I think I was in middle school when the pastor of the little Southern Baptist Church I grew up in preached about Jesus’ words on the subject of divorce for the last time. Afterward, he received a great deal of criticism from many in the congregation—including a number of Sunday School teachers and other influential members—who were divorced and remarried.
After that, he did not preach any more sermons condemning divorce.
On the other hand, when there were sermons that denounced the homosexual agenda, or called for reinstating the biblical death penalty for homosexuals, the pastor’s call was met with a resounding “amen,” and there were no protests from the congregation. So those sermons continued throughout my youth, and were still occurring from time to time when I left for college.
In this, the little church that I grew up in was not atypical.
In 1969, the first no-fault divorce law was signed by Gov. Ronald Reagan of California. By 1977, nine states had passed no-fault divorce laws. That year, Jerry Falwell joined Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign against an ordinance in Dade County that would have prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Soon thereafter, he founded the Moral Majority, which campaigned strongly against laws that would protect people from employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and defended laws that would punish private, consensual homosexual conduct.
The Moral Majority did not, however, campaign against no-fault divorce. Without any significant opposition from politically active conservative Christians, by 1985, every state but New York had adopted no fault divorce.
That is somewhat ancient history. The debate over sodomy laws was settled a decade ago by the Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas. And while the Employment Non-Discrimination Act has not yet passed Congress, the focus has shifted from opposing non-discrimination laws to opposing same-sex marriage.
Today, many accuse the opponents of same-sex marriage of bigotry, more or less equating them with the racists of the civil rights era. The counter-argument is that opponents of same-sex marriage are not prejudiced against gay people: they just want to protect the sanctity of marriage.
This response is partially right and partially wrong.
Suppose that we learn that when a certain teacher grades his Christian students’ essays, he always takes away points for spelling and grammar errors, and nitpicks the slightest imperfection in argument. On the other hand, when he grades his non-Christian students’ essays, he is quite lenient, overlooking all but the most serious errors, and more frequently correcting those with a comment in the margin, rather than taking points off their grade.
Note that, as I am imagining the case, there is nothing arbitrary about the point deductions from his Christian students. In each case that he takes off points, the student has made an identifiable error. Nevertheless, justice means treating like things in a like manner. There is clearly an injustice in the fact that our imagined teacher treats the errors very differently when they are committed by non-Christian students than when they are committed by Christian students.
Or, vary the hypothetical case a little, and imagine that the teacher grades African American students harshly, while giving white students an easy A.
I believe that both no fault divorce and same-sex marriage involve a serious distortion of what marriage is. And I think it is right to press for marriage laws that reflect the true nature of marriage. This far, I agree with the principled opponents of same-sex marriage.
However, I don’t think we can stop the discussion there.
Since the 1960’s, the sexual revolution has radically rejected the Christian understanding of sex and marriage. Have Christians done a good job of responding consistently to those rejections? Or have many Christians spent far more effort opposing the sins of the LGBT minority than those of the heterosexual majority?
If we have been inconsistent, how would that be perceived by those we have singled out? And how would that affect our witness to the Gospel?
I don’t want to pretend that these are easy questions. I don’t think that the pastor in my parents’ church was motivated only by cowardice. I think he was trying to respond sensitively and with love and grace to the people in his care who had been through a divorce. And though I think there was an obvious inconsistency in the way the church talked about homosexuality and the way it responded to other offenses against the sanctity of marriage, I think that behind the condemnations of homosexuality there was a sincere, if largely misdirected, concern with the way that our culture’s sexual mores have shifted in the last couple of generations.
It is very difficult to be a pastor today, very difficult to speak about sexual sin to a congregation that often does not get it. Fidelity to the Gospel demands that we speak the truth, even when the truth is unwelcome. But it also requires consistency in the way we speak about the truth and in the ways that we try to enforce it.
And, the truth must be spoken not just with consistency, but—above all—with Christ-like love.