Marriage: Let’s not wave a white flag

OPINION | David Sandifer

Thursday 13 August 2015

The discussion about same-sex marriage has gained intensity in recent weeks. Ireland passed a referendum in favour of it; the US Supreme Court ruled that state prohibitions of same-sex marriage were unconstitutional; and here in Australia, the drum-beat in favour of “marriage equality” grows ever louder and parliament looks likely to consider a bill on the question in this current sitting. It is a good time for Christians to pause and consider what their attitudes should be.

Some Christians have suggested that, while the Bible makes clear that homosexual sex goes against God’s design, we should not take a stance on the question of whether a secular state should institute gay marriage. In the first place, the claim is sometimes made that, since sex is a matter of “personal morality” (i.e., it only affects those engaged in it), it is not the place of Christians to seek to legislate biblical standards.

Instead, we should seek to live our lives according to what we understand God’s will to be, and leave the world to its own devices (“What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” 1 Cor 5:12). Second, some have argued that taking a stance on gay marriage not only distracts Christians from our main job of preaching the gospel, it also undermines our effectiveness in doing so by associating us with a position viewed by many as mean-spirited and backwards. If we want to have a hearing in the broader culture, we should be known for our love and good works, not for opposing something that many now consider to be a fundamental right.

Both of these arguments carry weight, and they should give us pause. Some Christians have been overly concerned with seeking to protect moral standards by political means, rather than focusing on the gospel and on godly living. It is also true, sadly, that some of these Christians have not always presented the most winsome picture of Christianity and have made the work of witnessing to Christ more difficult. Nonetheless, it would be a tragic mistake for Christians to walk off the playing field when it comes to same-sex marriage.

Christians cannot fail to care whether or not society adopts same-sex marriage. We care because we love our neighbours and desire what is best for them.

In the first place, to conceive of marriage as merely a matter of “personal morality” is to hold too narrow a view of its significance. There is a reason why in most cultures weddings are community events and vows are exchanged in the presence of family and friends: marriage is viewed as a public good. If we, as Christians, believe that marriage is something which was made by God at creation (Gen 2), and that it is organised around a core binary male-female reality, then for society to re-make it as something else will inevitably bring harm. Whenever human beings attempt to engineer society in ways that defy God’s good design, it brings harm – we only thrive when we follow the grain of the universe. This means that even if we could not identify particular “victims” of same-sex marriage, we know that real, concrete damage must come from its adoption.

But, in the second place, there will in fact be specific and identifiable victims of gay marriage. Leaving aside the gay couples themselves – for whom a synthetic simulacrum of marriage will bring no blessing, however fervently desired – it is the children in such relationships who will pay the highest price. For society to say that same-sex marriage is the moral and legal equivalent of the union of a man and woman is for it to say that children gain no advantage from being with their natural parents. It is to say that gay “parents” who produced a child through surrogacy or (some day likely) cloning are in every way interchangeable with a man and woman who conceived through natural means. It is to tear asunder the most natural and fundamental bond in all of human society, that of a mother and father and their child. While there have always been children without one or both parents, previously society has invariably seen this as a deprivation; it would now be institutionalised as a positive good, leaving children the victims.

It follows that Christians cannot fail to care whether or not society adopts same-sex marriage. We care because we love our neighbours and desire what is best for them. We care because we love children and cannot abandon the most vulnerable among us, even if that abandonment is cloaked under the banner of “equality”.

And this is the answer to the second argument given for Christians not engaging on this issue: caring about gay marriage is part of doing good to those around us and seeking the best for our society. It is easy to see that caring for our gay friends and neighbours – building friendships, hearing their stories, sharing our lives with them – is part of our calling to love our neighbour. But, equally, so is caring about same-sex marriage. Of course, it is possible to care too much about this or any social issue, at the expense of proclaiming the good news of forgiveness of sins and new life in Jesus Christ. But if as Christians we believe we are called to care about any social issues – refugees, global poverty, domestic violence – then we must care about this one as well. Let us be done once and for all with the false dichotomy between “social justice” issues and “moral” ones.

Admittedly, it is a difficult question to engage with others in today’s cultural climate. We are fools if we think that we can base our argument on Christian theological assumptions, and worse than fools if we seek to appeal to a “traditional morality” which has lost all resonance. We know that our moral argument seems immoral to many. We know that even with our best efforts to be gracious and measured, some – perhaps even our own friends and family – may take offence.

Yet it remains that if “the law of God is written on their hearts” (Rom 2:15) then we still have access to a common language to appeal to. If in this case our work seems more arduous and dotted with myriad pitfalls, is that not a reason to try harder and pray for more grace rather than to give up?

Christians should care about same-sex marriage not primarily because we are keen to protect our rights of conscience but because we care about Australian society as a whole. We do not engage the question as a special interest group clamouring for its rights but as Australians who want what is best for all Australians.

What caring looks like will be different for different ones of us. Some of us may be called simply to pray. Others, to speak out and seek to sway minds, as graciously and winsomely as possible. Others still, to social or political action. But if we care for the people in the society God has called us to live in – if we love them as Christ calls us to love them – then we will care about same-sex marriage.

Talking to your gay friends

You may not want to talk to your gay friends about same-sex marriage – it’s awkward, and probably not the best place to start in your witness to Christ. However, there’s a good chance the subject will come up. How should you handle it? 

1. Listen: spend more time hearing than talking. This is always a good strategy, but particularly with such a charged topic. Many gay people have personal stories which include a lot of pain. Most people can accept disagreement, even on a subject they feel passionately about, if they feel they’ve genuinely been listened to.

2. Don’t apologise: it’s tempting to feel as though the Christian view of sex is an embarrassment, a part of the “Christian package” that we wish we could leave out. But it’s part of the good news: God’s good design in marriage is a blessing both for individuals and society. 

3. Point to Jesus: ultimately we want to witness to the truth about Jesus more than the truth about marriage. Bring the conversation around to the brokenness which we all share, including in the area of our sexuality, and how you have found that the only way to be put back together is through Christ. And, above all, pray. What we need most is wisdom from above (James 3:17) if we are to handle these conversations in ways that are loving, grace-filled and honouring to our Lord Jesus. 

The Rev. Dr David Sandifer recently completed a PhD in history from Cambridge University. He is the NSW and ACT Director for FamilyVoice Australia.

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