Same-sex marriage is a difficult reality Christians must face, and yet it will not go away, and will require that Christians faithfully, unflinchingly confront it. John Stonestreet, Fellow of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview and Sean McDowell, Assistant Professor of Apologetics at Biola University, discussed the baseline Christian position at Alex MacFarland’s Truth for a New Generation Apologetics Conference in Spartanburg, S.C. on September 5.
Stonestreet began the session by noting his conversation with an Evangelical youth pastor who said he would no longer talk about same-sex marriage because “that ship has sailed.” Yet to regard the issue as unimportant is “a dereliction of duty,” Stonestreet said. He quoted N.T. Wright, who said that “the church doesn’t always get to choose what it talks about. Culture sometimes forces conversations on the church.” Faced with another pastor who helped lead the legal fight against same-sex marriage and who said “it’s over, we’ve lost,” Stonestreet asked what it is that has been lost. The Kingdom of God has not ended, he observed, despite the greater legal challenges of being faithful to Christ. He went on to cite T.S. Eliot, who said that when confronted with something new, we should ask “what can I do with it, or what is it for?” The second question should be asked first, to avoid abusing the unknown. In the case of marriage, the purpose of marriage should be ascertained before claiming it should be extended to homosexual couples. “The legal status of something doesn’t change our Biblical responsibility to it,” Stonestreet said. He noted the legal status of unborn children or African Americans as examples of cases in which the law has not accorded persons the legal status they deserve, although Christians must stand for their proper status. The proper status of marriage can be determined by asking first how God defines it. After that we can draw support from general knowledge shared across cultures.
The claimed right to same-sex marriage should be answered first by addressing Jesus’ doctrine of marriage in the gospels, rather than to passages concerning the sinfulness of sodomy, according to Stonestreet. Jesus said that more fundamental than the Law of Moses was “God’s created [i.e., creation] intent.” Sexual complementarity is not merely what has traditionally been thought to be true, but it really is true. Thus he said that the natural order of marriage is based on the divine order of creation. With respect to marriage, it consists of three things: 1) male/female complementarity, 2) oneness, and 3) permanence. All biological functions can be done alone except procreation. To argue for same-sex marriage, it is necessary to say that “procreative oneness,” physical reality, “just doesn’t even matter.” These things “are part of the very fabric of human nature, they are part of what God created.”
McDowell then expanded on the same consideration to say that marriage in general, and not just between Christians, should be between one man and one woman. “If Jesus was not hateful, what did Jesus think about marriage?” he asked. Even those who reject natural marriage “remain male and female in a world in which marriage is one man and one woman in a permanent union together.” Also, “the further we move away from God’s design, the more people are going to get hurt.” The more sex and marriage are changed and separated from having children, the more problems arise, and thus, those who defend natural marriage are the ones who are “doing the loving thing.” It is easy to “give-in” to the ubiquitous propaganda that condemns advocates of traditional marriage as “hateful,” “intolerant,” and “bigoted,” and fall silent, but Jesus came in “grace and He came in truth,” and it is the truth which will “actually set us free.” McDowell also claimed that “we are on the right side of history.” After a couple of generations, “people will look back at the sexual revolution and realize the damage it caused to families, the damage it caused to kids, and the damage it caused to society.” Christians and social conservatives will be seen to have been correct. McDowell quoted Maggie Gallagher: “sex makes babies, society needs babies, and babies need a mom and a dad.” Concern for our neighbor should move Christians to defend natural marriage, McDowell claimed. “If as Christians we don’t stand for natural marriage, then there is no institution left that is caring for kids.” Everybody really knows this, McDowell said. He illustrated with the example of an office project staffed only by men or only by women. Everyone knows the product resulting from the effort of these different staffs will be different. In another example, McDowell noted that current scientific research shows that emotional connection with both parents, not just a mother, is needed by young children. “Men without fathers, and second, single men” commit the most crimes, McDowell said.
Stonestreet then distinguished between arbitrary and necessary discrimination. Marriage is indeed discriminatory, but reasonably discriminates against children or siblings marrying. Heretofore, virtually all societies have understood “that marriage is an institution that is about the future of civilization.” The need for babies and the fact that babies need a father and mother are therefore an eminently rational basis for marriage only between one man and one woman. Marriage has never been understood to be “the government or society’s imprimatur on somebody’s deeply held affection.” He went on to observe that even societies which accepted as proper relationships and behavior that Christian morality declares to be sinful (including having institutions to celebrate such relationships) recognized that such relationships were not true marriage. Our society, however, has changed the understanding of marriage from an institution to produce and protect children for the future, and therefore that justifies and protects sexual intercourse, to an institution that is justified by sexual intercourse. In today’s world, as far as marriage is concerned, the only thing is relational commitment. Rather than expanding the definition of marriage, the current redefinition of the institution is changing its meaning, and, in a real sense, diminishing its significance.
Cultural context is powerful, Stonestreet conceded. In our culture, homosexual marriage has become extremely plausible to many people (until the last twenty years, no one would have thought that a “gay marriage ban” existed, although it in fact is part of the very nature of marriage). We need to ask about same-sex marriage not “what if?” but “what now?” “The dominoes are falling” to enact same-sex marriage in all states, and even if it doesn’t happen, it already exists “in the cultural imagination.” We may wish that we did not live in a society in which it is being imposed; however, it is the society in which God has placed us. Citing the Bible, Stonestreet observed that “God determines the exact times people live and the boundaries of their dwelling place.” Same-sex marriage is “the challenge and trouble that we have,” therefore the question is “how can we be faithful to God’s design for marriage in a society where doing so can cost you?” He noted a recent observation from the Acton Institute says we are in a time of “exile.”
McDowell noted the two definitions of marriage in Stonestreet’s presentation, the objective definition, which is natural marriage between a man and a woman, and the subjective definition, which can be however it is defined by the culture. “If marriage is something we can adapt and change, then how does somebody have a right to it?” McDowell asked. The fact that people are claiming rights with regard to marriage “tells us there is something objective about this institution.” The claimed right is “equality,” but he noted that Nietzsche said that equality “is a Christian virtue.” This is because all human beings are made in the image of God. But this Christian virtue is being used against the true marriage which is part of Christian morality. McDowell sees more and more contradictions as Christian morality is rejected, as people “talk ourselves out of what is intuitive and what is obvious.” California, for instance, now has many laws about “gender” which will “lead to insanity.” This may mean that we are “getting to a tipping point where our culture is just becoming sexually exhausted.” Christians’ marriages or celibacy (the latter of which is also “important” for the church) should be modeled for the culture. McDowell quoted his father, Josh McDowell, as saying that what would draw people to the gospel more than personal testimony is “the loving Christian family.” In approaching the culture, Christians should make sure that they have repented of their sins, and are modeling love.
Stonestreet responded that repentance should not simply be something that happens when we come to Christ. “We haven’t championed the family, and we’ve tolerated sexual brokenness in our midst for an awful long time.” It’s also obvious to society, he said, that “we didn’t have marches against no-fault divorce.” Yet no-fault divorce was “the first thing that redefined marriage.” Its essential principle is that “you enter when you feel like it, and leave when you don’t feel like it … In other words, marriage is an emotional commitment that has nothing to do with children.” Thirty years later, claims that kids would do better outside unhappy marriages did not prove true. Children not only need a male and a female parent, but the evidence shows children do best if their parents “are married to each other.”
If the institution of marriage “is falling apart, something else has to step in”, Stonestreet observed. He noted the observation of a friend that 60-70 percent of young men in the friend’s Chicago neighborhood have been without fathers for three generations. “That is an unsustainable thing for society, and we didn’t do a whole lot about that … we did a whole lot of hating the sin, but how many of us actually got around to loving the sinner.” He noted an observation that “the opposite of love isn’t hate, the opposite of love is indifference.” Stonestreet then said he asked a same-sex attracted Christian friend for his recommendations on what the Christian community should do in the present situation. Two recommendations were given: “don’t move the goalposts” (don’t reject Biblical and traditional standards of sexuality), and don’t withhold from same-sex attracted persons the nonsexual love that they desperately need. Nevertheless, Stonestreet said that “being as loving as you want doesn’t get you off the hot seat culturally.” Here he compared Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 with Rick Warren, who campaigned for natural marriage in 2008, and Obama’s second inauguration in 2013, from which Louie Giglio was disinvited. The withdrawal of the invitation to Giglio resulted from a sermon he preached twenty years earlier that had condemned homosexuality with other sins. Today, “the question isn’t how are we going to know the right thing, the question is how are we going to do the right thing, even when there is incredible social pressure to do the wrong thing.” It’s no longer a matter of “‘we’ll be made fun of’; we might lose our jobs.” This issue is commonly avoided in American pulpits, nevertheless, Stonestreet was very concerned with pastoral leadership in this crisis. “Pastors, you’re going to pay a price for this, and most pastors aren’t willing to say it,” he exhorted. Although pastors are protected from conducting homosexual marriages, what about “the business owner in your church who wants to be a faithful Christian into the calling God’s taken him to? … what are you going to do to equip your saints to live out their God given calling in the areas into which they were called?” While Stonestreet said he will defend “to the death” the right of pastors not to perform same-sex weddings, his “understanding of the Christian life and the sacredness of all callings demands” that we also defend the right of laymen, such as bakers and photographers, not to be involved in same-sex ceremonies. An extension of this is the right of everyone not to facilitate homosexual behavior. For the long term, Christians must “be willing to pay the price” to be faithful to Christ.