Friday, March 22, 2013

Gay Marriage—Does it Change Anything? Further Thoughts

In my earlier blog piece after the passing of the second reading of the Gay Marriage bill in NZ, I suggested that in reality the passing of this legislation changes little for Christians who uphold traditional marriage. While many of us will be upset and saddened our response should not be to be reactive prophets of woe, defensive and bitter toward politicians (they are people too) because they have chosen this path, or continuing to regale the world with moralism. No doubt each Member of Parliament all acted in good conscience, and that is all a person can do in any situation. Rather, our response should be to dig deeper into God and work harder to be the people of God we are called to be—people who live out of the call of the gospel. This means being people who live the gospel full of grace and seasoned with salt (

There was one additional question that came to me as I continue to ponder this situation. That is the challenge we now face as Christians and churches which uphold traditional marriage where the gay, lesbian, transgender and bi-sexual community is concerned.  As more gay and lesbians marry and adopt children in the years ahead, some from those will seek out Jesus and churches. Some will have leadership potential, which raises a range of questions around gays and lesbians in church leadership. Similarly, as we go about our lives at work and in mission, we will increasingly encounter these people, working and playing alongside them. Some people who believe in Jesus and churches with a more liberal theology which support gay marriage will be fully open to these people and they will have no problem being welcomed as full participants in the life of the church (e.g. Many others will not, and will struggle to know how to handle it. I suspect that, unless there is a great liberalisation of the wider church over the next decades where sexual ethics is concerned, most churches will remain of the view that gay and lesbian marriage is no marriage at all and a distortion of God’s intention for humanity. The question is I have is, how do we handle this? We face a real clash of our view of “truth” and the Christian imperative for “grace.”

This is something that is hard to theorise on because each situation will be different and believers will have to work this out as they go—learning will be discovered in the journey. However, a few thoughts I had are these.

First, I believe that, once this is passed, as I am sure it will be, it is essential that our public voice on this issue is very carefully thought through. Strident voices making threats of further action, apocalyptic woe, rebuking politicians and parties, demands for referenda and further politicizing, may seem a good idea and a natural response, but I suspect if it will only further to alienate us from the world around us—a world we want to reach with the gospel message of salvation in Jesus.

I would prefer us working to ensure that our own views within the church are well-conceived, and then get on with the core work of the gospel—worship, being the people of God in community, and sharing the message of Jesus to the world in attitude, deed and word. We need to think through how we respond and relate to a world with a very divergent ethic to our own—our best minds need to work through at a new level how to engage in mission in the secular west. We need to get our own houses in order, teaching our people well, so they live the gospel as Christ called us, including in the area of sexuality. In 1 Pet 3:1–7 Peter urges women in the Asian churches who are married to husbands who have rejected the word, to win them without words. There is a time for us to realise that it is time to move on and move the message to the heart of the gospel, Jesus Christ and salvation. Perhaps the time will come in the future when others will readdress this issue. I sense in my spirit now is not the time, we need to get on with being the people of God.

Secondly, all churches and denominations which are involved in marriage will have to consider at a macro and/or local level how they will respond to this new law. Some might pull out of state marriage, and simply have blessings for those who have become legally married through a registry process. Some might agree to conduct gay marriage. Some may allow ministers and churches to decide on conscience. Some will continue on, marrying only heterosexual couples. It will be essential that each church and denomination has a clear position on this, or they will become subject to the State and human rights legislation. In some very liberal or evangelical churches and denominations this will be a simple process, in others it will difficult and contentious as there will be strong and differing views on this. Whatever the situation, churches and denominations will need to be clear on their position and this may be a painful process. May the Lord’s people conduct these conversations in the grace of Christ!

Thirdly, I am particularly concerned that we help our younger people negotiate the area of sexuality much more intentionally, thoughtfully, and graciously. It is a confusing world for young people with sexuality becoming a minefield, with many confused through conflicting messages, accessibility of sexual gratification through a multiplicity of sources, orientation questions, guilt and shame, and how to respond to it all. It must be very tough being a teenager today! We need to ramp up our support for young people to help them through this difficult area. They need support and space to work through the questions many are facing. We need well-trained safe people they can go to help them in their journeys.

Finally, I believe the greatest challenge will be for churches which uphold the traditional Christian position on marriage is how to remain open communities of grace welcoming all. Without doubt as the years roll on, gay and lesbian married couples will come to church with their kids. Some will be gifted and want to contribute. As with all people, they are God’s image bearers and Christ was clear—we are to love all humanity.  While being always committed to the gospel which is very clear on sexual ethics, we need to ensure that we are open non-judgmental communities of grace welcoming them. In his teaching Jesus endorsed holiness and goodness including sexual purity, but he also was unafraid of intimate fellowship with sinners, tax-collectors and prostitutes.

Our churches are full of people who without exception are sinners who fall short of the glory of God. We must resolve to continue to be communities of forgiveness and healing to all, no matter who enters our doors. God’s love is there for all of those made in his image. And when new people arrive, whatever their struggles, sin and weaknesses, we must meet them with relentless grace. 

Our supreme challenge then is to find a way to continue to uphold and proclaim a Christian sexual ethic, but in a way that is saturated with grace and gentleness. This will not be an easy path as we hold in tension our view of truth and the imperative of love. I suspect it starts with humility because our churches are already full of people who have fallen short in this area. We will no doubt fail one way or another as the future unfolds, but we must never give up on our determination to find a way to embrace this challenge. We will discover how to do this as we set out on the path—may we do it faithfully to Christ who showed us the way.


David Layzell said...

I think there are some problems that we have not yet faced.

One is that our Biblical interpretation is always modified by scientific and cultural knowledge.
There is very little evidence that people can change their sexuality; it is NOT a matter of choice. While no evidence of a “gay” gene has been found, a recent article in “The Quarterly Review of Biology” states that there are special genetic markers, “epi-marks”, that may cause homosexuality when transmitted from one generation to the next. We do not judge people for genetic conditions, why should we judge them for homosexuality?

The second is that it is very easy to state that we accept homosexuals provided that they are celibate. I remember being in the 1970's in a large church which taught that divorced people could not remarry. There was a lovely young woman of around 25 who had been divorced. We would say "Well she can never remarry, but God will look after her". With 50 -60 years of life left to her, we denied her a basic need; to have a loving sexual relationship. You can guess what happened - she left the church. I have no idea if she left the faith too.

Third point. Anyone who knows Christian twenty somethings will know that some of them will be having sex and still attending evangelical/pentecostal churches. They feel no guilt, nor do their friends mind. The only differences between premarital heterosexual sex and gay sex is that with the former, they can "make it right" by marriage.

The gay marriage issue does not change the above, but it does bring it into the open, whereas perhaps we might prefer not to have to deal with it.

David Layzell

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James Barron said...

Hi Mark,
You write as if the only people taking notice of (some parts of) the church's attitude towards and treatment of GLBT people are the affected GLBT people. If that were true then ignoring or alienating somewhere between 4 & 10% of the population would be yes undesirable but surviveable.
The fact is however the church needs to evangelise and for the unchurched (as well as most younger church people) the church's attitude to GLBT people is an important indicator of the church being somewhere they would consider going. It is not just one thing down on a list of issues that make the church unattractive either - it's the number one "turn off"
(according to a new study, released by Olive Tree Media asking about the specific reasons why people will not return to church or non-believers even entertain the idea of embracing Christianity. One thousand and ninety four (1,094) Australians were surveyed as a national representative sample and this was followed up with three focus groups of non-Christians (Gen Y, Gen X and Baby Boomers). When asked the question ‘To what extent does the church’s teaching on the following block or engage you’, respondents ticked boxes such as hypocrisy, judging others, the role of women, religious wars, suffering, issues around money and exclusivity.
Anti Gay attitudes comes in as the No.1 blocker at 69 per cent.
I don’t doubt that the percentages in NZ would be higher given "Family First" type rhetoric against the Marriage Equality bill (& other stuff - letter in the latest NZ Baptist says homosexuals are the same as murderers!)
In short a church's attitude to LGBT New Zealanders will determine far more than if just LGBT people will consider that church - it is a litmus test used by most unbelievers - and also I know by the young people growing up in a congregation in determining if the church of their youth is their spiritual home as adults.
Matthew 25 37-40 speaks of how the Lord will judge the "rightious" - NZ society is also capable of coming to the same conclusions for the same reasons!

James Barron said...

Public Religion Research survey on youth & Christianity

Millennials’ feelings toward present-day Christianity are fairly ambivalent. Approximately three-quarters (76%) of younger Millennials say that modern-day Christianity “has good values and principles,” and 63% agree that contemporary Christianity “consistently shows love for other people.” On the other hand, nearly two-thirds (64%) of Millennials say that “anti-gay” describes present-day Christianity somewhat or very well. And more than 6-in-10 (62%) Millennials also believe that present-day Christianity is “judgmental.”

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