Thursday, November 20, 2008


Now that we know that Barack Obama will indeed be our next President, it is useful to go back and watch once more what President elect Obama said to Rick Warren at the Civil Forum last summer at Saddleback Church. This particular post will discuss the issue of gay marriage in light of what was said at the Forum. You will find his particular comments about marriage beginning 20 minutes and about 30 seconds into the interview. They are: 1) he defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman; 2)he supports civil unions for gays and lesbians, though he will not personally be advocating or promoting their lifestyle and 3) he is not for a constitutional amendment defining marriage in a particular way because the Constitution did not comment on this matter originally, and it has been left to the States to decide this kind of issue. In his view, it should stay that way.

The vote over Proposition 8 in California is now over but the battle is by no means done. My friend Rev. Jim Garlow in California continues to get lots of hate mail and his church has been picketed vigorously, and yes there have been threats against him of various sorts. This is hardly what one would call proper human behavior.

What should Christians think of that whole matter of Prop. 8? Is it an example of Christians depriving gays and lesbians of their civil rights? Well it can hardly be that since gay or lesbian civil unions are already legal in California, and indeed the partners in such a relationship already have the rights of marital partners in the event of illness and the like.

No, fighting against Proposition 8 was not about gaining the civil right for gays to have a legally sanctioned union, one that allowed one to have the various tax, work, and health benefits of such a relationship. They already had that in California. What it was about was an attempt to redefine marriage, nothing less than that.

When President elect Obama was asked about this matter at Rick Warren’s civil forum some months ago, he said that marriage, according to the Bible is a relationship between a man and a woman, but in his view gays and lesbians should still be able to have civil unions. Of course this is already the law in California so he was not proposing anything new or different to what already existed in California, nor did the passage of Proposition 8 change that state affairs.

What may have changed was the status of those gays and lesbians who were not satisfied with a civil union and wanted to be able to legally claim they were married. Time will tell whether the passage of Prop. 8 will nullify those gay and lesbian marriages which had already been performed and sanctioned. It is interesting that the African American vote in California was overwhelmingly in favor of Prop. 8 (some 70% of African-Americans who voted), and so one would not expect President elect Obama, for whom over 90% of all African Americans voted, to reverse course by executive order on January 21rst when he is in the Oval Office and try and overturn Proposition 8 and similar laws which were passed in Florida and elsewhere. We shall see, but I would not expect such an attempted reversal of things in light of his previous comments about States rights in this matter.

What should Christians think of this matter? Well, in the first place not only is marriage defined in the Bible as an act between a man and a woman, it is said that God initiated such an act in the first place. God brought the man and the woman together (read Gen. 1-2). The result of that marriage was a 'one flesh union', something which, if we understand it and exegete the phrase properly, is not possible for two men or two women to have with each other. Male and female were created in such a way that they, and they alone, can produce a one flesh union. This is not to say that other sorts of sexual activity could not create bonds of intimacy between two persons. This of course is the nature of intimate sharing in sex. The point is that these other sorts of unions are not what the Bible means by a 'one flesh union' (see e.g. Ephes. 5.21ff.).

The result of a proper marriage is not merely that the two become one, but that one of them, the male, becomes a husband and the other the female becomes a wife. It is no more possible for a female to become a husband than it is possible to have a female uncle or a male aunt (I'm am talking here about the issue of identity, not roles that one or another person might be able to play in some fashion).

Biology is indeed pre-determining things in these cases, and even when you have a person who has a sex change operation, such as the so-called pregnant man recently on TV, actually this person is a woman genetically, and in terms of having a womb and the like. She has simply had her breasts removed and taken testosterone to try and remove the evidence and reality that she is a woman.

In any normal set of circumstances gender is not something you choose, it is something you are born with, and what follows from that is certain gender role possibilities come along with that, and certain other ones are ruled out. Of course many people are not satisfied with the way they are born, and think they ought to have choices about such matters. What you mainly have choices about is behavior however, not gender, barring resorting to radical medical actions. It should also be stressed that we are all born fallen creatures as well, so it is not sufficient to argue that "it must be of God as I was born this way". Even if it is true(though I know of no scientific evidence demonstrating this) that some people are born with same sex inclinations, this in itself would not make it 'of God'. Frankly there are too many birth defects with which humans can be born, including the moral one we all have as fallen creatures, and so one could never say with any universal theological validity "since I was born this way, this is how God intended me to be and it must be celebrated as good." This is not by any means always the case.

The question one should ask about the marriage issue is--- should the Biblical definition, and indeed Western cultures definition of marriage for the last thousand plus years be allowed to be overturned by a small minority of American citizens and their friends? Even simply at the level of pure democracy, this is unreasonable in a country where the majority should rule in such civil matters.

A further point should be made. It is not hate to uphold a traditional view or definition of marriage, and our culture and country is not helped by hate-crimes laws that include things like how one defines marriage as hate speech. Discourse on such subjects, though it may well be passionate, should not resort to name-calling, ad hominem arguments, or pure polemics. Equally sincere persons can have diametrically opposed views on this subject, and still be friends.

I have various friends who disagree with my views on this subject, but they are not about to accuse me of hate. They know that this is a matter of Christian conscience for me, and they respect that. This is the way it ought to be in general. This matter should not be dealt with by hate mail, hateful acts, death threats or any other kind of not only unChristian behavior but not even proper human or humane behavior.

Going forward on this volatile issue I would urge conservative Christians who are adamantly opposed to the gay lobby in our country to remember the following: 1) some gays and lesbians are your brothers and sisters in Christ, however confused you may think they are on this ethical matter. Treat them as such; 2) the church should be welcoming to all persons as they are to come to church, just as Jesus was welcoming of all, without condoning anyone's sin or baptizing and calling it non-sin. That is 'we should be welcoming of any sinner but not affirming of any sinful lifestyle or action. Loving the sinner but not their sin may be a hard dichotomy at times but it is what we are called to; 3) Jesus died for us all, whether gay or straight to save us from our sins; 4) the unforgivable sin in the Bible is not some particular sexual sin, but rather apostasy, the willful rejection of Christ in one's life; 5) homophobia and heterophobia are both sins which one should repent of.



Unknown said...

Excellent post, Ben! I'll be bookmarking it for future referral.

My only question: Is there a particular reason that civil unions should only be allowed for gay and lesbian couples? I have two great-aunts (sisters) whose husbands died in WWII. They've been living together ever since. Why should they not have hospital rights, tax benefits, etc?

One caveat: there's pretty strong support for the idea that same-sex attraction is at least partially genetic:

New York Magazine

Although that doesn't refute your point about whether something is "of God" which I think is very well taken.

Brian said...

When a society gets to the point that the question of redefining marriage is on the table, it's just a matter of time before it happens. In these matters it is easy for a President to respond as Barak Obama did, because he just shifts the responsibility to the states and can wash his hands of the entire affair. I think eventually all states will be forced to accept the redefining of marriage. The real challenge will be what do I do when my children are taught in school that something I think is a sin is an acceptable and noble and good way of life. As time goes on I believe that living by the Sermon on the Mount will become an even greater challenge, do to society's increasing attitude that true Christian morals are bigoted and evil. Still, we are commanded by our Lord to adhere to the command of "bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;"

Rob Penn said...

That's a good post. I pretty much agree with most of it.

However, there is one thing that I would ask for further clarification on...

I firmly believe that it is possible for a person to be sinful and still be in Christ. That is, that Christians struggle with sin.

What is your view of Christians who are homosexual? It's a touchy subject for me. I have a friend who recently came out of the closet. She has never kissed a girl before. She's never had sex. She doesn't act on any urges, and isn't interested in a relationship of any kind right now. She just happens to be attracted to good looking women. This is a thing that she's really wrestling and trying to understand.

I believe that there are Christians who struggle with homosexuality just like there are Christians who struggle with lust or addiction or lying. But, if homosexuality is a sin, and a person is a Christian who recognizes homosexuality as a sin, and decides to embrace homosexuality rather than struggle with it, what are your beliefs about such a situation?

I understand that this is an INCREDIBLY general and impersonal hypothetical situation, and that it's nearly impossible (if not entirely impossible) to judge a person's salvation like this without knowing them unless they just come out and say "I hate Jesus," but since she came out of the closet I've been torn. She doesn't act on any of her lesbian desires, but there's so much conditioning from my family that says "she's not one of God's" that it kind of bothers me any way.

K.W. Leslie said...

Respectfully, I disagree. It's not about redefining marriage. It's about whether or not it is within the purview of government to define it.

In this, I would agree with gays and lesbians: It is not. Marriage is sacred. Sacred means holy; holy is defined by God. Not man. Not government. Not Proposition 8. Proposition 8 takes a view of marriage that may be widely recognized, but is only morally objectionable within our Judeo-Christian worldview—which inherently means it is a religious objection. And if we recognize that government has no business legislating religion—or forcing its tenets upon anyone else—then we must also recognize that Prop 8 goes too far.

Government has never had any business recognizing marriage in any way, shape, or form. Marriage is valid in the eyes of God, and the state has no business determining what God has put together, or whether He has or not. The fact that we allow judges and JPs to perform marriages is as wrong as if they performed baptisms; yet we somehow have become used to it.

It is not a civic issue but a doctrinal one. I would not recognize a gay marriage any more than I would recognize a baptism performed by a Unitarian, communion offered by a Jehovah's Witness, or an exorcism perfomed by a witch doctor. But God forbid that the government should decide to have any say in any such matter.

The proper position of the government is to stay out of marriage altogether. That should be left to churches. For civic purposes, the government should recognize domestic arrangements, but nothing further. And Christians should stop turning to Caesar to handle our religious disputes.

Ben Witherington said...

Rob this is a good question. Of course I think we must struggle against our sinful inclinations, whatever they may be. When we start baptizing those inclinations and calling them good, or even holy, we've certainly seriously crossed the line on that particular matter, and should be called to account. I don't think however Christians are called to struggle with their sinful tendencies alone. I believe in the body of Christ and its ability to not only hold us accountable, but also to hold us up when we are about to fall down. The issue however is, one has to be part of such a Christian community and be prepared to be honest in that community.

As for your friend, I applaud her honesty, as it gives her friends a chance to be of help to her. I don't think you can or should say that she is beyond the pale simply for having such inclinations. There is a difference between a Christian struggling with a besetting sinful tendency, and a non-Christian who baptizes their sin and calls it good.


G said...

K. W. Leslie hits the real point. For Christians, marriage is a sacred union. The government has no place in defining its definition either in a heterosexual or homosexual way. The government's role is to protect the rights of the individual. If two or more people desire to create a special legal status which gives them certain rights within that contract, the state can play a role in determining whether that kind of status should be granted, but this does not define that status as what Christians traditionally understand as marriage.

Each faith community needs to decide about this issue on their own. There should be no coerceing by the government or by any group to force its will upon a voluntary faith community, unless that community is practicing something which restricts an individuals constitutional rights. Since we are talking about voluntary faith communities, anyone who is not wanting to adhere to the agreed rules of that community are free to find another community that embraces their values more accurately.

It is not so difficult for faith communities to clarify their definition of marriage to fit their doctrine. Since the denotation of the word marriage includes not only the idea of the sacred union of woman and man, but also the idea of a close or intimate union, such as a marriage of ideas, it will be increasingly difficult to confine the word marriage to the concept of a man and woman union. We can awkwardly continue to always define what kind of marriage we are meaning or we can jump on step ahead and coin a new term which easily defines the exact type of marriage we have in mind. Not only will we avoid the constant repetition of the conflicting issue of hetero vs gay marriage, but we will be using a new term that is unquestionable in its meaning.

A few weeks ago I was playing with this idea and in a half humorous - half serious mood I created a Facebook group called Mananwife. The description of the group is as follows: Mananwife - The marriage of a man and a woman. With the use of elision man and wife becomes mananwife.

Since the definition of marriage as the union of man and woman is no longer clear, it is the proposal of this group that we form a new word to define the marriage of a man and woman that will leave no doubt to its meaning.

Usage of this term may be as follows: "Wow, that is great, when did you become mananwife." "I got engaged today, we are going to mananwife in June." "I can't wait until I go mananwife." "That was one of the most beautiful mananwife ceremonies I have ever seen."

steph said...

What is the biblical version of marriage? I don't know where it defines marriage as the bonding of a man and a woman. There isn't much to support the American view of marriage or a nuclear family in the Bible - in fact there is much to contradict it.

NT Wrong has an interesting article on this today:

Ben Witherington said...

Actually Brother Leslie is probably dead wrong. Go back and read Rom. 13 which says that governmental officials, including the top one are 'servants of God' who are in charge with maintaining justice. From a governmental point of view, who has legal permission to get married and who does not is not only a legal matter, it is a justice issue--- which is precisely what gays are claiming. And when you define what just relationships look like, and which relationships are illegal or unjust, then in fact you are in a mode of operating in a theological way. I'm afraid you can't make a clear cut separation of church and state on a social matter like marriage if the government is tasked with maintaining justice, whatever that entails, by God himself. See also 1 Peter.

As for where marriage is defined Mat. 19.1-12 is pretty clear. Jesus says marriage is an act between and man and a woman whom God joins together, and the only alternative to that is being a eunuch (i.e. celibate) for the kingdom. It is a myth to suggest Jesus said nothing of relevance about gay or lesbian behavior. The implications of Mt. 19.1-12 are clear enough. Paul is equally clear in 1 Cor. 7 and Ephes. 5.31ff. Both ground marriage in the creation order of sexual differentiation of males and females.


Jc_Freak: said...

Amen, Amen Amen!

K.W. Leslie said...

But Brother Witherington, you forget my point: A secular government has no business defining marriage. Thus it should never be called upon to give "legal permission" to any marital union. God puts people together, not the state.

Now, circumstances currently being what they are—one where the state claims it is in the business of defining marriage—you're quite right. It does become a matter of justice. And there you have to decide whether it's just to allow gays to marry. And your definition of justice has to come from somewhere; and among us Christians, it's gonna come from God and the scriptures, whereas some non-Christian justice will derive it from whatever philosophy he or she has consciously or unconsciously embraced.

That's where the trouble comes in. The decision will inevitably become a religious one. And the definition of marriage is not a universally held religious view. Some religions have no marriage; others allow for polygamy. The judge's and the legislature's decisions will ultimately be led by popular culture—if Jesus is popularly followed, you can make a case for the scriptures' stance, but if He's not, anything could pass. And in California (sad to say, 'cause I live here) He's not.

Government's role is to establish justice, but I still argue it is not to establish marriage. Of any sort. Marriages are best tended to by the churches that recognize, support, and encourage them. The state, in turn, allows any two willing participants—regardless of counseling or even state of intoxication—to marry; and divorce whenever one of them tires of the responsibility. How is that just?

III said...

Well said, Benny Three-Sticks. Thank you for taking the time to express these sentiments.

Ben Witherington said...

See the following link for more discussion of this matter.


Stanford J. Young said...

While I believe that homosexual practices are sinful it is pretty clear to me that the attempts of Christians to fight these matters on the political stage is simply not a product of New Testament Christianity. It is not to say that Christians should not courageously and yet graciously claim that such is sinful (Rom. 1; 1 Cor. 6). But, the reality is we simply don't find Christians in the NT fighting to change Roman laws about various practices; or even complaining about them. Paul nowhere declares, "Hey, I won over some of Caesar's household - maybe we can get some laws changed that will make Rome more 'Christian-like' in it's national laws."

Indeed, there are tensions about the believer's interaction in the political arena (e.g., participation in military, et. al.). But, far too often Christians are trying to change the nation's laws, when that is not our particular calling (we just don't see this effort put forth in the NT). Our calling is to change the hearts of men and women.

Furthermore, two other problems I see with your political approach: 1) Practically speaking, taking a stand in this way tends to put up a wall to the gospel reaching the hearts of homosexuals. It's one thing to gently sit down with a homosexual and talk about his problems on a personal basis; to show him that his practices are sinful and that he is lost if he continues in such; and to help him change his life-practices. It is another to take politically charged positions - that will be perceived as "hateful" whether it is or not. It comes across as "Elder brother religious bigotry" (Luke 15). Such politicization of Christian perspectives actually prevent the former from happening. It creates barriers to the gospel of Christ's love rather than breaking them down;

2) Fighting the battle on this level is ultimately trying to win a carnal (i.e., political) battle, not a spiritual battle. It is this mentality that Jesus warned about in Luke 13:1-5 where he exhorted the Jews to "repent," not of particular sins, but of a way of operating in the carnal world - fighting against Rome with carnal weapons. Whether military or through political power plays, this will backfire - just as it did on the Jews in the 1st century.

Do I hope that the people of this nation will seek to live righteous lives by turning to Christ and ending the promotion of homosexual practices? Absolutely. As I do for all nations. But, I believe this political approach is neither in the spirit of NT Christianity nor, ultimately, an effective tool for the gospel to reach the hearts of our lost younger brothers.