III. Politically, should the church just stay out of this issue? In other words, should homosexual marriage—even if we are personally against it—be a ‘freedom of conscience’ issue in our culture?

This is the third in a four-part series about the issue of homosexuality. Be sure to read Part 1 (“What Does The Bible Say About Homosexuality?”), Part 2 (“Frequently Asked Questions”), and Part 4 (“What Is the Summit’s Stance Toward Homosexulity?”). This series is modified from my notes from our latest Equip forum, whose videos—with a personal testimony from a friend of mine—you can view herehere, and here.

In this country we have freedom to believe what we want about homosexuality. Is legally recognizing only heterosexual marriages therefore a violation of the freedom of conscience? There are 3 possible responses to this. I’ll give you the line of thinking on each of these, and let you decide. To note, we can disagree on this point and still be in fellowship in the church.

1) “The church should always stay out of politics.”

“We should be about the gospel and the gospel only,” this position says. “I know what I believe, but Christians should stay out of politics. This is not our fight.”

I have a lot of sympathy for this position. We only have, as a church, the bandwidth to be “about” a handful of things. Politics is a skunk—if you touch it even casually, you smell like it the rest of the week. I could preach one sermon on “who to vote for” and that’s all the community would hear for 3 years. They’d ignore the other 153 sermons I preached.

On the other hand, you don’t want to be the Southern church in 1860 refusing to deal with the “slavery problem” because it’s political. Some will object to putting same-sex marriage in that category. But if this issue is as impacting on future generations as we believe that it is, don’t Christians have an obligation to speak up? If you care about people’s suffering, won’t you have to speak up about government policies that contribute to it?[1]

2) “Homosexuality is wrong, but this is a freedom of conscience issue. We shouldn’t be forcing Judeo-Christian ethics on everyone.”

The reasoning here often goes something like this: “We may think that homosexuality is wrong, but we can’t make illegal all the things we are opposed to as Christians. Should lying be illegal? Or dishonoring our parents? Should people be required by law to go to church? If we tried to legislate things like this, we’d be uniting the state with the church, which is bad for both. Legislating Christian morals is dangerously close to legislating Christianity…but genuine faith can’t be forced. People are—and should be—free to believe what they want, and yes, even to make choices that we think are bad.”

Besides, what if the tables were turned? It might seem fine for Christians to prevent homosexuals from marrying, but that’s only because Christians are in the majority. What if, 50 years from now, Muslims became the majority religion in the United States? Would we want Muslim morals being dictated to us by the government, preventing us from eating pork, or forcing women to wear head-coverings? Of course not! In the same way, we shouldn’t be forcing non-Christians to live like Christians. It just doesn’t make sense.

3) “Recognizing marriage as an exclusive commitment between a man and a woman is both (a) within the government’s jurisdiction and (b) in the best interests of the country.”

Let’s unpack those two clauses one at a time:

(a)…within the government’s jurisdiction

Often people—Christians and non-Christians alike—will say that no religious viewpoint should be allowed in lawmaking, but that is impossible. All laws are based on values, and values are almost always based upon some religious viewpoint.[2] A lot of it we take for granted. For example:

  • Most Americans eat meat, but won’t eat humans. This is built on the assumption that there is a fundamental distinction between a human and an animal.
  • Most of us assume that children are given to parents to love and rear as they see fit, but that they are not property. Children have less ‘rights’ than an adult, but more than a chicken. Again, that is value judgment.
  • Martin Luther King (against the voting majority and the laws of his day) appealed to a higher law to condemn bigotry.
  • Both sides of the abortion debate appeal to “religious” values: the pro-choice advocate asserts the sovereign right of the woman over her body above all things; the pro-life advocate argues the intrinsic right of the baby to life. It is impossible to remove all value judgments from the discussion

“From where do laws derive their legitimacy?”

1. It is from the will of the majority?

  • The problem with this answer as absolute is that there are rights that supersede the will of the majority. If a majority of women get together and decide that blondes should not be allowed into colleges, that doesn’t mean it should become law. Or, on a more serious note, if one race decides to enact laws that favor that race, then those laws can be overturned on the basis that they are unfair and un-Constitutional.

2. From scientific research?

  • The problem with this as absolute is that science has been ineffective to provide a consistent and compelling set of ethics. Historically, science divorced from an external ethical directive has led to horrible excesses in eugenics. It is hard to offer a clear, compelling delineation between horses and humans based on science alone.

3. From the Bible/the Judeo-Christian ethic?

  • The problem with this as the basis of our laws is determining who gets to interpret the Judeo-Christian tradition.
  • Even Christians who subscribe to the Judeo-Christian ethic cherish freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.

None of these three is sufficient in itself. The Framers of our Constitution recognized a place for all three. Thus, it is not inappropriate to appeal to some Judeo-Christian principles in legal matters. Many laws that we take for granted have their basis in a Judeo-Christian worldview and have been historically defended as such.

The Framers also recognized that God had established certain institutions/individuals with jurisdiction over various “spheres” (The term “spheres” was later spelled out by the Dutch political theorist Abraham Kuyper, though the idea is present in the minds of the Founders[3]):

  • The individual has certain sovereign rights which are not to be interfered with by government—for example, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
  • God created the family with “authority” in certain spheres, such as the prerogative to rear and discipline children.
  • The government also has various spheres of authority.

The Framers of our Constitution recognized the same kind of construct, accepted the Creator-defined viewpoint of family and individual, and limited government’s scope.

Objection: “Well, marriage as being between one man and one woman is too ‘conservative Christian’ of a viewpoint to serve as a the basis for a legal recognition of marriage.”

  • World religions have stood in relative agreement on this. As noted above, no significant challenge was presented within Christianity until the 1970s. 4

(b)”…in the best interests of our country.”

1. Studies consistently show that the mother/father unit is the best environment for the rearing of children.

Sociological studies demonstrate this decidedly. Wayne Grudem cites six such studies—all secular—which confirm the following four benefits for children with a mother and father:[5]

2. Homosexual union leads to confusion about gender identity among children, which is one of the most important elements of a child’s identity.

Once the fundamental differences between men and women have been obscured, gender formation becomes confused. This is seen in the epidemic of masculinized women and feminized men within the homosexual community.

3. The endorsement of homosexuality leads toward greater sexual immorality.

Once the rational basis for marriage has been removed, any ethics regarding it become arbitrary. If marriage is nothing but a social construct, then my obligations toward it become nothing other than what I decide about it in the moment. When marriage loses its historically, religiously, and societally accepted shape of “one-man/one-woman” for life, other sexual ethics, like sexual faithfulness within marriage or sexual abstinence before marriage, lose their compelling power.

Evidence bears this out. In 2010, The New York Times reported that most homosexual unions remain intentionally “open” after their marriage. Homosexual marriages are 5 times more likely to engage in extramarital sex during marriage.[6]

4. The breakdown of the family has historically led to the breakdown of society.

Wayne Grudem writes, “every human nation on earth, every society of any size or permanence at all, has recognized and protected the institution of heterosexual marriage.” He cites a leading anthropologist (J. D. Unwin) who studied 86 failed societies, noting that no society was able to flourish after 3 generations once “strict marital monogamy” was abandoned.[7]

5. Any argument used to legitimize homosexual marriage can be employed to argue for consensual polygamy, pederasty, or incest. [8]

Listen to those who seek to defend homosexual marriage and ask yourself if they same reasoning could be used to legitimize consensual polygamy, pederasty, or incest. The weight of the defense for legitimization could be, and in short order may be, applied to such cases.

This observation is not merely hypothetical. As Robert George notes in the Harvard Journal of Theology, “In their statement ‘Beyond Same Sex Marriage,’ more than 300 ‘LGBT and allied’ scholars and advocates—including prominent Ivy League professors—call for legal recognition of sexual relationships involving more than two persons.”[9]

Thus, if we define marriage as a “faithful sexual relationship defined by mutual love” (as homosexual marriage advocates normally do), we have no grounds on which to deny these others. To say that polygamy and incest are wrong is a moral inconsistency.

Concluding Thoughts

My conclusion is that the government has the responsibility to protect the institution of marriage, an institution established by the Creator in the creation. Government did not invent marriage; government recognizes the institution established in the creation. To fail to to do so has devastating consequences for society.

Believing the government should only recognize an exclusive man-woman union as marriage does not mean we must insist that homosexuality itself be made illegal. The issue is the preservation of the institution of marriage, not the legislation of sexual ethics.

That said, what Washington decides does not affect what we will do. We will continue to preach the whole counsel of God and extend the offer of salvation to all who will hear it. We have never looked to Washington, or Rome, for permission or validation for what we do.

I do fear the loss of freedom of speech that would inevitably accompany a validation of same-sex marriage. Already, you can see the direction the tide is going. Robert George wrote in the Harvard Journal of Theology:

“Already, we have seen anti-discrimination laws wielded as weapons against those who cannot, in good conscience, accept the revisionist understanding of sexuality and marriage: In Massachusetts, Catholic Charities was forced to give up its adoption services rather than, against its principles, place children with same-sex couples. In California, a U.S. District Court held that a student’s religious speech against homosexual acts could be banned by his school as injurious remarks that ‘intrude[s] upon the work of the schools or on the rights of other students.’ And again in Massachusetts, a Court of Appeals ruled that a public school may teach children that homosexual relations are morally good despite the objections of parents who disagree…. 

The proposition that support for the conjugal conception of marriage is nothing more than a form of bigotry has become so deeply entrenched among marriage revisionists that a Washington Post feature story drew denunciations and cries of journalistic bias for even implying that one conjugal-marriage advocate was ‘sane’ and ‘thoughtful.’ Outraged readers compared the profile to a hypothetical puff piece on a Ku Klux Klan member. A New York Times columnist has called proponents of conjugal marriage ‘bigots,’ even singling an author of this Article out by name. Meanwhile, organizations advocating the legal redefinition of marriage label themselves as being for ‘human rights’ and against ‘hate.’ The implications are clear: if marriage is legally redefined, believing what every human society once believed about marriage—namely, that it is male-female union—will increasingly be regarded as evidence of moral insanity, malice, prejudice, injustice, and hatred.” [10]

[1] It’s often charged that someone else’s marriage won’t affect you. But it does in two senses: (1) If society accepts a different understanding of marriage, then their approach to my marriage is altered. If the definition of a “Ph.D.” in History were altered to include anyone who watched a documentary on the History Channel, that affects those with a Ph.D. in History even though nothing has been done to their degree specifically. To change the definition of marriage affects how society sees my marriage and what expectations are placed upon it. (2) The redefinition of marriage affects children growing up in our culture, in that how they think about life’s most important relationship will be formed by their community.

[2] See Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion, in which he explains that everyone has “control beliefs.” These are like the hardwiring of our thought system, and are so deeply ingrained that we don’t even know that they control us. We all speak out of a worldview and a corresponding value system. We may not clothe it in theological language, or even be aware that we have one, but we all have a guiding metaphysic.

[3] Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1931). For a summary, see http://www.acton.org/pub/religion-liberty/volume-9-number-1/abraham-kuyper. Roman Catholic social teaching developed a similar concept, called “the principle of subsidiarity.” The recent Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “A community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but, rather, should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” To ignore this, Kuyper says, leads inevitably to “statism,” or the tyranny of absolute state control.  

[4] Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 38, 344. See also Stanley Grenz, Welcoming but not Affirming, 63-80; David Wright, “Early Christian Attitudes to Homosexuality,” in Studia Patristica, 329-24; Marion Soards, Scripture and Homosexuality, 33-46.

[5] Wayne Grudem, Politics–According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2010), 224.

[6] Robert George, et al., “What is Marriage?”, Harvard Journal of Theology (34:1), 276, 279.

[7] Grudem, 216–217.

[8] George, et al., 274.

[9] Ibid., 276.

[10] Ibid., 264–65. Emphasis mine.