As I write these words, the majority in the Maryland House of Delegates is still celebrating over their recent vote to legitimize marriage between members of the same gender. Predictions are that the Senate also has the votes necessary to send this bill—which effectively legalizes homosexual marriage in my state—to the desk of Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who has said he will sign it into law. By this summer, Maryland will become the 8th state in the Union to legalize marriage between homosexual partners.
At the same time, evangelicals lost this issue a long time ago. In a recent USA Today article, Tom Krattenmaker astutely compares the current situation to the closing moments of a football game when the opposing team is so far out in front that there is no hope of recovery before the final seconds tick off the clock. Though I disagree with Krattenmaker’s proposal for evangelicals to simply “back off,” he is correct about one thing: Even with the Governor’s signature not already affixed to the bill, we have lost this ball game!
So the question going forward is simple: how did we arrive at this place? And is there a way to return our culture to previous thoughts about this issue when the playing field of dialogue is now so uneven? It is admittedly difficult—perhaps even impossible—to adequately respond in a 5-minute sound bite to why you would oppose two people who love each other being granted the same rights, recognition, and tax breaks as any other married couple.
Further complicating matters is the fact that many of us have friends in the homosexual community whom we care about deeply, and on the surface, it just seems heartless to deny them the opportunities available to heterosexual couples. If you are in favor of homosexual marriage and just read that last paragraph, you might think I’m sympathetic to the plight of a persecuted minority in our country. If you are an evangelical who just read it who thinks I’ve lost my mind, and you are wondering how on earth we ever arrived at this place, then you have stumbled onto my point.
What mistakes did we make that have resulted in the current climate?
1. Our Early Treatment of the Homosexual Community. I’m speaking here of two things primarily: mistreatment and stereotyping. Let’s face it. For many decades the sum total of the evangelical church’s response to the homosexual community was “AIDS is God’s judgment on you!” Though we claim our authority is the Bible, we largely ignored what it says about all human beings being created in the image and likeness of God where homosexuals are concerned.
As a result, an evangelical church—the one place where a homosexual struggling with his or her sin should have been welcomed—was the one place they avoided like the plague. We looked the other way when homosexuals were denied housing or employment or worse, when they were beaten and killed. We should have been the first to denounce such horrific acts of violence against any human being created in God’s image. Instead, we were largely silent.
Additionally, we tended to stereotype this part of our population as an aggressive minority intent on subjugating our children to sexual perversion of every sort and kind. To be sure, there is an identifiable group among homosexual ranks that walk around naked at parades, seek to radicalize school curriculum, and give support to organizations like NAMBLA. But this group represents less than 10 percent of the homosexual community.
Another 20% of this population is represented by men and women who are genuinely struggling with their sexual orientation, believe it is sin, and want to find a way out. The majority in the middle are convinced that they are doing nothing wrong, but have no desire to do anything except live their lives and be left alone. Our problem is that we have treated the entire homosexual population as if they all belonged to category number 1.
These two issues illustrate a sub-human treatment of men and women for whom Jesus died. I understand that this sin begins with “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.” (Romans 1:18), but given the way we have communicated our message, is it any wonder they don’t want to listen to us?
2. Our Own Perversion of Marriage: Homosexuals may very well help our society finish off marriage, but they can’t be held responsible for starting this downward slide. That began decades ago, and continues into the present. Within the evangelical church, divorce rates are actually higher than outside Christendom. In addition, our refusal to practice church discipline and uphold the standards of righteousness expected of any follower of Jesus has resulted in rampant and unrepentant fornication and adultery within our own ranks.
The Bible is clear regarding sexual sin, but our ambivalence within the church toward heterosexual sin betrays the absence of any moral authority to speak to this issue. Until we start treating heterosexual sin in all its forms within the church the same way we view homosexual sin outside the church, we can never presume the moral high ground. Judgment, the Apostle Peter says, begins at the house of God. (1 Peter 4:17)
3. Our Capitulation to the Idea of Marriage as a “Right.” The homosexual community has been largely successful in couching their agenda in the verbiage of “civil rights,” and the current marriage debate is also housed within this concept. If interracial marriage is permitted, for example, then what is wrong with two men or two women being wed to each other? I appreciate the response to this issue that has been made by my African-American brothers in ministry. They have spoken eloquently to the marked difference that should be noted between skin tone and behavior.
At the same time, when discussing marriage, evangelicals have failed to point out that this institution isn’t about “civil rights,” and in fact isn’t about “rights” at all. Yet at some point, we allowed the other side to co-opt the idea that marriage is a right. Rather than speaking to who does and does not have a “right” to marry, evangelicals should point out that in fact, no one has a “right” to marital union--not even a heterosexual couple.
Marriage has historically been viewed as a status of privilege, and this truth is functionally proven by the fact that although a clerk of court may be forced by law to issue a license, no public official—minister, notary public, or judge—is required to perform the ceremony.
A so-called “right to marriage” does not currently exist, even for heterosexual couples, and is not necessary for equality. If evangelicals want to turn opinion on this issue, this point must be made clear.
4. We allowed “tolerance” to be confused with “affirmation.” Tolerance, simply defined, is the power that keeps adherents to various points of view from killing each other. It is rooted in the idea that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, and describes the endorsement of the ideal of treating each other with dignity and respect, regardless of our differences with each other.
But toleration is not the same as affirmation. It is one thing, for example, for our society to “tolerate” an alcoholic by not killing him, getting him treatment when he seeks it, and in general treating him like a human being. But if we were to suddenly hold him up as an example of something healthy in our society, such action would not represent “tolerance.” but “affirmation.”
I’ve been pleased to see legislative and judicial moves away from punitive results for homosexual behavior. Aside from the fact that I think our government has better things to do with its time than lock up consenting adults, the sodomy laws in our country set up a defacto hierarchy of sin whereby heterosexual misconduct was winked at while homosexual sin was viewed as worthy of attention by our penal code.
Similarly, sexual behavior should, generally speaking, not be an employment issue. Ministerial employment notwithstanding, a homosexual should not be released from his or her employment for their sexual behavior any more than an adulterous husband should be fired for his last out-of-town tryst. Such a posture truly treats all sin equally and does not single out any particular group to be stigmatized. I’m thankful for evangelicals like Rick Warren, who have spoken to this issue with passion not only in our own country, but in other places like Uganda.
But a license to marry is not an extension of “tolerance.” It is instead the granting of societal affirmation. Our culture has historically affirmed marriage between a man and woman because of the inherent benefits this institution provides our society. The economic stability, emotional support, vehicle of sexual expression and ideal environment for childrearing that this institution has observably produced in our culture has resulted in our nation granting it a status of privilege. When a marriage license is issued, our society is in effect saying “we affirm this union because of the betterment of our society that we know will result.”
So when the homosexual community asks for the “right” to marry, they are asking for much more than tolerance. They are asking for the societal endorsement of their lifestyle. Regardless of whether you believe homosexual behavior to be a sin, the simple fact is that homosexual marriage is without a strong historical precedent and thus, its institutionalization by our government represents a radical approach to social engineering, the results of which will not be tangibly known or experienced for many decades. The “five-minute sound-bite” approach to this issue may make it seem as though the evangelical church is backed into a philosophical corner, but the truth is that the burden of legitimizing the radical redefinition of marriage to include two men or two women rests on those who would like to see homosexual marriage codified into our system of law. Tolerance is one thing. What the homosexual community is asking for is a quite different matter.
Evangelical Christians once spoke to the issue of homosexuality in a world that shared our opinion of the issue. Recent developments have proven that this world is now gone. The question now is how Christians can speak the truth in love in this new environemt. Admittedly, we did not use our cultural influence well when we had it, and our understanding of how to interact with the homosexual community has thankfully evolved. Our understanding of homosexual behavior as sinful must not change, but the way we communicate this truth and encourage dialogue must simultaneously demonstrate a clear compassion, and if neccesary, the willingness to be persecuted ourselves for the sake of those we strongly believe need the Gospel.
We need clear and compelling arguments combined with genuine love for our homosexual neighbors. Anything less not only substantiates the charge that we are "homophobic," but also demonstrates unfaithfulness to the Gospel we claim to preach.