Anti-Gay Marriage Legislation is an Example of An Overextended Church in Decline

Photo credit: 2006 cbamber85/flickr. Use does not represent endorsement by the photographer.

No longer content to govern itself, the church has spread out to rule the culture through legislative force, attempting to use the tools of government to order the lives of consenting adults. Like an empire, the church finds itself on patrol beyond its rightful territory, which is shocking when one considers how much space the church has been given, by God first and this country second.

The church already possesses the freedom to engage the culture through dialogue, art, the marketplace of ideas, hospitality, care, and robust teaching. We have the right to share and live the good news of Christ resurrected. We have the reach to notice, defend, and love the orphans, the widows, the poor, the hungry, the outcast, the falsely condemned, the unjustly treated, and victims of violence and coercion. We have the liberty to love our neighbors and our enemies. We have Micah 6:8:

And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Why is it not enough?

The state of discontent in our faith is not the fault of the GLBT community. Perhaps we have become discontented with the humility and quietness of actual faith and ministry. If so, this is tragic. In a culture embracing unhinged consumerism, it is not surprising that the church would grow bored of the feast of ministry, moving on to snack on private affairs within the broader culture.

In a quest for church strength and national longevity, our cultural conquests are making the church and the nation weaker and more divided. In a crusade for a more wholesome culture, we have injected pride, arrogance, hostility, and vitriol. Even those who respectfully stand against an issue that is at most a symbolic victory have contributed to the creation of unnecessary foes.

Justice for the abused and disadvantaged rather than the consensual

I have heard gay marriage argued against with the example of Nazi Germany, by people asking “where was the church then?” They say genocide is what happens when we fail to act on our morals as a church. I find it troubling that this is even considered a valid comparison to the GLBT community’s wish to marry. One is force, the other is consensual. Force turns sex into rape and employment into slavery. This is why the church is universally applauded when it combats sex trafficking, and esteems people otherwise harmed, neglected or left behind, because in those moments the church is elevating the individual rather than trying to restrict it.

This is why Christians must find that tension between being completely disengaged from the broader culture, or consumed by it, and consumed can come in different forms. One form tries to water down personal faith to the extent that he or she is indistinguishable from the broader culture. Another tries to fashion the culture to look like his or her faith. The latter is what we see in the anti-gay marriage movement.

The church has been here before (and survived)

The reason no one will be making the argument against gay marriage in twenty years is the same reason the average person would not be in agreement with Christians advocating for laws against all alcohol consumption, tattoos, or cursing, even though some Christians sincerely view those as sins and have what they feel are the verses to back it up.

Go with me a step further, those of you who are against gay marriage in the broader culture, and let me attempt to discuss this on your terms over the next three paragraphs.

Remember the fight against pornography? The Religious Right lost that battle too. But while pornography rakes in billions of dollars in the U.S. annually, the church has not been silenced. In fact, the church has quite a multifaceted approach to the problems stemming from porn. The dangers of pornography are still preached from the pulpit, churches offer counseling or connection with counseling services for porn and sex addicts, some churches exist solely to befriend those within the adult industry as well as those men and women recovering from their participation in the production or consumption of porn, and non profits are built to walk with women who have been harmed by their experience in the adult industry. It’s by no means a perfect example, but I hope those of you who disagree with gay marriage in the broader culture see this point and will reconsider your approach: while porn is here, so too is the church. Sometimes, I think losing the culture battle is the best thing for the church, so that it can remember its place and then get back to its calling.

When you look at Christ, do you see Him forcing teaching or standards of living on everyone? He taught people to seek- as Rev. Earl F. Palmer said so correctly- seek is a freedom word. That means ministry is intended to grant people the dignity of choice as well as our patience. These ideas can be held along with the charge to go and make disciples.

Jesus also told stories. He was silent at times, refusing to answer. Or he answered questions with other questions. He went where he was welcomed, and often retreated from the crowds or the mobs. Hardly an in your face kinda guy. When Jesus did chide, it was most often reserved for the religious know-it-alls and fruitless trees. Christ also raged when he witnessed a perversion of the church, and if you see gay marriage in the broader culture as the same thing, you are forgetting to remember that this nation is not your personal house of worship. That’s what your house of worship is for. It’s time to stop trying to force other people to eat your vegetables. Gay marriage is no more a threat to your marriage than the divorced neighbor or the guy down the street who just had an affair. The greatest threat to your marriage is what you and your spouse do or don’t do with it.

You’ve confused a war on your religion with not always getting everything you want. It’s called being part of a society. Not everything goes your way.” -Jon Stewart

The point of it all: fruit, not culture feuds

Belief in Christ is a transformative journey, producing fruit and a sincere effort in obedience, and while the fruit, or goodness does not save us, it is a sign of Christ’s transformation in those who believe. Belief must produce a new motion in our lives, and not towards every endeavor we happen to bless, but towards actions which bring glory to God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. -Galatians 5:22-23

The church mistakes earnestness for righteousness. “Well as long as I’m using scripture to back it up.” Did Jesus accept that justification from the religiously earnest who knew their religious law and used it as a disproportionate weight on the backs of others? The epidemic problem in the American church is that we have become “position people,” swapping faith for a mental concept, and mistaking ministry for being on the correct side of an issue. This is my guess as to why the church is so often absent on matters where it is actually needed, because we have become satisfied with the notion that we just need to think correctly and tell others to do the same and God will smile down on us all.

We can know The Good Book like a pro, and still fail to live the point of it all. The Bible, if mishandled, can further a person’s quest for power and control. So what is the fruit of fighting against gay marriage in the broader culture? Because the anti-gay marriage culture warriors are making enemies whether they mean to or not. This isn’t to say those who oppose gay marriage are incapable of producing fruit elsewhere; it is to say that the church movement to stop gay marriage in the broader culture has been a largely fruitless campaign.

I once saw a photo of a protest sign at a pro-equality rally in Seattle that read “focus on your own family.” That is Biblical advice. It is the work of God through his spirit that changes hearts, not the church as the Morality Police, especially not when we focus on the deeds of consenting adults in the broader culture, and most certainly not when we try to enforce it by way of legislation. We’re getting our kingdoms confused, and that is not salt nor light.


35 thoughts on “Anti-Gay Marriage Legislation is an Example of An Overextended Church in Decline

  1. Great post Ian- I’d love to see this post expanded out from blog form into an expanded article. Solid, measured, and thoughtful discussions on this topic are hard to start and even harder to finish. Thanks!

    • The Chiz- I was surprised by how much I had to cut out on this post just to come in under 1600 words, and that’s still long. This topic leads to 1,000 rabbit holes, and many of them are important and worthy of exploration. I like your idea but I suck at marketing, so if you have a venue in mind for an expanded article let me know. I’m always up for trying.

  2. Take heart, Christians! The Church has been here, and survived.

    In the meantime, the Church continues to steamroll over people & families who happen to be gay. Many of whom were raised in the church and thought they were part of the Christian family. Many of whom thought the Church believed what it said about being salt & light, Jesus loving all the children of the world, loving our neighbor, kindness, justice, humility, gentleness…

    I think of that as the church rolls over us; as I feel the crushing weight of unjust legislation, abandonment, lies & September Suicides.

    But no worries! The Church will survive.

    And that’s the important thing. …right?

  3. Bravo. Well stated.

    You mentioned the sign at the protest in Seattle. I’ve been most struck by that kind of sentiment as I wrestle with this. Marriages within the church are disintegrating, and while I know that doesn’t make anyone in leadership happy, maybe we could just start there? It seems hypocritical to put the sanctity of marriage on a pedestal when we are trampling it ourselves.

  4. Very well written! The church so often reacts in fear instead of love. I so appreciate your challenge to love and live Christ like following His example.

  5. A very good post, but before everyone finishes handing out the high fives, please consider this:

    Government is one of the many hiding places for Christians to avoid personal responsibility and face difficult issues. Both right AND left are equally at fault, and equally in danger.

    It is the Lord who sets the standards, and we have to avoid overreach, and underreach.

    To the right, you will never be safe from sin, the world is utterly corrupt. The only place to live is in Christ. And we are called to love our neighbor as Jesus showed by example.

    To the left, I hope you understand that it is possible to “love” someone away from Jesus. You will be popular and have diverse friends, but what if you gain the whole world and lose your soul, and theirs.

    I think the telling of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler is very instructive. Jesus did not condemn, or ask for legislation, but, He also was very sorrowful because the young man chose to walk away. Some would consider Jesus unloving for not going along with him and restoring him anyway. Like it or not, Jesus does have standards, and He has not kept them secret.

    • bobmako- I’m not sure if this particular post is the best fit for your comment, but in general, what you shared is wise and something we Christians all have to remember, myself included.

      Can we high five now?

      • High five accepted :) I wish we didn’t have to have these discussions. But we are a broken people living in a broken world.

  6. Well written piece — and very challenging for me as a “conservative” Christ follower. A few notes and questions:

    1. Your theological points are generally strong — but it weakens when you compare homosexuality with tattoos and alcohol. Once you begin to compare and contrast biblical issues, people will just want to argue with you.

    2. I think one reason many Christians draw the line at gay marriage has to do with the questions this raises for the future. Might churches one day be “required” to perform gay marriages if they perform them for hetro couples? Will they be shut down (or legally oppressed) for maintaining a theological opposition to homosexuality (no matter how gently this is portrayed)?

    3. I wonder what Jews and Muslims feel about this issue? Would a devout Muslim cleric perform a gay marriage? A conservative rabbi? Is this really an issue of an “overextended church”, or is this something bigger?

    I believe the reason “marriage” is where people of faith have tended to draw the line is because marriage itself is not just a cultural-legal matter, but one that originates from scripture (and not just Christian scripture). Because of that, people of faith are feeling like others with an agenda are forcing them to eat their vegetables — not the other way around.

    • Tim- thanks for taking a kind tone and approach.

      2: In a country that is predominately Christian (at least by affiliation), I highly doubt it. If it were to happen, I would be right there with those protecting church rights. But again, I think we’re putting ourselves up against an imagined threat on this one (something the church is really good at doing), and causing great damage along the way.

      3: To your first three question marks within 3: Those are great, interesting questions, to which I have no answer. I would guess no for the Muslim cleric and perhaps for the conservative rabbi.

      I don’t think we’re being forced to eat their vegetables because I don’t buy the “threat” aspect as discussed in the post, but if I’m wrong, my posture would be one of turn the other cheek. That would be an opportunity to meet the culture with the surprises of love rather than doing the usual, tiring, destructive toe to toe thing. I am a big believer that the church gets much farther on surrender rather than supremacy.

      Just my two cents.

      Thanks again for the thoughtful challenges, and I hope to see more of people like you in the future on the blog, and less angry trolls.

    • Tim:
      1. There are always going to be differences of opinion between devout Christians. My avid study of Scripture has led me to the conclusion that same-sex marriage is not contradicted for Christians by anything in the Bible.

      2. This hasn’t happened in any country or jurisdiction where equal marriage has been enacted in civil law. More significantly, where divorces have been legal for hundreds of years, no Church has been required to remarry a divorced person if that has been against their theology of marriage.

      3. Marriage is found in Scripture, but is also independent of it, found in civil law, and intended to establish inheritance, proof of paternity, and other matters of property and business relationships. These are not spiritual matters. Incidentally, my marriage of 32 years was not made less significant nor spiritual when, in 2005 our Canadian Supreme Court ruled that equal marriage was constitutionally mandated here.

  7. Nice work, Ian. Thanks. What I can’t get my head around on the gay-marriage proposal is how gay sex (if one considers it a sin) is any different from porn stars marrying each other (which I’m told happens fairly often), adulterers marrying each other, thieves marrying each other, or tattooed people marrying each other, etc.? If society is unwilling to buy into a Christian vision of life and sexuality, as Jon Stewart (a better theologian than many Christians!) noted, we just have to live with it and continue to bear proper witness to what we believe the truth to be. That’s basic democracy 101 and basic theology 101!

    All of this kind of thing is, in my judgment, a hangover from the Christendom days (which are surprisingly resilient) of “America as a Christian Nation” and exemplar of God’s way to the rest of the world. Until we get free of that, I don’t think we’ll be rid of this kind of thing.


  8. A good well thought through piece, thank you.
    I do not feel threatened by changes that may be in the wind, with regards to homosexual marriage, as a Christian minister and in this case after much thought and soul searching I find myself far less worried about being asked to conduct such a service than I used to be. Thus I am glad it has become an issue as it has made see that another prejudice falls at the table of examination. Indeed as I read it the church in the distant past condoned and blessed homosexual relationships.
    But even had I been against the notion of same sex blessings/marriage and had the state been of a mind to persecute me for my beliefs, I would be in good company many christians and people of other faiths have been persecuted for their beliefs, why shoild I be any differe?

    Paul (please forgive if I ramble)

  9. Thank you for this article. It has certainly given me pause to actually reevaluate my personal beliefs on, and approach to this issue as a Christian – vs – simply reacting and conveniently rallying with the ‘religious masses’.

    In this season of political correctness, it reminds me to keep striving toward my own challenge to learn better how to express my faith and scripture-based beliefs with the true perspective that “Sin is Sin”, all equally offensive to God… while not neglecting my (our Christian) directives from God as followers of Christ to defend the defenseless and lift the name of His son Jesus Christ.

    The thought that our church (body of Christ) is somehow threatened by the moral decay all around us (not just here in America, but globally) has crossed my mind more than once. Thanks for reminding me (us) that God’s church has survived worse in the past, is surviving now and will survive in the future. Yes, homosexuality is a sin; as is gossip, lying, stealing, etc… so, if we of faith in the scriptures believe that – then certainly we have to believe God’s promises too – which include the never ending survival and thriving of His church.

    Relevant thought: One of the best eulogies I’ve ever heard included how our deceased loved one was a quiet and loving person who loved and lived for God. This person didn’t preach a lot of scripture in conversation — but — they “lived” the scripture for all to see and was a blessing to all. I wouldn’t mind that being said on my behalf when the time comes.

    Thanks again Ian for a really thoughtful article.


  10. Ian:

    Define “The Church”.

    I think you’ve been a bit too strident here.

    There are Christians who are strident about the GLBT issue. But there are also Christians who feel much as you do. We all belong to The Church, as I understand it.

    We become the flip side of the same coin when we take the “us” against “them” rhetorical approach when talking about fellow believers whom we disagree with.

    Instead of degrading one another, and shoving fingers at one another, how about we heed the advice to be kind to one another, especially to the household of faith?

    • I trust it comes from a place of care, but I’m surprised that you called what I wrote degrading and essentially unkind, in a post which in a few ways noticed my fellow church goers as able to be respectful and fruitful even if they’re on the wrong side of this one. Is it because you disagree with my position perhaps, or just the approach?

      More importantly, we both know there are issues where we feel we have no choice but to shake the tree, because the consequences of the status quo cause great harm. I feel compelled to shake the tree on this one, Karen. I’m trying to do my part to get through to those in the church who feel comfortable holding a position which I know, from conviction and from the experience of hearing from many, is driving a wedge between people and God, driving people away from church, causing them to think God must either not exist or must be unkind, because they feel the church, but as a growing source of tyranny in the broader culture. They have my sympathy, and to my brothers and sisters in the church, if they decide to consider what I have to say, it’s going to sound urgent and direct.

      • Ian:

        Whatever one’s position on this issue … knowing that the other person is wrong only ensures one thing — that we are practicing a Certainosity and not Christianity.

        I don’t think any of us know the answer to the GLBT issue. Even those who make a career of studying human behaviors don’t KNOW for sure.

        So let’s operate from what we do know:

        1) God loves people.
        2) All of them.
        3) So should we.

        Even the ones we disagree with, no matter what the source of that disagreement.

        • “Whatever one’s position on this issue … knowing that the other person is wrong only ensures one thing — that we are practicing a Certainosity and not Christianity.”

          Karen, I can’t take your comment seriously because I see from your own writing career it’s not a standard you apply to yourself, nor should you. You are certain child abuse is wrong, identifying fault or wrong in those within the church when they participate in one of the many shades of child abuse. You have called out the church recently about its failure of preventing it, as well as many other people and issues that you address with biting commentary at times.

          “I don’t think any of us know the answer to the GLBT issue. Even those who make a career of studying human behaviors don’t KNOW for sure.”

          It appears you have misunderstood my post. Nowhere have I ever commented on “the GLBT issue” as you phrase it, implying the orientation issue itself. Nor have I ever told the church what to do with the issue internally. I doubt I ever will. That is for science, psychology, and Biblical scholarship, pastors, elders and congregations to sort out. I am merely talking about a third facet- how the church tries to regulate the broader culture, and the mounds of damage that causes. It also appears that you’re avoiding the damage done. I have a problem with that, and hope some day you will too.

          • Ian: Been on the road and unable to get back to this. I don’t think I’ve avoided the damage done. I think I’ve spoken to it honestly. (The analogy with child abuse is ill-used). I’m uncomfortable with this “us” and “them” rhetoric employed here. The church is us. If the church has mistaken earnestness for righteousness — and it has — that’s because we have. If the church fails in its mission because it substitutes bullying for transformation — and it does –then it’s because we do. The church isn’t them. The church is us. The fault is with us. Not them. The GLBT community, however, hasn’t been without fault in this. They’ve used the same bullying tactics to push forth their own agenda. I just don’t see how any of us are served well by the nature of the discourse we’ve been having for 20 years. I guess I’m just tired of it and wish to goodness we could change up the conversation to a more productive one.

    • I am bemused that you found this post ‘degrading’. Healthy, respectful debate is not only totally appropriate, but necessary. Ian’s not called anyone a name, damned them nor slammed anyone. Sincerely and calmly staking a point of view is sorely needed in these times.

  11. I have such a hard time with this stuff. On one hand I think God does want us to engage, but on the other, I think our main goal as Christians can get lost in it. Our goal is to love God and be more like him, and share his love with others.
    I don’t think God wants us to avoid all controversy. Jesus was a pretty controversial guy. I know I need to defend the faith. I sometimes cower in the corner and justify it to myself as loving.
    Bible thumpers aren’t often very loving. If love is the greatest commandments, I think they have a problem. But I have a problem too – I don’t stand up for God.
    “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” Mark 8:38
    Today I challenged myself on this.
    Someone posted a link of a preacher who was being excessively judgemental about homosexuality (he proposed to lock them in electric cages until they die out…). People then responded, saying that Christians are all so hateful. I decided to defend my faith. I had a discussion with them about Jesus’s command to love and that Christians should not judge one another, that was God’s job.
    But is that enough?
    I had a hard time with prop 8. How should a Christian respond to that? Defend the bible publicly by doing the bumper sticker thing and publicly declaring that homosexuality is wrong, or slink back and take it?
    It feels like such a tightrope!

  12. Ian, you keep managing to put words to my thoughts. Maybe I am guilty of staying in an echo chamber.

    I was really with you this time, and then that closing sentence! You nailed it. American Christians have long confused their kingdoms.


  13. What a great essay. You are spot on in your observations. I’ve never read a stronger piece on this subject.

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