In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage in all 50 states, there has been a firestorm of Facebook posts and blogs. My goal is not to debate the ruling. Instead, I want to briefly describe the decline of Christian moral values in America during the past century— a decline that provides the context for this ruling— and, to consider some important questions for American Christians as we move forward.
Part One: The Decline of Christian Moral Values in 20th Century America
The Irish political philosopher, Edmund Burke (1729-1797), is credited as saying, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” I believe the decline of Christian moral values in America can be attributed to Christians retreating from public life in the first decades of the 20th century.
In the early 20th century, Presbyterian and other Christians in the United States were embittered in what became known as the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy. “Modernists” accepted evolution and rejected biblical inerrancy and miracles. “Fundamentalists” affirmed creation, the inerrancy of the Bible, and Jesus’ virgin birth, miracles, atonement, and resurrection. The Modernists emerged as the dominant Christian influence in education and public life. Fundamentalists retreated from public life and formed their own sub-culture. By the middle decades of the 20th century, these positions became cemented in American culture as the religious right (evangelicalism), the cultural middle (mainline denominations), and the irreligious secular left.
The retreat of fundamentalist Christianity into its own sub-culture left American politics and education to the cultural middle and secular left, and soon this middle-secularism controlled American public life. The middle-secular vision for America drove fundamentalist Christianity from public life through a series of Supreme Court decisions, most notably those involving prayer and public schools. Finally, the Supreme Court’s legalization of abortion on demand in 1973 served as a wake-up call for the religious right to reengage in public life. But the forces of middle-secularism held a broad spectrum of political, academic, economic, and even religious dominance and were not about to surrender their vision for refashioning America. While middle-secularism brought some positive moral changes, notably to civil rights (something the Religious Right resisted early on), it precipitated a decline in Christian education, belief, and morals character.
In the closing decades of the 20th century, the influence of the cultural middle (mainline denominations) evaporated, leaving America polarized between the secular left and the religious right. This new situation placed the secular left on the cultural high ground through its control of American educational, economic, media, and political establishments. The religious right was left waging costly uphill battles on multiple fronts.
In the first two decades of the 21st century, a re-energized secular left has seized the moment and re-shaped America with little resistance from the marginalized religious right. No one, therefore, should be surprised by the recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of “gay marriage.” With the secular left in charge, the cultural approval and favor (socially, politically, judicially, and educationally) that Christians enjoyed for past generations in America is now over. American Christians now face a culture increasingly alienated from, ignorant of, and hostile to Biblical faith, much as Christians already face in other nations around the world.
How should conservative Evangelicals and Catholics respond to this new cultural reality in 21st century America? Here are some basic questions and answers for us to consider.
Part Two: Twenty-One Questions & Answers
- Was America a nation shaped by Christian morals? Yes. The morality of every nation is shaped by religion and religious morals. India is shaped by Hinduism, Thailand by Buddhism, Iran by Islam, Israel by Judaism, Kenya by African tribal religions, Japan by Shintoism, the former Soviet Union by Atheistic Marxism, America by Christianity, and so forth. It works the other way as well. Cultural movements in a nation shape religion. For example, the American cultural values of democracy, individualism, and sexual freedom have created a uniquely “American” Christianity. Nations are constantly being shaped and re-shaped by religious and cultural movements. On the one hand, religious movements like the 18th century Great Awakenings in America, the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, and the resurgence of nationalist Hinduism in later 20th century India, re-shaped these nations religiously. On the other hand, cultural movements like Darwinian evolution, the 1960s sexual revolution, and the rise of Hollywood entertainment, have re-shaped religion culturally. Religious morals influence culture, and cultural values influence religion.
- Should Christians proclaim Biblical morals to America? Yes! Christians have always understood the importance of proclaiming both the Law and the Gospel. If we do not preach God’s Law, how will people know God’s standards of right and wrong? How will people know they have sinned and are facing God’s judgment (Matthew 5:13-20; Romans 3:20; 5:13; 7:7)? If people know neither God’s standards, nor their own sinful nature, nor the judgement they face, how will anyone understand the need for a Savior and the Gospel (Galatians 3:22-25)? The Good News only makes sense when people understand the Bad News. Therefore, whether it is accepted in our culture or not, Christians must proclaim that all people everywhere need to repent, for they are all accountable for breaking God’s Law and moral standards (Acts 17:30-31).
- Does the Bible teach that homosexuality sinful? Yes. The Bible explicitly teaches that heterosexual marriage is good (Genesis 2:24; Malachi 2:14-16; Matthew 19:4-6; Ephesians 5:21-33; Hebrews 13:4) and that homosexual behavior (and other perversions of the heterosexual marriage covenant) is sinful (Genesis 19:4-7; Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:24-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 Timothy 1:9-10). The Supreme Court may define American law, but God’s Word defines the moral truth by which everyone (including members of the Supreme Court) will one day be judged.
- Does it matter that the Bible only makes a few statements about homosexuality? No. While hundreds of references may bolster a given teaching, the most important element to interpreting Scripture is clarity. A few clear references are sufficient to establish a teaching. For example, three clear references prohibiting bestiality are sufficient for most scholars to agree that the Bible condemns bestiality (Exodus 22:19; Leviticus 18:23; 20:15-16). Therefore, even though there are only six or so negative texts condemning homosexual acts, there are numerous positive texts affirming heterosexuality (see question 3), and the combined force of these negative and positive texts is clear enough to establish that the Bible condemns homosexual conduct.
- Is there a difference between the Old and New Testament on homosexuality? Scholars have long debated the role of the OT Law for NT Christians. While some scholars believe the OT Law is not obligatory for Christians, most believe the OT moral law (not the sacrificial and ceremonial laws) is obligatory. Either way, three of the six Scriptures condemning homosexual behavior are in the New Testament.
- Is homosexuality a worse sin than other sins? Isn’t all sin the same? While all sin separates people from God (Isaiah 59:2), some sins incur stricter judgment (Matthew 11:24; Luke 10:12-14; 12:47-48; 20:40-47; Hebrews 10:29; James 3:1), and at least one sin is unforgivable (Matthew 12:31-32). Some sins were so offensive to God that he executed the perpetrators (Genesis 6:1-8:22; 19:4-5, 24-29; Leviticus 10:1-3; Numbers 16:28-35; 21:4-9; Joshua 7:1-26; 1 Samuel 2:12-4:11; 2 Samuel 6:6-7; Acts 5:1-11; 12:21-23; 1 Corinthians 11:30). The American judicial system rightly discerns varying levels of criminality from misdemeanor parking offenses to felony homicides. Likewise, not all sins are equal before God. In the Old Testament, there are hundreds of laws with varying penalties, with only a few sins calling for the death penalty. Notable examples of sins that were punishable by death include adultery (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22), bestiality (Exodus 22:19; Leviticus 20:15-16), cursing parents- likely more extreme than mere bad words (Exodus 21:17), homosexuality (Leviticus (20:13), kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), murder (Exodus 21:12-15), rape (Deuteronomy 22:25), and witchcraft (Exodus 22:18). Notable in each of these sins is a profound breach of God’s intended relationships between humans, between humans and God, and between humans and nature. That homosexuality is named among them highlights its seriousness in God’s eyes. So, yes, all sin separates people from God, but no, all sin is not the same before God. In applying this to gay marriage today, three points must be made. First, homosexuality is among the capital crimes in the OT Law. Clearly it is a grave offense before God. Second, while fornication and adultery are sinful, they retain at least a reflection of God’s creative intent of sex between a man and a woman. Homosexuality, on the other hand, is unnatural and goes against this man-woman creative intent (Romans 1:21-32).Third, gay marriage is a commitment to live in a state of continuing, unrepentant sin. Therefore, while all sin separates people from God, homosexual marriage represents a particularly disturbing breach of that relationship. In the most charitable evaluation, gay marriage reflects a disoriented moral sense that seeks blessing on commitment to a relationship that God himself has forbidden. Less positively, however, it represents a commitment to live in open rebellion against God, thereby exhibiting a deeply unnatural and calloused depravity. In recognizing this, we must also check ourselves and our intentions. The point is not judgment, but to recognize that the deeper and more serious the sin, the more desperate the need for the savior.
- Are we singling out this sin for special persecution? Sadly, the impression of many homosexuals is that Christians are on a “witch-hunt” for gay people. On the one hand, the response of Christians to the gay cultural agenda in America during the past thirty years has indeed ranged from love to hatred. One the other hand, promotion of the gay cultural agenda by its advocates has likewise ranged from politely and civilly making their case to reacting with militant hatred against those who have disagreed. My prayer is that people on both sides of this issue will tone down their anger. The gay community needs to stop demonizing those who disagree with them as “haters,” and the Church needs to stop demonizing the gay community with a scarlet letter. I further pray that the church will lovingly reach out to the gay community to offer the transforming Gospel of Jesus, humbly remembering our own rescue from sin (1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Titus 3:3-7).
- Does God create some people with a propensity to homosexuality? The question is flawed. God created Adam and Eve good. When Adam and Eve sinned, sin’s corruption spread to our hearts (Jeremiah 17:9), minds and bodies (Genesis 6:5; 1 Corinthians 2:14; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 4:17-19). As a result of sin in humanity, some people today are born with flawed bodies, physical disabilities, psychological and social propensities and disorders of all kinds.Because someone is born with a certain malady, this does not make the malady good, or something God created. Rather, the malady is the result of something bad- sin. I will use an example, not to compare alcoholism and homosexuality, but to illustrate my point. If someone is born with a propensity toward alcoholism, this does not make alcoholism good. A propensity toward alcoholism is the result of sin and is bad, and we want to extend special love to help someone born with this propensity, so they can find healing and freedom from alcoholism. Likewise, if someone is born with a propensity to homosexuality, this does not make homosexuality good. A propensity toward homosexuality is the result of sin and is bad, and we want to extend special love to help someone born with this propensity to find healing and freedom from homosexuality. Therefore, a propensity or inclination to homosexuality is not in itself sinful, just as a propensity or inclination to alcoholism is not sinful. However, acting on a propensity by engaging in homosexual behavior or alcoholic behavior is sinful. It is important to distinguish between being born with a certain propensity to sin (as each of us is, in one degree or another), and acting on that propensity to sin or, worse, building one’s life on a foundation of sin.
- How important is the homosexuality issue? This is a difficult question, and will receive different answers. Historically, Christians have categorized biblical and doctrinal matters into three broad categories. “First order doctrines” define who is a Christian (Creedal beliefs), “second order doctrines” define a Christian denomination or group (Statement of Faith beliefs), and “third order doctrines” define how an individual believer may choose to live (personal beliefs). While others will see this differently, I know of no historic Creed (defining Christianity) that speaks to homosexuality (or marriage, or sexual matters at all!) as defining who is a Christian. However, different denominations have sometimes included sexual morals in their Statements of Faith. Therefore, it seems best to see homosexuality as a second order doctrinal matter and not something intrinsic to defining who is or is not a Christian (first order doctrine). Four points bear mention in light of the above: First, one’s view concerning homosexuality does not define whether one is a Christian. A genuine believer could be corrupted by false teaching on this and other topics. This explains the numerous warnings for Christians to beware of false teaching in the New Testament. Second, genuine believers can fall into patterns of sexual or other sin (Saul’s envy, David’s adultery, Solomon’s wives, Revelation 2:4, 14-16, 20-25; 3:15-20). Third, it is proper for Christians to discipline, or separate themselves from, Christians living in unrepentant sin (1 Corinthians 5:1-11). Fourth, the scriptural warnings need to be taken seriously that anyone living in a continuing pattern of unrepentant sin will not receive everlasting life (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 John 3:9-10). Therefore, it is conceivable that a genuine believer may fall into a pattern of sin (including homosexuality), but there can be no assurance that a person who persists in a pattern of sin is a genuine believer. Because the doctrinal importance of one’s view on homosexuality is a difficult question, we do well to err on the side of grace to those who disagree with us.
- Why do younger Christians often seem unconcerned about homosexuality? Several generations of American Evangelicals (Builders, Boomers, Busters, and Millennials) were raised in an evangelical Christian sub-culture that was not been meaningfully engaged in the general culture (politically, educationally, etc.). This Christian sub-culture has functioned for decades in a state of weakness in comparison with the general culture. Each generation of American Christians throughout the 20th and 21st centuries have been increasingly shaped by popular culture. In other words, rather than religion shaping culture, culture has shaped religious morals here. Millennial Christians are heirs of this situation, and are understandably more often aligned with popular culture than traditional Biblical faith. Further, the rise of postmodern relativism with its concern to hear the marginalized, has often influenced Millennial Christians to be more concerned about helping the “oppressed” than proclaiming the Biblical Gospel and biblical morals (which they see as a losing battle). As many have observed, the faith of Millennial Christians in the early 21stcentury can be described as Moralistic (God wants me to be good) Therapeutic (God wants me to be happy), and Deistic (God isn’t really active in culture). Therefore, many millennial evangelicals have adapted to the prevailing cultural morality and have little interest in challenging it.
- How should Christians who oppose gay marriage respond to the charge of being bigots and haters? As Jesus taught, no one should be surprised if the world hates Christians or the Gospel (John 15:18-19; 1 John 3:13). Proclaiming Biblical truth is offensive to sinful humanity (John 3:19-21; 7:7), and will have consequences (Mark 6:17-29; John 15:20; Acts 7:51-8:3; 14:19-20; 2 Timothy 3:12; Hebrews 11:32-40). While unbelievers may struggle to disagree without hating, Christians must seek to disagree with love. Yet, while God’s truth is offensive, Christians do not need to be (Ephesians 4:15)! Christians hold a minority view, and must patiently and respectfully seek to engage the majority culture with God’s truth.
- How should Christians talk to unbelievers about homosexuality? In the same way, Christians should talk to unbelievers about any issue with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15-16). The goal is to win people, not arguments. Rather than focusing on homosexuality, focus on their general need to repent for sins and trust Jesus as Savior.
- How should Christians who oppose gay marriage respond to other Christians who support homosexual marriages? They should do this with gracious dialogue and disagreement. If homosexuality is an important second order doctrine (something that defines denominational fellowship), and not a first order doctrine (something that defines who is a Christian), then this issue should be handled accordingly. For example, I support my denomination’s position that homosexuality is sinful according to Scripture. Yet, I am hesitant to say that every Christian or church that supports gay marriage is not genuinely Christian. I want to allow some room to charitably dialogue with others who may be poorly taught or deceived by false teaching.
- Should a Christian attend a homosexual wedding? In general, accepting an invitation to a wedding implies one’s consent or blessing on the marriage. If an individual does not agree with a given wedding (heterosexual or homosexual), then one should graciously decline the invitation, thanking the couple for the invitation.
- How will homosexual marriage affect pastors and churches? It is too early to know.
- How will homosexual marriage affect Christian organizations (colleges, adoption agencies, etc.)? It is too early to know, but I suspect that Christian colleges and seminaries in the future will be limited (by accreditation and finances) to only train their ministers.
- How will homosexual marriage affect Christians in business? Obviously, there have been some popular situations involving bakers, photographers, florists, and a pizza owner. However, I am hopeful that appropriate laws will be passed in the near future that respect both the rights of those seeking a gay marriage and the religious freedom of those who do not wish to assist or participate.
- Will legitimizing homosexual marriage lead to the legitimizing of polygamy and bestiality? This question is met with disdain by homosexuals and fear by heterosexuals. I understand the emotions of both. I realize the homosexual community is offended by the comparison of a committed same-sex relationship with polygamy and especially insulted with the comparison to bestiality or pedophilia. It should be obvious that homosexuality does not lead to bestiality any more than adultery does. The heterosexual community will do well to see a difference in these categories and not link them.
- Is there any hope for America to return to traditional Christian morals? Yes. Throughout history there have been religious renewal movements in many cultures. These movements have often transformed the moral values in a given culture. It can happen in America. Every believer ought to be praying for a Spiritual renewal movement in our culture.
- How does the separation of Church and State influence this discussion? This is obviously a complex question. Theologically, a marriage can be described as a public covenant, before God and man, between one man and one woman, to become one in marriage (Malachi 2:14; Exodus 21:8; Matthew 19:4-6). If a covenant is made before God and man, it seems reasonable for a couple to honor what a given culture requires for a couple to be recognized as married, provided it is not sinful. This has been the general positon of Christians throughout history. In many countries, Christian clergy have acted on behalf of the State in solemnizing marriages. It is not hard to envision a scenario, however, where those acting on behalf of the State will not be allowed by the State to discriminate between officiating heterosexual and homosexual marriages. If that scenario were to occur, it is likely that Christian clergy would no longer act on behalf of the State to solemnize marriages. It is possible to envision a situation where the State alone must legally process all marriages without any clergy involvement. If desired, a couple may also have a marriage covenant ceremony of some sort in the Church. This separation of Church and State in affirming marriage still honors the theological definition of marriage provided above.
- Does EHAC have a position concerning homosexuality and gay marriage? Yes. First, we affirm the following statement by U.S. Alliance President Dr. John Stumbo,
The trajectory of our nation is a steady walk away from historic Christianity and biblical teaching. [The] ruling is yet one more marker on that dangerous trail. However, as the Alliance family, we hold the Scripture higher than human reasoning or courts. We will welcome the love of Jesus to flow through our hearts to all who disagree with us. We’ll refuse to get into shouting matches over these issues. And we’ll continue to uphold Christian marriage as determined by our Creator and defined in Matthew 19:4-6: “‘Haven’t you read,’ Jesus replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh?” So they are no longer two but one. Therefore, what God has joined together, let not man separate.’” Under no circumstances will our clergy perform weddings contrary to this biblical standard. Meanwhile, may we take every opportunity with everyone we encounter to extend the life-giving gospel of Jesus in a winsome and loving manner.
Second, in November 2013, the leadership of Eagan Hills Church adopted a facility use policy as advised by The Christian and Missionary Alliance. The policy states,
As a general rule, the facilities of Eagan Hills Alliance Church are only available to members, adherents, and relatives of members and adherents for weddings, anniversaries, funerals, recitals, community events, etc. Building uses will not include “for profit” or personal enterprise. In every case the intended use must be consistent and compatible with the witness, ministry, and stewardship of the Eagan Hills congregation and the denominational statements and policies of the Christian and Missionary Alliance.
All sin grieves the heart of God. Homosexuality, like any other sin, is a departure from God’s creative plan for our lives as humans. The good news is that God has demonstrated his love for sinners by sending his son to die on the cross to pay the death penalty our sins deserve (Romans 5:8; 6:23). The church must hold forth the beauty of Gospel message which calls for all sinners to respond to God’s love by turning from their sins and trusting in Christ as Savior. Let us love those entangled in sin by sharing the hope of forgiveness and everlasting life found in the Gospel.