The United States Supreme Court has declared same-sex marriage as the law of the land. That decision puts yet more pressure on conservative denominations like mine concerning how they will respond to new cultural realities. Can we hold on to our convictions and still engage the wider culture?
I first read my church’s stance on homosexuality when I was in college in the 1980s. It struck me as highly progressive and nuanced at the time.
Back then, the wider culture generally and the evangelical community in particular saw all same-sex attraction as a simple moral failure. To be gay was to be irredeemably sinful and automatically outcast from the church. And it was easy to hold such a condemning stance then, since it inherently kept same-sex attraction in the closet, where it could be ignored.
In this bitter context, my church drew in 1973 a distinction between same-sex attraction and homosexual erotic behavior. This distinction did three things. First, it declared all arguing over causation and “change therapy” as irrelevant to the church’s response. Same-sex attraction is real and permanent, and the church is called to minister to, not reject, those who are attracted to members of the same sex.
Second, the distinction elevated same-sex attraction from being a sin-filled moral failure to something more akin to a physical disability, rather like a predilection to alcoholism or diabetes. Having such impulses is not wrong and is no basis for stigma, but neither is having such impulses a license to give in to temptation.
Third, it called on those with same-sex attraction to exercise self-control, yes, but even more so called on the church to become a welcoming place, removing all shame from same-sex attraction alone and extending as much grace as possible to those who struggle. Sexual sin touches us all, including pornography, cohabitation, adultery and divorce. These are not the way things are supposed to be, yet our churches are filled with those who regularly lose the battle with temptation.
This distinction between attraction and behavior remains my church’s stance. (And, for that matter, remains that of ReFrame Media, my church’s media ministry and the parent ministry of Think Christian.) For 40 years, we have said two consistent things:
The very real challenge for conservative churches like mine is to hold on to our convictions and live up to the pastoral promises we have made.
The first is that while same-sex erotic behavior remains "incompatible with obedience to the will of God as revealed in Scripture," no one is defined merely by their sexuality. We understand same-sex attraction to be a temptation to be resisted, but for each of us our chief identity is as children of God. We are pursued, cherished and adopted by a loving God. Each of us stands in need of self-control as a gift and fruit of the Spirit.
The second thing we have said consistently is that we, the church, must lament that we have largely failed to recognize the chief identity of our homosexual brothers and sisters as that of children of God, living in Christ's grace. We have been quick to detail our ethical boundaries, but slow to drop the stigma, slow to engage with compassion, slow to listen before speaking, slow to welcome and encourage even those that trust Jesus as their Savior. We have not honestly endeavored to emphasize our mutual identity in Christ first, but rather hoped the issue would just go away.
Meanwhile, the wider culture has shifted greatly, moving from seeing same-sex attraction as a moral failure, right past seeing it as an affliction, to seeing it as a created diversity, similar to eye color or ethnicity. While my church once seemed progressive, we are now pressured (if not legislatively compelled) to be less conservative. And what defines marriage for the state and church has become increasingly divergent. As John Inazu points out, within the church, marriage continues to define appropriate sexual relations, while governments have focused increasingly on how marriage defines property rights of kinship. Civil Unions and Christian marriage are already two different things - even before the Supreme Court decision, gay marriage was the law of the land in all of Canada and all but 13 states in the U.S.
The very real challenge for conservative churches like mine is to hold on to our convictions and live up to the pastoral promises we have made. Conversations about the church's relationship to society in matters of sexuality are less and less hypothetical and more and more about our sons and daughters.
How do we respond when an adult child of the congregation asks for the pastor to officiate at his same-sex wedding? How do we respond to a wedded same-sex couple who attends our church? Or present their children for baptism? Should we treat their presence in our congregations the same as we would a cohabiting couple or a family collapsing in divorce? Can we welcome and encourage at the same time we disciple and challenge? Or should we lead with a call to celibacy and repentance before gay Christians are welcome in our congregations? Should we build relationships and earn the right to speak into the lives of those we wish would make other choices, or do we condemn their choices quickly and lose all influence?
If answers to those questions are obvious to you, one way or another, I would beg for patience and humility with those who do not see so clearly. This is our deepest challenge in this season. The temptation is to belittle and silence “the opposition.” These issues are deeply fundamental to doctrine, identity and a deep desire to honor God for all involved. Even as we disagree, I pray we can disagree with a generous spirit as we work through complex issues together.