By Jon Weatherly
“The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage” was the title of the conference convened by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention, October 27–29, 2014, in Nashville, Tennessee. Around 1,300 people attended, hearing speakers and panels from the SBC and beyond discuss the church’s response to contentious issues raised by the widespread legalization and popular approval of same-sex marriage.
I attended all sessions of the conference. My aim was to listen as someone outside the Southern Baptist Convention, learn what I could from an event organized by a leading Christian organization addressing ethics and public policy, and reflect in these pages on these difficult issues.
What emerges from this event is more than just ideas about the immediate issue of same-sex marriage. The product of ongoing social change, same-sex marriage is a symptom of a fundamental shift in Western culture that has displaced the church in the West. Accustomed to being a cultural leader, the church now finds itself reacting to cultural change.
I left the conference convinced the church urgently and deliberately needs to adapt to this new situation. By that, I do not mean the church should bless what the culture now approves. Rather, the church must accept it is no longer a cultural leader, and must become even more what Christ calls it to be: a countercultural community that practices the grace of the cross.
None of this happened overnight. It is the consequence of long-term social change. The situation will not resolve itself quickly either. The church can expect to be engaged in a long, twilight struggle with Western culture on the meaning of marriage and the boundaries of sexual activity.
I offer here reflections on the ERLC conference’s discussion, aimed at understanding how we got where we are, how we can faithfully engage the present situation, and how we can build toward whatever the future might hold.
A Perspective on the Past
Before Western culture took up the issue of same-sex marriage, it reduced marriage to the expression of romantic attachment, and it redefined human identity and human relationships as primarily sexual. We now experience the outcome of those redefinitions.
Speaker after speaker at this event noted that Western culture has had a marriage problem for a long time. Patterns and practices of marriage and divorce for the last 50 years reveal an understanding of marriage as a romantic, emotional attachment between two people, a bond made for their fulfillment and nothing more. The notion of marriage as a permanently committed partnership of devoted, mutual service and the nurture of children is now alien. Many people regard marriage as government-sanctioned romance, and thus cannot imagine why same-sex marriage should be forbidden.
In the meantime, authentic relationships have become equated with sexual relationships, and authentic personhood with sexual activity. The sexual revolution has convinced Western culture that people deny their essential identity unless they act on their sexual impulses.
This should not prompt nostalgia for an ideal, departed past. As ERLC President Russell Moore said, “We were never in Mayberry, and we’ll never return.” Rather, this realization should prompt new approaches to articulating the Christian understanding of marriage and identity. We can no longer say “marriage” and expect to be understood for what we mean. Our agenda has become much more complex.
An Agenda for the Present: The Issue
One response to cultural change is to change with the culture, to adopt its changed values. Many argue that the church should embrace same-sex marriage as a divinely sanctioned option for lesbians and gays.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the ERLC conference program was it did not present opposing points of view on the morality of same-sex marriage. Activists seeking acceptance of same-sex marriage among Christians attended, and many had private conversations at the event with ERLC and SBC leaders. But none was on the program, to the consternation of their supporters, as expressed widely in social media.
While there is surely a place for a public discussion of the moral question, I support the ERLC’s decision not to feature that debate at this event. In fact, that debate takes place every day, in books and on the Internet. Yet that debate has made little progress and has offered nothing new for decades.
The current discussion of Christianity’s view of homosexual relations really began in 1980 with John Boswell’s book, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. As someone trained as a researcher in the New Testament and related ancient texts who has followed the debate since Boswell, I can state my view of the question bluntly: Boswell’s case for a revision of Christian sexual mores has been soundly answered, especially in Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (2001), and nothing substantial on the revisionist side has been introduced since Boswell. Yes, there have been notable publications recently by well-publicized authors, but none has offered anything not already served up by Boswell and answered by many, especially Gagnon.
In that light, I believe all Christian leaders must become informed on that debate. But the question of the faithful Christian position is settled. Only by flatly rejecting the Bible’s teaching as wrong and out of date can one accept same-sex marriage.
An Agenda for the Present: Cruciform Community
Our position as Christians, if it is to be biblically and historically orthodox, cannot affirm same-sex marriage. But we can modulate our rhetoric. Christians must clearly distinguish between sin and temptation when thinking and talking about same-sex attraction, homosexual relations, and same-sex marriage.
It may have been common in the past for Christians to believe that merely experiencing sexual attraction to members of the same sex is sinful. Speakers and panelists at this conference rightly denied that idea, loudly and clearly. Impulses to sin are universal, even if they are different impulses for different people. People are not more or less sinful because of the temptations they experience. Merely to be tempted is not sin; succumbing to temptation is sin. The church must articulate this difference carefully, in a context that transparently confesses that all Christians are tempted to sexual sin.
A part of this realization is tied up with something noticeable by its absence in the conference’s conversation: advocating reparative therapy. Not long ago it was common for Christians to refer those experiencing same-sex attraction to ministries that offered therapy in the hope of eliminating their attraction to the same sex. The dismal record of such programs has prompted reflection that has produced a different emphasis: support for abstention from sexual activity.
Remaining unmarried and chaste is explicitly affirmed in the Bible (Matthew 19:10–12; 1 Corinthians 7:7, 8; 25-40). Unmarried chastity affirms the individual’s value regardless of the experience of sexual attraction. But it is not easy for anyone, and the assertion that one must be “gifted” to follow a chaste life confuses God’s gifts with a life of ease. For followers of the Christ of the cross, God’s gifts are always demanding.
Chastity is also demanding for the church as a whole. Advocating chastity demands that the church provide authentic, emotionally supportive friendship. In a conference address, Moore asked rhetorically whether the church can show LGBT people that fidelity to Christ does not mean dying alone. When churches have built strong ministries around couples with children, we must deliberately learn to become warm havens for the unmarried.
For me, the conference’s most lasting impressions were made by those who shared stories of turning away from same-sex sexual activity as they developed faith in Christ. Every story was different. None involved a specific technique or program. None involved a sudden, dramatic, complete deliverance from the experience of same-sex attraction. But each involved patient, gentle, unconditional love from Christians.
Panelists noted that LGBT people find an accepting community with other LGBT people, many of whom reach out deliberately to others experiencing the loneliness of “coming out.” To step away from that community is perilous, even for those who want to explore faith in Christ. When Christians clearly express no-strings friendship, their cross-shaped love makes the step away from the LBGT community easier to contemplate.
We may feel overwhelmed by the high-stakes “otherness” of same-sex attraction. We would do well to listen to the response of panelist and speaker Sam Alberry, a British minister who is open about his experience of same-sex attraction and lives in chastity. Asked what kinds of churches handle the matter well, he replied that those who do “are just being the church.” These are fellowships that understand true life in Christ is found in losing one’s life for others.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Becoming clearer about what we object to morally, becoming more effective in showing Christ’s love to LGBT people are vital steps. But they will not satisfy the church’s critics. The real-time social media reaction to the ERLC conference shows that our critics will accept nothing short of full endorsement of same-sex marriage, even labeling the failure to endorse it as “hate.” We need to get used to that, if we aren’t already. Don’t search the Internet on this subject unless you’re consciously empowered with patience and grace from the Spirit of Christ.
An Agenda for the Present: A Public Voice
As the church provides cruciform community, can we somehow address the culture at large? Conference participants answered with a thoughtful yes. Apart from the Bible and Christian theology, a potent case can be made for the traditional view of marriage.
Tired of the culture wars, many Christians concede they cannot impose their morality on others. Yet, if we believe same-sex marriage is harmful, we do not express love for neighbor by staying silent. An effective public case must be made without recourse to the Bible’s authority. Paul implies that the destructiveness of same-sex relations should be obvious even to those ignorant of God (Romans 1:18-27). Sherif Girgis and Ryan Anderson, two of the authors of the recent book, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, provided provocative approaches to the topic from what all can observe of the world around them. The church needs to become familiar with such ideas to maintain a faithfully robust witness.
Likewise, the church needs to stay informed from the behavioral and social sciences. Perspectives from the sciences were notably absent at the ERLC conference. If the Christian view of sexuality is sound, its soundness will emerge over time in empirical observation. How do children raised by same-sex couples fare? Early returns suggest they fare less well than children raised by opposite-sex couples. So does same-sex marriage present a moral question of social justice for children? We will need to watch findings closely to speak well to such questions.
Some Prospects for the Future
We are at the beginning of a generations-long struggle on this issue, but this is not the church’s first such struggle. The early church councils that articulated and defended the nature of Christ occurred over centuries. The Protestant Reformation was generations long. The New Testament itself reflects decades of struggle to assure that Gentiles were God’s people by faith in Christ, not circumcision.
Our respected place in Western culture largely dissipated, the church should accustom itself to conflict. But that is no excuse for resentment and no cause for despair. We may even have some assets that will appreciate over time.
One is the global Christian community. Will Christians outside the industrialized West speak into the West’s sexual confusion? Our sisters and brothers in the developing world have seen how the gospel transformed social practices in their cultures. How can their lessons learned be applied to the West’s struggle for marriage? We should begin asking them the questions and listening to the answers.
In the meantime, we will watch with interest how the demographics play out. Granted the legal sanction, how many same-sex marriages will be formed, and what will be their impact?
One expectation is as same-sex marriage becomes legal, it will become common and “normal.” We would do well to remember that nothing moves in a straight line. It remains to be seen how many will form same-sex marriages, and how many will stay in same-sex marriages. Early studies of the outcomes of “committed same-sex relationships” do not bode well for the future of same-sex marriage.
As tensions abate and patterns develop, how will public perception change, and how will the church respond? Furthermore, as activists push for other revisions of social conventions, like allowing plural marriage or marriage between near relatives, will the public push back?
In other words, will same-sex marriage fail to deliver as promised?
When it does, the church’s response will need to be something other than “we told you so.” When people fail to find salvation apart from the Christ, Christ’s people always need grace and mercy to lift up those who have been let down. We are people of the cross, not just people of right answers about sex.
So will the church exhibit sufficient confidence in its position to engage the culture with patience, humility, and forthrightness? Bold in speech by our calling in Christ, we Christians generally talk about our beliefs a lot. Conscious of the difference Christ makes in us, we distance ourselves from those whose lives do not reflect that difference. But at least, in part, our words have failed to persuade because we have failed to make friends and listen to them.
Our bold speech and distinct identity can work differently. If we are confident about God’s Word and our standing with God, we can be confident enough to listen, empathize, and build respectful, loving relationships with LBGT people. They mostly know what we think, and we do not need to remind them in order to fulfill our responsibility or to maintain our purity. God’s Word is powerful enough that we can wait to speak, even if it is a long wait, and to speak with gentleness that befits the Christ of the cross.
Jon Weatherly serves as professor of New Testament and dean of the School of Bible and Theology at Johnson University, Knoxville, Tennessee.
Resources Related to This Article
Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century, by John Boswell (University of Chicago Press, 1980). Boswell was the first to offer a revised understanding of the biblical condemnation of homosexual behavior. He analyzed the social context of the New Testament and the meaning of its texts in ways that are widely repeated in more recent publications advocating Christian endorsement of same-sex marriage.
The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics, by Robert Gagnon (Abingdon Press, 2001). Gagnon responds to Boswell and his followers, but just as importantly, shows how deeply the traditional Christian understanding of marriage is embedded in the Bible’s theology. He also maintains a website that keeps up with current developments: www.robgagnon.net. Find a digest of Gagnon’s views at the CHRISTIAN STANDARD website: christianstandard.com/2012/08/scripture-and-homosexual-practice/.
What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George (Encounter Books, 2012). The authors provide a case for the traditional definition of marriage from ancient philosophical and modern legal perspectives, vital for dialogue with those who do not embrace the Bible as an authoritative voice.
Videos of the ERLC conference are available at http://erlc.com/conference/liveblog.