Gay Marriage: What the church and God’s people need to do now
This article first appeared, in edited form, in Haven Today’s web blog, www.haventoday.org.
In the summer of 2013, a Supreme Court decision regarding same-sex marriage moved the historic, orthodox Christian view of traditional marriage further to the sidelines. Then, in June 2015, that view was completely taken off the field. Marriage was redefined in our country. Two years ago John Freeman wrote the following, and what he said then remains highly relevant today. Then, as now, we remain firm in our belief that our Sovereign Lord will still use what feels like (and is) a defeat for his glory, as he continues to draw all peoples to himself.
As the Supreme Court struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and the referendum of Proposition 8 in California, it certainly seemed that the tide of our culture would continue to steadily move in the direction of the acceptance of gay marriage. So, what now? How are followers of Jesus Christ, and the church, to think about and respond to the recent decision by the Supreme Court? It is crucial that the church as an institution and individual believers respond well. John Freeman, Founder of Harvest USA, thinks that the best response of the church now is to do the following six things:
1. We should not lash out in anger or be afraid
A fight-or-flight response is normal when overwhelming events occur. But both of these instinctual responses are unhelpful and unproductive. My wife has often told me, “John, when you speak or react out of fear or anger . . . bad things come out of your mouth.” She is usually right. Admittedly, we may legitimately fear where this decision will next take our nation; and we may legitimately be angry over how God’s design for the institution and function of marriage as it has historically benefited society is being hijacked. But we need to keep this in mind: As believers, our true citizenship is in heaven. We must think and act like those whose world has been impacted but not devastated.
I think a more productive response would be that of grief. We need to be grieved at what happened, grieved at the state of the culture, and grieved at how blind people are to the truth of God’s Word and its continuing relevancy for all of human society. We see in the New Testament two ways in which God responds to those who resolutely turn away from his Word. We see Jesus weeping over Jerusalem and her refusal to turn to him as their shepherd (Matthew 23:37-39), and we see in Romans 1 that God, at times, “gives over” (allows) people and society to do what they want to do. Both these pictures are poignant displays of what is wrong with the world: that mankind has torn itself away from God’s shepherding hand and rebelliously set out on its own path. The prodigal son is in all of us.
But just grieve? Doesn’t seem very productive or helpful. It feels so powerless! Yes, it can feel that way, but we need to remind ourselves that the “weakness” of the church is how the power of God is best displayed. It is in that weakness, the weakness of grieving over those who refuse to be shepherded by Christ, that compassion is worked out in our hearts, leading us to love the shepherd-less and for the world to see that we love them.
One way we do this is by not lashing out at the LGBT community. They are not our enemy. The tendency is to see significant political and legal changes such as this as coming from a monolithic force bent on overturning everything. The reality is a bit more complicated. The LGBT community is wide and diverse, and includes those who are secular and those who are religious (even those who claim to be evangelical). It is when the church fails to see this complexity that it has responded to change in terrible and hurtful ways, from when Jerry Falwell twisted Ellen Degeneres’ name to when the church mischaracterizes the gay community in order to have a recognizable “target” to oppose.
For the church to live out the gospel, for it to be the witness to the truth and mercy of Christ, we must not see “them” as the enemy, but rather as men and women who, while throwing off God’s law and calling it freedom, nevertheless are made in God’s image and need to know the real freedom of submitting to God’s will. We need to recognize that there are names and faces attached to this issue, real people, many of them our neighbors or colleagues. An “us” vs. “them” mentality is fear-based; it does violence to the gospel and to us, and it refuses to recognize the humanity that must shape this issue. When we think like this, we fail to recognize that, at one time, we, too, were “them,” people who did not follow the gospel, living for self and following the ways of the world (take note of Ephesians 2).
But we were shown mercy, not because there was anything intrinsically good inside of us, but because God in Christ loved us and showed us mercy.
Another reason not to be angry or afraid is because. . .
2. We need to remind ourselves that God is still on the throne . . . neither slumbering nor sleeping
Although decided in the private chambers of the Supreme Court, this has not happened out of God’s sight. He is the God who knows all and sees all. This is beyond our rational understanding, but by faith we believe that God remains in control over all things, even over the decisions made by man and society that veer away from his wisdom. To respond with anger or abject fear is to forget this.
Why God has allowed the societal acceptance of homosexuality and the (increasing) legalization of same-sex marriage to be so prominent today will remain a mystery at some level. Why he has allowed it to split churches, denominations, and families must also be trusted to his providence. We only know what Scripture does tell us: that this is a broken world, a world where his image-bearers are in rebellion against him and his intentional design for creation. So, in one sense, we should not be surprised. There is nothing new under the sun here. Has there ever been a human society outside of the garden that has not trended in this direction?
We must, as his followers, trust in him at all times, especially when it seems that ungodliness has the upper hand in our society. The courage of faith is when we trust him, especially so in turbulent and darkened times. To continue to follow God when the world thinks we are foolish and it would just be easier to capitulate is to ask God for more faith! He will give it. Remember that faith, even as small as that of a mustard seed, can withstand much adversity and be a force for change (see Luke 17:5-6, in the context of vs. 3-4).
It is by that courage, a courage rooted in God still being a control, and faith that refuses to bend to the latest worldly trends, which moves us to. . .
3. Boldly and gently proclaim the ultimate destructiveness of ungodly actions
While many will celebrate this decision as the advancement of an enlightened society and a triumph of inclusiveness and tolerance, the reality is that actions made in opposition to God’s design carry with them significant consequences. Several years ago noted pastor, teacher, and author James Boice said, “It’s God’s world, not our world. Although we may want to rewrite the rules, we can’t, because it’s God’s world. And sin is destructive, whether or not we admit or agree, it’s still destructive.” In other words, behavior has consequences, even if we don’t fully know now what that will look like.
By removing the definition of marriage from its historical and God-designed nature as being between one man and one woman, how long will it be before other forms of “marriage” will become acceptable and even legal? Many groups deride such speculation as being a consequence of this decision, but history has shown time and again how boundaries are burst open once critical lines have been crossed. And what about the impact on children as we move into social territory that is completely new to human society? To say that there will be no negative consequences when the most stabilizing force for society continues to be upended—that of an intact family of a husband and wife and children—is naïve.
These are important matters that society must wrestle with as it moves further in this uncharted direction. Christians must not shrink from engaging these issues. But we, as Christians, must be careful how we talk about these things. It is one thing to say that actions and behavior that move away from God’s design for human flourishing are ultimately destructive; it is another thing to say that every action and every behavior apart from God’s design will end poorly. We have seen this in the liberalization of divorce laws over the past few decades and in the rise of children born out of wedlock. These two social happenings are tearing families apart. We are learning more and more about the widespread destructiveness to society and to children of such broken family structures. But that does not translate into every single-parent family being an ongoing catastrophe. Many children have grown up with only one parent and have grown up well. But overall, society has suffered when people tear themselves away from the anchor of God’s wise counsel.
What this means is this: We have already—and this will rapidly continue as same-sex marriage is increasingly accepted—embarked on something that is historically very new to human society: children being raised in same-sex families as an acceptable norm. We do not know the cumulative effects of such a new family design. We must wait for evidence of its effect on society and children. But we must also avoid simplistic and sweeping generalizations that erroneously paint distorted and false pictures. We will continue to insist that gender matters in families, that God intended marriage to be between a man and a woman, and in that context a child grows up and learns what it means to be male or female, a man or a woman, a husband or a wife, a father or a mother; but saying this does not mean that good parenting is exclusively the domain of heterosexuals. The fact that God is the one who created marriage and defined it as the establishment of a new family structure (Genesis 2:24) where mothers and fathers are fully engaged in the raising of the next generation is not something to simply discard and say that the gender of a particular parent is irrelevant.
In short, the issues we raise—both within the church and in the marketplace of society—and the ways we speak about them, based on our belief that God’s design for marriage and family is best for society, must be intelligent and complex. We must not be afraid to see the evidence unfold as marriage morphs into newer forms or wrestle with that evidence as we continue to argue for the ways of God over the ways of man.
We live in a broken world, but it still remains a world that God so loved that he sent his only Son, so . . .
4. We must not avoid our calling: to engage the culture and all people with the truth and mercy of the gospel
Even as culture goes off the rails, and we seem powerless to stop it, we’re not off the hook from engaging the culture and actively loving people. Although we may want to retreat and go into self-protective mode, we must not. The church did not do so as the Roman culture descended into greater ungodliness and injustice. The downward spiral of our society and the increasing celebration of what is explicitly forbidden in God’s word make our sharing the gospel more important than ever! The gospel is the only hope for a broken world and fallen hearts. As I already noted, for this reason the church must not attack and demean gays and lesbians because of this issue. The gospel is a message of hope for everyone; not a platform for condemnation and ridicule. The gospel will only be heard through the words and deeds of his people. People are loved into faith and belief, not argued into it.
This will translate into major challenges for the church as society legalizes same-sex marriage. Church leadership must now begin to think through what would be wise and practical ministry to people who, for example, come into the church as a same-sex couple with children. What are the ways the church needs to welcome them while maintaining biblical fidelity? And what if a couple comes to faith and begins to wrestle with what Scripture says about their relationship? In what direction does the church counsel them—and their children? Divorce? Splitting the family apart? Or something else that tries to maintain the integrity of God’s Word while practical gospel ministry unfolds with the family? The truth and mercy of the gospel—a tension that must always be held in dynamic balance—will need to be fleshed out in these types of situations, and we will be undoubtedly stretched. But we need to start thinking about this now.
We must also begin discussing a subject about which we have been much too silent on. . .
5. We must begin relevant and effective preaching and teaching about why God’s design for sexuality is best
The silence of the church on many issues has contributed to the emergence of movements that have been detrimental to mankind. It can be argued that the church’s failure to preach and teach about why God’s design for sexuality is good, relevant, and functional (even in a broken world) has created a vacuum for the acceptance of same-sex relationships. The church has said “No!” for too long as its main message on sexuality and now needs to say “Here’s how,” or “Here’s how God’s design for sexuality remains the best venue for people and society to flourish.”
The church also needs to get honest. Honest about its people who struggle with their sexuality. For the sake of appearances, or because of the fear of not knowing what to do, churches have ignored those in her midst that are falling deeper and deeper into the morass of sexual sin. The church can no longer condemn sexual sin “out there” while at the same time not admitting or helping those who are struggling believers. After all, aren’t redeemed lives the best testimony of the power and love of God—redeemed lives that are honest about continuing struggles but display a relentless gospel grace to follow Christ where ever he leads?
God is always at work, always, so. . .
6. “Keep calm and carry on” as God’s people and his church
During the bombings of World War II, people in Britain felt that the world was falling apart. “Keep calm and carry on” became a common phrase on billboards and posters as a way to encourage the British people. We need to follow this advice as well. How do we “keep calm and carry on” when we see everything around us in a downward spiral and decay? We lean on and trust in the Rock of our salvation, who is still with his people while we continue to carry out his kingdom work.
We must not let these things have more power over us than they really do. And, thankfully, we still live in a country that gives us the freedom to speak and make our concerns known. We must not be cowed into silence in speaking about further societal consequences and about the future of religious liberty, two major issues embedded in this controversy. But, again, we should not place our faith in any human political or legal structure as our ultimate protector or savior. Jesus said that his kingdom was “not of this world”—neither is ours. The mission of the church continues. The church cannot be either dismissed or destroyed. It remains God’s vehicle of redemption, worked out through his people. That mission will endure until he returns. So let’s keep calm and keep carrying on with the mission and the message that remains the hope for every person in the world.
To hear more about how to think pastorally in communicating the gospel with gays and lesbians, John has a chapter, “A Missional Response to Homosexual Strugglers in the Church and the Gay Community,” in Reformed Means Missional: Following Jesus into the World, published by New Growth Press. Go to www.harvest-usa-store.com for a copy.