This has been a week of huge controversy for the Christian community in Scotland. The Scottish government has announced that it will introduce legislation to legalise same sex marriage. There has been an inevitable and perhaps understandable backlash from a large section of the Christian community (and the Muslim and Sikh too) led by the new Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow, who seems to have the rare skill of being able to take one foot out of his mouth only to replace it by the other. There has been lots of talk of protests and demonstrations, a great deal of angst filled holy indignation has appeared on Face Book from some of my evangelical friends.
Now I know many of you may think I have a one track mind but this whole debate and the reaction to it made me think deeply about the mission of the Church. I am under no doubt that God’s ideal as taught in Scripture and therefore the standard for those who call themselves Christ followers is a monogamous life long heterosexual loving marriage. It is also my firm conviction that if the mission of the Church is to awaken people to the Kingdom of God by embodying and expressing its values, the Church should be positively promoting the Biblical model of marriage. The question is how exactly do we do that?
There are many people who share my theological convictions who believe we should promote the Christian understanding of marriage by resisting this legislation and do so by political action and public protest, perhaps even civil disobedience. Personally, that is not a position I can take and I’ll tell you why, the first reason is that I think it is hypocritical. If the Church is going to protest at Gay Marriage being wrong because it is a deviation from what the Bible teaches about marriage, why haven’t the people who are advocating this position been campaigning for a new law to ban heterosexual couples cohabiting? Seems to me that that relationship is equally wrong from a Scriptural point of view but apart from condemning it in our pulpits occasionally I don’t know of any church which is campaigning to have this aspect of Christian morality enshrined in law. If I were a gay person I would see the Church’s position as clearly hypocritical, especially as the Church often marries cohabiting heterosexual couples and even baptises their children. Personally I can’t be two faced here, if I believe the law should protect the Christian understanding of marriage then it has to have implications for heterosexual and homosexual couples. There is also the vexed question of divorce and that seems something. whatever our position on when it is permissible, which the evangelical Church in the West is far more comfortable with than Scripture is. If gay marriage is far from God’s standard and intention for marriage I suspect so is the level of divorce in the church. Its one of those occasions when I think Jesus might well have a point when he talks about paying attention to the plank in our own eye.
There is a second and more important reason why I don’t find myself agreeing with those who will actively oppose Same Sex Marriage and its theological. The introduction of Same Sex Marriage is not something that is happening in isolation, its part of a process which has been going on from at least the 1960s which has been progressively rolling back the legal foundations of Christendom. Christendom was the culture created when the Church and Christianity was given a privileged, defining and powerful position at the centre of Western Culture. Stuart Murray says that some of the key features of Christendom were
” the imposition of supposedly ‘Christian morality’ on the entire population (although normally Old Testament moral standards were applied)
the defence of Christianity by legal sanctions to restrain heresy, immorality and schism, and by warfare to protect or extend Christendom”
In other words under Christendom conformity to Christian belief and morality was enforced by the law of the State. What this led to was of course heretics being burnt at the stake but we tend to forget that “adulterers and fornicators” were also punished by the State. The present laws surrounding marriage stem from a period when making the population conform to Christian morality was seen as a legitimate role of the legislative and judicial system of a “Christian” country. Now you probably don’t need me to tell you that there is no meaningful sense, at least to me, that our country can be called “Christian” (personally I doubt any such thing exists) As Christian belief has waned so the legislation which enforced conformity to Christian morality has been repealed, so divorce was made “no fault”, cohabiting couples were legally recognised as having a legitimate relationship, homosexual sex was legalised and now the legislation which defines marriage as heterosexual is going. The Christendom model is that conformity to the Kingdom of God is promoted by the State through legislation which enshrines aspects of Christian morality and outlaws what is considered subversive of it. Its no big surprise that the Roman Catholic Church is leading the way in opposing the repeal of legislation which protects Christian morality because it was the prime architect of Christendom in the first place! The Inquisition may have gone but the theology behind it, that the State should enforce conformity to Christianity, still lives on in the Vatican and its outposts. Its interesting to me how many evangelicals support this view of conformity to Christianity being a legitimate role of government.
I think that a different picture of how the Church is to carry out its mission to promote the values of Kingdom of God, including morality, sexuality and marriage emerges when you read the New Testament. Its generally accepted that the so called “Sermon on the Mount” is essential to understanding what it means to live as disciples of Jesus. Here Jesus presents us with His vision of life in the Kingdom of God and we are confronted by the extraordinary counter culture values of that Kingdom. Instead of getting revenge, we are to turn the other cheek, instead of getting even with our enemies we are to love them, not only have we not murder people, we have not assassinate their character either (feel conviction coming on) Now what I find interesting is how Jesus says we are to promote the Kingdom of God as His disciples. Jesus does seem to have some pertinent things to say about how we carry out our mission of awakening people to the Kingdom of God.
Matthew 5:13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
I don’t see anything in those words which suggests to me that people who have not entered the Kingdom of God, who have not accepted Jesus as their King, are to be forced to conform to the values of the Kingdom of God, including the Christian view on marriage by legislation from the State. Instead the model I see here is one of contact and contrast. Salt and light both work from within, salt works when it comes into contact with food, light when its introduced into darkness. They also work by means of contrast, they make a difference to what surrounds them by being different, salt brings flavour and preservation to food it comes into contact with, light allows us to see when it comes into contact with darkness. I can’t come to any other conclusion than that Jesus calls on his people to promote the Kingdom of God by being a subversive influence on the surrounding unbelieving culture. Jesus disciples show an alternative way of being human, the original God intended way of being human, by the way they treat others and how they live in relationships including marriage. God’s people are His authorised subversive audio visual aid in explaining the Kingdom of God to a culture that has tuned its back on Him.
All of that means to me being salt and light when it comes to Christian marriage means not forcing conformity to it by law but demonstrating its beauty and meaning through the contrasting way we live as Christ followers in marriage. As Christians we should indeed be demonstrating about marriage, those of us who are married should be demonstrating in and through our marriages that God’s way when it comes to marriage is more fulfilling, more exciting, more meaningful and more sexually satisfying. Maybe I am naive but I believe if the Church concentrated more on that kind of demonstration when it comes to marriage than the kind that involves placards and shouts we would have a bigger impact on our culture. We might actually become salt and light! He also warns us that if we do not sufficiently adhere to the values of the Kingdom of God we will lose our “saltiness” and so become ineffective in our mission of subversive influence. I wonder if Christian marriage has lost much of its saltiness, that our marriages are not sufficiently contrasting to the marriages of those outside of the Kingdom of God to pique their interest in the Kingdom of God never mind attract them to it? Is the average marriage of evangelical Christians, more forgiving, less angry, more loving with less point scoring than the marriages in our culture that don’t share the values of the Kingdom of God?
So what’s my response to the prospect of Same Sex Marriage? Well I won’t be joining any demonstrations at the Scottish parliament. I will however be promoting Christian marriage by looking at my own marriage and repenting of any attitudes and actions on my part which don’t demonstrate the Kingdom of God.
since I first wrote this piece there has been renewed interest in it both because of the vote in Westminster and because of Steve Chalke’s recent statement. For the sake of clarity and because I know how things are distorted as they are passed around. Let me add two things
1. These are my personal views and do not necessarily represent the views of the Church of the Nazarene in which I am an ordained minister or Mosaic Edinburgh the Missional movement I am part of
2. I do not endorse Steve Chalke’s statement and could not bless a gay marriage or partnership
absolutely excellent, thank you James, my post to fb yday caused bit of charge of heretic, this is where i was heading even though not able to articulate it as well as you have, thank you again
It fills me with sadness that there is so much seeming disagreement on this and other issues, and I understand why. But, why does the playing field seem to move as we play on it? What do I mean?
How can we equate a gay marriage seeking to be formalised/legitimised/normalised in a church, with a hertereosexual couple in a co-habitation situation who do not?
We seem to try and fit things into an argument which do not fit. Put the issues int the discussion they belong. The arguments have to be taken seperately or we lose any credibility.
1 – Before God what is acceptable? I believe that God’s way is through a hertereosexual relationship and I make no excuse for that. My belief is based on what I believe to be the biblical interpretation of this. However not all races or societies have the ability, possibilty or desire to legitimise the relationship through a ‘church’ setting. If we do take this route no marriage is true unless it is through the Christian church, I do not believe that there is a seperate rule for them. We have to differentiate between the legal and the spiritual and that they are not interchangeable.
I believe that a hertereosexual relation is honourable before God if that relationship is honourable between the partners in the relationship. Therefore I believe that if the ‘honourable ‘part is met, they are married in God’s eyes. Which is why on this issue and in this context we should not despair that more people are not going to the church for a blessing on their relationship, they are perhaps being more honest in their relationship than many ‘Christian’ blessings have been in the past.
The despair should be lodged with the church as to why there is a lack of desire to go to church to have the union ‘blessed’ , as in Christian based believing, and that is a seperate issue.
2 What as Christians are we trying to achieve by being married?
If we believe , as I do, that a Christian blessing on a gay marriage cannot be honourable before God. We cannot allow the state to expect us to ‘marry’ with a Christian blessing in a church.
In one country I visited in South America we had a society which only accepted the civil ceremony as being the legitimate/legal form of marriage, anything else as far as the state was concerned was superfluous and therefore up to the individual.
Whether we accept this or not this is the biblical way.Our relationship, before God, is not reliant on paperwork. Render unto Caesar……..
Perhaps this has to be entered into our thinking, that we seperate the legal from the blessing, as to what we mean by being married. After all are all marriages ‘null and void’ that have not received the blessing of the church, of course not.
3 The question which has to be answered is can we accept gay marriage as legal?
Yes, we can, we have to. We can argue, debate, disagree and throw tantrums but we cannot fail to accept the ultimate decision of those we have as a people elected, to make decisions for us. We actually have to live with those decisions.
4 This is a spiritual battle and as such has to be fought at that level if it is to be won. If we were to believe that we are a Christian country we are deceiving ourselves. This is what we should acceptfor it not being.
Churches are nice places to get married, nice places to have pictures taken. Also, it dates back to a time when Christianity meant something and the vows were taken accordingly. Before God, the couple and the congregation.
You would think therefore that only people who believe in those things still have that right, well you are wrong. He who pays the piper has the right to choose the tune. Many churches accept State money with many of their projects, this actually includes the fact that most churches are registered charities and therefore qualify for State tax reductions. This is a state benefit.
How do we get out of that mess?
Answer in 1 word, PRAYER.
You do realise that nothing I have written suggests approval for Gay Marriage or Gay Sex? I thought I had stated quite clearly that I affirm the Bible teaches that for Christ followers that life long committed heterosexual marriage is God’s ideal and that even for non-Christians its the best way to live.
I am questioning several things
1. Should we expect the State to “enforce” Christian morality as was done under Christendom?
2. Why is it we seem to be selective about what parts of Christian morality we want to be enforced in law? We are against gay marriage but have been relatively silent on “no fault divorce” and no church I know off is advocating making heterosexual sex before or outside marriage illegal despite those being sinful in the light of Scripture
3. Lastly how do we as God’s missional people influence and subvert our culture. Do we do it by protesting? By seeking Christian morality and values to be enshrined in law? I am arguing that the best way in contemporary culture is to follow Jesus instructions and be Salt and Light, an attractive, transformative alternative way of being human.
This has given me plenty to think about, thank you. I am not sure I quite follow everything you’re saying but I definitely agree with the Biblical injunction that we should be demonstrating a difference in the way we live our lives and that includes in our marriages. In just under two weeks from now I shall celebrate 25 years of marriage to my beautiful wife and in that time we have been passionate advocates for marriage, supporters of others getting married (through marriage preparation classes) and supporters of those who are married but struggling (through marriage support counselling) and I absolutely see whee you’re coming from when you talk about the potential for hypocrisy when we argue against gay marriage but say nothing about co-habiting, pre-marital sexual activity, extra-marital liaisons etc. We should be clear on all of those counts, make a definitive statement as to what God’s Word says on those things and at the same time respond with grace and love towards those who struggle to conform to a Biblical view.
I do not support gay marriage nor do I believe God will bless an active gay relationship because God does not bless sin. He does however pour out grace, mercy and forgiveness on all who ask and His grace is always enough. Sadly, I am not sure that any of us even come close to being able to say that ourselves!
Sounds like you are being Salt and Light on this issue in a way I think will make a bigger impact on our culture than protesting outside Parliament or posting FB message about how much God hates Gay marriage.
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Thanks was brought up in Greenock Elim, owe a lot to that denomination 🙂
James, I have just found this article and really appreciate what and how you speak on this subject. It would be good to get together (even if only electronically) again. I value your views.
Sorry just seen this, Ive moved to Switzerland and so been kind of busy