February 11, 2013
by Jenny Abel
Part 1 brought the issue of same-sex marriage into focus from the national, political, and legal standpoint. Before diving headlong into the arguments for and against, let’s take a step back for a moment.
As soon as one starts to think or talk very deeply about same-sex marriage, one realizes there are really two distinct issues at stake, each with its own set of questions and complexities. And while there is overlap, it seems helpful not to confuse the two.
1. The civil issue: Should the institution of marriage be redefined by the state to include same-sex couples who decide they want to “marry”? To answer this question, we need to ask ourselves:
2. The moral/religious issue: Is same-sex marriage morally equivalent to opposite-sex marriage, or is it contrary to nature and/or God’s design? More basically, is homosexual behavior right or wrong—or is it just a matter of preference? In a day when claiming objective Truth, as Christianity does (through Scriptures primarily and secondarily through historical church teaching), is as unpopular as ever, this may be a hard answer to swallow. If you’re not a Christian, there’s no reason you wouldn’t immediately a reject an argument based in the reasoning, “Because the Bible says…” However, thankfully, God gave us not just the revelation of His Word and authorities who help interpret that Word so we can apply it to our lives, but also rational and experiential ways of knowing what is true about our universe and ourselves. So even in conversation with nonbelievers, there may be points of agreement. Consider:
What observable evidence—biological, psychological, historical, sociological—exists to affirm or deny equating homosexual couples with heterosexual couples? (Read this article for starters.)
Goal and Audience Are Key
The reason I say we should distinguish these two issues in the same-sex marriage debate is not because they are unrelated. They are actually very much tangled up with each other. However, we (myself included) often too easily forge into a one-sided diatribe while forgetting both our audience and our goal. Contending for God’s design for marriage in the company of Christians with the goal of teaching them God’s Word will entail a different approach than discussing homosexual behavior with a nonbelieving friend—though in both, our immediate goal should be the personal edification/salvation of others.
In the public square, we should also be aiming, ultimately, to bring glory to God; however, our impact is often more indirect and less on a relational, personal basis. In this case, our defense cannot rest solely on the morality or immorality of a particular behavior (there are plenty of behaviors we believe are wrong, but for which we don’t seek state-enforced regulation or punishment). Rather, we need a persuasive argument for why that behavior should be (or should not be) officially recognized or regulated by the government. It’s no secret that there is significant disagreement within the church about how to engage same-sex marriage and other issues in the civil realm—and, in a way, that tension will always exist as we work out what it means to be “in but not of” the world.
Not Mutually Exclusive
Although the moral and civil questions about same-sex marriage are two separate issues in one sense, how one answers the moral question does, obviously, influence what one thinks about the civil question. Despite postmodern efforts to erode the idea that our civil laws are founded on an absolute, God-given moral law (think: removing the Ten Commandments from courtrooms), ultimately, we must have some basis for determining what is legally permitted or banned (even if that basis is the shifting sand of preference/what feels right). And it is because of this inevitable entanglement of the moral/religious and the civil realms that it can be so difficult (though I don’t think impossible) to find common ground with nonbelievers on an issue like same-sex marriage.
In the next few days, we’ll continue to discuss how to handle the issue of same-sex marriage—first within the church and then in the public square. I hope you’ll chime in with your own thoughts as we go.
I leave you with a question today: Whatever you believe about same-sex marriage and homosexual behavior, how did you come to have those beliefs—what shaped them? Was it your feelings and personal experiences, the influence/teaching of others, your own reasoning based on what you’ve seen and observed, God’s Word … or a combination of factors?