Over at First Things, I’ve contributed to a symposium on yesterday’s SCOTUS ruling. The questions each of us were given to answer were these: “How should we respond to how the Supreme Court has ruled? What’s next?”
My answer started off with a riff on a really affecting gay memoir:
In his memoir Denial: My Twenty-Five Years Without a Soul, the gay journalist Jonathan Rauch says that there once existed a frightened young man tortured with the certainty that there was no place in the world for the love he experienced. That man was Rauch, and there was no home for him—none, that is, until he and his fellow Americans decided he had the right to marry. “They and he have found, at last, a name for his soul. It is not monster or eunuch. Nor indeed homosexual. It is: husband.”
When I read Rauch’s book, that last sentence left a lump in my throat. That receiving the word husband felt to Rauch like the relief of a negative biopsy—“You’re not sick or twisted or crazy; you’re just hindered from giving and receiving love, and now the hindrance is removed”—goes a long way toward explaining the jubilation so many gay and lesbian people feel in the wake of the Obergefell v. Hodges SCOTUS ruling. Finally, their loves may be dignified not with the anemic moniker friend or partner or the clinical epithet disordered or the disdainful slur pervert but rather with the venerable, ordinary, immediately recognizable words husband or wife.
You can read the rest of what I wrote by clicking through—basically, in my contribution, I fault us Christians, the churches themselves, for our complicity in promoting erroneous views of marriage (“we,” not just “them,” share the blame!)—but I wanted to take the opportunity here to say a little bit more.
I’m gay myself, of course, albeit celibate, and as I watched all the excitement of my gay friends yesterday, I couldn’t help but sympathize with the jubilation. Like Jonathan Rauch, I have known shame and loneliness, and I am drawn to the promise of home that same-sex marriage holds out.
Yet I’m also a Christian, and according to historic Christian orthodoxy, marriage isn’t the only, or even the primary, place to find love. In the New Testament, as J. Louis Martyn once wrote, “the answer to loneliness is not marriage, but rather the new-creational community that God is calling into being in Christ, the church marked by mutual love, as it is led by the Spirit of Christ.” Marriage in Christian theology is, you might say, demythologized. With the coming of Christ, its necessity is taken away: gone is the notion that without it we are doomed to lovelessness.
For that reason, even if my faith permitted me to embrace Justice Kennedy’s understanding of “marriage equality”—which it doesn’t—I would still resist his conclusion about where to find the end of loneliness. Christianity teaches that marriage is transitory (Matthew 22:30), that celibacy is an honorable good drawing us into relationship with others (1 Corinthians 7:38), and that sacrificial love is open to anyone, regardless of marital status (Galatians 3:28).
Unlike Jonathan Rauch and Justice Kennedy, I don’t believe husband or wife is the right name for same-sex partners. But according to the promise of Scripture, baptized is a name offered freely to every last one of us, gay or straight or anywhere in between—and it’s a name that means beloved. That is the good news the church is given to proclaim, now more than ever.
Thank you, so much for posting this. I have been at a loss for words to explain to others how I felt about yesterday. I live in this odd and other-worldly dynamic tension. It lies somewhere between wearing a goat hair shirt and flogging myself or embracing what the world says is my true self. It is a lonely place sometimes.
Why is it “either/or” rather than “both/and”? It’s entirely possible that one can be both “baptized” and “husband”. It’s not that gay people are necessarily looking for fulfillment in marriage rather than in God (at least no more so than straight couples). In fact, in my life, marriage has been a part of the sanctifying work of the Spirit. Marriage, at its best, is cruciform. It is a vow of lifelong mutual self-sacrifice, care-taking, and fidelity in the service of community.
In a video statement, Russell Moore made an argument similar to yours (though not nearly as eloquently). He claims gay people are exuberant because the court has given them something they think will fulfill them (which he denies will be the case).
That’s not what just happened. Gay people who have established intimate, covanented, fulfilling relationships are exuberant because the state is no longer allowed to insist our spouses are legal strangers to us.
Marriage is a covenant. The fact is that those who object to the marriages of gay couples have never had the power to prevent them. The only thing within their power was to attempt to marginalize and stigmatize families like mine. Today the court ruled that the state can’t be used to that end. Love has trumped fear. It’s in that spirit we celebrate!
I understand Wes’s point to be that heterosexual Christians far too often do look for ultimate fulfillment in marriage rather than in God. I myself have attended Christian weddings in which I wondered if the officiant overstated the primacy or benefits of marriage. At least in theory, if one can experience (or hope to experience) that security, identity, community, and a sense of home can be found primarily in God and His Church, than one might be willing to release marriage as a right or a need. Yes it can be both/and but it is important that it is not necessarily both/and. Sanctification can be experienced by many different means. This is tremendously important for many people who wish to be married but for various reasons will never experience this form relationship.
Wes, thank you so much for your voice in this symposium. With a few exceptions I found the contributors’ responses to be “as warm and human as a thrown knife,” to borrow a phrase from the inimitable Terry Pratchett. So many of them seem to believe that Standing For Truth or whatever is sufficient in order to stand for the Gospel, and miss Christ’s example of compassion and condescension (in the archaic sense), without which fighting for truth (whatever they believe that entails) is meaningless.
I wanted to ask so many of these contributors, have you ever walked with a gay person, tried to care for them? Have you ever listened to their doubts and fears, prayed with them, cried with them? I see you have a plan for overturning a sweeping SCOTUS ruling–how endeavoring!–but what’s your plan for caring for LGBT people? Christ’s vision is manifestly to make disciples in the LGBT community–what’s your plan for that? What’s your plan for building the Kingdom? Do you plan to build it out of laws and Democracy and, apparently, nobody other than straight people and your own children? How is your call to action a call to take up the cross and become more like Christ?
No apologetic of our marriage ethic is anywhere close to satisfying without answering these questions. Thanks for realizing that and persistently voicing a more complete and (at least in my opinion) more faithful apologetic. As a gay celibate Christian it’s easy to feel unseen and unheard in controversies like this because neither side’s prevailing voices really represent my beliefs and experience. So I deeply appreciate your voice in the public forum, and the voices of all the others who see the need for an apologetic that is at once faithful to scriptural truth and faithful God’s heart and mission.
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Take a closer look at gay couples (especially gay male couples) and you will see that “marriage” doesn’t change the nature of their relationships. The minority who were always going to be emotionally monogamous will stay loyal to each other whether they are married or not. Most will negotiate some form of sexually open relationship after a few years. For gay men it’s all about the wedding – not a change in relationship status that they will be required to honor publicly. Of course, many straight relationships now follow the same pattern.
I agree, but we also have to consider practical implications. I suspect that, within 1-2 decades, we will gradually come to a less exclusive view of marriage, i.e., a view of marriage that places less of a social burden on that relationship and permits its participants simultaneously to maintain emotionally intimate relationships with other adults. But that’s not where we are today. So, while I think it’s important to ask how we go about moving toward a better view of marriage within Christian circles, it’s not good enough just to tell people that it may be better in 20 years.
In some ways, this is a broader “singles” problem. In past centuries, the church contained large numbers of single adults who did not feel called to hearth and home. In many cases, they were the backbone of the church’s growth and its ministry. Today, most single adults feel that they have no role to play in the church at all. I periodically attend a weeknight gathering of evangelical singles in my area. It’s surprising to me how many of these Christians–especially the guys–have stopped going to church. This weeknight singles group is their church. As one 30-something lawyer recently put it, “I stopped going because I got tired of spending Sunday morning with a bunch of family-values types who couldn’t even be bothered to speak to me, probably suspecting that I was a closeted gay or a pedophile. I didn’t walk away from evangelicalism; it walked away from me.”
As we talked, we were reflecting on the fact that guys like us have become fairly desirable in the corporate world. I have a close friend who’s an attorney at a major consulting company. For tax reasons, a large chunk of the company’s assets are being bundled into a holding company, which will be located either in Switzerland or Hungary. Because he’s single and can easily accept a 5-year overseas appointment without requiring the company to relocate an entire family, he’s getting the job. He noted that single folks seem to climb the corporate ladder much faster than married folks. I’ve noticed the same thing. Global corporations seem to have noticed what the church once noticed (and has now forgotten): Having single people at the heart of your enterprise makes good sense.
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As a single, heterosexual, celibate clergywoman, I deeply appreciate your insights. My Wesleyan tradition historically emphasizes the real possibility of attaining holiness and perfection by God’s grace; and as I affirmed during my ordination, I am earnestly striving to attain this perfection.
As a “pioneer” clergywoman, I always felt a need to be a positive role model to others. I avoided the “appearance of evil” in my relationships. Because I did not have intimate relations with men, I am sure that a number of my parishioners suspected that I might be gay. I am sure that underlying suspicion damaged my ministry.
For me, serving Christ has always been my first priority in life. I am eternally grateful for the blood he shed on the cross, and I would like to devote my life to the declaration of Christ’s redeeming love to others.
However, my church has now grown weak in it’s declaration of sanctification. Married clergy are the norm, and those clergy who are deemed to be “rising stars”, are seduced by the “need” to have ever-increasing salaries. Our bishops and our churches do not seem to value single clergy.
I retired early after serving as a pastor for 24 years. I was proud to be a pioneer; but I am no longer so proud. It is sad to see the theological compromises my church has made as it has matured into a religious institution.
As single, celibate Christians (gay AND straight) begin to BOLDLY speak up about the merit of holiness in the Christian community, there may be some hope for renewal in the church. Sadly, however, few celibate Christians are doing so. Celibacy for the sake of Christ is a challenge to the current value system of the church.
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I had a lengthy outpouring of a response that was lost as soon as I clicked a button.
So whilst I wipe away tears of sadness, anger and disheartenment, all that’s left in me to say after a painful week, is that it is impossibly unfair that my heteronormative brethren get a choice that’s godly either way – get married or stay single, but my choice is stay single be godly or get married and live a sinful life.
It’s so nice when these straight, married friends of mine see fit to lambaste the illegitimacy of my feelings before curling up with the one they love.
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Thank you for adding these additional remarks to your First Things contribution. Beautifully put and needfully said!
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