May 22, 2012
Why Legalizing Gay Marriage May Be Good for the Church
How the church can thrive by focusing on the battles that really matter.
In this post, we present reasons churches should NOT oppose gay marriage. For our post presenting a case for churches to oppose same-sex marriage legislation, click here.
NOTE: Before you skip ahead to the comment section and start disagreeing with me based on the title of this post, please read the post in its entirety. Then you can post disagreements!
I live in the state of Washington, which recently passed a law legalizing gay marriage. Meanwhile, my native state of North Carolina voted to ban same-sex marriages. It’s a topic many states are dealing with in a variety of ways.
As states debate the issue and election year rhetoric heats up, many church leaders I know have denounced the legalization of same-sex marriages while backing measures such as North Carolina’s that ban the practice. I have other Christian friends who support the legalization of same-sex marriage based on their belief that homosexual practice should be permitted in society and the church. I think this fiercely debated issue can serve to help us clarify our understanding of how Christians should engage society and government.
Personally (and please note that this is my personal position and not that of any ministry or organization I work with), I doubt the legalization of same-sex marriage is a threat to the church. In fact, I think it could very well be a blessing, but not for the reasons you might guess.
Let’s start with some first things first:
1. I believe homosexual practice is unbiblical. I see absolutely no scriptural support for homosexual practice, while seeing quiet, clear prohibition against homosexual practices. And so, based on my reading of Scripture, I happen to believe that same-sex marriage is not something that pleases God. In other words, it’s wrong, it is a sin, and it should find no support in the church.
2. I do not support same-sex marriage.
3. I do not oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage. The key word here is “legalization.”
Now that I have offended 95% of readers (on both well-trod sides of the issue), let’s move on. So why do I think legalizing same-sex marriage could be a good thing? Three reasons.
Morality vs. Justice
First, I see no biblical warrant for imposing our Christian standards for same-sex behavior on non-Christians. For the most part, our jurisdiction is within the church (where I see strong biblical mandate for not affirming homosexual practices, including cohabitation and marriage). When we see Muslim countries forcing non-Muslims (including Christians) to live according to strict Sharia law, we cringe. But we Christians are all-too-willing to force non-Christians to live according to our standards. In fact, there is history of us doing so, dating back to (but not before) Constantine.
Certainly there are times when Christians should seek to impose our Bible-based understanding of right and wrong on the society at large, but my reading of Scripture leads me to limit such attempts to issues of justice. We should strive to make the world a more just place, pushing for laws that protect victims of all kinds of injustice: abuse, slavery, trafficking, theft, rape, violence, oppression, and discrimination. We do this out of concern for the oppressed, a concern fueled by the indwelling Spirit of God. But even on issues of justice, a still more powerful witness than our efforts to pass justice-based laws are our efforts to eradicate injustice in our own communities. For instance, slavery in the United States would have ended centuries earlier if only Christians had promoted biblical justice among their own families and communities. Christians should strive to make the world a more just place, but passing laws that restrict whom sinners can marry does not make the world a more just place, and thus is none of our business.
Harmful to Our Witness
Second, we do harm to the cause of Christ and his gospel by trying to force non-Christians to live by biblical standards. We've seen what happens with blue laws and prohibition, legislating not "justice" but "biblical standards." This harm happens in two ways: we harm Christ’s cause by making enemies unnecessarily and we also harm the cause by muting the causal relationship between Christian identity and Christian behavior.
Nearly a decade ago, a gay man hired me to be his coach. He chose me (an ordained Baptist minister) because he wanted to work through his issues of anger at a Christian church that had always ignored him until he wanted to get married. He asked, “Why should these people who have never met me think they have the right to invade and dictate my love life?” The church’s attempts to legislate his morality did prevent him from marrying, but also prevented him from taking a serious and sober look at the claims of Christ, which could have brought hope, healing, and restoration to him.
Not surprisingly, acting in non-biblical ways dims the light of Christ in the world, distracts lost people from Jesus’ message of truth, and leads lost people to mistakenly consider Christ to be an enemy and oppressor rather than a savior and redeemer.
By allowing the state to promote and enforce Christian behaviors, we also harm the cause of Christ by undermining the voice and authority of the church among church members. We ought to welcome anything that sharpens the line between Christians and non-Christians because a distinct line clarifies that it is our allegiance to Christ that compels us to obey God, not our obedience to state or federal or international (or inter-galactic!) laws. Being a follower of Christ is the reason to behave in bizarre, counter-cultural, and illegal ways. And the goal of the church is to nurture followership of Christ, not to get secular laws to match biblical standards. Too often we think we have “won” something by getting laws to match the mandate of the Bible, but a true victory for the church is a God glorified by willing worshipers, obeyed by eager servants, and followed by faithful disciples.
Suffering for the Cause
The third reason I think legalizing same-sex marriage could be good for the church is that it affords us a possibility to suffer for the cause of Christ. I have talked with several pastors and lay Christians who oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage because they fear laws and courts will someday force ministers and/or churches to perform gay marriages.
But let’s be clear: the state can tell a church they must perform same-sex marriages, but the state cannot make a church do so. The state could fine the church, could allow the church to be sued in court, or could even imprison someone who violated such a mandate. The state can impose unwelcome consequences for acting like a Christian, but the state cannot make anyone disobey God. And, when I read scripture and the history of the church, I see the church thriving because of the suffering that results from obeying God in defiance of the state. Such suffering is a witness to the world to join the Way. If the only options available are to oppress or be oppressed (and I don’t think these are the only two options), we should welcome oppression and refuse to oppress.
I’m curious what others think. How are you dealing with this issue? On what points do you agree and where do you disagree? How is your church handling the issue? How do you see this issue as similar/distinct from other issues where the church should have a voice? What does the Bible say is our role in influencing society?