The dominoes are falling toward the legality of gay marriage, and the arguments of Christians seem to be crumbling beneath them. Even those who oppose same-sex marriage admit the likelihood that they have lost the argument. Depending on the slant of the poll, between 64 and 83 percent of Americans expect the national legalization of same-sex marriage. Many Christians bemoan the cultural decline of marriage and question why the political and cultural landscape can’t embrace the premise that God ordained marriage as a spiritual and physical union between a man and a woman. Genesis 1 and Matthew 19 are all the evidence many need to accept this premise. However, to most in our culture, scriptural and theological language is as meaningless as the source code behind their smartphone apps.
If the culture fails to acknowledge the biblical underpinnings of marriage, is it time for Christians to slide under the pew and cede the argument? If “because the Bible says so” is no longer convincing, can we use our God-given imagination to creatively persuade in ways that are consistent with biblical teaching, but in a language that our culture understands? As Christians are compelled to articulate and embody their beliefs in new ways, perhaps we will influence this debate — and our culture — in ways that frame new arguments for marriage.
In his late-June dissent to the Supreme Court decision on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), Justice Samuel Alito described the debate in this case as a battle between two views of marriage:
The first and older view, which I will call the “traditional” or “conjugal” view, sees marriage as an intrinsically opposite-sex institution … created for the purpose of channeling heterosexual intercourse into a structure that supports child rearing. … Others explain the basis for the institution in more philosophical terms. They argue that marriage is essentially the solemnizing of a comprehensive, exclusive, permanent union that is intrinsically ordered to producing new life, even if it does not always do so. While modern cultural changes have weakened the link between marriage and procreation in the popular mind, there is no doubt that, throughout human history and across many cultures, marriage has been viewed as an exclusively opposite-sex institution and as one inextricably linked to procreation and biological kinship.
The other, newer view is what I will call the “consent based” vision of marriage, a vision that primarily defines marriage as the solemnization of mutual commitment — marked by strong emotional attachment and sexual attraction — between two persons. At least as it applies to heterosexual couples, this view of marriage now plays a very prominent role in the popular understanding of the institution.
As Alito describes, the real issue at stake is not expanding the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, but redefining the very core of the institution. Ryan Anderson of the Heritage Foundation writes, “Redefining marriage does not simply expand the existing understanding of marriage. It rejects the truth that marriage is based on the complementarity of man and woman, the biological fact that reproduction depends on a man and a woman, and the social reality that children need a mother and a father.”
If the law redefines marriage, same-sex couples may find that they have the legal right to an institution that no longer exists. Redefining marriage makes “marriage equality” a misnomer. Kathryn Lopez writes in National Review Online, “We all want, need, and deserve love. The debate over marriage isn’t about questioning this — or denying it. It’s about what marriage is and what common good the law serves in being involved with it.”
But the process of redefining marriage did not begin with a homosexual agenda. Rather, our culture lost its appetite for the traditional view of marriage as the biblical narrative of creation, fall, and redemption has lost its prominence in the cultural mixing bowl.
Jerry Walls of Houston Baptist University blogs:
[Christians] must recognize that the failure of the Church to communicate its vision effectively is at least partly responsible for the sexual revolution in the first place. The failure to celebrate sexuality, starting with its marital pleasures, is part of a larger failure to teach and preach a strong creation theology that affirms the goodness of the physical world as God’s gift to us. The sexual revolution is a distorted version of affirming the goodness of sexuality in isolation from the larger truths that ground its goodness and beauty. Invariably, of course, when a fragment of the Christian vision of reality is broken off from the larger whole of which it is a part, the fragment is not only twisted out of shape, but diminished and shriveled as well.
A Biblical Landing Zone
The debate about marriage is more nuanced than our polarized political climate can accommodate. When Christians display hatred for people who want to marry their same-sex partners, they damage their own argument. The same is true of those who argue that we can redefine an ancient and foundational institution with no social consequences. But there is a landing zone between Rob Bell’s “I am for fidelity and love,” and advocating antiseptic, utilitarian marriages that exist for the public good.
Christian celebration of marriage and of God’s plan for our sexuality must start within the church. In the First Things blog, Ron Belgau writes, “Presenting the fullness of Christian teaching on marriage and human sexuality is not only important for being able to respond to the challenge of same-sex marriage with integrity: it is also crucial for the well-being of heterosexuals themselves. The failure to preach and practice the fullness of Christian teaching deprives them of the fulfillment and happiness that comes from cooperating with God in fulfilling His plan in Creation.”
Certainly, Genesis 1:27-28 provides an essential foundation to this teaching. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number.” But to embrace the true beauty and mystery of biblical love, the poetry displayed in such places as Proverbs 5:17-19 is crucial to our understanding: “May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth. A loving doe, a graceful deer — may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love.”
Pastor Ray Cortese of Seven Rivers Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Lecanto, Fla., says, “If you asked most unchurched people one word that describes what the church says about sex, it would be ‘No.’ The truth is that the Bible says sex is a gift from God — no one could have a higher view of sex than we have. God has designed something unbelievable!” Rather than communicating God’s gift, Christians often react to the hypersexuality of our culture by condemning immoral sexual activity. Yes, because of the Fall, we are capable of worshiping sex as an idol, abusing others for our sexual pleasure, becoming enslaved to our lusts, and even dying of diseases contracted sexually. But before our sexuality was broken, it was good.
Do You Speak My Language?
If Christians are to have a voice in the cultural conversation about marriage, we need to acknowledge that we are speaking a different language from those who advocate for same-sex marriage. An illustration comes from the wording of Alito’s dissent: “Past changes in the understanding of marriage — for example, the gradual ascendance of the idea that romantic love is a prerequisite to marriage — have had far-reaching consequences.” Responding to Alito, Michelangelo Signorile of The Huffington Post asks, “Is this what conservatives really think, that the real problem is that we’re marrying for love?” Many in our culture — some Christians included — join him in this question. If our culture thinks that we are standing up only for moral rightness and outmoded tradition, haven’t we lost the war even if we win the battle?
Greg Forster writes for The Gospel Coalition blog that natural law and philosophical arguments elicit the same incredulous response: “It’s true that reproduction is the main reason it is legitimate for the state to institutionalize marriage. But when Americans hear marriage described as an institution that exists for reproduction, that bears no resemblance to their self-understandings and daily experiences of marriage. People don’t recognize themselves in this mirror. And they understandably cringe to hear their marriages described as tools for accomplishing the public good.”
The Pew Research Center says 70 percent of millennials (born after 1980) approve of same-sex marriage. Even those identifying themselves as evangelical Christians support the issue much more than their parents. What is it these young people really want for their gay friends? They want for them the beauty and harmony of a special union. While they may describe it in different terms, they embrace the uniqueness of an intimate, sexual experience that can’t be replicated in any other relationship. If only they knew where the idea originated.
It is because humans are created in God’s image that we inherently grasp the mystery and beauty of sex. God endowed us with a sexual nature that desires oneness and union. Sex captivates us because it resonates with something deep in our souls.
This is our opportunity to connect with people who don’t embrace a biblical worldview and won’t be persuaded by theological arguments. Forster writes, “We must speak the truth about sexuality and romance in the language of sexuality and romance. This can’t be a special, private sexual language for Christians that others will need to learn. It must be a language that speaks to people in terms of their everyday experiences and doesn’t presuppose that you need to be Christian before you can have a humane understanding of sexuality. … This will require constructive efforts that describe how sex transcendently, metaphysically bonds husbands and wives in beautiful ways (Note: it’s not marriage that supernaturally bonds a couple, it’s sex; that will be a key distinction). It will also involve describing the monstrosity of divorce and the tragic suffering of disordered desire.”
This language of sexuality and romance communicates with our culture in ways that doctrine, natural law, philosophy, and political jargon just don’t. The Bible and principles of common grace are essential threads, but we must weave them into tapestries that feel beautiful to the blind.
Lives That Speak Truth
Forster argues that if we awaken new descriptions of sexuality that resonate with those who aren’t familiar with the Bible, philosophy, or law, we can rightly relate each of these elements to the cause of preserving marriage. We can also argue for marriage without compromising the mission of the church. Darrell Bock, executive director of the Hendricks Center for Christian Leadership and Cultural Engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary, reminds us that we are not merely trying to win a moral argument. “We are trying to appeal to people that a life lived with God is the best life to live — to encourage people to examine their relationship with God.” To the extent that we push people away — or are perceived to push people away — in an effort to win a political victory, we sacrifice that mission, he says.
Cortese cautions, “Our aim is not to turn back the clock and re-establish 1950s morality, because 1950s morality was no better than the morality that we have today. Our interest is not in Ozzie and Harriet. Our interest is to turn the clock way further back than that. … We want to turn the clock back to Eden, to the restoration of things to the way God intended them to be.”
In our culture’s obsession with sex and disordered desire, we see a yearning for connection, to feel special and desirable, a longing to fill our souls. Our marriages are an echo of the perfect connection we are offered only in Christ.
“To be naked and unashamed is the picture of the Gospel,” says Cortese. “Where is the only place that you can be naked, safe, and delighted in? With God. Not in the bedroom. Sex is just the closest thing to it. When a man and woman in marital union are one flesh, God is describing for one brief, shining moment what is happening in His restoration of the world. They are in Eden together. The Gospel has won. They are naked and unashamed.”
Christian marriage today is radical, Cortese claims. In our culture, where sex is a commodity, we have the opportunity to turn cultural norms upside down just as Christ did. “To do what the Bible directs as God’s design for marriage is countercultural. If you’re not acquainted with the Bible, when you hear about the relationship of a husband and wife described in Ephesians 5, you would say, ‘that’s ridiculous!’”
“Isn’t it awesome? Christianity, beautifully countercultural once again.”
Susan Fikse writes alongside her full-time job of wife to Jonathan and mom to three energetic kids. She and her family live in San Diego and attend Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Encinitas.