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Gay marriage: Christianity & the cult of family values

18 May 2012

written by NSR

Obama gay marriage feature

Gay marriage warning poster: this is irony, Christians!

Do I support gay marriage? I barely support straight marriage.

That’s why I don’t get why so many people get so worked up about gay marriage.

I mean, marriage is fine. And I get that some Christians believe homosexuals are engaged in a sinful lifestyle. But even so, marriage seems a bit of a harsh punishment.

Don’t get me wrong: I am very fond of my own marriage. Because my wife is awesome. But statistically it stands to reason that not everyone is going to be as lucky in the great marriage lottery. My wife, for example. Would I want to wish a similar level of commitment, sacrifice and, frankly, profound fear of death and loss on other people? I think this is one of the many areas in which Christians who focus on ‘family values’ have got things a little twisted.

The cult of family values

Families are lovely. Again (and how I wish I feared my relatives less so that I could leave these disclaimers out), my family is just great. I am sure God loves them and loves me loving them. But where does this Christian obsession with family (defined as husband + wife + children = humanity’s highest calling) come from? In fact, what does the mantra of the cult of family values (wrung from the mouths of so many political candidates) of “family is important” actually mean? It’s important to breed? Sure, I guess, on a global scale. Though being able to use your genitals hardly makes you a hero of the faith in my book.

Jesus: anti-family?

Certainly, how you raise your children is important. If you choose to have them. Or are able to. But Mother Teresa didn’t have any kids. Neither did Jesus. Were their lives, along with the lives of all the childless in our society less valuable for that? I don’t think so. Paul says in 1 Corinthians that it’s frankly better not even to get married. And Jesus hardly puts family front and centre in his ministry, either. In Luke he says that if his followers don’t ‘hate’ their mothers, fathers and siblings, they can’t be his disciples. Again in Luke, Jesus tells one man not to go to his father’s funeral and another that taking care of the family business should not be his first priority. I’m not suggesting that Jesus is anti-family. But I do think he is clearly disputing an idea that many Christian preachers regularly trot out: that family is central to Christianity. Christ is central to Christianity. Not your ability to pass on your genes.

Family is an aspect of life that can be well-handled or badly-handled, that can bring joy or suffering. Most of us will have families and should treat them well. Raising them to the level of idols that can distract from following God (as Paul seems concerned they might) seems either dangerous or stupid.

Family: fixing fornicators for fourscore and twenty years

But, hey, let’s say we take a sip of the kool-aid for a second and assume that the decision to get married and/or procreate makes people special rather than conferring on them special responsibilities and duties. If family is so good, so important, not just spiritually, but somehow being of benefit to the world at large, sure it should be the more the merrier? If family has this transformative power, why not get everybody involved? Get gay people into families! That’ll fix ‘em!

Certainly, there have been generations of Christian hysterics who have picketed, pilloried and persecuted ‘straight’ couples who refused to get married before bonking and breeding, regardless of whether they believed in God or not. Why the opposite attitude when it comes to same-sex couples? Where’s the healing power of marriage when it comes to them? The high-priests of family values should be heading up campaigns for gay marriage. And yet they don’t. Why?

 That Obama sumbitch

Obama, rockin the tacheObviously, the answer is that many Christians and conservatives (they are not, despite what the Republican Party would have you understand, the same thing) believe that having sex with someone of the same gender is a far greater sin than having sex with someone of a different gender to whom one has not been officially married. The discussion about that rumbles on, with very few of the participants actually interested in discovering the truth – convinced as most of them are that they long ago discovered it in absolute form. But what has put new fire in the bellies of old enemies is the occasionally recurring issue of gay marriage, particularly stoked by politicians either banning or declaring their support for the practice.

That’s how some might put it. ‘That dang Obama sumbitch done gone too far this time’ may be another, because President Obama recently declared his support for gay marriage. It upset a lot of people. Many of them Christians. All of them wrong.

Two issues, both quite simple

There are two issues at stake when we talk about gay marriage. One has to do with law and, in most liberal democracies, is secular. Should it be legal for a man to marry a man, a woman to marry a woman? I mean if they really are tired of deciding for themselves what to do with their Saturdays and think that what has been missing from their lives is a profound fear of their loved-ones dying and no more first kisses? That’s the first issue. The second has to do with what happens in our churches.

The legal question, the one that has been causing all the fuss, is really quite simple. Let’s assume homosexuality is a sin, okay? (Easy there, Stonewall, this is a hypothetical.) Let’s also assume, on the same basis, that that sin actually harms those engaging in it. That’s a reason to make it illegal, right? Wrong. How many of the Christians and conservatives who want to ban gay marriage would have us return to the days when homosexuality itself was illegal, punishable by prison in nominally ‘civilized’ countries? Make gay sex illegal. Make that your campaign, I dare you. No? Whimp.

Christian Sharia

Fine, how about this? It’s an easy one: adultery causes incredible damage to families (what could be more anti-family?), is very clearly a sin and detestable to God. Make that illegal. Jail terms for fornicators. No? Oh, that’s right, it has nothing to do with anyone else. The idea that sin needs to be illegal is garbage. We all know it. For practical reasons if nothing else.

Even if everyone in our democracy believed in Jesus and wished to submit to a Christian moral code, considering that Christians can’t agree on Hell, Mary, transubstantiation, eschatology (though that’s hardly the end of the world) and how to interpret Scripture, it seems to me that creating our own Christian form of Sharia without silencing a good number of our brothers and sisters (not to mention unbelievers) would seem problematic. Since most Christians today have the good manners to shift uncomfortably and cough in an embarrassed way when the subject of the Inquisition is brought up for the millionth time by some Dawkins-quoting student of only the negative side of Christian history, let’s put a pin in that whole religious law thing, shall we?

But what about what happens in our churches? I have some sympathy with ministers who fear the state might force them to perform rituals that are incommensurate with their theology and conscience. My sympathy stems from the fact I believe the state has no business involving itself in any religious practice. If you don’t like what a religion (or one of its local branches) teaches on a subject dear to your heart? Nobody is forcing you to listen or attend. But if the principle of government non-interference in religious affairs (a principle of conscience I hold dear in the same way I hold government non-interference in my sex life dear) seems likely to be violated, let’s campaign against that. Not against the opportunity and possibility of our brothers and sisters in Christ making different choices from the ones we have made.

This bit is going to leave you shocked and appalled. At the same time

Because here’s what will be the shocker for some Christians: There are Jesus-loving, Bible-believing, Spirit-filled Christians who believe that homosexuality is not a sin.

I know, right? Woah. Sit down, take a moment if you like. That probably came as a shock to some atheists, too – people who find the idea of homogeneous, bigoted Christianity attractive. But there’s the fact. There are gay Christians. I’ve met some. There are Christians who, through study of the original Greek and Hebrew and through intensive theological inquiry (and who would be as horrified to be called ‘liberal’ as some would to be called ‘gay’) believe that being gay is not sinful. And there are those who find the evidence inconclusive.

I know. Burn them.

Now, when I became a Christian, I did it in the context of the Baptist Church. Since then I have helped lead a Baptist church, worked for a Baptist charity and written for Baptist publications. I like Baptists. And one of the things I like about Baptist heritage is the fact that Baptists were at one time known as champions of religious freedom, including freedom for non-Baptists. Even non-Christians! I know, I know: how far we’ve come.

The danger of Grace

But something of that spirit remains. Baptists believe that, within the bounds of a belief in the Trinity, Jesus’ saving Grace and the Bible as God’s holy word, interpretations and details of morality can’t be dictated by centralised Church authorities. They are matters of conscience, between believers and God and between church communities and God. A lot can and does go wrong with that, but I like it. It has all the danger of Grace and faith wrapped in freedom and codified love.

How that works itself out is that some congregations will actively seek the gifts of the Holy Spirit, like tongues and prophecy. Others will not. Some will encourage women in leadership. Others will not. You probably have views on both of these things. But you can also probably see that even those who disagree with you may love the Lord and be acting/believing in good faith.

I see no reason why marrying gay people should not be treated similarly. If your church believes that God is okay with it, then do it. Even if mine doesn’t agree, that’s fine. What people do with their genitals and the living arrangements that flow from that may be as important as any other question of sin, but it is hardly the core of the gospel.

And even if you think homosexuality a sin: is that really a good enough reason to refuse to marry people or allow them to marry in our churches? We marry non-Christians all the time. We allow funerals of unbelievers to take place under our roofs. Some churches choose to draw a line there, to say that the hypocrisy of such events is unacceptable. Others prefer to see it as an opportunity to reach out, that any time non-Christians come into our churches is a chance to show them love and share the gospel with them. One approach values the ‘holiness’ of a building and rituals more than the potential to bring someone into the Kingdom of God and I disagree with it. But I am happy for communities of Christians (or even hierarchies) to decide that for themselves.

What I resent is when they presume to make that decision for all other Christians. As if we were not all a royal priesthood. As if we were not all capable of making moral decisions based on Scripture and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

One issue: not that simple

I’m afraid I am quite a Protestant when it comes to this and it saddens me that it is often Protestants that wish to impose their ecclesiastical will on other Christians and even those outside the fold when it comes to gay marriage.

As I’ve said, I would reject the government telling any church they had to marry anybody. The state has no place in our theology or church life (and I know that is a little complicated in Britain). And we have no place in the church life of others, except to respectfully discuss and debate. If we would hate Muslims imposing their law on us, I don’t see how we can impose ours on others.

But there is something here that is complicated. That doesn’t yield easily to charges of hypocrisy or stupidity, and has been much misunderstood. That is the fact that some Christians do and will consider homosexuality a sin. No gasps there, I know. But it’s worth considering in a rational, gracious manner.

Demonising conservatives (with a small ‘d’)

People on my side of the debate regularly caricature people who consider homosexuality a sin as cretins and bigots. And some of them, let’s face it, are. But some are not. Some are just Christians. They love God or fear God or both. They want, anyhow, to please him. And they believe, as I believe, that God cares about more than just famines in Africa and ending oppressive regimes and buying FairTrade chocolate. He cares about those things a good deal more than debates like this one would suggest, but God is not Oxfam. He is the holy, loving, infinitely complex creator and sustainer of the universe and he cares about every one of us, deeply. A lot of us Christians respond to that by wanting to lead moral lives and wanting to speak God’s truth. Many Christians who consider homosexuality a sin are no different. Issues of personal sexual morality are important to them because they believe all life to be important to God.

And if we’re honest, some verses in the Bible make homosexuality a little bit complicated from that point of view. You do not have to be a bigot to understand from Christian Scripture that homosexuality is a sin.

That view is unpopular. But spiritual morality is not about conforming to what is popular, whether you’re in the Deep South or part of the London intelligentsia. There is a much bigger discussion to be had in Christian circles about how we understand Scripture and why we take some verses more seriously than others, and those considerations could shift understandings of homosexuality in moral terms. And for some it may not.

I know many Christians who, bucking the trend, really do ‘love the sinner and hate the sin’. It is rare, but possible. It’s called tolerance. Such people, if they feel that Scripture and God tell them that a certain behaviour is wrong, should not be demonised. If they act with love, tolerance and intelligence towards the people who they consider to be in sin, they should not be caricatured as hatemongers. Because they are not.

Adult themes

There are many Christians and non-Christians who disapprove with some fairly fundamental aspects of my character and philosophy and consider parts of my lifestyle and thinking sinful or objectionable. The best among them don’t make it my problem. We can discuss it rationally, in love. We can disagree. Does it hurt that they have a negative view of something I believe to be central to my personality? Yes. Does that make them Nazis? No.

The fact is, we don’t have to agree with each other to behave like decent human beings. The most ardent fundamentalist has to admit that being unkind to gay people is stupid. Let’s look at it from that point of view:

If the gay people in question are Christians, you’re elevating one ‘sin’ above a whole lot of others. When you start publicly shaming the greedy, the back-biting and the selfish and refusing to let them marry, we can talk again. Until then, you’re being weirdly choosy over which sins are okay by you.

Being unkind to non-Christian gay people is even stupider. How, pray tell, is that winning them to the kingdom? What kind of fisher of men insists on cleaning the fish before catching it? And will a ban on any of their sin stop them feeling it in their hearts? More importantly, will it bring them to salvation? Even if you believe homosexuality to be a sin, the shunning and persecution of gay people is counter-productive.

There’s more complicated stuff in there, of course. For instance, replace ‘gay’ with ‘black’ and reconsider many of the questions. Or, consider the reasons you hold a particular view and how conditioned they are by your background, your community, your personality – then read again the Bible that has scant regard for popular opinion. These are big questions. They deserve a considered response. Because, when we discuss these terribly adult subjects, we would do well to try to remember to do so like adults.

 Wait – what were we talking about?

That’s a fairly long-winded way of saying just a few things:

  • The all-too-popular ‘Christian’ obsession with ‘family values’ is just a little odd, considering Jesus’ and St Paul’s attitudes to it.
  • If we are not willing to make sins like adultery illegal, and when we are unwilling to make gay sex illegal, making gay marriage illegal is silly.
  • We’ve been here before: we all feel dumb for allowing people to be persecuted for having sex/children outside of marriage or having wrong beliefs. We will feel dumb for this, too.
  • There are Bible-believing, born-again Christians who are okay with homosexuality and others who are undecided. This may come as news to some. Give them a moment.
  • Here’s an idea: why not let Christians with differing theologies and beliefs express them in their churches’ approach to the gay marriage issue? Don’t like it? Don’t do it.
  • While we’re all high on fundamental freedoms, why don’t we also make sure the government won’t force anybody to do anything in church?
  • And let’s remember that just because someone believes it’s a sin that doesn’t make them a bigot. This is hard to see sometimes because of all the bigots who also believe that.
  • Even if you do think being gay is a sin, there is really no reason to behave like an ass-hat towards people who are.



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