Beliefs that dare not speak their name

I’ve hesitated long and hard about whether to say anything about the debate over gay marriage and the government’s proposals. I’ve held back for a couple of reasons. My work has a view on this. And it seems impossible to say anything that casts doubt on the validity of allowing gay couples to marry without being denounced as a homophobe and a bigot.

Because I don’t think that the plans are a good idea. And that probably makes me unpopular, both with those outside and some inside the church.

Today on twitter I’ve observed a lot of people despairing at the Church of England’s response to the consultation in which they urge the government to rethink changing marriage in the way that is proposed.

Because that is what the government are planning on doing. Whether you support the proposals or not, if these plans are implemented marriage will be different in a couple of years time to what it is now.

I want to make a few scattered comments about this whole escapade. I want to do so in the carefullest possible way as this is a subject that is not detached from people’s individual lives, emotions and identity. Maybe it would help by pulling out some of the slightly spurious points often made against those who would prefer that marriage remained as between a man and a woman.

I believe that there are ways to live that are better than other ways to live. And I know that this means that for some people it will seem as though I’m criticising the way that they choose to live. But I think that sexual relationship should only take place between men and women, and between one of each in the context of marriage. And marriage matters because it is placing the union between two people before God and under his authority. It is about submitting not only to each other but principally to God.

And as far as I can see that means we must do our best to live lives that honour God. Even if that means doing things we find hard, and not doing things which otherwise we may choose to do. For devout Christians who experience same sex attraction may well choose to put their belief in and devotion to God before that, and choose to live another way. This is not something I pretend to understand. It is not something that I pretend is easy. It is not something that I would pretend is not counter to the way that the world would choose to order things.

But as Peter Ould tweeted earlier today, “The moment you argue that Church should ‘catch up with society’ you demonstrate your theology is of man and not God”. Because while the church has so often got so many things so very wrong, and in it’s dealing with gay and lesbian people at times its actions have been horrific, that does not mean it should adjust its view because something is deemed out of fashion, or even intolerant.

The church is accused of inconsistency, and it has so often been guilty of that, but that’s not a reason to drop all of the values it holds to and rush towards a lowest common denominator that does its best to keep everyone onside. The church is told to not think that something is wrong, all the while told to stand stronger against other things that are wrong. Told to worry more about poverty and the injustices of the world because holding a view on sexuality will make people think the church is out of touch. It’s curious that at a time when morality is coming back into vogue, when questions are being asked about the value of money in our lives, or the isolation created by ongoing technological  advancement, the church is told to pipe down.

Many have commented today that the church accepts divorce but opposes gay marriage. Often that’s the case. Divorce isn’t what God wants, but sometimes it’s the best way out of difficult circumstances. Confusing? Yes, but often handling the tensions in the way that we live will look like that. God is redemptive, and although marriages should stay together many will not. So there is hope in the hardest of situations, which is why divorce should be allowed. To introduce gay marriage is to create something new, and in doing so change something old.

And then there is the West Wing argument. About shellfish and mixed fabrics. It’s a neat little charge but it misses any attempt to understand the purposes of different Old Testament laws. This isn’t the place but I think a decent case can be made for those laws to keep people clean before a holy God and therefore not needed since Jesus’ death and resurrection have made us all clean; those laws given to aid the governance of Israel (many of which we can learn from without direct application), and those laws which give us moral guidance on how best to live.

The particular proposals that the government make suggest that a distinction can be made between civil and religious marriage. That’s nonsense, there are civil and religious weddings but they are just two different doors to the same room.

The proposals also allude to the fact that some people are banned from marriage, that’s just not true, anyone can get married, but only to someone of the opposite sex. Trying to allow gay couples to marry is trying to make marriage into something that it simply is not. On one level marriage will always be marriage, and nothing that the government says will change that. It’s like trying to suggest that the government should pass a law allowing two floor bungalows to be built.

A big part of me wants to stay quite about this debate. I want to shut up. Turn off my computer, deactivate twitter for a while and stay away while the government push their case, opponents dismiss it and are subsequently tarred and feather in their virtual stocks.

But that’s actually what makes me speak up and say my piece because I shouldn’t be shamed into silence. It is what worries me most if these proposals go through: that I won’t be able to hold, and promote, a view that marriage is and should be between a man and a woman. I’m not expecting every one to agree with me, much as I don’t expect everyone to agree with many of the things that I believe. When they do perhaps I’m a little too closely following the crowd.

Do I think that the world will collapse if gay marriage is constructed ex nihilo within the legal system? I don’t. Do I think that sometimes Christians have used language in their opposition that has made the charge of bigot stick a little easier? Yes.

But I don’t think that the church, and other opponents, should stay quiet when the government are introducing something which isn’t in keeping with what they believe is best for the world around them. And a world in which Christians are committed to making God’s kingdom come. That means fighting poverty and promoting relationships that reflect God’s desire. It means speaking truth in a way that people see God’s love and truth in the content of what you say and in the heart that lies behind it.

And this is not easy. And I’ve not really dealt with many of the issues in play but this is already plenty long enough.

More information about this topic and a briefing on the Evangelical Alliance’s position can be found here. And you can respond to the consultation here.

What do you think, do you think Christians should back gay marriage? Should they stay quiet about their views? Or loudly make their opposition know?

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17 thoughts on “Beliefs that dare not speak their name

  1. Good to hear a reasoned response on this very sensitive and difficult issue. I’ve been taking the ‘head-in-the-sand’ approach, but commend you for sticking your head above the parapet!

  2. I think that Christians should definitely not support “gay marriage”, for all the reasons you have already said. If we claim to be in a relationship with God, we only know who God is because what we read in the Bible. To start saying that parts are no longer correct is to call into question the God you claim to believe in, or worse yet to remake God in your own image.
    How we respond to the insanity of a political class obsessed with making everyone the same is an interesting one. Certainly speak out and debate those who call for things against God’s will. And certainly not be afraid to speak Truth wherever you are. However beyond that I am not sure how far our actions should go.
    If “gay marriage” becomes law the I, for one, would choose to have no part in state marriage as I would not want to be supporting something that goes against God. That doesn’t necessarily mean I would never get married, but if I did I would only have the religious aspect. This form of civil “disobedience” would be an interesting exercise, especially if marriage rates were to drop like a stone if al Christian couples were to do the same, as it might show the politicians that they have it wrong.
    But I am also reminded of what Jesus said about taxes, that we must pay to Caesar what is his and pay to God what is God’s. So I am left with a slight wonder as to whether my suggestion of avoiding the civil aspect of marriage would be to go against the giving to Caesar side of things.

  3. Very Interesting Thoughts Danny, Heres a thought (and yes it is VERY much dodging the question of Gay Marriage, simply because i just don’t know what to think on the subject) What would you think of The Legal Term Marriage being entirely removed and the term Civil Partnership, Regardless of the sexuality of the couple (Homosexual or Hetrosexual), being implimented in its place?

    If we remove it as a legal term it frees it up for individual conciounce to determine what marriage is. It also means you cannot be accussed a hate crime or some other such nonsence for teaching people that marriage is between a man and a woman only (assuming thats what you believe, and so long as you don’t persecute people who disagree with this point of view).

    This came out of a conversation i had with my Brother on the subject and I’m genuinely interested to hear what people might think of the idea.

    • Thanks Colin, in principle I have sympathy with the idea of separating marriage from the legal partnership, (for the Church of England this poses far further reaching consequences), but the problem with that is that it would mean abdicating a vision for marriage and the promotion of this as something good for all of society.

  4. Really enjoyed reading this Danny – as usual it is sensitive and well thought out. After a torrent of tweets about how out of touch the Church is, by many within the Church too, it is good to hear someone speaking good Christian sense! Well done for speaking out…

  5. Hi Danny,
    Interesting thoughts, and kudos for being able to speak to a sensitive subject without being disparaging – even though I disagree with you. I’ve tried to be as careful in my response and if I come across as being adversarial then please appreciate that it’s not my intent and not the tone I want to be read in (the internet doesn’t give much scope for tone sometimes…)

    Firstly I don’t think it’s a case of “The moment you argue that Church should ‘catch up with society’ you demonstrate your theology is of man and not God”. Church must often play catch up to society, because of the line of development and consistency that it must walk. Churches have been for slavery and against inter-racial marriage. In fact, it’s my understanding that inter-racial marriage was the gay marriage of its time. And now it’s a non issue. Kind of interesting that a lot of these issues were later overturned with the help of people within the church. Martin Luther King Jr leaps to mind, as do a couple others.

    Our unchanging theology is to love people unflinchingly. Our unchanging theology is to love Jesus. The core of our unchanging theology is that Jesus died for our sins, to reconcile us to God.

    But I see all that as an ongoing journey. I don’t see that it’s beyond our reach to say “actually this mindset didn’t help us love each other or God. We can change our mindset on this issue because doing so helps us to love God and each other more.” This isn’t inconsistency – it’s admitting that maybe we have been wrong in our approach toward consistency.

    If the church had in the past wholeheartedly embraced gay-marriage it wouldn’t have been seen as fickle and changeable – it probably wouldn’t even have been seen as progressive. But it would have been seen as a beacon of love and acceptance, full of flawed individuals who love other flawed individuals. As it is, the church is being dragged down this route kicking and screaming, and just looks like something between a dinosaur and a spoiled child that does’t want to share its toys.

    You speak of gay-marriage – and homosexual conduct – as being a moral issue. The big question I would ask is – why is it a moral issue for you? From a biblical standpoint it just says ‘don’t do it’ in much the same way as the ‘shellfish and mixed garments argument’ but doesn’t provide moral reasoning outside the contextual. Paul talks about women not speaking and covering their heads in a very moralistic kind of way, but we no longer see this as necessary – so what makes this transcend into moral territory for you? Why is homosexuality wrong? Is it a ‘gut feeling’ that homosexuality is wrong, or even a ‘God-feeling’ that homosexuality is wrong? Is a gut/God feeling enough to maintain a particular viewpoint, or is there a lack of any clear evidence here?

    I would also ask how many gay people – and gay couples – you know personally. I used to hold the same views as you (albeit less sensitively and less articulately) until I became good friends with some gay people. I could find nothing immoral in their behaviour or mindset. They were just like me really. I found their sexual preferences startling, but I think that’s because of my prejudice, not their wrongness. One friend really wanted to get married. She had a wedding and calls her partner her wife – but none of it is legal. She’s been with the same woman for a decade and, far as I know, they’re still going strong. I honestly think the Kardashian’s do more to bring marriage into disrepute than my friend ever did, with her mock ceremony that was only mock because she didn’t have any other choice.

    Finally I would ask as to why any of this argument should hold sway with the non-church going public? The church can argue the theological merits until it’s blue in the face, but ‘God doesn’t think it’s OK’ has no bearing to a couple who don’t believe in God, but do believe in marriage. And that’s a hefty portion of the population. The whole crux of the argument is irrelevant to most people – certainly to most gay couples. As to Christian gay couples that’s another issue I guess, and I’ve gone on long enough.

    I guess to sum up (and sorry I’ve gone on so much) I don’t see gay marriage as a theological issue anymore, and as a moral issue I see chiefly as a human rights issue. I think it’s immoral to withhold rights from a group of people based on sexual preference.

    That’s all from me – sorry for stirring up the hornet’s nest – I guess I wanted to provide a counter argument though. As I said at the start, thank you for your sensitivity in writing on what is a clearly controversial subject, and for being non-judgemental and honest in your approach.

    Rob

    • Rob I have to correct you on what, to me at least, is a glaring error in your approach to this. The theology of the Church (as in every Christian) is defined in Matthew 28:19-20 “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” At no point does Jesus say that we are to love people as our primary objective.
      Now, I will happily admit that when we then go into Jesus’ teachings we see that we must love one another if we are to follow Him, but we must also stick to the Law. Jesus never removes this obligation from us, indeed when He declares that He came to fulfil the Law, not replace it. By fulfilling the Law Jesus showed us the way to live.

      Once you take this position then you also have to remember that Jesus also taught that we should hold to account those who went against God’s Law. As such, that means that the Church MUST say when things are wrong.

      And finally, when looking at the other parts of the Law that we do not follow, consistency is gained through holding the OT and NT in balance. As such we see very clearly that homosexual conduct is not a part of God’s plan in Genesis, Leviticus and Deuteronomy and this is then reaffirmed by Jesus’ teaching on the Law and Paul’s writings on the matter. However the shellfish argument is dealt with by holding in balance the Law and Acts 10:9-16 where God clearly says that foods that were considered unclean are no longer to be considered as such because they are given by God.
      I will grant you that the argument around different materials being combined for clothing could quite easily be argued on this basis, but I have not looked into this matter directly so cannot really speak to it.

      On your final argument about whether this should affect non-believers, well I think the bungalow argument more than covers this. A bungalow is defined as “a cottage of one story”. To say that society wants to change this to mean a bungalow can have more than 1 story is a nonsense. Likewise, marriage is defined as “the social institution under which a man and woman establish their decision to live as husband and wife by legal commitments, religious ceremonies, etc” . As such, to change the definition of it is a nonsense and marriage means marriage as defined above. Just because people say “I think marriage means something other than what the dictionary says” doesn’t change what marriage is. A homosexual relationship is, by it’s very nature, different from a heterosexual relationship. Therefore how can homosexuals argue for being the same when nature dictates otherwise?

  6. I think you will find that the arguments Christians use to justify marriage equality and the legitimacy of gay relationships to be very similar to the ones Rachel Held Evans put forth during Mutuality Week. We believe that God was addressing a very specific type of relationship in the New Testament, ones that involved pedophilia, pederasty, and other forms of sexual abuse perpetrated by men upon other men. There was no such thing as a committed, loving, monogamous gay relationship, as culture did not allow for it. We find ourselves standing in front of the weighty and daunting task of discerning what was written in the context of culture and what stands as eternal Truth.

    My coming to accept the legitimacy of gay relationships was not induced by culture, as some might claim. Rather, it was the fruit of thorough study and prayer. In the book “Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus”, the authors provide a cultural framework for the New Testament, and the person of Jesus. They explain how radical it was for Him to espouse monogamy, faithfulness, and love within the context of marriage. If that was God’s intention for marriage, why did He put up with the polygamy, adultery, and incest of the Old Testament? Why introduce this now? The authors hypothesize that it is because God moves slowly. It was simply too radical to introduce these ideas within the unique cultural contexts of the OT. He teaches us in steps, through time. One would not attempt to teach a child English by having her read Yeats, you would have her start out with nursery rhymes. I can’t help but think of this idea that God is still bringing us into the fullness of Truth. Perhaps God has not yet showed us everything He intended marriage to be.

    I would highly recommend the documentary “For the Bible Tells Me So” (on Netflix). It is extremely biased, but addresses many of the arguments both sides put forth. At the end of the day, we do the best we can with what we have and what we know. We will all pour into the bottomless well that is God’s grace to cover the rest.

    • The problem with the arguments around pederasty is that it does not hold the OT and NT in balance. For starters, God defines what a sexual relationship should be in Genesis, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. This is then supported by the New Testament, first by Jesus saying that He hadn’t come to remove the Law but to fulfil it (please note that fulfilling the Law is not the same as fulfilling prophecy) and then by the writings of Paul. Quite against your suggestion that God brings us along incrementally, the teaching remains clear and consistent. God has not changed on the matter.
      And, out of curiosity, when did God ever “put up with the polygamy, adultery, and incest”? Sure, it happened, but when did God ever say it was ok?

      • Hi Phil,

        Thank you for your response. Perhaps “put up with” was not the proper verb to use. I meant that selling your daughter into slavery, taking multiple wives and sending your wife to sleep in a tent while she was on her period were all acceptable under the Torah. I would classify polygamy as a form of adultery. As for incest, lets take Adam and Eve. Their children must have procreated together to populate the Earth. I accept the fact that I cannot fully understand God or His decisions throughout History. What I do see, however, is that what was once acceptable (polygamy, for instance), is no longer. Marriage changed. I would argue that the teachings of God on certain matters are anything but “clear and consistent”. God did not speak out necessarily against polygamy, but neither did He condone it.

        Essentially, it comes down to interpretation. You have very strong, theologically grounded arguments regarding marriage equality. So do I. So how do we move forward in the conversation? Ample amounts of theologians are still debating soteriology. If God intended for a simple understanding of salvation, sanctification, and justification, He would have given it to us. Yet here were are, thousands of years letter, pitting verses against each other that seemingly cannot co exist. We still cannot to come to an agreement on how a person is saved, which seems like a pretty important topic. I respect your opinion and truly believe that you are doing your best to interpret scripture and live accordingly. Unless we claim to be an infallible interpreter of the Bible, the best we can say is “this is how the Bible reads”, as opposed to “this is what the Bible says”. Both of us are coming from different walks of life, cultures, and backgrounds which are going to lead us to different interpretations of the Bible. This is what I meant by “we do the best with what we have”. It is very possible that I am wrong on this matter, just as it is possible that you might also be wrong. Maybe this is an issue in which we will never have access to the Infallible Truth of God, just like the mechanics of salvation. There are literally enough arguments on both sides to keep debating until Jesus returns. I am thankful, however, that we are granted permission to wrestle with the Text and share our perspectives. So thank you for engaging in the dialogue. In the end, we share the share aim, which is to glorify God. Blessings!

  7. Very thoughtful piece Danny. Whatever one believes about the merits of the argument, the Church must do better to love gay people and to be seen to love gay people. And we must do so in a genuine way, not in a way that might seem to be patronising or judgemental. For many that will not be easy, but it is critically important.

  8. Leaving aside the legal, moral & theological arguments for a moment, the issue also touches on what the Christian church sees as a hi-jacking of the term “marriage” which has been used to define the commitment between a heterosexual couple.

    The current legislation around civil partnerships is very, very close to what would be achieved by the current proposals were they to go through. As someone else blogged a while ago, why not quietly amend the current civil partnership legislation so as to bring it into line with what would be effected were A N Other Couple to marry?

    Bingo – no more problem for homosexual couples clamouring for parity. If the kerfuffle then continues, we begin to see that it’s about the hi-jacking and denigration of a principle rather than equality, and a lot of the arguments in favour of gay marriage evaporate.

    It’s interesting then that Lynn Featherstone has chosen to approach it this way though, and it is probably more for political points-scoring purposes than to genuinely redress the balance.

    YMMV.

  9. @Phil. You said “we only know who God is because what we read in the Bible.” That’s a pretty Fundamentalist hermeneutic Phil. Which is fine, but you can’t claim to speak for all other Christians when you say it. In fact Anglicans (for it was the C of E which has caused this kerfuffle) would say we must consider scripture, tradition and reason. Whether that gets us any further in this debate is up for question, of course.

    @Danny. Thanks for trying to work these things out with humility. I don’t always agree with what I read here but I’m always provoked to think. Bless you mate.

    • Andy, tell me where Christians gain their knowledge of God from if not the Bible? Whether you speak from an Anglican perspective (as I do), a Roman Catholic perspective, a non-conformist perspective or anything else, we only know about the nature of God through what the bible tells us. Anyone who says otherwise is deceiving themselves.
      Granted, personal experience of God also comes, but we only know it to be God because of what we learn of Him through reading the Bible.

      As to the tradition-Scripture-“reason” dynamic, tradition is informed by Scripture and reason must answer to Scripture. If reason were to dictate that God does not exist (as Dawkins and others of the new Atheist movement suggest) then where would the Anglicans be if it holds equal weight with Scripture. But, quite clearly, it doesn’t. It can inform understanding, but not dictate it.

      • Dear Andy,

        I am not at all impressed by your wishy washy explanation of why you don’t agree with gay marriage. It appears that you are trying to come across as a victim unable to truly express your views thereby enabling you to gain points when what this issue comes down to is Human Rights. You complain in your wishy washy way that your opinion isn’t going to make you popular when gay people are killed for being born with a certain sexual orientation.

        I have worked with a Jamaican asylum seeker whose partner was murdered with a machete and he was up next. In Nigeria where the majority of the anglican church is based one of the major hobbies is outing famous people and therby destroying their lives this hobby makes the front page of the newspapers and leads to these people being imprisoned, made destitute etc.. Homophobia leads to bullying in schools and the workplace, suicides amongst talented and no talented young people and murder. Not just in Jamaica but in England and the death penalty in various countries such as Iran

        You obviously need to open your mind and get away from your local parish in order to brush up your christian values and see the world because the Anglican church presenting these bigoted points of views is feeding homophobia in Nigeria and causing the deaths of innocent people and ruining millions of lives. In the UK you are stating that a marriage between two people of the same sex is inferior and causing society at large to view gay people as inferior. Does the anglican church not have a responsibilty to protect the human rights of it followers? Gay people make up ten porcent of the population your worshippers included.

        I do hope that you do not believe in gay cures because if that was the case as a gay person then i would truly be lost for words.

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