Friday, June 26, 2015

Same Sex Marriage and the Christian Future

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With the recent Court decision, it seems that the law of the land now recognizes the legalization of same-sex marriage. There are political, institutional, and ethical ramifications of this decision that need to be hammered out, but that's not my goal here. Here, my purpose is to offer a few thoughts to help individual Christians navigate these new social waters.
[Note: As of now, Christians are not legally being required to endorse same sex marriage. If that ever changes this post will require significant modification. For some reflection on the trend in that direction, check out this article by Jonathan Leeman.]
Before getting into the nuts-and-bolts of our response to this situation as Christians, we need to be sure to remember the great overarching truth that defines the place of the church in the world: in the long run, we are going to win. This is not to say we are going to have a personal victory in Hollywood-esque sense of some last minute hero riding to save the day; and this is certainly not to say that we will win the cultural battle in this nation at this time, or convince the Supreme Court or Congress or the states or what-have-you that they are wrong. This is rather to say that the Christ has already won. There are two sides of His victory that we need to remember.

On the one hand, Jesus achieved all the victory over sin, death, and the world that any of us will ever need when He paid for our sins on the cross. When that great substitution took place, the defeat of all the enemies of God was at hand and the vindication of His people was complete. He has won the victory for the church over the world, not through the church in the world, and as a result we can be confident that we are reconciled to God despite whatever happens in the halls of power in Washington DC. There is nothing that can can undo this triumph. (Romans 8:38-39)

On the other hand, Jesus will win even these worldly victories which appear to be losses now. I don't mean this necessarily as a Political Scientist--though I could say something about birthrates and how only Evangelical Christians, conservative Catholics, and immigrants are reproducing in any noticeable numbers (though admittedly even that is declining), so that in a generation or two this social and cultural pendulum will swing the other way. And I don't even mean this as someone who has studied quite a bit of history (though I'll talk more about that below). Once again, I mean that as a Christian, whatever happens in the world right now is at the very best temporary: Jesus is going to come back and put all of this right when he sets up His own kingdom--the City of God:
“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (Revelation 21:3-8)
In this coming eternal city, unrepentant sinners will be removed to judgment and God's people will live with Him forever. Jesus will win even what He appears to have lost now; until then we are merely in a holding pattern while we wait.

So what should we do while we are waiting?

Between the "already" of what Jesus has won on the cross and the "not yet" of His return, how are Christians to react to something like the Obergefell v. Hodges decision? Here are six suggestions:

1) Pray for non-believers:

The supporters of gay marriage, and especially homosexuals themselves, are in for a very, very miserable time--and we must feel a deep pity for them because of it. They are trying to steal satisfaction and happiness by combining their own sinful hearts and wills with a fallen natural institution that was never meant to bring ultimate fulfillment to anyone--let alone those who would use it wrongly and try to remake it in their own image. As a result they are going to find that this victory only makes them more miserable, more discontent, and more filled with anger and hatred. When the joy they thought they would receive from the legalization of their sinful behavior does not materialize, they will howl all the louder as they expand their demands. Proof of this discontent will follow on this decision immediately, as a stream of "this is not enough" statements will begin to flood the culture just as this movement for gay marriage followed on the decriminalization of homosexuality in Lawrence v. Texas (2003).
[This came out eve before the decision was released, which tells us that these authors were discontent with their victory before they even had it.]
We cannot help but feel great pity for a discontent that we can understand from our own experience. You and I even as Christians still from time to time catch ourselves trying to be happy with even the good things this world offers--family, friends, work, nature, and anything else you care to name. We know and have felt how ultimately hollow these things are when they are put at the center of our lives even when we use them as they are meant to be used, let alone when we make idols of them. As Christians, we can hope to recognize this hollowness and come to the joy that follows repentance and turning from our sin and embracing Christ. And so we must pray fervently for those who have never experienced true joy and who do not have the occasional respite from the emptiness of the world that is found in a relationship with God. We know the grace and mercy of our Lord and have been shown both the way out of the misery in the world and the truth that we will be wretchedly unhappy unless we find our joy in God and the life that comes through knowing Him. Once we have this joy we can understand that legislation, executive action, and court decisions will never make anyone happy, nor will being able to do whatever you want whenever you want regardless of what others think. The peace with God that comes through Jesus Christ alone is what enables us to echo Augustine in saying "our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee." (Confessions, I.1)

So pray regularly and deeply for those we are about to see become more miserable than ever.

2) Pray for individual believers:

We don't know what all the societal and political repercussions of this decision will be, but we can assume based on the last few years that the immediate future will be extremely difficult for certain individual believers. We need to pray that Christians who find themselves in these difficulties would remain faithful to the Gospel even as they think carefully about how to love God and their neighbors. They are going to be at the forefront of figuring out how to balance our obligations as Christians with the demands of Caesar, and how to picture well the Gospel in the eyes of the watching world.

3) Pray for the church:

At the end of the day, Christians are to value and support the church more than any other institution. It is more important than florist's shops, bakeries, and governments, and so we ought to spend much time begging for mercy and for holiness for the body of believers that God Himself died for. We are going to see increasing pressure on churches to conform to the new standard set by the culture, and so the church is going to have to develop a backbone such as it has never really needed in the United States before now.

4) Pray for families:

Christians in the past hundred years have not necessarily been models of what families ought to be--though it's not quite so bad a situation as the conventional wisdom suggests. Nevertheless, as the culture changes Christians will increasingly be models of what proper marriages ought to be, which in turn means we need to remember why it matters--the family is a temporary institution designed to teach about the relationship between Christ and the church. And so we ought to pray that we will continue to be a faithful picture of the Gospel to the world and that this institution will be strengthened rather than weakened, despite the culture's assault on it.

5) Cultivate faith by remembering the Gospel:

It is the Sunday School answer, yet it is the correct one nonetheless: our very first response to any situation should always be to remind ourselves that we are sinful rebels against God, and that rather than condemn us for our sins God sent His Son to become a man, live the life that we should have lived, and take our punishment when he died the death on a cross that we should have died. This life and death becomes counted as ours not because we are good people, but because we have believed Him. Faith is the foundation of the Christian life and what enables us to live in a world where we face such trials. What we will find is that as this faith grows, so too will grow our ability to live well in a hostile world, particularly in three areas:

a) Patience

Here is the promised nod to the history I've spent some time studying. When we look at the current Supreme Court decision it would seem to be a big one. But when we look at it in the overall context of history, it shrinks in size and proportion until we can begin to see how very very insignificant this really is in the grand scheme of things.
One hundred years from now there may or may not be homosexual marriage in the world, and you and I will be dead. But there will still be Christians and the church will live on.
One thousand years from now America as we know it will no longer exist. And no I'm not claiming to be a prophet or read the Bible as an exact map of the future or anything like that, I'm just telling you as a professional Political Scientist there is zero historical evidence that allows us to assume that any nation will last that long. But whatever happens to the United States in the next millennium, there will almost certainly be no homosexual marriage if it follows the historical pattern of other sinful institutions. The city of man will have progressed into other rebellious forms and shapes, racing it's debauched way to judgment. Yet there will still be Christians: the City of God will still be faithfully plodding its way along the pilgrim trail in a mixture of faithfulness and sin that will continue until the return of Christ. And if you want to reflect more on that, take up and read (slowly) Augustine's City of God.
So be patient, because we will win in the end however difficult things get for us right now.

b) Humility

At no point must we think that we are the innocent victims of a wicked culture. As Christians, the primary difference between us and the world is that we know we are sinful rebels against God. The fact that as Christians we have been forgiven for our rebellion is a difference that begins in God's character, not in ours. If we start playing the "who's more moral?" game, nobody wins. The proponents of homosexual marriage are not the "super-wicked!" of the world to be resisted by us virtuous saints. Those of us who correctly understand marriage are not the "super-virtuous champions of all that is good and right!" riding into battle against the forces of darkness. If that's your perception of Christianity's place in the world, you've radically failed to understand the Gospel. Whether we're thinking about ourselves individually or the church as it exists in this world, we must remember that we are saved despite our depravity, not because we are good and worth saving. We would do well to remember this absolutely every time we speak to this issue publicly--and I certainly include myself in that "we", since humility is not one of my strengths.

c) Love

Love forms the First and Second greatest commandments of the Christian life, and is the primary sign that we have truly believed God's promises in the Gospel. If we are not growing in our love for God and our love for our neighbors--including those who are working against what we believe politically--we simply have no claim to be true followers of Christ. Jesus died for us who hated Him; to fail to love is to publicly suggest that we still hate Him and want nothing to do with His sacrifice.

But in this context, what does it mean to love those who support gay marriage? There will be those who try to tell us that if we really love our opponents in this issue, we would support the opening of the institution of marriage to homosexuals. However, as absolutely any decent authority figure (perhaps especially parents) will tell you, "love" does not universally mean "let the other person do whatever they want." In this case, what is loving is for us to be respectful, kind, compassionate, and generous in our disagreement. The time has come for Christians to say "no" to the culture, and being loving means at the very least doing so as gently as possible.

6) Finally, Christians are to continue to evangelize:

Whatever the effects of this decision on our society, the reality is that we alone still have the Word of Life to share with the world; we alone can offer the way to achieve the hope, comfort, fulfillment, and happiness that all human beings long for. As Christians, we want above all else to see God glorified, and one of the ways we are told to pursue that desire is to share this message with others so that they too can become our brothers and sisters in Christ.

To that end we are to preach forgiveness through the cross. However vicious their assault on marriage, on the church, on God Himself has been, there is no one so sinful as to be beyond the mercy of Christ. Every Christian should say to himself "if I can be forgiven, anyone can." So don't stop telling others the good news--that God has opened up a way to salvation for all who will repent of their sins and believe in Jesus Christ.