Thursday, May 31, 2012

A More Excellent Way

It’s an issue that won’t go away.  North Carolina votes it down.  The President announces he’s for it.  We’re talking about gay marriage.  Polling indicates a growing acceptance of gay marriage among Americans.  Certain branches of the church (who for 2000 years believed and taught that homosexual behavior was sinful and outside of God’s boundaries for sex) have either endorsed such behavior, sanctioned such marriages, ordained practicing homosexuals to ministry, or are at least arguing about it in heated division at their annual conventions.  A reformed Jewish rabbi asked me if homosexual practice and gay marriage were issues I had to deal with in my congregation.  “Not really,” I told him.  “We Baptists are still fussing over what women can and can’t do in church.  'Gay' issues are barely on our radar.”  Sometimes I wish we Baptists were more cutting-edge on cultural issues, and sometimes I like being the last team in the race.  I like being among the last on the issue of gay marriage.

And here’s why: we can’t make a winnable argument in our culture.  “But what about the Bible?” you ask.  Well, the Bible, in both Old Testament and New, makes no bones about the fact that homosexual behavior is sinful.  Leviticus 18 includes this behavior among a range of sexual sin.  Paul includes homosexual behavior in a list of various sins in Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, and 1 Timothy 1.  And in Revelation 21, the Lord told John to write down the fact that along with the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, murderers, sorcerers, idolaters, and liars, the sexual immoral (which would surely include practicing homosexuals and adulterers and pedophiles and those who practice casual sex with just anybody who’s willing) will be left out of heaven and consigned to hell.  “Case settled!” says the Bible-believer.  Sure, it seems simple enough if we take the texts at their face value and accept the Bible as our moral authority.  But we can’t make a winnable argument from the Bible when those who want to endorse homosexual practice and gay marriage don’t accept the Bible as a moral authority. 

And this is really the crux of the issue: most of us want to be our own authority.  If we don’t believe in God or accept the Bible as our authoritative guide for faith and practice, then we’ll either pitch out the Bible altogether as archaic, irrelevant rules that have no bearing on today, or we’ll twist the Bible to make it say anything we want it to mean.  Really, isn’t that the heart of the matter?  We only want to submit to authority that views something the way we want to view it—which means we want to be our own authority and make up morality as we go along to fit our changing values and views.  So while an argument from the Bible might persuade people who believe the Bible is their authority, it won’t persuade those who think the Bible is mostly a bunch of hooey.

The same goes for the Bible text from Genesis 2, a text Jesus quotes in Matthew 19, that God created them male and female, and that a man should leave his father and mother and unite with his wife and the two should become one flesh.  And then there’s that text in Genesis 1 where God tells the man and the woman to be fruitful and multiply.  I like what Frederick Dale Bruner wrote in his Matthew commentary on the Bible's teachings on marriage:

They were, as we say, “made for each other.”  If God had supremely intended solitary life, God would have created humans one by one; if God had intended polygamous life, God would have created one man and several women; if God had intended homosexual life God would have made two men or two women; but that God intended monogamous heterosexual life is shown by God’s creation of one man and one woman.  (The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28, p. 251.)

Again, it seems pretty clear to me and to pretty much every civilization we know about in history, that marriage is a man-woman thing, not a man-man or woman-woman thing.  But if one refuses to accept the Bible’s statements (and the practice of civilizations from the get-go) then no biblical argument opposed to gay marriage will find any traction among those who favor it.

See what I mean?  I’m not sure we can make a winnable argument in our culture against gay marriage.  When there’s no standard of authority beyond an individual’s personal preferences and tastes and what makes a person happy, we can’t even argue from common ground.

So maybe we can make a better argument from our behavior.  In his book Bad Religion, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a practicing Catholic, wrote these words:

The Christian case for fidelity and chastity will seem partial and hypocritical if it trains most of its attention on the minority of cases—on homosexual wedlock ….  It is the heterosexual divorce rate, the heterosexual retreat from marriage and the heterosexual out-of-wedlock birthrate that should command the most attention ….  The Christian perspective on gay sex only makes sense in light of the Christian perspective on straight sex, and in a culture that has made heterosexual desire the measure of all things, asking gays alone to conform their lives to a hard teaching will inevitably seem like a form of bigotry.

Douthat is right.  We do seem hypocritical to espouse the virtues of appropriate heterosexual behavior and marriage when plenty of church folks are shacking-up or pursuing divorce simply because one claims to have "fallen out of love."  So many of us don't practice our own ethics; how then we can condemn those who practice theirs—even when we believe their ethics are out of step with God's ways?

I hate to sound pessimistic, but I'm not sure we can make a convincing argument on this issue.  But we can practice a more excellent way.

  • We can keep our marriage promises.  Weather the storms, get help if your marriage is struggling, but work to stay together for a lifetime.  That's a more excellent way.
  • We can be sexually faithful in our marriage.  We can commit to practice sex only within the boundaries of heterosexual marriage.  Premarital sex, adultery, and same-gender sex are outside of those boundaries.
  • We can seek God's help to rid ourselves of hatefulness and malice toward others and season our rhetoric with grace and love.
  • We can be as vocal in our opposition to heterosexual sins as we are to homosexual sins.
  • We can be as forgiving and loving to hurting homosexuals as we are to hurting heterosexuals.
  • We can befriend homosexuals as the opportunity presents itself.
  • We can lovingly communicate to all people that life has a higher and nobler purpose than indulging one's sexual fantasies or achieving orgasm.
  • We can honor celibacy and singleness as a valid way to live a holy life.
  • We can encourage heterosexual and homosexual sinners with the good news that in Jesus Christ we can have victory over our temptations.
  • And we can encourage all people, regardless of their sexual sins, that in Jesus Christ, through His death and resurrection and saving power, people can change.

I'm sure there are better ways to address this issue.  I confess that this feels like a rather clumsy attempt to do so.  But I submit these humble proposals in the spirit of the apostle Paul who, after addressing an argument among the Corinthian believers concerning spiritual gifts, offered them a more excellent way: the way of faith, hope, and love—the greatest of which is love.

So, what do you think?  What are your ideas?


  1. Very well said. I agree with what you are saying. I think about the fact that as believers so many have sexual sins but then turn and point fingers at non-believers that are gay....just does not make sense because they do not go by the Bible. I do have a friend that is gay and she goes to a church that must distort the Bible but the interesting thing is she is much more loving and caring than so many people (not gay Christians) out there. What is one to do but be friends and look for opportunities to show the love of Jesus even when she calls herself a Christian (kind of like talking to a Catholic about Jesus....very hard). Because they know the Bible pretty well. Anyway, I agree with what you said and think you said it very well.

  2. Looks to me like you have listed all the reasons the Bible says it is a sin. In my book that makes it a sin and just because someone wants to not read the Bible that way does not change the fact is is still a sin. Yes we all need to lead a better way of life.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Matthew, as I read 1 Corinthtians 7, Paul does encourage single persons to remain in their singleness so they might have less competing interests for serving the Lord. And yes, I agree that Paul suggests marriage as better than burning with lust. Even though homosexuality was certainly a reality in the Roman Empire, there's nothing in this text that would lead one to consider that Paul had anything in mind here other than heterosexual marriage. Since homosexual behavior is sinful, I don't think Paul would recommend it even as a way to deal with one's lust. But I think I get your point: if a person is determined to practice same-gender sex, though sinful and outside of God's boundaries in any context, monogamy surely beats promiscuity.

  4. Thank you. This helps me to address an issue when it seems that overnight the rules changed and nobody seems to mind. And thank you for encouraging the church to honor celibacy and singleness for those who find themselves in that stage of life.

  5. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, John! I have been trying to communicate for a long time that instead of trying to win an argument, followers of Jesus should be focusing on His mission with His strategy: Love God, love people. You speak much truth here!

  6. Lu Steele/June 7, 2012June 7, 2012 at 2:46 PM

    Thank you for a very well written article. I agree with all you say and find that as Christians, we do want to set our own rules and toss out the parts of the Bible we find unsavory. God help us all!

    But recently, when I was attending a local pro baseball game, a female couple sat down in front of us and began "petting" and loving on one another. I was appalled and wondered if I would feel the same way if they were heterosexual. The outcome was that I realized I was not feeling any of God's love toward this young couple. Admittedly, I would have probably been a little bothered by a heterosexual couple kissing on one another in such a public place, but the point is I think we tend to judge the sin of homosexuality as worse than other sins. It is not our place to judge and grade sins. At what point do we, as Christians, accept that fornication is fornication and recognize that their sin is no greater than our own pre-marital sex, divorce and remarriage, child pornography, etc? I fully accept that God finds it abhorrent, but where is the line (for us) between discernment and judging others?

    1. Thanks, Lu Steele, for your comment. How do we draw the line between discernment and judging others? It seems to me it's mostly a matter of attitude. Discernment opens doors to conversation; judging closes doors. Discernment builds bridges; judging builds walls. It may be too simplistic, but attitude seems to be at the heart of the difference.

  7. The world started changing when we took God our of our Nation, our homes and our schools. Just because sins increased innumber, they became more socially accepted. This not only applies to gay lifestyles, but also to child rearing, language and social living. Our government, in my opinion, has no business in establishing permission for gay marriage. That is rewarding sin by the numerous advantages of monetary tax breaks and a marriage is, like you said, between a man and a woman. There are no tax advantages for best friends who choose to share expenses in life, for the families who are overcome with debt to medical expenses, to the wage earner who finds themselves out of a job and only very lesser paying (if any) jobs available. I guess I turned this into a political issue rather than a biblical issue. But I agree with God's word to love one another, regardless of their sins (no one has no sin!), but not to support marriage outside of God's definition. The church (and ours is) should be open to everyone regardless of their choices in life.