In June 2015, the US Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples can marry in all 50 states, setting off a flurry of reaction by Christians and virtually everyone else on social media and beyond.
The social media reaction ranged from surprising to predictable to disappointing to occasionally refreshing.
I write from the perspective of a pastor of an evangelical church in a country where same-sex marriage has been the law of the land for a decade.
That does not mean I hold any uniquely deep wisdom, but it does mean we’ve had a decade to process and pray over the issue.
I hope what I offer can help. It’s my perspective. My fingers tremble at the keyboard because my goal is to help in the midst of a dialogue that seems far more divisive than it is uniting or constructive.
There will be many who disagree with me, I’m sure, but I hope it pulls debate away from the “sky is falling/this is the best thing ever” dichotomy that seems to characterize much of the dialogue so far.
The purpose of this post is not to take a position or define matters theologically (for there is so much debate around that). Rather, the purpose of this post is to think through how to respond as a church when the law of the land changes as fundamentally as it’s changing on same-sex marriage and many other issues.
Here are 5 perspectives I hope are helpful as church leaders of various positions on the subject think and pray through a way forward.
1. The church has always been counter-cultural
Most of us reading this post have been born into a unique season in history in which our culture is moving from a Christian culture to a post-Christian culture before our eyes.
Whatever you think about history, theology or exactly when this shift happened, it’s clear for all of us that the world into which we were born no longer exists.
Viewpoints that were widely embraced by culture just decades ago are no longer embraced. For some this seems like progress. For others, it seems like we’re losing something. Regardless, things have changed fundamentally.
But is that really such a big deal? For most of the last 2000 years, the authentic church has been counter-cultural. The church was certainly counter-cultural in the first century.
Even at the height of ‘Christendom’ (whenever that was), the most conservative historians would agree that Christianity as embraced by the state was different than the authentic Christianity we read about in scripture or that was practiced by many devout followers of Jesus.
Being counter-cultural usually helps the church more than hurts it.
If you think about it, regardless of your theological position, all your views as a Christian are counter-cultural and always will be. If your views are cultural, you’re probably not reading the scriptures closely enough.
We’re at our best when we offer an alternative, not just a reflection of a diluted or hijacked spirituality.
2. It’s actually strange to ask non-Christians to hold Christian values
As the Barna Group has pointed out, a growing number of people in America are best described as post-Christian. The majority of Canadians would certainly qualify as having a post-Christian worldview.
The question Christians in a post-Christian culture have to ask themselves is this:
Why would we expect non-Christians to behave like Christians?
If you believe sex is a gift given by God to be experienced between a man and a woman within marriage, why would you expect people who don’t follow Christ to embrace that?
Why would we expect people who don’t profess to be Christians to:
Wait until marriage to have sex?
Clean up their language?
Stop smoking weed?
Be faithful to one person for life?
Pass laws like the entire nation was Christian?
Most people today are not pretending to be Christians. So why would they adopt Christian values or morals?
Please don’t get me wrong.
I’m a pastor. I completely believe that Jesus is not only the Way, but that God’s way is the best way.
When you follow biblical teachings about how to live life, your life simply goes better. It just does. I 100 percent agree.
I do everything I personally can to align my life with the teachings of scripture, and I’m passionate about helping every follower of Christ do the same.
But what’s the logic behind judging people who don’t follow Jesus for behaving like people who don’t follow Jesus?
Why would you hold the world to the same standard you hold the church?
First, non-Christians usually act more consistently with their value system than you do.
It’s difficult for a non-Christian to be a hypocrite because they tend to live out what they believe.
Chances are they are better at living out their values than you or I are. Jesus never blamed pagans for acting like pagans.
But he did speak out against religious people for acting hypocritically. Think about that.
3. You’ve been dealing with sex outside of traditional marriage for a LONG time
If you believe gay sex is sinful, it’s really no morally different than straight sex outside of marriage.
Be honest, pretty much every unmarried person in your church is having sex (yes, even the Christians).
I know you want to believe that’s not true (trust me, I want to believe that’s not true), but why don’t you ask around? You’ll discover that only a few really surrender their sexuality.
Not to mention the married folks that struggle with porn, lust and a long list of other dysfunctions.
If you believe gay marriage is not God’s design, you’re really dealing with the same issue you’ve been dealing with all along—sex outside of its God-given context.
You don’t need to treat it any differently.
By the way, if you don’t deal with straight sex outside of marriage, don’t start being inconsistent and speak out against gay sex.
And you may want to start dealing with gluttony and gossip and greed while you’re at it. (I wrote more here about how to get the hypocrisy out of our sex talk in church.)
At least be consistent…humbly address all forms of sex outside of marriage.
The dialogue is possible. (Andy Stanley offers a great rationale for sex staying inside marriage here.)
We have that dialogue all the time at our church.
And people are grateful for it.
We also talk about our greed, our gluttony, our jealousy and our hypocrisy as Christians. It’s amazing. Jesus brings healing to all these areas of life, including our sex lives.
4. The early church never looked to the government for guidance
Having a government that doesn’t embrace the church’s values line for line actually puts Christians in some great company—the company of the earliest followers of Jesus.
Jesus spent about zero time asking the government to change during his ministry. In fact, people asked him to become the government, and he replied that his Kingdom is not of this world.
The Apostle Paul appeared before government officials regularly. Not once did he ask them to change the laws of the land.
He did, however, invite government officials to have Jesus personally change them.
Paul constantly suffered at the hands of the authorities, ultimately dying under their power, but like Jesus, didn’t look to them for change.
Rather than asking the government to release him from prison, he wrote letters from prison talking about the love of Jesus Christ.
Instead of looking to the government for help, Paul and Jesus looked to God.
None of us in the West are suffering nearly as radically as Jesus and Paul suffered at the hands of a government. In fact, in Canada and the US, our government protects our freedom to assemble and even disagree with others. Plus, it gives us tax breaks for donations.
We honestly don’t have it that hard.
Maybe the future North American church will be more like the early church, rising early, before dawn, to pray, to encourage, to break bread.
Maybe we will pool our possessions and see the image of God in women. And love our wives radically and deeply with a protective love that will shock the culture. Maybe we will treat others with self-giving love, and even offer our lives in place of theirs.
Maybe we’ll be willing to lose our jobs, our homes, our families and even our lives because we follow Jesus.
That might just touch off a revolution like it did two millennia ago.
Perhaps the government might even take notice, amazed by the love that radical Jesus followers display.
5. Our judgment of LGBT people is destroying any potential relationship
Even the first 72 hour of social media reaction has driven a deeper wedge between Christian leaders and the LGBT community Jesus loves (yes, Jesus died for the world because he loves it).
Judgment is a terrible evangelism strategy.
People don’t line up to be judged.
If you want to keep being ineffective at reaching unchurched people, keep judging them.
Judging outsiders is un-Christian. Paul told us to stop judging people outside the church.
Paul also reminds us to drop the uppity-attitude; that none of us were saved by the good we did but by grace.
Take a deep breath. You were saved by grace. Your sins are simply different than many others. And honestly, in many respects, they are the same.
People don’t line up to be judged. But they might line up to be loved.
So love people. Especially the people with whom you disagree.
Those are a few of the things I’ve learned and I’m struggling with.
The dialogue is not easy when culture is changing and people who sincerely love Jesus sincerely disagree.
I think there’s more hope than there is despair for the future. The radical ethic of grace and truth found in Jesus is more desperately needed in our world today than ever before.
Is the path crystal clear? No.
But rather than being a setback, perhaps this can move the church yet another step closer to realizing its true mission.
I was tempted to close comments off on this post, but I will leave them open just to see if we can continue the discussion constructively and humbly.
Rants and abusive viewpoints (on either side) will be deleted.
Respect those with whom you disagree.
If you want to leave a comment that helps, please do so.
But please spend at least as much time praying for the situation and for people you know who have been hurt by this dialogue as you do commenting on this post, on others like it or on your social media channels.
Maybe spend more time praying, actually.
That’s what we all really need. And that’s what will move the mission of the church forward.
To help you navigate the issue a little further, I’m adding the interview I did on my Leadership Podcast with Caleb Kaltenbach into this post.
Caleb was born to parents who divorced to both pursue gay relationships. Caleb grew up to become a Christian and a pastor, and has spent his adult life fighting for the relationship with his parents. It’s a fascinating, moving story of grace in the midst of disagreement.
You can listen here in the browser window below, or click here to listen to Episode 33 on your phone or other device.