Friday, July 17, 2015

On Gay Marriage: An Outline of My Position

(Painting: "The Seven Sacraments - Marriage," by Nicolas Poussin, c.1637-1640, oil on canvas)

I remember one of my college professors giving some words of wisdom: "Hold fast to Christ, and about everything else remain uncommitted." And when I look at the issue of gay marriage, I try to start from those words. As such, I am "uncommitted" to a position in the sense that I am not so permanently grounded in my current opinions that there is no room for the possibility of convincing me that I might be wrong. I do hold certain positions on this question, as I'll note below, but I always want to keep in mind the very real truth that I am fallible, and there are many Christians who disagree with me on this subject, and so I might be wrong. Thus, I've tried to do the best job I could at reading all the arguments and positions for and against gay marriage, to consider the case from all angles. Don't jump too quickly to accuse me of a relativistic sort of openness, though--I'm simply following the words of my Master: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." The application is simple: I would like those on the other side of the debate to honestly and conscientiously consider my position with an open mind, without prejudice; and since that's what I would have them do unto me, then I have to offer the same courtesy to them.

Here's a couple resources on the various sides: I read a symposium from First Things, a conservative Christian journal, shortly after the Supreme Court ruling came down. On the other side of the debate (at least the debate as it pertains to evangelical Christianity), I read a defense of gay marriage from an evangelical perspective, which is thoughtful and well worth considering.

Now here's the position I hold. First of all, it's important to state that I believe in the virtue of obedience to the discernment process of the larger Body of Christ. I am a part of a thoughtful and faithful fellowship of churches, the American Baptist Churches of Maine, many of which are conscientiously walking the road of discernment regarding God's will over this issue. My local association within that larger body has agreed together that gay marriage is beyond the bounds of the God's will. As a part of this fellowship, I honor this commitment and hold to it.

For myself personally, I affirm the position of my church fellowship. There are good reasons for this. First, even before we get to issues of Christian doctrine and biblical interpretation, it's worth noting that "marriage" is not a Christian idea; it seems to be a moral and cultural norm that is woven into the very fabric of human nature and society. Though there are some variations in practice (such as polygyny and polyandry), marriage has, to my knowledge, been unanimously practiced in all human cultures as the union of male and female for the purpose of raising up a new generation. One of the things that concerns me the most about the recent court ruling is that it shows an alarming level of cultural hubris--we seem to think that we are empowered to redefine the basic realities of human nature against the ways that they have always been known and practiced. This is troubling, because I believe in democracy. And, to be truly democratic, as G. K. Chesterton advised us, we must also practice "the democracy of the dead," and acknowledge that our fathers and grandfathers and all our ancestors have a voice in our lives that ought to matter, because they too are heirs of the same human condition. It unnerves me to find that we can blithely vote against the unanimous practice of humanity without very much attempt at a patient and careful exploration of why human society has always held the view of marriage that it has.

Second, this "democracy of the dead" extends to Christian doctrine and, in fact, gathers even more power there. We as Christians believe that the Holy Spirit speaks to the whole body of Christ throughout history, and so we must listen carefully to the things the church has always believed; otherwise we may be shutting ourselves off from the voice of the Holy Spirit. And, unfortunately for the gay marriage position, the historical position of the Christian churches on this issue has been unanimous as well. (Beware, by the way, of attempts to show otherwise, which often fall prey to a dubious sifting of the historical facts; in every concrete statement of church belief on homosexuality and marriage, there has never been an affirmation of either the former, or the two together, at least not until our current age). One may argue, "Well, though, we believe that the Christian church can develop better practice through the ages, as the Holy Spirit continues to teach us--just look at the change in Christianity's attitude toward slavery, or toward women in ministry." It's a good point, but both the current attitude toward slavery and women in ministry have ancient precedents ; gay marriage does not. (The early church father Gregory of Nyssa argued strongly against the practice of slavery; and the New Testament itself bears witness to at least a few ministry roles in which women were engaged in the early church.) 

Third, the biblical arguments, while open to some alternative interpretations, remain difficult to argue away in total. Even if one allows that the references to homosexuality in the New Testament are references to temple prostitution and pedophilia, rather than loving unions of consenting adults, it still doesn't quite do away with the overall negative tone that Scripture gives in each and every reference to homosexuality. 

At bottom, though, I'm more concerned with the "marriage" part of all this than I am with the "gay" part. In future Friday posts, I'll talk a bit more about the meaning of marriage, and where our culture has gotten off-track (even in heterosexual marriages).

A last word: I want to remain open and sensitive to the very real feelings of gay men and women who have undergone outward persecution and inward turmoil over this issue. Too often we lay blame, when compassion is called for. Even the Scripture verses we use to lay blame are, far too frequently, misinterpreted. All Christians should take a look at Romans chapter 1 again, one of the most commonly used proof texts against homosexuality. We usually read it wrong, because we read it through the lens of our individualist culture; when in fact it was written from the standpoint a communal culture. The Apostle Paul's argument, then, actually seems to be that the people committing homosexual acts are doing it as a result of the overall sinfulness of human society: in other words, homosexuality in Paul's view is not simply an abomination chosen by wicked individuals; no, it is a symptom of a society that has drifted away from God. And he doesn't seem to be talking just about a few heinously sinful societies; he seems to be talking about all human society. (His underlying point, after all, is that all of us, in every society, are in the same condition regarding sin.) The bottom line he comes to, at the beginning of chapter 2, is that all of us share in the sinfulness of our society, a sinfulness that all humans have always shared, and, as such, we are in no position to judge other people. That's worth remembering.

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