Day 3 – Who Owns Marriage: The Conversation (Mon 16th March)

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We’re asking you to join the conversation that will become an important new book – “Who Owns Marriage?” – published in early April by Evangelical Alliance Ireland! Each morning, for 8 days, segments of the book will be posted here on the Evangelical Seanchai blog. Feel free to add your comments and observations (preferably short and pithy, rather than essays). Or indeed to email them to

A small number of the best contributions (by that we mean the most thought-provoking, not necessarily those that agree with the premises of the book) will be published as part of the conversation section of the finished book. Obviously comments that are hateful to anyone, libellous, or trollish will be deleted. Anonymous comments, or those made under a pen-name, cannot be included in the book.

Today we talk about Culture Battles, and Four Core Values of Evangelical Christianity.

Feel free to join the Conversation!

Culture Battles
The phrase ‘culture wars’ has been applied to the efforts of those in the United States who are continually trying to keep their nation’s law and public policy more closely aligned to traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and practices. I would suggest that these would be better described as ‘culture battles.’ Indeed, viewed as a whole they are strongly reminiscent of a series of rear-guard actions that, irrespective of the outcome of each individual battle, results in an unsustainable accumulation of casualties. Every time Christians manage to act and speak in ways that are mean or unloving, then they lessen their ability to be a positive force for change.
The war in which Evangelical Christians are engaged is primarily one of overcoming hatred and hopelessness by exalting Jesus Christ and spreading His message of love, forgiveness and salvation. Many of us on this side of the Atlantic would be of the opinion that often our brethren in the US are so determined to win cultural battles at any cost that they are in danger of losing the real war.
As Evangelical Christians in the Republic of Ireland our narrative is very different to that of Evangelicals in the United States. We are a minority that has always existed as a counter-cultural force. We have never had a place in the corridors of power or been a dominant cultural voice in our nation. In the past, some of us thought this was a weakness or deficiency that could be corrected as we grew in numbers and influence. Today we are coming to realise that this is rather a strength that helps us to model a more authentic version of Christianity.
It was Lord Acton, the British Roman Catholic politician and historian, who coined the phrase, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” History bears out the truth of that observation. Some of the most cringe-worthy moments of Church history occurred when the Church abused its position of power in society. Conversely, the Christian Church has often been at its best when it was a persecuted minority. That, perhaps, explains why some Christians in Europe and North America are so quick to claim that they are being persecuted when they don’t get their own way on social and cultural issues.

Core Value Number One: Faithfulness to Scripture
Our core values must guide our actions and public statements. If we lose sight of that then our activism, no matter how well intentioned, will ultimately be a denial of the Gospel. I would suggest that there are at least four core values at stake as we approach the vexed issue of same-sex marriage:
The first core value is faithfulness to Scripture. As Evangelical Christians we believe that the Bible gives us our most complete revelation of the Person and nature of God. Our understanding of the inspiration of Scripture is a powerful incentive for us to study the Bible with a submissive spirit so as to discover what it is actually saying to us, rather than seeking for Bible verses that we can cherry pick to affirm or justify our wishful thinking, assumptions, traditions and beliefs.
Of course, Evangelicals must not treat the Bible as a book of magic spells where we can pull verses out of context at will and twist them to suit our personal agendas. We see a progression in Scripture where the Old Testament foreshadowed and prepared the way for the coming of Jesus. Essentially our interpretation of the Bible must be Christocentric. The ultimate revelation of God in Jesus Christ is the key to understanding the rest of the Bible, including the Old Testament laws and the New Testament instructions given to churches by Paul and other apostolic writers.
This means that, when it comes to the issue of same-sex marriage, we should practice exegesis – drawing out what the biblical authors intended to convey to their original audiences. Then, using that as a foundation, we ask how we can apply that in our own day and in a way that is consistent with the revelation we have of Jesus.
The opposite of exegesis is eisegesis – where we read our assumptions and values into the text so as to make the Bible say what we want it to say. Eisegesis is ultimately incompatible with Evangelicalism. You cannot claim to acknowledge the Bible as a source of authority if you are interpreting the Bible in such a subjective way as to rob it of any objective meaning.
One way of understanding the difference between exegesis and eisegesis is to think of a CSI TV show. Anyone who has watched that genre of entertainment will be familiar with the storyline where the police want the evidence to confirm their assumptions of who committed the crime. But the brave forensic scientists resist police pressure and intimidation saying, “We have to follow the evidence, wherever it takes us.” Exegesis means being as objective as possible when studying Scripture and following the evidence, even if it doesn’t take us to a comfortable conclusion!

Core Value Number Two: A High View of Marriage
Our understanding of Scripture leads us to view marriage as a wonderful and precious gift from God. We cannot simply treat marriage as if it were a man-made tradition or convenient social convention. For Evangelical Christians, this view of marriage is bound up with our approach to Scripture. We see marriage as being fundamental to the very creation of humanity.
However, others who do not share our faith also hold to a high view of marriage. The reason why so many people want the right to use the word ‘marriage’ is because it is a value-laden term. Even though we have all witnessed disastrous and even abusive marriages, that rarely stops people from having their own dreams and ambitions of being happily married.
This is why Evangelicals should resist any movement that would seek to redefine marriage in a way that minimises it or makes it less wonderful or special. For example there are many at this time who would argue that marriage is a legal contract – nothing more and nothing less. This is quite apart from the issue of same-sex marriage, for there are those that would also apply this minimalistic definition of marriage to heterosexual unions. If we take a value-laden term and then insist on using it a way that drains it of its value, then it does not make the mundane special. All it does is devalue a word that formerly meant a lot.
For example, we are all familiar with the mantra that we should eat ‘five a day’ – designed to boost our health by encouraging us to eat more fruit and vegetables. But imagine if pork farmers, in order to increase their sales, managed to convince us that pork and bacon should be reclassified as vegetables and therefore included in our ‘five a day.’ Such a move would, quite obviously, not make pork any healthier. All it would achieve would be to hollow out the term ‘vegetable’ to a point where, from a nutritional standpoint, it became meaningless.
In the same way, if we redefine and minimise ‘marriage’ to mean nothing more than the legal recognition of two people making a commitment to live with each other in some way, then that will not make a legal contract any more meaningful – but it will very quickly make the word ‘marriage’ meaningless when it comes to comes to concepts such as faithfulness and sacrificial love.
This is why the minority of Evangelicals who see the Bible as validating same-sex marriage, such as Matthew Vines, still see marriage as being something special and holy. I might disagree with their biblical interpretations and their conclusions, but on one level I have much more respect for them than I would have for someone who wishes to confine marriage to heterosexual couples yet sees marriage as nothing more than a legal contract.
I think that, deep down, most people, even if they are no longer religious, still see marriage as being something profound and special. They want marriage to be holy, or magical. This is why, even though some claim that marriage is nothing more than a legal contract, that they usually celebrate it in ways that would be wholly inappropriate to any other kind of legal contract.
For example, think of the most financially significant legal contract that most of us will sign – the purchase of a house. We simply sign a few forms and then let the solicitors do their stuff without any need for our physical presence. Eventually we get a phone call to inform us that contracts are exchanged, everything is stamped, and the property has now changed hands. If we really believed that marriage was nothing more than a legal contract then that is all that would happen at a civil marriage.
Imagine if we celebrated house purchases in the same way most people celebrate civil weddings. The prospective house purchaser would meet up with friends, usually of the same gender, a few days before the exchange of contracts and go on a drinking spree (perhaps with a large L-plate affixed to their back). Invitations would be sent to family and friends to attend the stamping of the contracts at the Revenue Commissioners’ offices. This would occur in a room designed to look as much like a church as possible, where everybody wore their best clothes, where candles were lit, and a tax official presided over a quasi-religious stamping of the documents to the accompaniment of soft music and poetry readings. That would be followed by a lavish banquet which would cost the purchaser thousands of euro.
The reason why we don’t purchase houses in such a way is, of course, because we recognise that, when all is said and done, purchasing a house is nothing more than a legal contract, albeit a very expensive one. Now, the rigmarole that surrounds a civil wedding often has little to do with any biblical worldview, but it does constitute a tacit admission that most people see marriage, even the civil variety, as being so much more than a legal contract.
We might dismiss the ceremonial aspects of civil marriage as being nothing more than a manifestation of primitive folk-religion, as when otherwise non-religious people in England constructed shrines of flowers to mark the death of Princess Diana. But a more serious question relates to why the civil authorities facilitate such behaviour. Why, in a secular society where we are supposed to have separation of Church and State, does the State encourage quasi-religious ceremonies on public property to mark civil marriages? Why don’t they just tell the bride and groom to simply sign their contracts and leave it to their solicitors to do the rest?
The obvious answer is that most people would reject such a soulless approach to marriage because, even if they are not religious, they instinctively know that marriage is much more than a legal contract. Therefore the State, rather than treating marriage as a purely legal matter, had to encourage religion-like ceremonies to accompany civil marriage. This is reminiscent of how the Jacobins of the French Revolution, although mostly atheists who suppressed Christianity, were afraid to follow their beliefs to the logical conclusion of a religionless society. Instead they organised elaborate pageants to honour ‘the Goddess Reason.’

Core Value Number Three: A Passion for Social Justice
Evangelicals believe in the dignity and equality of all people, created in God’s image to live in love and holiness. At EAI we believe that these principles are so fundamental to the New Testament that we cannot ignore them and still be Christians in any meaningful sense. It is true that there have been those throughout history who have claimed to be Christian yet have practiced discrimination and slavery, but that is not part of our spiritual tradition. Our inspiration when working out how our faith interacts with wider society, politics and culture comes not from Constantine or Augustine, but rather from figures such as William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King. These were not just social reformers who happened to be Evangelicals. They were first and foremost Evangelical Christians whose biblical convictions led them to strive for significant positive change in their societies.
We all have a tendency to be more passionate about fighting injustice and discrimination when the victims of injustice are those whom we identify and agree with. Sadly our responses tend to be much more lukewarm if those who are being marginalised are not in agreement with our own lifestyle and values. Many Evangelicals, for example, tend to be very vocal about issues such as people trafficking or the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, but we are remarkably silent when it comes to homophobia or Islamophobia.
I love history, and I believe there is great value in taking a big picture perspective – viewing issues in the light of long-term trends rather than simply looking for short-term goals and victories. However, if I leave history aside for a moment and look at my own short lifetime (I am 52 years old), I must acknowledge that gays have suffered more bullying, discrimination and marginalisation in Western Europe and North America than almost any other group of people. It is a matter of shame that professing Christians have often been complicit in that marginalisation rather than confronting it.
Today, in Ireland, people still fear physical violence because of their sexual orientation. Irrespective of whether homosexual behaviour is compatible with our own religious practices or not, that reality should appal every one of us. Rory O’Neill has said, “I’m 45, and I’ve never got to hold hands in public without first considering the risk.” In case anyone thinks Rory is being over-dramatic, bear in mind that in January 1999, Robert Drake, an American living in Sligo, was left permanently brain damaged after being assaulted because of his sexual orientation.
Studies in the United States have revealed that LGBT students are three times as likely as non-LGBT students to say they do not feel safe at school, and that 90% have been harassed or assaulted in some way during the last year. In 2012 a survey in the UK reported that more than half of gay, lesbian and bisexual respondents aged between 11 and 19 had suffered homophobic bullying at school. Even more worryingly, 40% of the victims of such bullying had attempted or contemplated suicide.
You would think that any right thinking person who has even the faintest scrap of compassion for children would want to do all they can to end such behaviour. Imagine my amazement, therefore, when I read that, in 2015, Coláiste Eoin, a Catholic-run school in Dublin, had cancelled a workshop on homophobic bullying, citing “the need to hear both sides of the argument.” For me, this was a truly ‘head in hands’ moment. What is the other side of the argument to an anti-bullying message? That bullying is acceptable and should be tolerated?
I would argue that Evangelicals in Ireland, perhaps more so than in some other societies, should have the ability to be proactive in opposing discrimination and marginalisation. This is because our own narrative is one of being a minority. Speaking from my own experience as an Evangelical pastor, I know something of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of discrimination in a society that favours and privileges the majority.
Let me immediately qualify that by stressing that I am not claiming that our experience as Evangelicals in any way equates to the harassment and bullying experienced by many gay people. I can count on the fingers of one-hand the number of people I know of in Ireland who have been beaten up for being born-again Christians! But I am saying that our narrative as a minority should help us to be proactive in standing up and speaking out on behalf of other minorities. When it comes to racism, for example, we have been very good at this. When it comes to homophobic bullying, however, we have not done nearly so well.
The relevance of this is that we are called to have compassion for those who are hurting, and we should reject any mode of debate or discussion that merely seeks to condemn without offering hope and justice. For example, if our contribution to the same-sex marriage debate is couched in such terms as to alienate gay people, demonise them as somehow posing a threat, or to stir up hatred or fear, then we will have grievously violated one of our core values. If we can’t discuss our principles without becoming hateful then we would be much better off remaining silent.

Core Value Number Four: Morality as a Sign of Relationship
As Christians our morality and ethics, in sexual matters as much as any other area of our lives, should be pleasing to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We are commanded to live as children of light in a dark world, but we need to remember that our concept of faith, and therefore of morality, is based primarily on our relationship with Jesus Christ.
The reason I stress this is because many religions base their morality on rules, rather than on relationship. In rule-based morality, you sign up to a religion (or, more likely, are born into a religion) and that places you under an obligation to obey the rules. This is the reasoning, for example, that underpins the application of Sharia law in many societies. True, there are some societies that simply apply Sharia to everybody as the law of the land. In other cultures, however, Sharia law is only applied to Muslims, as distinct from civil law which applies to everyone. The idea is that being a Muslim means you are obliged to obey the rules.
It is tempting, when Evangelicals try to explain to those who are not of our faith why our morality leads us to do certain things or to refrain from certain activities, to simplify the explanation by presenting it as a matter of rules. Muslims have certain rules, as do Jews and, it might seem easy to explain that certain things are against the rules of Evangelical Christianity. But that would be to fundamentally misunderstand the Evangelical approach to morality.
You do not become an Evangelical Christian by agreeing to believe certain theological propositions, undergoing a ritual such as baptism and then agreeing to keep the rules. No, you become an Evangelical Christian by entering into a relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. This is obviously not a relationship of equals, God being God and people being people, but it is a relationship that is based on love and trust. In a genuine relationship, you try to avoid doing things that would cause grief or pain to the person you love.
For example, in my relationship with my wife, we have learned that we avoid certain ways of speaking and behaving because we love each other, don’t want to hurt each other and want to honour and bless each other. For example, I will not engage in any kind of sexual liaison with anyone else because I know that to do so would cause great pain to the woman that I love more than life itself. It’s not just that I’m afraid of punishment if I break the rule against adultery – my faithfulness to my wife is based on relationship rather than rules.
Relationship-based morality is not an excuse for moral laxity, indeed it should always produce a higher, not lower, level of behaviour than rule-based morality. This is why, for example, Jesus said His followers should not just abstain from murder (keeping the rule) but should also love their enemies (living in a way that reflects relationship with Christ).
In the same way, rule-based morality might cause us to refrain from adultery (keeping the rules). But what about behaviour that is less than complete faithfulness to one’s spouse, but which is not specifically covered by the rules. What about kissing someone else? Or holding hands in a romantic way? Or even behaving flirtatiously with someone else. Under rule-based morality there is a temptation to ask, “What is the maximum I can get away with without actually breaking the rules and making God mad at me?”
But relationship-based morality is different. Behaving flirtatiously with someone else might not break any rules, but I know it would cause pain to my wife, therefore I know to avoid any such behaviour. Relationship-based morality, then, is motivated by a desire to please God because we love Him, not just to avoid punishment for breaking the rules and making Him mad at us. The idea of “what is the maximum I can get away with” is alien to relationship-based morality.
Another major difference between rule-based and relationship-based morality relates to how we view other people, particularly those who do not share our moral values. Any kind of morality necessarily involves sacrifice and restraint. In rule-based morality, we tend to either feel superior to others, or else get mad at them. Indeed, some religious people alternate between both these attitudes. At one moment, they are looking down their noses at the people who aren’t as holy as them. A few minutes later they are aggravated because other people, by breaking the rules, seem to be having so much fun. Often the only way they can console themselves is by reminding themselves how much those sinners are going to suffer later in life or in eternity. Rule-based morality, then, tends to lead to Pharisaical judgementalism.
In relationship-based morality, however, the focus is much more on working out our own walk with God. We certainly believe our relationship is precious, and we want to encourage others to enjoy a similar relationship with God, but there’s little room there for judgementalism or jealousy. Coming back to the example of a marriage relationship, I would like it if more people could enjoy their marriages more. But if my focus is on loving my wife as best I can, then I’m really not bothered about looking down on people who conduct their marriages differently. And I’m certainly not tempted to be jealous of anyone who is unfaithful to their spouse.
This means that an Evangelical passion for holiness, and our search for morality, should lead us more to self-examination and repentance than to an obsession with judging and condemning the actions of others. For example, it is more important for Christians to be passionate about practicing marriage in ways that reflect God’s love to our spouses than it is to be zealous for ‘defending marriage’ in society.
If we are unduly preoccupied with what other consenting adults get up to in their bedrooms, or if we feel a yearning to see the law of the land enforce our morality onto others, then that may well be an indicator that our morality is not truly Evangelical.


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