Gay Marriage Is Not My Fight

No, the U.S. government is not subject to the laws of God or the Bible or Christian orthodoxy.  We have never been a Christian nation.  In fact, we specifically, consciously, and vocally voted down any efforts to that end.  We learned from the British experiment (and all of history from the time of Constantine), that wedding the church to the government is deadly both for government and for the church, and we decided to keep the church–it’s theology, power structure, and religious commitment–outside of the political process.  We opted to become a democracy in which each citizen of whatever religion or non-religion has the right to vote, to express his or her opinions, and try to sway fellow citizens to bring change in the way each sees best.

This is my major disagreement with the stand taken by Christianity Today and the hundred evangelicals who signed a response to the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage.  It reads in part, “no human institution has the authority to redefine marriage any more than a human institution has the authority to redefine the gospel.”  It is this kind of confusion of political and theological constructs that leads to all sorts of mischief.  Most clearly and definitely it is the responsibility of the government to define a social construct (marriage) that impacts literally thousands of laws and policies impacting all citizens.  As a private citizen, each of us may support or fight that particular definition, but to suggest that such a definition is outside the purview of government is to largely misunderstand the nature of a secular democracy.  The content of the gospel has no such role in government policy–everyone acknowledges that it is entirely a religious matter.

When I say that confusing politics and theology leads to mischief, I think gay marriage is the perfect example of this. A great part of the problem comes from identifying holy matrimony with government sanctioned marriage.  They are (or should be) completely independent statuses.  The church has every right to determine the kinds of relationships in society that it will sanction and those it will not, that is, sanction as a church, religiously.  It is when we try to take over control of the political mechanism to enforce this on others that they cry foul.  “Sure,” they say, “marry whomever you wish, but in return let us marry whomever we wish.”  If we as a church think their marriage choice is a bad one (morally or any other way) we may deny within our religious context the legitimacy of that marriage–that is the free exercise of our religion.  But to deny them the exercise of their religious convictions outside our religious context is to usurp the whole meaning of the first amendment.  We in essence are saying, only our own religious convictions are legitimate and yours are not.

Interestingly enough, this same principle plays out in theology as well.  In a secular democracy, we cannot force others to believe as we do or to live by our religious convictions.  At most we can sanction them with reference to our religious hierarchy (excommunicate, impose church discipline, remove them from membership in our theological society, refuse them our services).  We cannot (thankfully) jail them or burn them at the stake because the roles of church and government have been separated.

Naturally our theology informs our legal convictions, and we may as individuals try to pass laws upholding these convictions, but in a secular democracy, we must allow that same right to those who disagree with us.  We cannot trump them legally because our beliefs are from the Bible (would we really want a church-run government as this would entail?).

Pragmatically, if you disagree with gay marriage, may I suggest that instead of trying to control the meaning of “marriage” and take on a losing fight, you allow society to define it as it decides and simply begin to see that social institution as an otherwise secular description of a legal partnership unrelated to your conception of marriage.  If we do not wish society to define marriage for us, then the best option is not to try to coerce them to agree, but to simply recognize that what the church sanctions has little to do with what the world sanctions–a legal marriage has no necessary connection to a church marriage.  After all, if you are married in a church but do not file a government marriage certificate, you are not married in the eyes of the law.

Let us use our religious convictions to guide our own lives and fight for our right to those convictions without the easy assumption that if I believe it strongly enough, I should try to legislate those convictions on everyone.  Living by my convictions and forcing others to live by my convictions are two very different belief structures that have divergent foundational arguments, and if you believe in a secular democracy, the scope of the second will be far smaller than the first.


5 Questions About Loving Gays

I see that discussions about homosexuality continue loudly across the public stage, so I have decided to write a series about it after all.

We humans are remarkably skilled in interpreting Scripture to conform to our personal and cultural viewpoint.  “Faith” is reworked to mean optimism.  The Biblical word “modesty” is redefined from “don’t show off” to the American “don’t show skin.”  The virtue of meakness has almost become a vice in our thinking.

Our understanding of love has suffered a similar fate.  In my generation, good parents disciplined naughty children with paddles and belts while explaining, “I’m doing this because I love you!”  Sometimes they said this with gritted teeth, and their barely suppressed anger signaled that something more than love was at work here.  A particularly insightful boy might have thought, “You’re spanking me because you love the vase I broke, not because you love me.  You want to make sure I don’t break anything else you love.”  But few kids have that kind of insight, and so they grow up associating “love” with… anger (and/or with permissiveness or fear or smothering or control depending on their family, but you get the picture).


Given our confusing social and personal history with the idea of love as well as our knack for self-justification, maybe we should stop and consider if what we say about gays is truly loving.  Let me propose some questions to ask yourself before you launch your words into the public sphere.

1) Do I assume love because I am promoting truth?

I think it is a common belief that telling someone the truth to pull them back onto the right path is by definition a loving act.  Aside from the dangerous habit of assuming our own virtue, I see two problems inherent to this view.  The first is a question of motivation.  Love is not the only or even the most common reason to correct others.  I can correct them for pride, for control, for fear, for anger, etc., but without love it has the positive affect of banging cymbals (I Cor. 13:1).  The second is a question of manner.  The way I communicate can also be unloving, even unconsciously.  Truths spoken unsympathetically can drive others from the light more quickly than lies.  “Speaking the truth” is not at all the same as “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).

2) Am I receptive rather than defensive and dismissive toward those who say my words are unloving?

When faced with someone who disagrees with us, we are tempted to fault them: they are stupid, uninformed, or biased.  Patience and humility call us to listen carefully to those who disagree with us, but this is so much more important when we are judging someone’s character rather than their argument.  When I discuss a moral defect in you that I don’t have, it places you in a vulnerable position and me in a position of power.  It is incumbent on me to be sensitive, gentle, humble, and empathetic, even if you react defensively (Gal. 6:1).  If you tell me my words are hurtful and unloving, then I need to hear that, exam my heart and my words, and redouble my efforts to communicate compassion.  I need to try hard to understand why you feel as you do.  It is only in the context of unconditional love that others can feel safe enough to consider their own deep-seated issues.

3) If I substitute the synonym “affectionate” for “loving” does it still ring true as a descriptor of my words?

Do I want to avoid someone who is gay or want to be with them?  Do I feel warm towards them or wary?  Would I welcome them as a friend, find pleasure in celebrating their birthday, enjoy their input in my life?  Although love does not always give us positive feelings, if it never or seldom warms our hearts, I wonder if it is really love.  We might assume we love others if we “want what is best for them,” but wanting the best for others can come from other motivations than love: you may want your child to get good grades in school for unconsciously selfish reasons (for bragging rights, fear of failure as a parent, etc.).  Some synonyms for loving in Scripture are “tender hearted, compassionate, and sympathetic.”

4) Do I publicly distance myself from the views of those whose words are harsh and judgmental?

If it is common for some from my “camp” to publicly promote my position with unkindness, and I do not publicly disagree with their attitude, all their hurtful baggage is loaded onto my words.  The statements of group members, when left uncorrected, reflect on the group as a whole and color all subsequent words from members.  It sets a precedent, and if I do not distance myself from those ungracious words, then I am likely to be seen in the same light.  We might feel that “at least they spoke the truth,” but are they not undermining an even greater truth by the spirit of their words: namely the very character of the God they claim to represent.  Often how we say something has greater impact than what we say (Prov.15:1).

5) Would I speak the same way if I were talking personally to a gay friend?

On the internet (where most of us small fry have our only public interaction), our conversations may seem objective and impersonal, but we don’t really know who is reading our links, likes, posts, and comments and how very intensely personal they may be receiving our words.  Do they hear in our words sympathy and understanding for their struggles and acceptance for them as people passionately loved by God?  How would you address someone across the dinner table who was sharing vulnerably about their journey with you?  Even when faced with anger and aggression, we are called not to double down on condemnation, but to speak always with grace (Col. 4:6).  Defensiveness does not indicate the strength of one’s position, but its vulnerability.

There is so much heat generated by this subject, and heat detracts from the light.  May we always be known more for what we support (love of others) than what we are against (Jn. 13:35).

Reacting to World Vision: It’s Not As Simple As You Think

World Vision announced that they will begin employing married gays.  The attacks were immediate and condemning from conservative evangelicals, and the response to these attacks from the progressive side of Christianity was equally reactionary.  But the issues involved in this controversy are far from simple and straightforward, even if you have an unshakeable conviction about the morality of gay marriage.

We so easily go off-track in our discussions, shunting our challenger to the sidelines on pretexts that spring more from emotional reaction than gracious consideration.  We attack their motives, disparage their rationale, question their character, and otherwise dismiss their view without engaging in a genuine, gracious, and open way.

I’d like to just list some of the many issues that are at play:

1) What is “ministry”? (e.g. when is cooking ministry and when is it just activity)

2) What are legitimate ministry and/or social work models?

3) What values are fundamental in (different) ministries and how should various values be scaled?

4) How does morality intersect with ministry? (e.g. what behavior calls for disciplinary action or limits the scope of one’s involvement)

5) How does theology intersect with ministry?

6) How does one determine what ministry to support (at various levels)?

7) How broad should be a ministry’s inclusiveness in regard to various levels of involvement from “supporters”?

8) How should differences of view in the above mentioned areas be dealt with (among constituents, employees, leadership, clients, etc.)

I expect there are many more issues, but these are simply the ones that come to mind as I sit here thinking about the complexity.  Complexity does not mean we should punt on a discussion as though the interaction is impossible, but it does mean we should be careful in what we say and how we say it, how we listen, how easily and quickly and dogmatically we come to our conclusions.

(I’ll be writing more on this)