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A pastoral response to same sex marriage

imageA sermon preached at Toongabbie Baptist Church, Sydney, 28 September 2014

Genesis 1:27-2:1; Romans 12:18-21

 In an episode of The Simpsons, Springfield’s mayor calls for ideas to promote tourism, and Lisa Simpson suggests allowing same-sex marriages. The idea is approved and Springfield becomes the place to be for same-sex nuptials.

When Rev Lovejoy refuses to perform the ceremonies, Homer Simpson becomes a certified minister via the Internet. He marries all the gay couples in town and then starts to marry anything to anything else.[1]

As Christian ethicist David Gushee observes, [2] there are three kinds of response to the LGBT issue:

Traditionalists want to hold onto what they understand to be traditional Christian and/or cultural attitudes and practices toward aspects of the LGBT debate, including biblical interpretations, church practices, cultural attitudes, and state/national laws.

Revisionists advocate for change in biblical interpretations, church practices, cultural attitudes, and state/national laws, in search of at least a more humane context for gay and lesbian people to live their lives.

Avoiders want to avoid talking about this issue for as long as possible, for a wide variety of reasons, including genuine convictional uncertainty, fear of hurting people, and fear of conflict and schism.

We have all three kinds of people in our families, and in our Baptist churches. How did we get here? What is right and wrong when it comes to sexual diversity, and in particular same sex marriage? What does the future hold?

I want to say three things. First, we need to be clear about what marriage is, and what it isn’t. Our Commonwealth Marriage Act 1961 (amended 2004) provides a good summary of the biblical ideal for marriage: “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.”

There are two basic views of marriage.[3] The conjugal view sees marriage as a bodily, emotional and spiritual bond distinguished by its comprehensiveness, “flowing out into the wide sharing of family life and ahead to lifelong fidelity.” This view is reflected in the law, art, literature, philosophy, religion and social practice of Western civilization. “In marriage, so understood, the world rests its hope and finds ultimate renewal.”

The revisionist view sees marriage as a loving, emotional bond distinguished by its intensity, a bond that need not point beyond the partners in the here and now, where fidelity is subject to personal desire. This is the view that has informed marriage law reform since the 1970s. “In marriage, so understood, partners seek emotional fulfilment, and remain as long as they find it.”

In saying this, I am not suggesting that there are not sound reasons for separation, divorce and remarriage. I am merely pointing out that what we witness today in marriage policy debate is the clash of opposing worldviews.

I uphold the conjugal view of marriage – “a natural bond that society or religion can only ‘solemnise’.”[4] It is a natural bond that God has ordained and Christ has blessed, and the church seeks to protect and proclaim.

Second, we need to try to understand why there is strong pressure to widen the legal definition of marriage to include same sex couples.

  • sentiment: an emphasis on romantic/emotional feelings as the basis for couple
  • selfishness: the triumph of individualism and human autonomy
  • secularism: the severing of society from its traditional moral and spiritual moorings
  • subversion: organised attempts to undermine and degrade Christian institutions and ways of ordering society

Third, we need to act on our convictions about marriage, and about our public responsibility as Christians, both within the church and in the wider society. And we need to cultivate civility, respect and goodwill toward everyone.

The parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37) teaches several important ethical lessons. Consider just one. As I read the story, I imagine the priest and the Levite walking by the person in need, and asking the question: “If I stop and help, what will happen to me?”

And I imagine the Samaritan stopping, and observing the injured man, perhaps close to death, bleeding and groaning into the dust, and asking the question, “If I don’t stop and help, what will happen to him?”

We need to be less isolationist, less exclusive, and shape our communities and networks into places of inclusiveness and hospitality where people feel safe and welcome, and where their real and felt needs are met with genuine compassion.

We need to have the courage to offer genuine hospitality to those who are different from us, to welcome all people into our church life, and our family life, regardless of sexual orientation and practice. I believe that is the way of Jesus, that is what Jesus calls his church to be and do.

And we need to have the courage to hold fast to what we believe about sex and marriage, regardless of the strong pressures to be silent or to modify our views. I believe that too is what Jesus calls us to. Jesus stands for the truth, for a godly counter-cultural worldview, for the “old paths” necessary for human flourishing.

But what do we do when the issue of same sex marriage goes local, and the clash of worldviews invades our denomination, or our church, or our family, or threatens to destroy important friendships? The people around us have a greater need to see and feel the grace and mercy of God than to be convinced that we are right and they are wrong. Showing love is more important than being right.

We also celebrate the human right to freedom of conscience as a Baptist distinctive, accepting that there will be a measure of diversity in belief and practice among us, expressed within mutually agreed boundaries of orthodoxy.

And yet, the church also plays a vital social role in preserving established traditions that are shaped by justice and mercy, and that deliver security and stability to the wider community and facilitate human flourishing. Faith communities have a legitimate interest in ensuring that such social traditions are reflected in civil law.

But we also need to recognise that law is a human construct. Laws do not descend, fully-formed, from heaven to our parliaments and judiciaries. Law is not always a good guide. Law tends to shape beliefs, beliefs shape behaviour, and beliefs and behaviour affect human interests and wellbeing. Therefore bad marriage laws will lead to mistaken views (of marriage, friendship, parenting, and moral and religious beliefs) that will, perhaps unintentionally, harm the human interests affected by beliefs and behaviour.[5]

This is why Baptists in Australia, in concert with an affirmation of the clear biblical teaching about marriage and family, overwhelmingly oppose moves to introduce same sex marriage laws.

If the Australian Parliament or one of the States or Territories enacts same sex marriage laws, it may be preferable for Baptists to advocate the formal separation of the legal and religious aspects of marriage, as is already done in many countries. This would help to reduce the constant war of words between those for and against same sex marriage.

It would also allow Christians and others whose religious faith shapes their understanding of marriage to emphasise those values in a ceremony in which the state does not intrude.

There are strong and conflicting arguments surrounding the appropriateness of homosexual orientation, homosexual genital sex, same-sex marriage, and the stance of the church. For some, the biblical teaching alone is sufficient to decide the issue; for others, history and experience must also be considered in reaching justified conclusions; for still others, homosexuality is a justice or human rights issue similar to those of race and gender, and the church must change to accommodate a new understanding of human freedom and justice.

These differences, and the underlying theological and philosophical principles that underlie them, are not likely to be reconciled any time soon. Traditionalists, revisionists and avoiders alike need to be respected and understood, and we all need to learn to live together well, especially within the church.

I close with some wise and hopeful words from Stanley Grenz:

Christians are compelled to accept and acknowledge persons, regardless of lifestyle, as objects of God’s compassion, concern, and love … For Christians of either sexual orientation, the call to live out one’s sexuality in ways that bring honor to God is a difficult challenge, especially in the midst of our permissive society. Yet, the resources of the Holy Spirit are greater than the difficulty of the calling, and obedience to the divine design is the path of greater joy.”[6]

And this from the Apostle Paul, in Romans 12:18-21:

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.”
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

 

 


Sermon 622 copyright © 2014 Rod Benson. Preached at Toongabbie Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday 28 September 2014. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] Episode 345, “There’s something about marrying,” written by J. Stewart Burns, first aired 20 Feb 2005.

[2] http://www.abpnews.com/opinion/columns/item/28904-starting-a-conversation-the-lgbt-issue-part-1, accessed 27 Sep 2014.

[3] Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson & Robert P. George, What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (New York: Encounter Books, 2012), pp. 1-2.

[4] Ibid., p. 2.

[5] Girgis et al, op. cit., p. 54.

[6] Stanley J. Grenz, Sexual Ethics: An Evangelical Perspective (second edn; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 246.

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Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

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