Today, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether the Constitution permits an extension of the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples. This issue has been the source of contentious and impassioned debates fueled by sentimental existentialism on one side and unsympathetic dogmatism on the other. Such reactions testify to the weight of the issue. But how should the church, those who follow Christ, the One full of grace and truth, engage the issue?
To help avoid the traps of existentialism and dogmatism, several cautions are in order. First, the church should neither scoff at nor degrade those at the heart of this issue. The church’s typical and too often thoughtless rejection of the archetypal “I was born this way” argument is grounded in a shallow understanding of sin that assumes sin merely is something external one can simply resist. In this way of thinking, homosexual inclinations or desires are not internal realities but external possibilities. In other words, it is not possible that one is born predisposed to homosexuality. It is only possible that one is a homosexual as he or she consciously and willingly rejects heterosexual desires in favor of homosexual desires. Not only does this way of thinking reject the biblical testimony that we are all born into sin, slaves to idolatrous desires and suffer from corrupted sexualities, this way of thinking has postured many Christians in judgmental condescension over those who struggle with or embrace homosexuality. This way of thinking has robbed the church of any capacity to weep over sin’s destruction—both of the individual and of society—and has instead fueled a dogmatism void of real compassion. The church must remember that apart from Christ, we are all subhuman and slaves to sin. I myself am predisposed to all sorts of evil and ungodliness—pride, apathy, greed and other sins of which I am shamefully not even aware. This by no means excuses or minimizes these sins. If I am predisposed to anger, such a predisposition does not provide permissible grounds for murder. Still, the church must bear in mind the biblical testimony that we are all alienated from a true humanity and in need of the redemption of the whole of our being. Our minds, bodies, desires and affections are all corrupted, inclined to sin and in need of the regenerative work of the gospel, apart from which we have no hope of escaping the holy God’s just judgment against all of our sin. The church must engage those who struggle with or embrace homosexual desires remembering the Apostle Paul’s reminder to the church at Corinth, “and such were some of you.” It is only out of this humility that the church can engage the world around us with a deep, compassionate love that longs to see God unleash the redemptive power of the gospel on those held captive by sin.
Second, the church must affirm Scripture and its testimony as the highest truth and the ultimate reality. Postmodernism has relocated the locus of truth from external objectivism to internal subjectivism. In other words, as popular culture defines it, the only real source of truth is the individual experience. There is no such thing as absolute, objective truth. The influence of postmodern thought has given rise to great skepticism and even outright rejection of the Bible and its truth claims. Experience has been elevated as the final verdict of truth. The individual has been moved to the center of the universe. There is already evidence of the perilous effects of postmodernism’s influence in the thinking and life of the church. Perhaps at its worst, consider the recent rise of universalism, the false doctrine that espouses no one will actually spend eternity in Hell since God, being love, would be unloving to subject someone to eternal, conscious torment. While this is not the place to undo the arguments for universalism, it should be reinforced that such an idea does not at all agree with Scripture. However, for the sake of this argument, it should be noted how universalism elevates experience and emotion over the testimony of Scripture. It is admittedly tempting to do so if one has an unbelieving friend or relative or neighbor whose moral uprightness seems, from a cultural perspective, undeserving of divine punishment. Yet the church must maintain unwavering commitment that Scripture alone is the final source of truth. It would in fact be unloving of the church to elevate another truth claim alongside Scripture or to subject Scripture to some external truth claim because Scripture is not the unfair, joy killing list of commands of a tyrant dictator. Scripture is the story of God creating a people for Himself who He offers to delight in the eternal joy of His fellowship and presence but who reject God’s free invitation to find joy in Him and seek it elsewhere. Though such a rejection of God justly demands God punish them by forever withholding the joy to be found only in Him, God opens anew the way to the joy of His presence by Himself taking on flesh and enduring the curse for man’s sin and rising again to new life so that all those who turn from sin and trust in Him will be restored to the fellowship of His presence in which there is eternal joy and everlasting pleasure. Scripture, therefore, is an unmistakable declaration that God is for our highest, deepest, fullest, most enduring joy that is to be found only in Him by walking in obedience to the commands He lays out to guide us into that everlasting joy.
More subtle than universalism, consumerism and individualism are other evidences of how the postmodern rejection of Scripture as the ultimate canon and judge of truth has influenced the thinking and life of the church. Consider the primary grid for many in our culture for deciding with which church to gather on Sunday mornings. Is it not individual preference and convenience? If one does not like the style of corporate singing or the preaching or the color of the carpet or the lights on the stage, is he or she not inclined to search out a gathering that is more congruent to their preferences? It may appear these issues are of far less significance than the issue of homosexuality, and to a degree that is true. But in either case, the church must be aware of our own (unbiblical) tendency to orient our life—even our life on Sunday morning—around individual preference and convenience. We too, have become our own gods, determining what is right and good, what is wrong and evil. If the church is to engage in the discussion of homosexuality, we must resist any and all temptation to elevate our individual experience or consumeristic preferences to or above the level of Scripture. Scripture alone is unapologetically the final verdict on all truth, and as stated before, the church would indeed be unloving to depart from appealing to Scripture as the universal and final truth claim. Imagine if you were walking on the shore of a lake and up out of the water and onto the shore flies a fish. This fish made quite the mighty leap onto the shore and is unable to return himself to the water. Knowing that this fish cannot live on the shore since he was made for the water, you approach him with the intentions of returning him to the water. But imagine this fish rejects your efforts to return him to the water and insists you leave him on the shore since that is where he has decided he will now live. How should you love this fish? Is it loving to concede to his desires to (attempt to) make a life for himself on the shore? Is it loving to allow the fish to determine what is right and best and good for himself, even if he determines that is a life out of the water? Certainly not! You know the fish, despite his best intentions or deepest desires will die on the shore because he was made to live and to thrive in the water. So too, the church must engage in the discussion of homosexuality not as heartless law enforcers or as sympathizers with the choice of the individual but as those who herald and offer Life. We must engage those who struggle with or embrace homosexuality with a deep desire to see them live knowing that true, abundant, everlasting, joyful life is found only in Christ.
When considering these cautions, we may be tempted to simply retreat and not engage the issue at all. Perhaps the constant politicization of this issue is exhausting and has left you no capacity to engage in the issue. But too much is at stake for the church to sit back and refuse to have a voice. This issue is far beyond political agendas and cultural trends. The gospel is at stake. Marriage bookends the biblical narrative. The biblical narrative opens with a marriage in Genesis 2 and ends with a marriage Revelation 21. Somewhere in between, in Ephesians 5, the Apostle Paul declares that the pattern of marriage established in Genesis 2 between a man and a woman is a shadow of the substance of the gospel. Marriage is a constant thread from Genesis to Revelation that holds the biblical narrative together in a glorious tapestry whose center is the gospel declaration that God in Christ is making all things new. Therefore marriage is not incidental or accidental to the gospel, it is integral. Marriage is a gospel issue, and as such, the church must fight to uphold the integrity of the gospel that, according to God’s design, is pictured in the union of a man and a woman in the covenant of marriage. If marriage becomes anything less than that, the gospel itself is minimized and obscured. If the thread of marriage (biblically understood) woven throughout the fabric of the biblical narrative is altered, the fabric of the narrative will fray. Therefore, above all political agendas and personal experiences, the church must strive to preserve the integrity and purity of the gospel with which we have been entrusted so that we might live in and among the world as heralds and agents of the transformative, life-giving gospel.
There is much more that could and should be said about the so-called marriage debate and the role of the church in it. What is found here is merely an attempt to undercut the unbiblical thinking that typically informs the church’s engagement of this issue and to help establish a pattern for more biblical thinking. For additional resources that further the conversation started here see:
Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Say About Homosexuality? (a very accessible treatment of these issues)
Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (a scholarly treatment of these issues)
Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, ERLC.com (a host of resources and updates on the SCOTUS decision)