nations, ‘The LORD reigns.’ . . . he will judge the peoples with equity” (Ps. 96:10; also Ps. 2; Jer. 10:6-10).
Does the same principle apply in the New Testament era? Yes. The governors of the world derive their authority from God and will be judged by God for how they use their authority: Caesar no less than Nebuchadnezzar; presidents no less than Pharaoh:
- Jesus tells Pilate that Pilate’s authority comes from God (John 19).
- Paul describes the government as “God’s servant” and an “agent” to bring God’s justice (Rom. 13).
- Jesus is described as the “ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5).
- Kings, princes, and generals fear the wrath of the Lamb and hide from it (Rev. 6:15).
- The kings of the earth are indicted for committing adultery with Babylon the Great (Rev. 18:3).
- Christ will come with a sword “to strike down the nations” (Rev. 19:13), leaving the birds “to eat the flesh of kings, generals, and the mighty” (v. 18).
God will judge all nations and governors. They are politically accountable to his standard of justice and righteousness, not to their own standards. To depart from God’s righteousness and justice—for every government in the world, Old Testament and New—is to incur God’s wrath.
The fact that we live in a pluralistic nation in which many do not acknowledge the God of the Bible makes no difference to God. “Who is the Lord that I should obey him?” Pharaoh asked. The Lord demonstrated in short order precisely who he is. The fact that Americans believe a government governs “by the will of the people” makes no difference either. A Christian knows that true authority comes from God, and so he or she must never promote and incentivize unrighteousness, even if 99 percent of the electorate asks for it.
This does not mean that Christians should enact God’s judgment against all forms of unrighteousness now, but it does mean that we Christians should not publicly or privately put our hands to anything God will judge on the last day. Yes, politics often involves compromise, and there are times when Christian voters or politicians will be forced to decide between a lesser of two evils. And for such occasions we trust God is merciful and understanding. Still, so far as we can help it, we must not vote for, rule for, or tell our friends at the office that we support unrighteousness.
Does this mean we can impose our faith upon non-Christians? No, but endorsing same-sex marriage is another kind of thing. To endorse it is to involve yourself in unrighteousness and false religion, and an unrighteousness that God promises to judge.
In fact, same-sex marriage itself is the act of wrongful governmental imposition. Martin Luther wrote, “For when any man does that for which he has not the previous authority or sanction of the Word of God, such conduct is not acceptable to God, and may be considered as either vain or useless.” And God has never given human governments the authority to define marriage. He defined it in Genesis 2 and has not authorized anyone to redefine it. Any government that does is guilty of usurpation.
Since same-sex marriage is effectively grounded in idolatrous religion (see Rom. 1:23, 32), its institutionalization represents nothing more or less than the progressive position’s imposition of idolatrous religion upon the rest of us.
I am not telling Christians how many resources they should expend in fighting false gods in the public square, but I am saying that you must not join together with those gods. There is no neutral ground here.
Embrace and Stand Fast
Churches should embrace their brothers and sisters who struggle with same-sex attraction, just like they should embrace all repentant sinners.
And churches should stand fast on deeper, more biblical conceptions of love by loving the advocates of same-sex marriage more truly than they love themselves. We do this by insisting on the sweet and life-giving nature of God’s truth and holiness.
In our present cultural context, Christian love will prove costly to Christians and churches. Even if you recognize the Bible calls homosexuality sin, but you (wrongly) support same-sex marriage, your stance on homosexuality will offend. A people’s strongest desires—the desires they refuse to let go of—reveals their worship. To condemn sexual freedom in America today is to condemn one of the nation’s favorite altars of worship. And will they not fight for their gods? Will they not excommunicate all heretics?
But even while Scripture promises short-term persecution for the church, it also, strangely and simultaneously, points to long-term praise: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). I’m not sure how to explain that, but I trust it.
Jonathan Leeman, a member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and the author of The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love. His PhD work is in the area of political theology.