In light of the Supreme Court’s decision on so-called gay marriage last week, I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on how Christ’s church might respond.
Changing Nation, Unchanging Reality
President Obama was certainly right when he said, in his congratulatory phone call to James Obergefell on Friday, June 26, that Obergefell’s leadership had “changed the nation.” Yes, an entire nation will be different–fundamentally–due to this landmark decision by the Supreme Court of the United States. Marriage, previously recognized as an institution that can only, by definition, exist between a man and a woman, is now declared by the act of judicial will to exist between members of the same sex.
But the church knows that such a brazen misreading of our nation’s founding documents doesn’t really change anything. Yes, the requirement of states to legally recognize gay “marriages” is now the law of the land, but laws of lands, though externally binding upon the citizens of a given nation, have no power whatsoever to change moral realities created and sustained by God. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8), and his word will always remain (Matthew 24:35).
Even before the earliest days of creation, God planned that marriage between a man and a woman would serve as a living parable of Christ’s relationship to his church–a husband and his bride (Genesis 2:24; cf. Ephesians 5:22-32). Although the parable will one day fade away, the reality to which it points will live forever. Thus, the male and female counterparts of earthly marriage are essential to its very definition, and they will be until Christ returns and receives his Bride, the corporate church. It is arrogance in the extreme to suggest that a nation can overthrow with a 28-page decision what God designed and founded from the beginning of time and plans to fulfill at the end of it.
Changing Nation, Unchanging Mission
Like marriage, the church’s mission also remains the same. The danger of mounting large-scale theological responses to the folly of such legal decisions is that they might give the impression that homosexuals are the enemy; that those who are fighting for what they believe is a fundamental right of human personhood should be simply opposed, silenced, and condemned.
The theological responses must be made, to be sure, for even the friendliest evangelicals who uphold a biblical vision of marriage and who have the courage to point out governmental inconsistency and lawlessness will be castigated by popular media and classified as bigots. But the notion that the homosexual community poses a threat to the church or that our ministry to them should consist merely of condemnatory refutations is far from Spirit of Christ.
What cannot be lost in the fray is the clear conviction that Jesus saves sinners, and those who are rejoicing at this recent earth-shaking decision and everything it stands for are precisely those Jesus came to save. Christians who know personally the ravages of sin and who have tasted of God’s forgiveness in Christ cannot stand idly by while the homosexual community marches unchecked into behaviors and lifestyles that will destroy them, nor can we give the impression by what we say and how we talk that their sin places them beyond the reach of God’s grace. Christ tells the silent church: speak the truth courageously and in love. He tells the self-righteous church: such were some of you.
Changing Nation, Unchanging Truth
For Christians, some things never change. Christ doesn’t change, marriage doesn’t change, our mission doesn’t change, and the gospel doesn’t change. The church’s response to our government’s formalized defiance of God’s design for and definition of marriage, then, will draw from a few key truths.
1. The Bible is the Word of God. That we have in our possession the revealed and inerrant word of God is a truth relevant in any season. A nation’s laws may drift from the intention of her founding fathers, religious opinion may sway with the winds of popularity and social comfort, cultural norms will ebb and flow, but God’s Word never changes (Isaiah 40:7-8). Our understanding of marriage and appropriate sexual expression between people made in God’s image must always be drawn from divine revelation. The temptation to yield to popular opinion or to mistake doctrinal compromise for “love” and “grace” is great, and many professing Christians have already swallowed the bait of pseudo-kindness by simply choosing the path of least resistance. But the true church will always remained tethered to the Bible, for it is her life, her light, and the source of her stability.
2. The Gospel is a Call to Repentance. No matter what trends in our greater culture, the gospel will always be a call to turn from sin and trust in Christ. That means the greedy person must turn from their greed, the thief from his stealing, and the homosexual from their practice of homosexuality. Of course, our call for genuine repentance must not imply that all once-practicing homosexuals will find all their same-sex desires eradicated at the moment of their new-birth; struggles will likely remain, and heterosexual desires may never fully replace homosexual ones (see Washed and Waiting by Wesley Hill and Is God Anti-Gay? by Sam Allbery and Love into Light by Peter Hubbard). But we must firmly maintain that the goodness of the gospel is found not only in the freedom of forgiving grace, but in the power of transforming grace, and that Christ readily provides the ability to obey his commands to those who come to him looking for justification from their sin, not justification of it.
3. Compassion Requires Truth-Telling. If the Bible is true when it says that those who persist in sin will not go to heaven but will instead face eternal punishment from a holy God, then genuine compassion will never hide the truth, but proclaim it without compromise. The apostle Paul knew that such truths would never be popular and that professing Christians and false teachers alike would look for ways to blunt the sharper contours of the gospel. That’s why he often warns the church to avoid deception, especially when the majority is saying that unrepentant sin is no big deal.
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, or men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10, emphasis added).
Paul’s point, of course, is not to say that such sinners cannot come to Christ for salvation (many have and still do today); rather, the apostle is warning that those who continue in these sins without true repentance–regardless of their profession of religion–will not go to heaven (see also Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:3-6). It is actually an expression of profound hatred to lead a practicing homosexual (or adulterer or fornicator) to believe that he or she can continue in their sexual practice and boast in a right standing with God. What could be more hateful than perpetuating a lie? What could be more compassionate than telling them the truth?
4. The Church Best Upholds Marriage Through Complementarianism. It may not be readily apparent right now, but the intramural debate among Christians concerning male and female roles and responsibilities in the home and in the gathered community of believers relates directly to this recent SCOTUS decision. I believe that the stance evangelical churches will take with regard to so-called gay marriage will be determined, in large measure, by where they are now or plan to be in the near future with regard to the issues of complementarianism and egalitarianism.
How can I make such a claim? Because at its core the debate over complementarianism and egalitarianism is about the differences between men and women. To the degree that the church diminishes these good differences through egalitarianism and evangelical feminism, to that degree does it weaken the ground by which she can build a case against gay “marriage.” Some feminists already see this connection and are calling for greater consistency. It seems that at some point the logic of egalitarianism must concede to the logic of so-called gay marriage for both seek to diminish the differences between genders. Egalitarian churches may not support so-called same-sex marriage today, but it appears inevitable for the future.
5. The Church Serves the LGBT Community By Offering a Biblical Alternative To Marriage. In their honest and insightful article at The Gospel Coalition, Rosaria Butterfield and Christopher Yuan argue that the church has failed to provide the LGBT community with a compelling vision of singleness where those who now follow Jesus in the obedience of celibacy (from homosexual practice) can find love and fulfilling ministry as a member of God’s family.
We have failed to show the LGBT community another option to marriage—which is singleness—lived out in the fruitful and full context of God’s community, the family of God. This does not mean, as Justice Kennedy wrote, that singles are “condemned to live in loneliness,” but that singles can have intimate and fulfilling relationships full of love. This is not a consolation prize. It can be just as rewarding and fulfilling as marriage.
Defining marriage as being between a husband and a wife appears unfair to the LGBT community, in part because a life of singleness is seen to be crushingly lonely. Have we in the church inadvertently played into that lie with our idolatry of marriage while being pejorative and silent toward singleness? If singleness is unfair, then it’s no wonder marriage has become a right. Just as the LGBT community appealed to the rest of the world for dignity and respect, it’s time for the church to fight for the dignity and respect of single women and single men.
We will do much good for the LGBT community when we recapture the biblical vision for singleness, where those who are unmarried, far from living in a second-class Christian existence, are able to carry out their calling before God faithfully and fruitfully (see 1 Corinthians 7:1-40). The church’s ministry to single adults is vital in our response to the legalization of gay “marriage.”
What Man Means for Evil, God Means for Good
At basic, the church’s response to the recent Supreme Court decision is the same for this season as it would be for any season. Christians must hold fast to the Scripture and to the gospel, ready to weather the storms of marginalization and misrepresentation, eager to love sinners and call them to repentance. Some things will never change.
But it is my hope that as the church is battered by a culture that is increasingly hostile to Christ and his word, we may become sweeter to people as we become even more steadfast in truth; gentler with sinners as we become even stronger against sin. Who knows? Our reflection on this SCOTUS decision many years from now may bring us to conclude that, like the cross of our Lord Jesus, what man meant for evil, God meant for good–eternal, sin-forgiving, God-glorifying, people-saving, church-building, Christ-exalting, heaven-opening, Satan-defeating, good. I pray it so.