Perhaps the most striking thing about the idea of gay marriage is that it has gained prominence in so short a time. Homosexual desire and sexual expression are not new, of course, and are evident in every culture. Homosexual couples are acknowledged in ancient historical documents - nothing new here either. But the claim that committed gay couples should be viewed in exactly the same way as heterosexuals who marry has not been made before. Until now, no one has argued that gay and straight couples are indistinguishable with regard to: ordinary family life; 'two becoming one;' child raising opportunities and responsibilities; the passing on of foundations, values, and stability to future generations.
This contention is unknown in cultures that have Judeo-Christian roots, but also in Asia, Africa, India, the lands of Islam, among pre-modern tribal cultures and everywhere else. Homosexuals have been received with different degrees of acceptance in different places and times, but gay marriage has never before been contemplated, let alone advocated. Why not and why now?
Most proponents will argue that only in recent times has science allowed us to see homosexuality as normal. But hard science has made very little contribution in this regard. For instance, despite numerous studies using the most up to date technology no consensus about the causes of homosexuality has been established.
Social scientists have certainly changed the way they regard homosexuality. But this is not because of new information (the feelings and life experiences of homosexuals) that was unavailable until recently. The interior experience of sexual awakening is not different now than it has been throughout human history. The difficulties that go with discovering oneself to be different are not new. What has changed is the perspective from which human experience is evaluated.
Contemporary social scientists have embraced a philosophical conviction that leads them to affirm the validity of homosexual couples. The reigning world view is that right and wrong, natural and unnatural, moral and immoral are all arbitrary, socially-constructed categories. Given this perspective, all experience is equally valid and all life choices are equally normal.
If this is so, we must deny that nature, tradition, accumulated wisdom, the gods, or God speak clearly. There can be no voice outside ourselves to guide us with the powerful forces of sexuality, love, and the hope for family. Every person is left to make his or her own way in a journey of self discovery.
This line of thinking has particular implications for Christians. Those who would welcome gay marriage in the church usually make the following argument: a) Biblical authors (like Paul) did not know that, for some folks, homosexual orientation is normal, God-given and positive. b) When he spoke against homosexual behavior Paul was assuming straight people were acting "contrary to nature" (Romans 1:26-27) for some perverse thrill or that gay sex was linked to idolatry. c) Since positive homosexuality has only recently been discovered by 'science' we should do our best to figure out what the writers of the New Testament would have said if modem information had been available to them.
But why has the possibility of loving, stable homosexual couples and families remained hidden so long? Why did God wait until the end of the twentieth century to make happy marriages available to his gay children? Why didn't Paul, or anyone else in the early church, listen to the stories of homosexual converts who could have told him they were being true to themselves in -their sexual pairings? Moving beyond Christian-influenced culture, why has no sage or prophet or moral teacher in any place (none of the world religions, nor remote tribal religions) seen what Gene Robinson (recently installed Episcopal bishop) sees so clearly - that gay and straight relationships are exactly the same?
One of the darkest and most tragic periods in the history of the people of God is described in the Old Testament book, Judges. The rebellion of this period in history is summarized in a phrase at the end of the book - "everyone did what was right in his own eyes."
The idea of gay marriage requires the most radical commitment to doing what is right in your own eyes. It has not been considered until recently because every previous generation knew that healthy sexual expression and the establishing of families were too important to attempt without the guidance of those who had gone before. Believers who know that God loves us enough to communicate with us found it impossible to conceive that He neglected for so long to mention his approval of homosexual marriages.
In Goethe's poem the sorcerer's apprentice imagined he could control powerful and mysterious forces without guidance from his master. The results were terrible. So was the experience of Israel during the time of the Judges. It is not hard to predict the outcome of the current determination to "do what is right in our own eyes."
In the first century, as now, unrighteous sexual behavior was commonplace (for all kinds of people). The gospel message of forgiveness and "newness of life" was preached and believed; broken lives were redeemed. Christian communities were called to be places of mutual ministry and acceptance. What was not contemplated among Christians until recent years is that truth will be discovered by listening to one's own desires and championing what I discover in myself rather than by listening to the God who speaks through his Word.
What are some implications for ministry flow from these observations? Consider:
1. The world view that advocates gay marriage is deeply ingrained (especially among those under thirty-five). From this perspective, the unwillingness of traditional Christians to embrace a wide range of lifestyles is viewed as arrogance and aggression. It is difficult enough to speak of the implications of the gospel when differing voices can at least make themselves understood. There is a great chasm between contemporary and traditional perspectives. It requires more effort and, perhaps, more love to communicate across chasms. How can we move forward?
2. Jesus taught a narrow and inflexible sexual ethic (see Matt. 5:27-32). Yet no one was more accepting of those with sexual brokenness (John 4: 13-26). He defended traditional marriage in the strongest terms and welcomed those whose relationships directly challenged what he taught. How can we represent Jesus faithfully in our time and place?
3. The percentage of our contemporaries who live in legally
established families grows smaller every day. Some social benefits
and obligations, such as bereavement leave, the right to hospital
visitation, and eligibility for health care have been attached
by custom to legal marriage. There is nothing in scripture or
established tradition that requires such attachment. It is probably
wise to encourage our law makers to disconnect arbitrary benefits
that are joined to the institution of marriage. The alternatives
are worse: a) deny the large and growing number of unmarried folks
reasonable access to social benefits or b) strengthen the arguments
of those who want to redefine marriage.
Finally, consider the analogy between winsome gay couples and winsome adulterers.
It is important to appreciate gay couples who are deeply committed to each other, treat their neighbors well, contribute to their communities and intend no harm to anyone. In some cases, the quality of their lives - their sacrificial love, sweetness of temperament, easy laughter - put struggling married folks to shame.
Adultery can be lovely, too. A hard and pain-filled marriage, in which divorce is not an option, is usually the backdrop to these stories. "There has been no tenderness or real communication between us for years. Her anger (his drinking) and stifling manipulation have made life a living hell. Every effort to bring about change has failed..."
This is followed by the story of a tender and caring lover with whom connection is deep and real. Adultery can also include lasting commitment, sacrificial love, easy laughter. It can bring sunshine and enthusiasm for life that didn't exist before.
What do we make of these things? A few thoughts:
1. I understand both circumstances. Loneliness is painful and the opportunity to overcome it is hard to resist. A holier-than-thou attitude is dishonest. There but for the grace of God go I.
2. A relationship can be winsome and understandable and still be wrong. In a fallen world Christians are often required to trust God in hard circumstances ("my grace is sufficient for you") rather than choose a sinful way out.
3. The social approval of homosexual relationships or adultery - however attractive they appear - is not healthy for society in the long run. The idea that either should be sanctioned in law (much less blessed among Christians) is a dangerous legacy to leave the next generation.
Peninsula Bible Church, Palo
Alto, California 94306. November 9, 2003
From the message series, What God Has Joined...