Can we talk personally about same-sex marriage?

by | Apr 10, 2017

This article is based on a talk given at the CCL evening titled “Can we talk about same-sex marriage?” (See also Michael Kellahan’s essay adapted from his address at that event.)

Can we talk personally about same-sex marriage?

Tony Payne

Is it possible for Christians to talk sensibly and usefully about the topic of ‘same-sex marriage’ in our friendships, workplaces and families? And how might we do such a thing?

(If you come to this article as someone who isn’t a Christian, or who takes a very different view of this issue, I hope this will nevertheless be valuable for you—particularly in helping you understand how Christians think about not only this issue, but all issues in which we interact with our culture.)

1. Two challenges

To begin with, we need to acknowledge two challenges that Christians have always faced in relating to the world in which we live: friendship and fear.

a. Friendship

The apostle James sharply identifies the first challenge:

Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:4)

Being too friendly with the world is a key theme in James’s letter. He recognises the danger of compromise and doublemindedness that God’s people face—of wanting our cultural cake and eating it too. Christians are called to be different, distinctive and set apart. We are called to be ‘holy’, in other words, and the problem James identifies is that it is all too easy for Christians to ignore this call and become indistinguishable from the world.

Sadly, modern western Christians have often succumbed to this danger. We assimilate and blend into our culture because it is comfortable, safe and often enjoyable to do so. The bargain many 20th-century Christians have been content to accept has been to stay private, keep quiet, don’t make too much of a fuss, and all will be well. We hope to be allowed to live ‘peaceful and quiet lives’, so long as we don’t make waves.

b. Fear

However, making such a bargain with the world has its limits. Even if we wish to live a confrontation-free life in modern, consumerist culture, the culture may not always be content for us to do so. When Christianity is seen to stand for something quite different from the prevailing cultural norms, it becomes a threat or an obstacle to social harmony.

In this context, when contemporary and Christian cultures clash, we face the alternative danger of fear. In the face of hostility, some may fearfully shrink back and give up. There can be cowardice, desertion and apostasy. Alternatively, some Christians may lash out and become hostile and aggressive in return, seeking to fight with worldly weapons to win by any means possible.

These two dangers—friendship and fear—have always been with us. Sometimes we are more aware of one or the other, yet the Bible reminds us of both. When we feel like we are compromising and becoming indistinguishable from the world around us, we should perhaps read James. Yet in the current climate of conversations on same-sex marriage, perhaps our focus needs to be on the latter danger and challenge. How ought we to respond when the world is not so much a beguiling seducer, but a hostile opponent or even an aggressor? When you truly feel like a stranger and alien in the world, what should you do?

This is, in fact, the situation in which many of the first Christians found themselves. The book immediately following James’s letter in the canon is Peter’s first letter to those early Christians who were scattered across the Roman Empire—a classic answer to how a Christian can live in a pagan and hostile world.

2. Peter’s challenge

We get a distinct clue as to the nature of Peter’s answer from his opening sentences:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,

To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood:

May grace and peace be multiplied to you.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead … (1 Peter 1:1-3)

Four times he repeats the name that has changed everything for him: Jesus Christ. Here is the one whose blood was shed—the one who is now risen as the Christ or Messiah or Lord of all the world. It is Jesus Christ who sends his apostles out into a hostile world. Peter is speaking as an ambassador on behalf of his King, and his words have the authority of his master. It is Jesus Christ we obey, for he has given us a living hope—a living reality that shapes our experience now.

The foundation of Peter’s whole view of reality is that this world, created by God the Father, is now ruled by the risen Lord Jesus Christ. The world has a certain nature or shape given to it by God, and it has a history or purpose that centres around the rule of a man who rose from the dead: Jesus Christ.

What makes Christians basically different from other people is that we acknowledge and embrace and live in light of this reality. Insofar as our culture (western) has been built on a recognition of this reality, we have found ourselves feeling more or less at home within it. But the further our culture progresses in its rejection of this fact, the more explicitly we find ourselves feeling like aliens and strangers in the world.

This has always been what makes Christians feel like outsiders: we serve a different King, we are citizens of a different and better country, and we have been made into a different nation, called to proclaim the glories of our King. How are we to react when we find ourselves in conflict with a world that glories in itself? This is what Peter goes on to address.

a. Christian distinctiveness (1 Peter 2:9-12)

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9)

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:11-12)

1 Peter 2:9-12 sets out not only what makes Christians different or distinct, but what social and cultural consequences follow from our distinctiveness. What makes us different is that our status has fundamentally changed: we have been chosen to be a special, holy people, race, nation and priesthood. We have been called by God out of darkness into a new marvellous light. And from this new status and calling, several things follow.

First, we are given a new commission or vocation. Our purpose is now to proclaim the excellencies of our God—to speak up about and advertise to the world around us the greatness of the God who has acted in Christ.

Secondly, our relationship with the world changes and becomes oppositional. We experience this change both internally and externally. Internally, the desires of the flesh will wage war against us—so that we will want to be like everyone around us. Yet externally, when we do resist the desires of the flesh and do the good things God desires of us, the world will oppose us and speak out against us as evildoers, construing good things as evil.

This is pretty much what we see happening today. In defending and proclaiming God’s purposes and will for sexuality and marriage, we are speaking up for what is good and right and true. But when we do so, we are abused and reviled as haters, bigots and evildoers.

Furthermore, in spite of the opposition of the world, our character must be obviously different. We are to avoid the character traits of the world and instead be honourable (v. 12). We ought not give anyone any basis for criticism because of our character. We should not be rude, nasty, hostile, inflammatory or dishonest. We must not flatter, but speak the truth. While we should not give in, we certainly should not ‘bite back’ or seek vengeance. Instead, we should keep our behaviour exemplary. We may be criticised because the world is opposed to God’s ways, but we know that God wins in the end. In the meantime, our character and our behaviour ought to reflect the goodness of God.

Finally, our hope and expectation is grounded in the day when God’s justice and truth will be seen throughout all the earth (v. 12). When Jesus returns, we will be vindicated, and our persistence in doing good will bring glory to God.

b. Continued encouragement (1 Peter 3:13-17)

Peter weaves these themes throughout his letter and they are picked up again in 1 Peter 3:13-17:

Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behaviour in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.

Once again, the Christian’s status is someone who is distinctive in the world by honouring Christ as holy. Our relationship with the world continues to be difficult, suffering evil and being slandered even for doing what is good. In this instance, Peter sets out our commission to proclaim the excellencies of God by encouraging his readers to be prepared to make a defence for the hope that they have in Christ, and to do so with a God-honouring character, showing gentleness and respect.

In other words, how we live in the world will raise questions: it will be commented upon, and we will be called upon to explain and defend the hope that shapes our lives each day. Notably, however, we are to do this persuasively and graciously, not rudely or defensively. Peter instructs us to be gentle, for we are talking about the biggest and most important issues—issues that go to the heart of who people are and how they see themselves and their world. When we explain why we believe what we believe, we are wielding a very sharp sword.

Yet Peter doesn’t only call for gentleness, he also calls for respect. The word here is actually ‘fear’—not, in this instance, fear of the other person, but fear of God. We ought to keep our consciences clean in the way we relate to and speak to the world, because we will also appear before the judgement seat of Christ.

Even so, when our good behaviour and gentle, God-fearing speech still causes us to be slandered or persecuted, don’t let it worry you, says Peter. Our hope and expectation in is Jesus Christ, who does not disappoint, so we need not be afraid. Nor should we be surprised when we are being treated just as our master was; we should expect nothing less.

These things are not hard to understand, but they are, of course, hard to do. Let’s look briefly at how they might apply to the current controversy.

3. Same-sex marriage: A case study in our time

a. Don’t be surprised

When differences are laid bare over an issue like same-sex marriage, there will be disagreement and opposition. We should not be shocked that the profound differences between a Christian worldview and secular humanism have surfaced at this point, nor that even the good things we might say and do are slandered as evil. According to the Apostle Peter, this is situation normal.

b. Take time to expose what the disagreement really is

In the midst of profound disagreement, however, we should take time to identify what the disagreement really is. So often the conversation ends before it has even begun, because each side assumes it understands what the other side is saying, and dismisses it without even listening. In the case of the same-sex marriage debate, the ‘pro’ case has been extensively canvassed and publicised in the mainstream media, but there has been very little public exposition of the Christian view. It is usually simply dismissed as bigotry, fear or a repressed sexuality.

We need to explain that our disagreement with the concept of same-sex marriage is not traditionalism as opposed to modernism, nor is it a right-wing versus left-wing view. The disagreement is grounded in the Christian belief that God created this world to be a certain way, and now rules it through Jesus Christ. We believe this to be true, and secular humanism does not. This is the foundation of the disagreement, even though it is often not acknowledged. Often the best way to bring this into the open is to ask questions about the basis for the view of the person you’re talking with. For example,

  • Why is one thing moral or right rather than another?
  • Why is marriage one thing rather than an another?
  • Is it entirely a matter of convention—that is, what human beings decide for themselves over time? Or does it correspond to something lastingly true and real?
  • Why do you think that?
  • More to the point, who gets to decide? Is it just the majority vote?
  • Are you saying that it was perfectly right and just to not have same-sex marriage while a majority of the population disagreed with it (which was only a few years ago), but has now become wrong and unjust because the figures have switched? If the numbers swung back for whatever reason in a few years’ time, would you be happy to reverse the legislation?

Asking these and similar questions, and seeing where they take the conversation, is a useful way to open up some the underlying reasons for Christians thinking differently about these sorts of issues. The reason we as Christians differ with many in our culture on this issue (and many others), and indeed the main reason we want to talk about this issue, is that we believe in a created and ruled world. We want to testify to the fact that there is a solid and lasting basis for knowing what is good and true and right—and that is found in the God who made this world to be the way it is—a God who now rules this world in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ.

c. Respectfully explain the reason for your view

Respectfully explaining the basis for our disagreement with the world over same-sex marriage is how we can talk personally about same-sex marriage. Let me tease this out a little in order to demonstrate the ‘talking points’ of the conversation.

To begin with, ‘marriage’ corresponds to a real state of affairs—to the way the world is. This is because the world is a created place, and it was given its nature and order by the will and character of the God who created it. More than that, we believe that it is a ruled place—that there is an authority over our world, the Lord Jesus Christ. Consequently, the way we should live in this world is not purely a matter of convention; there are structures and values woven into the very fabric of the reality we inhabit, including sexuality and marriage.

If that is true, we are not at liberty to make up morality as we go along. The world is not a piece of plasticine that we can mould into any shape we fancy; it has a shape and a nature, and if we don’t live in accordance with that, things won’t go well.

In fact, the tendency for us to reject God and make up the rules ourselves is exactly why the world is in the mess it is. And this is precisely why God sent his Son into the world to die on a cross—to redeem us from our tendency to make up our own rules.

That’s really why we differ about this. And that’s why we’re quite happy to talk about this—because it goes to the whole way we view reality.

While our understanding of reality (and therefore what constitutes the ‘good’ and the ‘true’) is the point of our disagreement, we are still left with the personal implications of our different thinking. For many people, the heart of the debate is about identity and value and worth, not legal advantage. It is about how people feel about themselves—how they see themselves. To say something in opposition to same-sex marriage is therefore felt very personally as a comment about equality, and as a crushing of the hopes some people have for a fulfilling life with love, relationships and goodness in it.

We all have a vision of who we are and what we long for. As Christians, we want to declare that after wandering around as lost and confused as everyone is about who we are and what our future is, and after rejecting our Creator’s will as much as everyone does, we’ve had our hearts opened at last to the truth: that who we are and what the future holds is determined by the God who made us—the Son of God who died for us and rose again, and who now sits at God’s right hand.

Ultimately, this is why we want to talk about same-sex marriage—not only because the issue has real consequences for our whole society, but because it’s an opportunity to say in these strange and hostile days what Christians have been saying all along, and should keep saying all along: that God is Creator and Lord—the Creator and Lord against whom we constantly rebel—and yet he loved his world so much that he sent his Son Jesus to die for our sins, and he raised him to life everlasting as the Lord and King of all.

Read. Watch. Listen.

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