by Gavin Ortland
I was not particularly surprised by the Supreme Court’s decision last
Friday. Nor do I feel alarmist about it. Some Christians are responding
to it in doomsday tones, but to my mind that attitude is at odds with
the basic tenor of the gospel. Panic and pessimism are out of order for a
worldview anchored in belief in an omnipotent God, irresistible grace,
and an eternal heaven.
On the other hand, how a society defines the institution of marriage
is important. For me, it is too important to remain silent—particularly
because so many Christians I know are joining in to celebrate the
Court’s ruling. My Facebook news feed has been lit up over the last
several days with two basic types of articles, coming from various
different circles of friends that Esther and I have made over the years:
some disappointed and basically asking “now what?”; others exultant and
To my friends in the church embracing gay marriage, I offer these
four “appeals.” I do not expect that those who have studied this issue
thoroughly and landed squarely in that camp will necessarily find these
appeals new or convincing. But I’m also seeing a lot of Christians,
particularly younger millennials, whose openness to gay marriage seems
to me more impulsive, emotional, un-careful. Our cultural moment is
experiencing an incredible lunge toward more latitudinarian views on
sexuality and marriage, and its easy for people to get caught up in it.
So I offer these comments to people in that camp in the spirit of
saying, as Lloyd says to Harry in the great theological treatise Dumb and Dumber, “do you realize what you’ve done?” (In other words, have you thought this through fully and carefully?)
I recognize that publicly affirming a traditional definition of
marriage makes you vulnerable to stigmatization, so I’ve been a bit
hesitant to write this. But I also think complete silence is a mistake.
And at any rate I’ve never been able to suppress my convictions out of
fear of how people will respond. It’s just not who I am. So I offer
these thoughts hoping they might be helpful to some, even though they
are somewhat ad hoc and do not constitute a comprehensive statement on this whole issue.
(One final thing: If you’re reading this and not connected to the
church in any way, just be aware your “listening in” a bit here to
conversation among Christians. Probably the best way for us to dialogue
directly would be over email or coffee—and I would love to do that.)
1) Traditional views are not always bigoted (and progressive ones sometimes are)
Many younger people seem to intuitively sense that accepting gay
marriage is tolerant and compassionate, and opposing it is narrow and
mean. That instinct is not incomprehensible. There is indeed a lot of
bigotry and homophobia in the world, and there has been a lot of
downright meanness directed toward the LGBT community. I grieve and
oppose this as much as anyone. It is wrong.
Christ has called us to love our neighbor, whatever their sexual
identification, and the gospel calls us to be more concerned about our
own sin than anyone else’s.
But many prominent voices in our culture regard all
opposition to same-sex marriage as bigoted. There is an aggressive,
“take-no-prisoners” mindset that—all in the name of open-mindedness and
tolerance—sweeps away any space for principled disagreement. There are
only two options on the table: the celebration of gay marriage, or “nonsense … absolute stupidity” of the kind that is comparable to denying women or black people the right to vote and can only be met with exasperation and disbelief.
But if we are really seeking to advance the cause of tolerance,
shouldn’t we be willing to tolerate persons who hold to the traditional
view? If we are really seeking to advance the cause of open-mindedness,
shouldn’t we be willing to distinguish between more and less thoughtful
expressions of the view we oppose?
Imagine there is a 65-year-old professor at NYU (I’m just making this
up for the sake of argument). She is an atheist. She has no particular
loyalty to the Judeo-Christian heritage regarding marriage and
sexuality. But she happens to read the sociological data for male-female
complementarity benefiting children, and, after careful analysis, ends
up supporting the traditional view of marriage.
Even supposing this professor is wrong on the issue, would her error be the result of bigotry?
My dictionary defines bigotry as: “stubborn and complete intolerance of
any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from one’s own.” What if you
just happen to think that it’s best for society when children,
generally speaking and on balance, have both a mom and a dad? Does this
make you a bigot?
If you need to support gay marriage in order to love your gay friend,
do you need to support polygamy in order to love your polyamorous
friend? If people have a “right” to marry whomever they love, should two 15-year-olds be able to get married? Is opposition to cousin marriage a form of genetic and sexual discrimination? These examples are not scare tactics. They are real issues being debated. But the more basic point is this: we all define marriage in ways that exclude people, and it is not necessarily the result of discrimination or bigotry to do so.
It is possible to hold to a traditional view of marriage without an
ounce of prejudice in your heart against anyone. I believe Christ did
(Matthew 19:4-6). I believe that is what Christians are called to do.
Between the noise and rancor crowding towards us from various angles,
this is one option that needs to be calmly considered.
2) History provides some perspective
99.8%+ of human cultures have considered gender diversity to be of
the essence of marriage, and even in our culture almost everyone
understood marriage this way, until the last 5-10 years, including President Obama. As Chief Justice John Roberts put it,
this view of marriage has “formed the basis of human society for
millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the
Carthaginians and the Aztecs.”
So you’ve got this institution called “marriage” that every society
recognizes, and it’s universally understood as male-female throughout
all religions, cultures, societies, etc., and then the 21st
century West comes along, and—in the space of a decade—the baseline
values and assumptions change so much that everything flips around.
Suppose such a radical revisionism is justified. Suppose everyone
throughout history has simply gotten it wrong, and this narrow little
slice of humanity in the first-world at the dawn of the 21st century
have alone arrived on the truth.
If such a radical u-turn were required, it should at least be
accompanied by a great deal of caution and circumspection. What concerns
me is the seeming lack of such caution among many on this issue, and
the lack of sensitivity to the danger of cultural elitism. When we are
plunging against 99% of human history, when we are setting off of the
well-worn pathway of human civilization into an unprecedented direction,
how about a little more humility and a little less triumphalism?
Of course, those advocating for gay marriage are calling for
humility—but only from the traditionalists! I read one post that
basically said, “if you celebrate this decision, I rejoice with you; if
you are disappointed, just remember that you might be wrong.” This kind
of appeal reeks of an enlightened condescension. Why not remind both sides that they might be wrong—particularly the more historically isolated one?
Advocacy for gay marriage also appeals to courage because it provides
a sense of connection to a moral cause. To be sure, many of those
embracing gay marriage do so at great cost and with great conviction.
But many others are simply jumping on the bandwagon at its crescendo of
popularity. That seems to me to require far less courage than holding to
the traditional view. And while it may connect you to one cause, it
also separates you from a far older and deeper one.
3) Marriage matters
I also hear some Christians basically saying, “what’s the big deal?”
Many are personally opposed to gay marriage, but don’t want to engage in
the public debate. Many have been turned off by the politicizing of the
religious right, and/or the cultural conservatism they’ve seen in their
family or church. In general, it seems like younger people—particularly
the younger slice of millennials, people 25 and younger—tend to value
law, government, and authority much less than previous generations, and
relationship, transparency, and self-expression more. So the motivation
to oppose gay marriage is very low.
My appeal is to consider that how society defines marriage is very,
very important. The philosopher Rousseau said that a nation is only as
strong as its mothers. The family unit is the primary nurturing context
in which people are shaped in their moral, social, personal, and
psychological instincts, and so how the state defines and delimits this
entity has profound implications. Jerry-rigging a new definition of the
word “marriage” is one of the most significant ways to reshape and
redirect the broader culture.
We can discern the importance of marriage from the sociology and
anthropology. But for those of us in the body of Christ, marriage has an
additional, theological importance. In a Christian worldview, marriage
is ultimately not a human invention, but a divine institution. The whole
Bible starts and ends with marriage (Genesis 2, Revelation 21), and
throughout the Bible marriage is identified as a portrait of God’s love
for his people in the gospel (e.g., Ephesians 5:32). Marriage is
therefore sacred. It is a little window into the most profound and
beautiful mystery at the heart of the universe: the love of God.
The government is going to operate with some kind of moral compass,
some kind of vision for human flourishing. So if we believe that God’s
design is indeed wise and good, we shouldn’t check out in this debate.
4) The comparison to slavery is slippery
Perhaps the greatest concern to me among my Christian friends
supporting last Friday’s decision comes in the area of biblical
interpretation, and what Christians have believed about homosexuality
for 2000 years. The most common argument I hear goes something like
this: “yeah, Christians throughout church history have believed the
Bible prohibits homosexual behavior, but then again, most Christians
throughout church history also believed the Bible approved of slavery,
and they were wrong about that—so how do we know Christians haven’t been
wrong about homosexuality, too?”
In more sophisticated discussion this kind of argument is often tied to what is called the redemptive-movement hermeneutic,
and involves issues of segregation and gender equality as well as
homosexuality. You can delve into some of the discussion, if you are
interested, by reading Tim Keller’s review of two recent books affirming same-sex marriage and Matthew Vine’s response.
Now, there are complicated historical and hermeneutical issues
involved in this debate, and I don’t aim to offer any kind of final
analysis here. I think what concerns me most in the present context is
the seeming hastiness with which many Christians are appealing to a
comparison of homosexuality and slavery. The problem is that unless we
get specific with each text involved, this kind of appeal can function
as a way to blunt biblical authority on any issue. You can say
about anything, “well, yeah, the Bible prohibits that, but then again,
the Bible advocates slavery, so it’s all a wash in the end.” Until we’ve
done the careful work of interpreting each particular biblical text in
its own context, and then applying it in our own, we really don’t have
the right to make this evaluation.
Does the Bible really advocate slavery? When we read verses like
Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, I Peter 2:18, we hear the English
translation “slave” in light of our own historical context, and
typically think of race-based, chattel slavery. But that kind of slavery
was always condemned in Scripture—in fact, that Old Testament law
commanded the death penalty for anyone who bought or sold another human
being (Exodus 21:16).
The Greek word translated “slave” in the Pauline passages mentioned above is the word doulos—a
term that Paul uses to describe his own relationship with Christ (e.g,
Romans 1:1). It is often translated “bond-servant,” and in the
first-century Graeco-Roman world often referred to people with
considerable more legal and social status than we usually think of when
we hear the term “slave.”
But even that milder form of slavery is more tolerated than affirmed
by the Bible. When the gospel comes into any cultural context, we don’t
expect total perfection right away. Ethical exhortations in ad hoc
documents like epistles will give us more of a picture of day-to-day
life as a Christian in a certain context than the Bible’s overall ideal
with respect to institutional and structural evil. (Unless we expect the
apostles to call for immediate social revolution.)
But in the epistle to Philemon Paul writes to a slave owner about his
runaway slave, and in that unique scenario I think we get a clearer
sense of how Paul regards the gospel playing out with respect to
structural, societal evil.
Paul appeals to Philemon (the slave owner) and says that Onesimus (the
slave) has become a Christian, and thus is no longer a slave, but
instead a brother in Christ—so “receive
him as you would receive me” (v. 17). So Paul dissolves the
slave/master relationship, and erects in its place a brother/brother
relationship, in which the former slave is treated with all the dignity
that the apostle himself would be treated. This is what the gospel does:
even before the actual institution of slavery is abolished, it unmakes
the assumptions and prejudices that make slavery possible.
There is nothing comparable to the book of Philemon (or Exodus 21:16) in the Bible with respect to homosexuality.
Nor are homosexuality and abolitionism equally opposed throughout
church history. Vines counters Keller’s critique on this point by
arguing that he only focuses on the modern West, and thus “badly
misrepresents the church’s history on the issue of slavery.” It’s true
that many Christians throughout church history supported slavery, and
that is an evil not to be excused. But it’s false that slavery was
approved by the church until people like William Wilberforce. Most
church fathers like Augustine tolerated slavery only as a result of the
fall, and some like Gregory of Nyssa attacked the institution of slavery
as contrary to God’s intent for humanity. In the era of medieval
Christendom, several nations abolished slavery (continental France in
1315, Sweden in 1335), and several popes in the following centuries,
particularly Pope Paul III, condemned both slavery and the slave trade.
So the church’s record on slavery is mixed, while it’s nearly
impossible to find advocates of homosexual practice anywhere before the
recent past. So I don’t think the comparison between homosexuality and
slavery ultimately works here, either. But if you do use this
comparison, my appeal is to do the hard exegetical work to justify it.
If you are a Christian open to gay marriage, have you considered that the options between
open celebration and reactionary prejudice? Have you thought through
the importance of the institution of marriage in society, and the
massive historical pedigree standing behind the traditional definition
of it? Have you worked your way carefully through the various relevant
biblical texts, “examining the Scriptures daily” like the noble Bereans
I recognize that support for gay marriage has garnered so much
emotional and social momentum in our culture that appeals like this will
not have any impact at all on some people. But I also see a lot people
putting up rainbow flags on facebook probably without having carefully
thought it through. I offer these appeals in the hope that they will
stimulate greater critical reflection concerning the emotions and
eccentricities of the present cultural moment.