This time we’re led to believe that the church is overstepping its bounds, and as a result, is losing the culture war and those who disagree with us. Is this the case? Let’s take a look.
A blog post recently appeared at Tony Campolo’s website, Red Letter Christianity, by Ian Ebright. This post, entitled “Anti-Gay Marriage Legislation is an Example of An Overextended Church in Decline,” is a case against the church weighing in on social matters such as same-sex marriage on the basis that the church simply has no business telling others what to do, since they don’t hold the church’s views on homosexuality. A few Biblical appeals are made, first to Micah 6:8, then to the person and example of Jesus, and then an exhortation to live in such a way (vis a vis Galatians 5) as to make traditional marriage more appealing than SSM.
We tell consenting adults what they can and cannot do all the time.
At the heart of the objection to legislation against SSM is the plea that we should not tell consenting adults what they can and cannot do. The problem is that we do this all the time. We tell consenting people that they cannot jaywalk, that they cannot give alcohol to minors, that they cannot shoot those they dislike, and that they must file taxes every year. The question is not, “is it legitimate for us to tell people what to do,” it is “is it in the best interest for the state to regulate one definition of marriage?” And that question has yet to be asked (and certainly yet to be answered) by Ebright. In fact, nowhere in the article are any of the philosophical or ethical charges against SSM addressed or even acknowledged. (Hello, ever read this little ditty by Robert George? It was only in this rag called the “Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy” so I could see how Ebright missed it.)
All law, by definition, legislates morality. So what happens when a law enshrines a faulty definition of human nature?
How is the spread of pornography good for the church or society?
Ebright argues that the church lost the war against pornography, but that this is not a bad thing: it provided many ministry opportunities for the church to reach out to those whose lives were wrecked by porn, nor was the church stopped by porn.
Ultimately this is the ‘broken window’ fallacy: sure, there are some goods that can result from something very bad happening, it is a much lesser than the good that would result by the elimination or reduction of pornography, and any argument used to defend the legality of abortion is applicable here.
Regardless of the tides of the culture, the church should always be equipped to minister to–and answer–those who need to hear the Gospel, whether we are or aren’t successful in restraining evil.
(Question: why did Ebright not pick abortion here? Just wondering. Further question: why does Ebright have a problem with pornography? It’s not hurting him.)
There is more to Micah 6:8 than just Chapter 6, Verse 8.
“And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
The point of 6:8 is not that God wants us to totally withdraw from the SSM debate. This verse is part of a long rebuke of Israel, who was being condemned for transgressing pretty much all of the Law; nevertheless, the only reason God says he would prefer virtuous living is because the numerous sacrifices mentioned earlier had also long since ceased: in effect, if God had to choose, virtue beat empty sacrifices any day. Acting justly and loving mercy and walking humbly with God are good things, but they do not conflict with taking a side in the culture war.
But it will do no good to pick just the warm and fuzzy parts out of the Old Testament. Was Jonah just another culture warrior and emissary of a pompous and dying institution when he went to go pester the people of Nineveh? After all, they weren’t hurting anyone in Israel by their behavior.
Living the life is good, but it’s not an apologetic
Against the virtues of strong families in the church there is no law. It would, of course, go a very long way towards repairing the marriage culture if Christians did not follow the norm on divorce, and all the rest.
But as an argument against SSM, without the icky arguing stuff, it fails–critically–to accomplish its goal. Here’s why.
Let’s perform a little thought experiment here. We’ll start with one family that are churchgoers who deeply love Jesus and their neighbors, who happen to be a same-sex couple. They don’t want to risk offending them, or otherwise being abrasive towards their neighbors. So they do precisely everything that Ebright suggests: they do not oppose SSM efforts, and they try to show by their lives, all without being preachy, that their way is blessed by God and possibly even the only one sanctioned by God.
So how about the neighbors? They, too, are deeply moral people who are in a loving, committed, long-term relationship, have never been in trouble with the law, and are beloved by everyone. Incidentally, they too are trying to live lives that convince others that SSM is a benefit to society and not the civilization-killer it’s made out to be. And they are succeeding. They are not trying to be preachy, and they are trying to show that their union is approved and blessed by God.
So if all we have is lives to look at, how is one to adjudicate between the two? That sword cuts both ways. How can Ebright claim that a moral, virtuous same-sex couple is in sin if all we can legitimately judge are how we live our lives? Assuming all other things are equal, what impetus is there for couple number one to tell couple number two to repent? Or is there more to it than this?
We didn’t start the war
All through the blog, Ebright speaks of an aggressively militant church hell-bent (pun intended) on forcing their views on others, while it itself crumbles into irrelevance. I would be interested in seeing how Ebright came to this conclusion: this post was likely the result of North Carolina passing the marriage amendment a few weeks ago. Of further interest is the language and image that he uses: that of a shell of a ruined church building.
This narrative doesn’t check out. The North Carolina amendment passed 61-39 percent. This is hardly the ‘last gasp’ of a bitter and increasingly fading church, or of a bitter, hard-core conservative movement: it required the alliance of both Republicans and Democrats to pass, and certainly with the numbers it passed with. North Carolina is also the 32nd state to put marriage to a public vote; it is also the 32nd state to pass defenses of traditional marriage, and every last state passed them by a healthy margin.
This looks less like a dying church and more like the old dude in Monty Python and the Holy Grail saying “I’m not dead!” while the guy carrying him keeps trying to tell him he’s going to be dead in a hurry.
But this particular front of the culture war was not started by the church–nor was it technically started by those in favor of SSM. The real opening salvo of this entire conflict was the Kinsey Report, and the easing of divorce–both of these contributed to what we know today as the culture war. All of these legislative actions are in response to the initiative of those who are trying to enshrine same-sex marriage within the law. Same with abortion, and porn, and all the rest.
But the appeals to “it doesn’t hurt you a bit” are simply factually incorrect: there is no moral neutrality here. Those who have appealed to their consciences to refuse certain services to same-sex weddings have been sued, and to support one is to oppose the other–make no mistake about it. I think even Ebright would have to agree–unless he says that same-sex marriage is morally equal to traditional marriage. Is that not the point of his blog, that traditional marriage can be shown to be morally superior to same-sex marriage by how we live our lives?
About the exhortation to be ‘salt and light’ to our culture. This is well and good: a good command, given by our Lord, and it is one we should take seriously. But when our culture cares naught for what we call ‘salt’ and absolutely refuses to consider our message as ‘light,’ what good will it do to surrender the contention of moral equality between traditional and same-sex marriage right out of the gate?
One last thought about the opposition to legislation defining marriage as exclusively between a male and female. I have been told more than a few times that cultures construct their own morals. Is that not precisely what has happened in 32 states thus far? Is this the source of human rights, or are human rights from another source? To answer this question is to take a stance in the culture war. One answer is Biblical, and prevents the legitimacy of same-sex marriage; the other is anything but Biblical and legitimizes same-sex marriage.