Some Thoughts on Gay Rights
April 15, 2013
The rise of gay rights, including, now, the all but inevitable legal support for same-sex marriage at home and abroad, has the effect of a tidal wave: better get out of the way, or be drowned in obscurity. Sure, there will be ups and downs, advances and setbacks. But things are moving fast. Two Presidents have changed their minds about the subject. President Obama, in a very public announcement last spring, declared that his views had "evolved," followed by his second inaugural address, where he actually called for gay marriages. And former President Bill Clinton has recently disavowed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which he had signed into law seventeen years previously. Linda Hirshman, a retired lawyer, has written a compelling story of how gay rights have basically been established. The title, Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution (Harper), is surely overstated. Yet we read of the month-by-month advancement of the cause of homosexual, as well as bisexual and transgendered people. We risk being rather swept up into the narrative unless we have strong powers of resistance.
The narrative! How can we not be swept along by the stories of gay people, once terribly maligned, and now stepping out of the closet to a more tolerant world? In my own family, I can cite a poignant example of just such a story. My wife's uncle John, her mother's brother, is gay. For years he and his partner had to live a clandestine life. Everyone sort of knew, but did not accept his circumstance. His own mother never met Louis, his partner, as she could not have abided such an aberrant reality, in her view. Now, some 65 years into their partnership, they were able to marry, under the new Manhattan statute. Right away a moving article was written about the couple in New York Magazine, one of the leading publications of the city.
What can Christians who hold to the "traditional" view of marriage say in these circumstances? Do we have a counter-narrative that is as forceful, or more so, than that of the "triumphal gay revolution?" I believe we do. Where is it? While I value, enormously, the natural law approach, I don't believe it tells enough of a story. There may be no better defense of marriage from a natural law point of view than Girgis, Anderson & George, What Is Marriage? (Encounter Books, 2012). The book compellingly argues for a "comprehensive union," the full union of mind and body in a heterosexual marriage bond. The core of their argument is that marriage must be based on "organic bodily union." Whereas all kinds of friendships can occur, whether among people of the same sex or not, "Two men, two women, and larger groups cannot achieve organic bodily union: there is no bodily good or function toward which their bodies can coordinate." (27) The authors are fully aware that some couples cannot conceive children, but they argue that infertile couples can still establish a "comprehensive mind-an-body union that would be completed by and apt for procreation and domestic life and that thus inherently calls for permanent and exclusive commitment." (74) They further claim that heterosexual marriage is the best way to steer a culture clear of seeing different types of unions as a choice or a preference, based on emotion or cohabitation. It is the best place for children's well-being. It elevates the value of friendship, since marriage does not compete with friendship, nor is it just a higher degree of friendship, but something different altogether. Also at stake are religious liberty, overbearing government, and the social good.
We have here a pure natural law type of argument. The Introduction to the book announces that the authors will make no appeal to divine revelation or religious authority. (10) This is unfortunate. While they no doubt are trying to reach out to their readership on presumably neutral ground, they have, in the process, left out the chief reason to define marriage as heterosexual: the Word of God. While the many aspects of their arguments are compatible with a biblical worldview, they will lack the full force they could have since they cannot appeal to the Creator of the world and to his intentions. The authors say that they are not going to comment on the morality or immorality of homosexuality, choosing to bracket that issue for the sake of simplicity. But is it really possible to conduct an argument for heterosexual marriage without some comment on the ethics of its competitor, gay marriage? The Apostle Paul has no such qualms, naming homosexual practice a "dishonorable passion" (Rom. 1:26). That is not all the Bible says about homosexuality, to be sure. But no matter how many hermeneutical gymnastics you engage in, it is not possible to skirt such words. In two of his lists of those disqualified from the Kingdom of God Paul includes arsenokoites or same-sex acts (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10).
Of course, individual verses which condemn homosexuality are not in themselves likely to persuade a generation which loves the story of liberation from oppression. What, then is? A few arguments that are good as far as they go are ultimately not good enough. For example, according to recent polls, only 3.8% of the population in the United States are avowed practicing gays. The figures vary from state to state, and, of course, there may be more unavowed gays. There surely are many homosexually inclined people, who for one reason or another don't practice. But the discrepancy between the rhetoric and the actual facts is astonishing. Not to sound paranoid, but it is likely that the most powerful voices in favor of gay rights are in the media, in academe, and in other places of influence, not from the grass-roots population. The reason this is not a "gotcha" argument is because it really does not matter how many or how few are practicing the gay lifestyle, nor how powerful the media may be. Is it right or is it wrong?
Another good, but not good enough, approach is the finding by many ministry groups that most gay people are not very happy. Such endeavors as Harvest, or Exodus, have found that gay people are guild-ridden, lonely, and in need of relief. This is helpful to know. There should be no surprise if God's intentions for sexual union are for two people of the opposite sex marrying, attempts at sexual fulfillment outside of this framework will often be unhappy. But again, such an observation is of limited value. First, because many heterosexuals are guilt-ridden, lonely, etc. Marriage is not a panacea, but comes with many challenges and conditions. Second, if all we have to go on is an unhappiness index, then we could fix all kinds of things to produce happiness, including behavior modification, rushing gays into heterosexual marriage, and other potential disasters.
Testimonies help. One of the most compelling I have read in years is The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield (Crown & Covenant, 2012). I won't spoil it for you if you haven't read it, but it is the story of a lesbian English professor being loved into the Kingdom by kind and patient Christians who took her seriously, listened to her aspirations and worries, all the while showing her the beauties of the Christian faith. In her testimony there is plenty of theology - sound, Reformed theology. So, good testimonies are of great value.
The very best counter-narrative to gay liberation is the biblical worldview in which heterosexual, monogamous marriage is considered one of God's most precious gifts. Looking closely at the account of pre-fallen mankind in Genesis 1-2 we find something like a celebration of the romance of marriage. Marriage is God's solution for loneliness (Gen. 2:18). After his death-like anesthesia, Adam awoke to behold his gorgeous vis-à-vis. He was delighted (2:23). To be sure, procreation and populating the earth are a part of the larger picture of marriage (1:28). The family, then, is a fundamental unit for human society. But there is far more to marriage than sexual union and offspring. There is the beauty of the ultimate friendship between one man and one woman. The Song of Solomon gives an idea about the loveliness of the special attraction between a man and a woman. And, in this fallen world, which is yet being redeemed, marriage symbolizes the union between Christ and his church. Just as a man pursues his mate, taking vows, holding her tight, providing for her and sacrificing for her, so Jesus pursues the lost, embraces them and brings them to heaven, all because of his sacrifice at Calvary.
Very little of this can be reproduced in a gay relationship. Certainly there can be love, sacrifice, friendship. But it is the very difference between the two genders - male and female, each made after the image of God, yet each in their distinctive way - that makes for the high complement of opposites: a place where truly the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Surely one of the reasons that gay unions are "dishonorable" is because there is no honor in reaching out to someone who is like myself. Jesus often remarked that "if you love those that love you what reward do you have?" (Mt. 5:46)
Many questions will follow from these simple proposals. One of the most important is social justice for all people, regardless of their background, or, indeed, sexual orientation. If marriage is not, strictly speaking, a right, nor a civil right, but a creation ordinance, what of the civil rights of gay people? We ought to be just as zealous to safeguard the rights of gay people as we are to safeguard marriage for monogamous heterosexuals. Not because they are gay, but because they are people, citizens, image-bearers. So legislators need to figure out the most equitable way to ensure that every citizen be given the proper access to social benefits, retirement, inheritance rules, etc.
And, surely, there is much repenting to be done over attitudes toward gay people that are hateful and prejudiced. I went to a boarding school many years ago, where the only view of gay people was "yuck!" Yet surely there were young men there struggling with their sexual identity and in need of compassionate counseling. Furthermore, those of us who are married (heterosexually) have a good deal of homework to do in our own families. It won't do to criticize gays as unhappy, guilty, etc., if our own marriages are flagging. And then, the church needs to think through what it means to be celibate. Certainly this legitimate calling has also been maligned by sub-Christian attitudes.
At the end of the day, however, we do not recommend heterosexual marriage because it works best, because children may be born, or because it is the traditional view. We recommend it because God as ordained it, and it is a good thing: "Let marriage be held in honor among all" (Heb. 13:1).
Dr. William Edgar is professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America.