I appreciate the responses to my previous posts on this issue and, after reading some of the questions, thought somewhat pressed to write this last one. OK, so we know what Christian marriage is. We preach that, teach it, and expect believers to embrace Scripture’s instructions regarding sexual conduct, although we are still sinners who must continually repent, trust in Christ, and receive his pardon. Got it. But what about the public argument?
As I said in the last one, we aren’t authorized to speak in God’s name where he hasn’t spoken, but we are commanded to do so wherever he has. This is where it gets dicier, though. I’d like to frame my response, first off, in terms of two extremes that we have to avoid:
1. Treating references to homosexuality in the Old Testament as either irrelevant or directly applicable to the current question.
You see this in public debates of the issue, where extremists on both sides talk over (and past) each other. One thing they often share in common is interest in quoting passages from the Old Testament on the question. Then the person on the left reminds us that the sanction mentioned is stoning. “Do you want to stone gays?”, one shouts. “No, but I believe what the Bible says about homosexuality.” “Well, right next to that verse it says that you should stone disobedient children—Oh, and not eat pork, and not touch a woman who is having her period.” Bottom line: the skills of biblical interpretation are about equally as bad on both sides of the table.
The statements in Leviticus are part of the Mosaic covenant. They pertain uniquely to the covenant that God made with Israel as a nation. The laws that governed every aspect of private and public life, cult and culture, were a unique episode in redemptive history. Their divine purpose cannot be rationalized in terms of sanitation, public health, or personal well-being. The whole focus was on God and his desire to separate Israel from the nations, preparing the way for the Messiah to come from her womb. Therefore, there is no more biblical warrant for stoning homosexuals today than there is for avoiding Scottish cuisine.
If there’s every reason to distinguish these two covenants, we have to be very careful nonetheless that we don’t make the opposite interpretive blunder of contrasting the Old and New Testaments on the question of homosexual practice itself. I’ve heard of late several times committed Christians acknowledging that the Old Testament forbids it, but the New Testament is silent. It’s “mean Moses” versus “nice Jesus”: a familiar but completely baseless contrast. Affirming that the the civil laws are now obsolete doesn’t mean that the rationale explicitly given for some of these laws should be disregarded, especially when God singles some acts out not simply as dependent on God’s will for that time and place, but as “abominations.” Homosexuality is included in that list, as it is also in the New Testament (1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:10—right up there with “murders, enslavers, liars, and perjurers”). The church does not have the power of the sword in the new covenant. Nevertheless, God’s statement on the matter is pretty clear: he hates homosexuality. It violates the natural order—reflecting the extent to which fallen humanity will go to suppress the truth—even that which can be known by reason—in unrighteousness (Rom 1:18-32).
Jesus brings forgiveness of sins, not a new—supposedly easer, happier, more fulfilling law. In fact, he upbraids the lax view of divorce tolerated in his day. Jesus does not ground marriage between a man and a woman in the Mosaic covenant—or in the new covenant, but returns to the order of created nature: “He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate’” (Mat 19:4-6).
It should be added that Paul’s point in Romans 1-3 is to sweep the whole world—Jew and Gentile—into a heap, condemned under the law, in order to announce that Christ is the Savior of all, Jew and Gentile, and justifies the ungodly who trust in him. We are all called to repent—lifelong repentance, in fact. In this, as in everything, we fall short; our imperfect repentance would be enough to condemn us if we weren’t clothed in Christ’s righteousness. However, to repent is to acknowledge that God is right and we are wrong—on the specifics of precisely where we want to assert our sovereignty.
2. Allowing same-sex marriage because since this isn’t a Christian nation, we should not seek to make the traditional Christian view public law.
Yes and no. The argument sounds like a “two-kingdoms” approach, but I think it’s actually more on the historic Anabaptist side.
First, it is certainly true that America is not a Christian nation and in any case Christians should not seek to promote distinctively Christian doctrines and practices through the properly coercive power of the state.
Second, however, I believe that we have to carefully distinguish general and special revelation, common and saving grace, the kingdoms of this age and the kingdom of God. Traditional Roman Catholics and Protestants are the vanguard of the pro-life movement, but in addition to witnessing to the depth of Christian conviction on the subject they also make arguments that can appeal to the conscience of non-Christians. The goal is certainly to legislate morality (just as the pro-abortion lobby attempts). However, it is the attempt to include the unborn in the category of those to whom the most basic right to life applies (namely, human beings). It is not a distinctively Christian view that the unborn are human beings (many pro-abortionists even agree, but rank the mother’s choice and happiness higher). Nor is it a distinctively Christian view that human beings shouldn’t be murdered—regardless of the parents’ economic or psychic well-being.
I think that the same can be said here as well. Marriage is not grounded in the gospel, but in creation. Special revelation corrects our twisted interpretations and gives us a better map, but general revelation gives sufficient evidence at least for minimal arguments from antiquity. Knowledgeable people will disagree about the strength of those arguments, since, for example, Greek elites often had teen-age boys entertain them on the side—with the approval or at least the awareness of their wives. Yes, others reply, but that was part of the downfall of the Greek civilization. In every case, it will be a debatable point—not to say that it isn’t worth arguing, but in the light especially of recent studies, it probably will not change a lot of minds.
Third, in my own wrestling with the political debate, love of neighbor looms large. Some on the right may offer arguments that reflect more the same demand for special rights as those on the left of the issue. The legal aspects of that are beyond my pay-grade—and they are important. Others may treat this issue as irrelevant: “Look, it doesn’t affect me. I just don’t want to live next door to some creepy home like that.” However, in terms of specifically Christian witness, love of neighbor (as God’s image-bearers) should be front-and-center. We have to care about our non-Christian neighbors (gay or straight) because God cares and calls us to contribute to the common good.
The challenge there is that two Christians who hold the same beliefs about marriage as Christians may appeal to neighbor-love to support or to oppose legalization of same-sex marriage.
On one hand, it may be said that if we can no longer say that “Judeo-Christian” ethics are part of our shared worldview as a republic, then the ban seems arbitrary. Why isn’t there a campaign being waged to ban providing legal benefits to unmarried heterosexual couples? Or to make divorce more difficult? It just seems more symbolic than anything else: it looks like our last-gasp effort to enforce our own private morality on the public. On the other hand, we might argue that every civilization at its height, regardless of religion, has not only privileged marriage of one man and one woman but has outlawed alternative arrangements. Same-sex marriage means adoption, which subjects other human beings to a parental relationship that they did not choose for themselves. Are we loving our LGBT neighbors—or their adopted children—or the wider society of neighbors by accommodating a move that will further destroy the fabric of society?
I take the second view, but I recognize the former as wrestling as much as I’m trying to with the neighbor-love question. Legal benefits (“partnerships”) at least allowed a distinction between a contractual relationship and the covenant of marriage. However, the only improvement that “marriage” brings is social approval—treating homosexaul and heterosexual unions as equal. Although a contractual relationship denies God’s will for human dignity, I could affirm domestic partnerships as a way of protecting people’s legal and economic security. However, the “marriage card” is the demand for something that simply cannot consist in a same-sex relationship. Human love is defined not by a feeling, shared history, or animal attraction, but by something objective, something that measures us—namely, God’s moral law. To affirm this while concluding that it’s good for Christians but not for the rest of us seems to me to conclude that this law is not natural and universal, rooted in creation, and/or that we only love our Christian neighbors.
At the end of the day, what tips the scales toward the second view is that I can’t see how neighbor-love can be severed from love of God, which is after all the most basic command of all. Even if they do not acknowledge “nature and nature’s God”—or anything above their own sovereign freedom to choose—reality nevertheless stands unmovable. Like the law of gravity, the law of marriage (of one man and one woman) remains to the end of time—not just for Christians, but for all people everywhere.