Happy St Patrick’s Day! We’re continuing with 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Yesterday we talked about Culture Battles, and Four Core Values of Evangelical Christianity. Today we explore how we fit those core values together. We don’t want to be like the Taliban, but neither do we abandon biblical truth and go with the flow of every popular trend or opinion.
Feel free to join the Conversation!
Fitting Our Core Values Together
I would suggest that much of the divergence of opinion within Evangelicalism concerning same-sex marriage is because we are struggling to remain faithful to the four core values outlined above. Sometimes we stress one value in such a way that it seems to conflict with another. We affirm each core value, particularly when it applies to straightforward black and white issues. So, Evangelicals believe in the Bible, and are happy to engage in apologetics and reject anti-supernaturalistic assumptions and worldviews. We believe in promoting healthy marriages, and see adultery and sexual promiscuity as unacceptable behaviour within our churches. We preach social justice and support initiatives that tackle the problem of people-trafficking. We try to live in ways that show our love for God, and honour our relationship with Him by not stealing from or abusing anyone and by observing a morality that helps builds a positive and caring society.
So far so good. But simultaneously reflecting all four core values becomes harder when we move from simple black and white issues to more complicated grey areas such as the relationship between religious and civil marriage. At one time ‘marriage’ was something that was practiced and regulated by the Church without interference by the State. Then the State began to regulate marriages and to issue licences. However, marriages continue to be celebrated in churches, as religious ceremonies, yet where the clergy are acting as agents on behalf of the State. Meanwhile, even those who reject religion continue to use religious language when referring to civil marriage.
For example, when comedian Stephen Fry entered into a civil marriage in January 2015 he tweeted, “Gosh. @ElliottGSpencer and I go into a room as two people, sign a book and leave as one. Amazing.” It certainly would be amazing if signing a book somehow turned two people into one. Of course civil marriage makes no claim to transform two people into one – that is a specifically religious claim, based on the biblical concept of marriage as a covenant before God in which two people become one flesh.
It is understandable, therefore, that many Christians see proposals to legally redefine marriage as having a religious significance. It is not as simple as those pretend who would pat us on the head and say, “There, there. Don’t you go confusing yourselves by mixing up religious marriage and civil marriage. You keep on believing what you want and leave the rest of us alone.” There is ambiguity in how the State regulates and practices marriage, and confusion when the same term is being used to describe very different concepts.
This is why many Evangelicals, in trying to remain true to their core values, find it difficult to remain biblically faithful, to affirm a high view of marriage and yet not to advocate discrimination against gays and lesbians who want the same legal rights as everybody else. Such a balancing act is made even more difficult by our innate tendency, one we share with most of humanity, to keep drifting from a grace-centred relationship-based morality back into rule-based morality.
Jesus, of course, did not struggle in this way. He, being the incarnate Son of God, was able to work out how to simultaneously combine 100% truthfulness with 100% mercy and grace. We, however, with our limited knowledge and fallen human natures tend to veer to one extreme or another. The Scripture affirms that Jesus came “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). If we approach any theological or cultural issue or debate in a way that fails to be truth, or in a way that fails to demonstrate grace, then we are being unfaithful to the Gospel. Or, to put it another way, if our ‘truth’ is not gracious then it is not God’s truth, but rather a strident opinion. Similarly, if our ‘grace’ is not truthful then it is not God’s grace, but rather a wishy-washy shrugging of our shoulders – or ‘sloppy agape’ as some of my American friends say (combining a touching love for rhyme with an abysmal inability to pronounce Greek).
Of course there will be those critics outside of our movement who just throw up their hands at this point and say, “Those crazy born-again Christians are so contradictory that it’s a waste of time talking to them at all.” That would be an immature and unhelpful response. First off, few people are so dogmatic in their views and values as to not have to struggle occasionally to resolve moral conflicts and paradoxes. Secondly, Evangelical Christians may be a minority in Irish society, but they are a rapidly growing minority. Also, in a global village, where values increasingly overflow national boundaries, Evangelicals do comprise a significant proportion of the world’s population. A civil society should seek dialogue and discussion to fully include minority groups – and that applies equally to the LGBT community and to Evangelical Christians.
Understanding the role of the four core values outlined above will also help Evangelicals to have a more productive debate among ourselves. We should take the default position that our fellow believers who might take different approaches to us are doing so as part of their struggle to reconcile our mutual core values, rather than immediately assuming that they have abandoned those values. This will make our internal discussions within Evangelicalism on the subject of same-sex marriage more civil and more Christ-honouring.
We are Not the Taliban
The vision of EAI states that the Kingdom of God “represents a third way, an alternative to the power structures of an imposed religious tradition or (the mirror-image) of an imposed absence of religion.” In other words, we should not accept any attempt by the State to force us as Christians to relinquish our distinctive beliefs or practices. However, neither are we in the business of persuading the State to impose our understanding of personal Christian morality upon others who are not of our faith.
If we were to follow such an agenda, on the mistaken idea that Ireland is a ‘Christian country’ and therefore has the right to impose Christian standards of personal morality on non-Christians, then that would implicitly acknowledge the right of other societies in other parts of the world to impose their morality upon Christians. For example, if a Christian country has the right to impose ‘Christian’ laws upon non-Christians then a majority Muslim country has the right to impose Sharia law upon Christians. Such an endorsement of ‘might is right’ would be a betrayal of our brothers and sisters in the Persecuted Church worldwide.
Of course none of this should hinder us from engaging in political activity, or from using our votes and influence to seek a more just and fair society. Evangelical Christians are not in the business of using political privilege to force the Bible down people’s throats, but we should, like Wilberforce and Luther King, allow the Bible to inform our views so that we become better citizens and help build a better society.
Swimming against the Current
There is often the perception that the majority of Evangelical Christians, in not immediately jumping to embrace the concept of same-sex marriage, seem to be swimming against the current of popular opinion. There is no doubt that society in general has become much more accepting of same-sex attraction and relationships, and the national mood in Ireland and elsewhere appears to be swinging quite dramatically in favour of broadening the definition of marriage to include same-sex partnerships. Many people would agree with former-Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore’s assessment of same-sex marriage as “the civil rights issue of this generation.” Those who fail to support proposed changes in the law are often portrayed as reactionary conservatives and compared to the people who tried to halt the abolition of slavery or who tried to defend segregation and discrimination in the American South fifty years ago.
Many younger Evangelicals struggle with the fear that they, like the supporters of slavery or segregation, will look back in future years and see that they were part of a movement that proved to be ‘on the wrong side of history.’
I have two major problems with such comparisons. First of all, any sober assessment of history tells us that Evangelical Christians were at the forefront of the campaigns to abolish slavery and segregation. Secondly, it is unreasonable to assume that the task of the Christian Church is to unquestioningly ‘move with the times’ and to roll in behind every wave of popular opinion. One of my theological heroes is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor executed by the Nazis in Flossenbürg in 1945. Bonhoeffer, and other members of what became known as ‘The Confessing Church,’ resisted the tide of popular opinion that blamed Germany’s ills on the Jews. The section of the church that moved with the times and flowed with the current of popular opinion encompassed those who betrayed Christ by supporting the Nazi regime.
Please note that I am referencing Bonhoeffer for the sole purpose of demonstrating that the current of popular opinion is no guarantee that a cause is right, nor, if the Church is truly called forth by God, should it automatically reflect popular trends and opinions. For what it’s worth, I would emphatically repudiate and denounce any attempt to compare the so-called ‘gay lobby’ to any totalitarian movement. Such comparisons are hysterical and lazy – in fact, just as hysterical and lazy as equating opponents of same-sex marriage with supporters of slavery or segregation. Those on either side of the debate who resort to such crude mischaracterisation make it all the harder for the rest of us to engage in sensible discussion.