About Christians, Bigotry, and Homosexual Marriage: Dear Sheree
I received a comment from a reader named Sheree on Sunday. She discusses some important topics, and I want to give her as full a reply as possible.
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I want to thank you for posting your comment. You brought up a number of things that deserve response.
I have really been struggling with the issue of homosexual “marriage” and the claims of bigotry that are being aimed at Christians who support keeping marriage as defined between a man and a woman.
One of the key things to nail down in all of this is to know what the words “bigot” and “bigotry” actually mean. Once we’ve looked at these words, we can figure out several things. First, individuals can figure out for themselves whether or not they are bigots. Second, individuals can determine to whom these words actually apply. Related to this is a third, individuals can decide how they, or their group, might be perceived as bigoted.
Bigot: A person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to their own group, religion, race, or politics and to its opinions and prejudices; especially: one who regards or treats the members of another group with hatred and intolerance.
Bigotry: Obtuse or narrow-minded intolerance, especially of other races or religions.
Sheree, let me focus on one element here, the hatred and intolerance. I’m sure you remember I John 3:18: “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” Love is not a matter of words and speech, but of actions and truth. The same holds true of hatred and intolerance. If our actions are hateful and intolerant, but our words speak of love, then our actions expose our words as being false. I hesitate to use the word “lies” here, because I think self-deception should be treated differently.
American society is not viewed as bigoted, hateful, and intolerant based on the single issue of marriage equality. The U.S. has a long history of bigotry and hateful, intolerant actions against gays and lesbians. In 1953, less than sixty years ago, President Eisenhower signed executive order 10450, making it illegal for homosexuals to be employed anywhere in the federal government: post office, coast guard, national parks, anywhere. This was one of the main causes for being “in the closet”: you could be fired from your job for being gay. And hundreds of people were. Before 1962, sodomy was a felony in every state and was punishable by long prison sentences and/or hard labor. In California, my home state, the Briggs Initiative was on the ballot in 1978. The Briggs Initiative would have made it illegal for gays or lesbians to teach in the public schools, and would have required that they be fired. Ronald Reagan argued against the Briggs Initiative. It wasn’t until 2003 that anti-sodomy laws were finally ruled unconstititutional. At the time, sodomy was still a felony in 23 states. Today, despite the Supreme Court decision, sodomy is still on the law books as a felony in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Florida legally prohibited gay and lesbian couples from adopting children for 33 years, and not until 2010 was the ban was overturned.
This is not ancient history, Sherree. Many of us were alive when all this occurred. Heterosexuals may not be familiar with the details of the campaign, but the people against whom it was direct, gays and lesbians, are well aware of it, especially the older ones. They lived through it.
Sheree, if my career had been jeopardized by President Eisenhower or the Briggs Initiative, if I could have been put in jail for how I made love to my partner, if my ability to adopt children was prohibited by law, I would feel like the people behind these policies hated me. On a personal level, it can only feel like hatred when the policies are directed at you, no matter what people say.
When California voters passed Proposition 8, which overturned the right of same-sex couples to marry, I remember a lesbian believer in the midwest posting on Facebook, “They really do hate us.”
I think you can see that this anti-homosexual campaign could only be perceived as hateful and intolerant. Was it in reality hateful and intolerant? I believe it was–unquestionably hateful and intolerant. You may think otherwise.
People may not feel like they hate some small group of people, but if that large group of people and their leaders are at the forefront of a sustained legal attack on that minority for over sixty years, then they should not be surprised or offended when they are called “bigots.”
I think it is a real stretch under any interpretation to believe that homosexuality is not a sin. While all have sinned (in various ways) and fallen short of the glory of God, the main difference I see here is the attempt to justify homosexuality and thus refuse to repent and seek the forgiveness that God so freely gives.
Sheree, your right to religious freedom is guaranteed by the constitution, and your beliefs about homosexuality are protected. I don’t think there are many people who disagree that no one is perfect. The Greek word for “sin” is hamartia, which means “to miss the mark.” Everyone, whether they are Christians or not, would admit they don’t always measure up to even their own personal standards, which even Paul says is a legitimate standard. “Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it.” (Romans 2:14)
No one is requiring you to “justify homosexuality.”
Likewise, gay and lesbian believers don’t need to justify themselves to you or your church. They can say, like Paul, “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself.” Furthermore Paul warns us, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”
You will stand, Sheree. I will stand. My 8 million gay brothers and sisters will stand, because the Lord is able to make all of us stand.
Sheree, if your church shares your belief that homosexuality is a sin that must be repented of in order to either be saved or to be accepted in your church, your right to believe that is guaranteed by the constititution and by God. You don’t have to change your beliefs. You and your church have the right to enforce that rule in your congregation, in your personal lives, and the right to live by it. You are not accountable to me; you are accountable to God. And I’m sure you know that this works both ways.
You and your church also have to right to vote according to your beliefs, no matter where you get your beliefs from. It’s silly for anyone to say you can’t vote according to your system of right and wrong, no matter what your beliefs are based on. It is obvious that people vote based on their politics, their personal philosophy, their religion, their self-interest, whatever.
I believe what you need to ask yourself is what you should do personally. Let me get Biblical again for a moment. In I Corinthians Paul said, “All things are lawful.” This is the foundation of Christian liberty, and is in turn founded on what it says in Ecclesiastes 3, “There is a time for every purpose under heaven,” which emphasizes opposite actions. God can call two Christians to work at apparent cross-purposes, pursuing what look like contradictory goals.
Paul says “All things are lawful for me,” but then he adds a bunch of “buts.” “But not all things are helpful.” “But not all things are edifying.” “But not all things are expedient.” “But I will not be dominated by anything.” Anything is lawful for Christians to do, but our personal criteria for whether we do something or not is based on whether or not it is helpful, edifying, and expedient. (I Corinthians 6:12 and 10:23)
Sheree, since “All things are lawful” for us, it’s up to us to figure out for ourselves, with the Spirit’s guidance, what is personally helpful, what is personally edifying (strengthening), what is personally expedient, what keeps us personally under something’s domination. Personally? Absolutely. Paul wrote, “But I will not be dominated by anything.”
As Christians, we are called to live righteous lives and we do so to honor Christ. We will fall down in our sinful nature repeatedly, but we will seek forgiveness at the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Nothing to add here, Sheree. You need to live a righteous, Christ-honoring life, and turn again to God when you stumble and fall. “Though you fall, you shall not be utterly cast down: for the LORD upholdeth you with his hand.”
So, should Christians avoid the controversy and the bigotry label by just laying low and essentially condoning gay marriage in the guise of loving everyone as Jesus would have loved? I don’t think so. Jesus loved the money changers in the temple, but demonstrated his disagreement. Time and again, he demonstrated love for the sinners, but called them to repentance for forgiveness of their sins. The media has given our children such a distorted view of life now that “anything goes”. Condoning gay marriage is just one more step further away from the life God intended for his children.
Sheree, here’s where I have somewhat to say. I am a Christian, and I believe in marriage equality. When my son finds a suitable partner, I want him to be able to get married, just like his two older sisters. I want him to have the same committed, loving, stable relationship that my wife and I have–hopefully even better!
First of all, I don’t support marriage equality in order to avoid controversy or avoid being called a bigot. Anyone who “avoids controversy” out of fear is a coward, and the Book of Revelation says of cowards, ”their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulfur.” (Revelation 21:8) On the other hand, we are encouraged to be at peace with others insofar as it depends on us. “A time for war, a time for peace.” A time for controversy, a time for calm.
Sheree, Christians who campaign for marriage equality and believe in gay rights do so because they believe it is the right thing to do, the just thing to do. I would be violating my conscience if I did not speak out on this issue. The people you’ve been listening to would like you to believe that, among Christians, only cowards support marriage equality, only people afraid of not being “P.C.” support marriage equality, only people who can’t take criticism support marriage equality.
This is a lie. Well, let me be fair. It’s propaganda. It only works if “you’re preaching to the choir.”
Sheree, life outside of a religious community has always been characterized by “anything goes.” The song Anything Goes itself was written in 1934, long before the much-maligned influence of the “media.” In the days of the Judges someone complained that there was no king in Israel, and that “everyone did that which was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 17:6, 21:25) Plato (424 BCE) complained about the youth of the day: “What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What will become of them?” These complaints about anarchy and chaos are quite common historically, and they resonate for the older citizens among us, myself included.
Sheree, Jesus did drive the money-changers out of the temple. He expressed strong disapproval of their actions. But notice, Jesus didn’t drive money-changers out of Rome, or Marrakesh, or Athens. He drove them out of the Temple in Jerusalem. This was Jesus’ own religious community. For you, if you and your church feel called to this ministry, then this means that you drive the wicked out of your own church, your own denomination. Jesus didn’t drive money-changers out of a non-Jewish place.
And Sheree, please get this. You’re interested in preaching repentance to sinners. All of Matthew 23 is polemic directed at the scribes and Pharisees, the Bible experts, the religious leaders. There are nearly 100 references to the Pharisees in the gospels, nearly all of them critical and negative. On the other hand, only one “sinner” was ever told, “go and sin no more.” And Jesus didn’t utter a single critical word to the woman at the well. She had been married five times, was currently cohabiting with a man not her husband, and was probably a prostitute. He didn’t criticize her, didn’t tell her, “Go and sin no more.” He just told her about himself. When Jesus talked about Sodom, he didn’t mention homosexuality or immorality at all. What we focus on so much today is not what Jesus focused on.
We need to emphasize what Jesus emphasized. If we’re going to have truly “Christ-like” lives and ministries, then our emphasis should pretty much be what his was.
Jesus tore into a corrupt, self-serving clergy. He criticized pastors and theologians who profited from their position in the religious establishment without helping the people one iota. Jesus publicly criticized and rebuked the scribes and Pharisees, repeatedly, in front of their “parishoners,” until the leaders finally had enough.
These religious leaders were the ones leveling the charges at the woman caught in adultery. These religious leaders were the ones criticizing the (probably wayward) woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume. These were the ones criticizing Jesus for being a “wine-bibber and a glutton” and for eating with “publicans and sinners.” In their arrogance they were condescending and insulting to the “unwashed masses.”
Sheree, I know you want to live a righteous life, that you want to be Christ-like. Please look at the difference between who you’ve been taught to attack, and who Jesus attacked. The primary group of sinners Jesus called to repentance were religious leaders. “Go thou and do likewise.”
You said that “Condoning gay marriage is just one more step further away from the life God intended for his children.” This kind of reasoning seems to me to be identical that of people who didn’t “condone” interracial marriage, and based that belief on the Bible. I’m sure you know that interracial marriage was once illegal in most of the United States. Interracial couples simply could not get married, and were forced to cohabit without the blessings, benefits, and protections of marriage. Although many states repealed their anti-miscegenation laws over the years, it wasn’t until 1967 that the Supreme Court ruled that these laws were unconstitutional.
It doesn’t matter that an unjust law can be supported from the Bible. Even if something seems right as rain to the majority of people, and has Biblical support for it, if a policy or a campaign targets oppression at individuals with certain characteristics or groups of people, then it’s bigotry.
Sheree, people aren’t going to wait around until everyone else feels “comfortable” with their marriage partner, and we shouldn’t expect them to, either. If a church chooses not to conduct same-sex weddings, so be it. There is nothing in the law that requires any pastor to automatically marry any two people who ask.
My father-in-law is a retired pastor, and he always had the right to refuse to officiate at a wedding. For theological reasons, he would marry two non-Christians, or two Christians, but he would not marry a Christian and a non-Christian. That was his right. None of that is going to change, no matter what inflated rhetoric you’ve heard. That is a political reality.
Still, I struggle with how to handle these issues with the same love that Jesus would have shown. What so many seem to miss is that it doesn’t do much good to quote scripture to a non-believer, since the Bible holds no authority to them.
We’re not talking about a black-and-white, either/or question, but these so-called “issues” are in large part a matter of politics, and the questions we need to answer are the ones I mentioned earlier. Is your personal struggle with the “homosexual marriage” political issue helpful for you? Is it profitable for you? Is it expedient for you? Is it helpful, profitable, or expedient for us to invest the amount of emotional energy it takes to deal with this? Some will answer yes, others will answer no. But all of us need to answer the question for ourselves.
And there’s the subject of bigotry, of hateful and intolerant campaigns. From the church’s perspective, is it helpful, profitable, or expedient for the churches of God to continue to participate in this 60-year campaign aimed at restricting the personal freedom and career freedom of gays and lesbians, to the point of incarcerating them in prison? There are, after all, political parties that would re-criminalize sodomy. (I have the Texas Republican Party in mind.)
Jesus allowed people to ignore his message, to walk away, to turn around and just walk away. He was content to minister to those who came to him willingly. Many Christians are not willing to follow Jesus’ example in this, to let people ignore their message, to simply walk away. They want to force people, both believers and non-believers, to conform to their religious beliefs on this issue. They want to use the coercive power of the government against people. Maybe not you, but there are so-called Christian people in the United States who would execute “practicing homosexuals.”
Remember the main reasons people say that the Jews rejected Jesus as Messiah? Because they were looking for an earthly kingdom, they wanted to be out from under the rulership of gentiles. Jesus was not their political, kingly deliverer, and many believe that this is why Jesus was rejected as the Jewish Messiah.
When we look to political power to solve our problems, we reject Christ as Messiah. We reject his actual modus operandi, his way of working. It is enough for us to be like the Master, our Teacher. Our love of power threatens to destroy the work of Christ in the world, destroy many ministries, and destroy the testimony of the Church. Remember these words of Jesus:
You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.
Your brother in Christ,
[Edited 8/7/2012 to correct spelling of Sheree's name. Mea culpa.]