From the archives (written in 2008)
Is it possible to have a win-win on Same-Sex Marriage (SSM)? I think it’s not only possible- it’s imperative.
The recent passage (and subsequent furor and church protests over) Prop 8 in otherwise reliably liberal California shows just how divided we are over this issue. Want to start an argument? Bring up same-sex marriage and watch the sparks fly and the tempers rise.
Because, at least at this point, neither side seems willing to try and see the issue from the perspective of the other and look for something other than a binary, up or down, yes or no kind of solution. And where will that lead us? Certainly no place good. Look for more protests of churches, more of those who speak out in favor of what they see as the biblical understanding of marriage to be labeled as “haters”... and fewer and fewer gay men and women even giving the Gospel a hearing because in their mind, the Church simply doesn’t care about them as people.
In order to avoid an exacerbation of this cultural war, some common sense compromise is going to be necessary- each side is going to have to give up something for the sake of the other.
On one side, the Church is going to have to realize that gay men and women, in wanting what everyone else has, are asking for something reasonable. Rights of inheritance and property, custody and visitation- all of the rights granted currently by the state in marriage are good things, things we can affirm, even in relationships that we wouldn’t necessarily endorse. After all, even if we hold a more conservative view on divorce, I don’t see many churches advocating for divorced couples to lose the right to have custody over their step-children should something happen to their spouse. We may not endorse the relationship, but we can certainly try to understand the desire of those in it to have the same legal rights as other couples. And more than understand it- I think we can advocate for it, and practically demonstrate that we do in fact “love the sinner.”
On the other side, those pushing for SSM need to understand the depth of feeling involved in and around the word marriage- what is for many Christians a sacrament and for all Christians sacred. To have the State legislate an understanding of what is essentially a religious term, and to legislate it in a way contrary to the faith and practice of so many is profoundly offensive. This goes beyond legalization into the realm of endorsement and definition, and as such, is qualitatively different than many other culture war issues.
And as long as we’re talking about “marriage” we’re going to continue to see a stalemate on this issue as those who believe in a "traditional", biblical view of sexuality and those who want the basic rights afforded to others all around them each refuse to give an inch.
So what’s the solution?
The State needs to get out of the “marriage” business. It should recognize that as long as it uses that term, and continues to privilege certain types of relationships over others this issue is going to divide us as a nation, and is only going to become more and more contentious. We need to move towards the system used in many European countries where the State issues nothing but civil unions to anyone who wants them, and then those who desire it may seek a marriage from the Church. When I pastored in the Netherlands, this was the system- you got a civil union certificate at the courthouse and then a Marriage ceremony at the church. This division largely negated the culture war aspect, and allowed those churches who objected to same sex marriage on biblical grounds not only to opt out, but to be able to continue to teach their biblical view of marriage, uncontradicted by the State.
But more even than changing our system, we need to change our hearts. I don’t know how many proponents of gay marriage will be reading this, so I won’t make much of a plea to them beyond this: please stop labeling the other side of the argument as “hate speech” and bigotry. It’s not. It is a working out of deep convictions and a particular understanding of sexuality as a good gift from a good Creator, to be used within certain boundaries. Personal animosity doesn’t enter into the argument- and when it does, it deserves just as much sanction and rebuke from the Church as anything else.
Ultimately, we in the Church need to change our hearts as well. It is our primary goal that the Gospel of Jesus be heard and understood and that the person of Jesus be esteemed. As we often say in marriage counseling, “perception is reality,” and the sad truth is that right now, the gay community in America doesn’t think much of us or our Jesus, not based on the offensiveness of our Gospel, but on the offensiveness of our fighting what they see as fundamental human rights. My fear is that we may (for a while longer at least) continue to win battles like Prop 8... but ultimately lose the war in the hearts of a portion of our population who become convinced that the Gospel couldn’t possibly be Good News to them, based on what they do (or don’t) see in us.