What’s In a Name?: Evangelicals and Marriage

bible-cover-pageThis post is the second installment of a multi-part series reflecting on my recent radio discussion with Brandan Robertson, spokesperson for Evangelicals for Marriage Equality. The audio of that radio “debate” can be found here. The first post can be found here.

In Shakespeare’s classic play, Romeo and Juliet, the “star-cross’d lovers” are destined for a life apart from each other because of a long-standing feud between their families. In act 2, scene 2, Juliet proclaims these famous words to Romeo:

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

Is Juliet really right? Just by changing his name, can Romeo escape the wrath of the Capulet family for loving Juliet? Would they not still know exactly who he is?

As part of my ongoing interaction with Evangelicals for Marriage Equality (EME), I have become intrigued with their use of the term “Evangelicals” in their name. What makes an evangelical?

The term “evangelical” is admittedly hard to define. Many have taken up the task, and some have reached disparate conclusions. However, there are some common elements that seem to mark the use of the term evangelicalism.

First, evangelicals typically stress the authority of the Bible. They believe that it is the inspired Word of God and is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). The first half of the doctrinal statement of the Evangelical Theological Society reflects this emphasis as it states, “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.”

Second, evangelicals stress the atoning work of Christ in personal salvation. The term itself derives from the Greek word εὐανγγέλιον (evanggelion), which means “gospel” or “good news.” It should come as no surprise that a people who claim to be gospel-focused exhibit a concern for personal salvation.

Third, evangelicals tend to stress preaching and proclamation of the Word. This goes hand-in-hand with being gospel-focused people. Part of this preaching would involve calling people to live in accordance with the Scriptures.

In light of these basic characteristics of evangelicals, I find it difficult to reconcile the use of the term “evangelical” for a group of people who are promoting a lifestyle inconsistent with Scripture.

I have written in a number of places about the immorality of homosexuality, but I do not want to focus on that particular activity here. Instead, I want to focus on Jesus’ definition of marriage compared to the statement of belief from Evangelicals for Marriage Equality (EME).

The EME statement concludes, “You can be a faithful evangelical Christian and at the same time support civil marriage equality for same-sex couples.” They specifically avoid making a theological case for same-sex marriage and intentionally choose civil marriage as their battleground.

As we saw above, however, evangelicals stress the authority of God’s Word. If we go to Scripture, we find a very clear statement from Jesus on the nature of marriage. He says, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt 19:4–6). If Jesus declared that marriage is between male and female, just as God designed it from the beginning, I find it difficult to imagine how self-proclaimed evangelicals could promote something that Jesus expressly excluded from marriage.

The reason for EME’s promotion of same-sex marriage, in my opinion, comes not from their desire to adhere to the authority of God’s Word, but instead from a hermeneutical commitment to elevate experience over Scripture. In most of my conversations with Christian proponents of same-sex marriage, they make an appeal to the personal experience of a friend who was (or could be) hurt by the church’s opposition to his desire for same-sex marriage. While I do not doubt the other person’s experience, I do question the wisdom of allowing our experience to subvert the authority of the text. If we elevate experience over Scripture, then there is no limit to what behavior we can justify.

In addition, Brandan Robertson and others have appealed to a standard of love as the reason that evangelicals should support same-sex marriage. They believe that showing love will win over those who would not otherwise want anything to do with the church. However, I am drawn back to the definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13. In the midst of his extended treatise on love, Paul declares, “[Love] does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Cor 13:6). Since Jesus stated that marriage is between one man and one woman for a lifetime, then we know that to be truth, and in that we rejoice. Any departure from the pattern made clear in Jesus’ words is a departure from the truth resulting in unrighteousness. In this we cannot rejoice. So EME is left with a choice. They can either rejoice in the truth of what Jesus has said about marriage or rejoice in unrighteousness. To rejoice in unrighteousness, however, is not to express love in a biblical sense.

In many respects, this conversation about a name comes down to the authority of Scripture. If that is truly a mark of evangelicals, then we must abide by what Scripture says. EME cannot consistently use the term evangelical and also promote something that Scripture forbids. To do so is internally inconsistent, unless of course they mean something entirely different by “evangelical,” a term not defined in their statement of beliefs.

Perhaps Malcolm Yarnell has already provided us some insight into their use of the term. In his book, The Formation of Christian Doctrine, Yarnell traces the changes to the word “evangelical” and concludes that “the term has lost the substantive meaning it once possessed” (xvi). In fact, he cites Darryl Hart’s opinion that “‘evangelicalism’ is little more than a marketing construct demanding a minimalist understanding of the Christian faith” (xvi).

If that is how EME uses the term “evangelical,” then it is no different than their use of “marriage” that I discussed in the previous post. Thus, it is a term with no meaning. It is a name with no substance. It does not describe who they really are.

I, on the other hand, am happy to claim the characteristics of evangelicalism, not the least of which is to stand on the authority of God’s Word.

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For further discussion of the term evangelical, see Malcom B. Yarnell III, The Formation of Christian Doctrine (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), xiv–xvi; and James Leo Garrett, Jr., “Who Are the Evangelicals?” in Are Southern Baptists “Evangelicals”? eds. James Leo Garrett, Jr., E. Glenn Hinson, and James E. Tull (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1983), 33–63.

Words Have Meaning: Defining Marriage in the Marriage Debate

same sex marriage graphcThis post is the first installment of what will be a multi-part series reflecting on my recent radio discussion with Brandan Robertson, spokesperson for Evangelicals for Marriage Equality. The audio of that radio “debate” can be found here.

Words have meaning. In order to have a conversation with another human, there must be some sort of shared language by which ideas can be communicated. This language can include everything from words to sounds to non-verbal expressions. The key, however, is that it has to be a shared language. If it is not, then communication will be misunderstood or not received at all.

In my discussion with Brandan Robertson of Evangelicals for Marriage Equality (EME), our shared language was clearly the spoken English language. In that language we used terms that have easily recognized meaning. However, it became clear early on in the discussion that we were using one particular word in a different way. That word was “marriage.”

As part of the discussion, we were both asked to define marriage. On behalf of EME, Brandan said:

We do not take a single theological view on the sacrament of marriage. . . .

Civil marriage is a marriage solemnized with a civil contract by the government without a religious ceremony. It is a legal status afforded by the government to individuals who contract to live with one another and form a family unit with one another.

Let me offer a few observations about Brandan’s definition. First he used the word to define the word. He said that “civil marriage is a marriage. . . .” This is a subtle, but circular way to avoid defining a term. It exacerbates the mystery of the word because it never defines the word. If civil marriage is a marriage, then what is marriage?

Second, he inserts another similar term into the definition without offering an explanation of what he means. He says that marriage is “a legal status afforded by the government to individuals who . . . form a family unit with one another.” What is a family unit? Historically, a family unit is formed by marriage and expanded through procreation and the rearing of the next generation. In this instance, though, Brandan has excluded procreation from his definition of marriage because same-sex couples are biologically inhibited from procreation. The act of procreation requires a man and a woman. Thus, it is probably a safe assumption to say that Brandan does not believe procreation and the rearing of the next generation to be a public good of marriage. I could be wrong on this point, but it would require Brandan to offer a definition of the family unit to prove so.

Third, Brandan’s definition of marriage diminishes it to a legal status afforded by the government. Limiting marriage to a legal status actually diminishes the importance of marriage. If marriage is just a contract affording a legal status, why does the government make it so hard to get a divorce? If marriage is just a legal contract, then is it more significant than my cell phone contract? I have agreed to enter into a relationship with AT&T for cell phone service, but breaking that contract is relatively easy by comparison. Even if EME only want to talk about civil marriage, there should be recognition that marriage is much more than simply a contract that grants a legal status.

Fourth, even though Brandan and EME claim no single theological position on marriage, they are still making theological commitments. In their very name and the words of their statement of beliefs, they declare that Bible-believing Christians should support marriage for same-sex couples. This requires at least two theological commitments. First, it requires that one not view homosexual behavior as a sin. If it were a sin, like any other sin we read about in Scripture, Christians should not encourage and support others in the practice of that sin. Second, it requires a hermeneutical commitment to prioritizing experience over Scripture. EME constantly returns to the refrain of justice or fairness. However, such calls are based upon personal experience, not the Word of God. In a future post, I will work out a biblical understanding of justice that demonstrates that these current calls for justice come from a weak theological perspective of God’s attribute of justice.

In contrast to Brandan’s definition of marriage, when asked to give my own definition, I said:

Marriage is a comprehensive union of a man and a woman in an exclusive, monogamous, covenant relationship designed to endure for a lifetime and directed toward the rearing of the next generation.

As I mentioned on the radio, there is no fear on my part admitting that my definition of marriage flows from a theological context. I believe we can see all these elements of marriage in Genesis 2. I also believe my definition is consistent with Jesus’ teaching about marriage in Matthew 19 and Mark 10 and Paul’s teaching on marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 and Ephesians 5.

In addition, I also believe that my definition of marriage is consistent with the government’s civil understanding of marriage. Marriage laws in civil society have historically limited marriage to a relationship between one man and one woman. The relationship is considered to be on-going until death unless the individuals take legal action to end it. Marriage laws limit the age and consanguinity relationships of those who can get married in large part due to legal consent and procreation. All of these limitations are consistent with my definition of marriage. I believe my definition actually offers a more robust understanding of marriage even from a civil perspective.

Even civil marriage is much more than Brandan offered in his definition. But as an evangelical, I also declare from the rooftops that marriage is not simply a civil ordinance—it is a creation ordinance instituted by God. Since God is the one who created it, he is the one who has the right to set the parameters. I, for one, am not ashamed to admit that.

Radio Interview Follow-Up

Last Thursday, I had the privilege of participating in a debate, of sorts, with Brandan Robertson who is the spokesperson for Evangelicals for Marriage Equality. The debate was hosted by Kevin Boling on his radio program, Knowing the Truth. I just had the opportunity to go back and listen to the audio, and I will be writing my thoughts on the interaction in the coming days. However, there are a few thoughts that I want to offer to you to consider as you listen to the audio of the debate.

  1. Words have meaning. You cannot have a conversation if you are unwilling to define your terms.
  2. If civil marriage has no limitation on gender, then on what rational basis can the government limit number or consanguinity? Appealing to the “traditional definition” or “historical understanding” of marriage is inadequate if there is no gender limitation.
  3. What is a family unit? What role do children have in this unit? Is there a significant connection between children and the definition of marriage?
  4. What is the fear in providing a theological definition of marriage for evangelicals?
  5. What is justice? Is justice fairness?

These are simply thoughts to be considered as you listen to the audio here. You can also read a summary of the debate produced by the fine writers in the Communications Office at Southwestern Seminary.

Radio Interview with Evangelicals for Marriage Equality

On Thursday morning, I will be on the radio to discuss same-sex marriage and the launch of Evangelicals for Marriage Equality. Kevin Boling of “Knowing the Truth” will be the host, and I will be joined by Brandan Robertson, spokesperson for Evangelicals for Marriage Equality. Brandan and I will be offering opposing viewpoints on the issue of same-sex marriage.

For those of you in the Greenville, SC area, you can listen live at 11:00 am-12:00 pm (Eastern)/10:00-11:00 am (Central) on Christian Talk 660 and 92.9 FM. If you are not in and around Greenville, you can live stream the broadcast at http://knowingthetruth.org. The broadcast will also be archived at SermonAudio.com, and you can link there from the Knowing the Truth website.

I appreciate your prayers as we discuss this very important issue.

An Invitation to Dialogue with Evangelicals for Marriage Equality

Baptist Press published an article yesterday with comments from various Southern Baptist thinkers and leaders (and then me) responding to the launch of Evangelicals for Marriage Equality (EME). For those of you not familiar with EME, the opening paragraph of their statement of belief reads as follows:

As Evangelicals for Marriage Equality, we believe you can be a devout, Bible-believing evangelical and support the right of same-sex couples to be recognized by the government as married. Our commitment to following Christ leads us to speak out for equal treatment under the law for others—whether or not they share our religious convictions.

One of the key goals of this organization is to foster “compassionate, respectful dialogue” on the issue of same-sex marriage. They acknowledge that some of the conversations on both sides of the aisle have not always been helpful or civil.

As a Southern Baptist, I agree with the statements released in Baptist Press, especially considering my comments are part of the article. It should come as no surprise that I disagree with the position of EME. However, the statements back and forth (especially on Twitter) have been less of a conversation and more of short sound bites or longer soliloquies.

In light of this and in the spirit of dialogue, I am offering an open invitation to EME co-founders Josh Dickson and Michael Saltsman and/or spokesperson Brandan Robertson to have a dialogue in my ethics classes on the campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX.

In just two sections of The Christian Home (a course on the ethics of marriage and family), I have nearly 100 students—future Baptist and evangelical pastors, missionaries, professors, and ministry leaders—focusing on the issue of marriage. The class schedule is such that both sections can be visited within the span of about 15 hours (Monday evening and Tuesday morning). I also have an introductory level class on the Bible and Moral Issues that meets Wednesday morning. The seminary classroom setting is perhaps a perfect place to have this dialogue as we believe in the exchange and evaluation of ideas.

If EME would like to send a representative to the fifth largest media market in the country to have a dialogue on the campus of one of the largest theological seminaries in the world, the invitation is open. My contact information is readily available on my faculty profile page on the seminary website.

Good Reading: Tracking Christian Sexual Morality in a Same-Sex Marriage Future

The Public Discourse has posted a very interesting article from Mark Regnerus on the connections between support for same-sex marriage and other issues related to sexual morality. Regnerus is associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and became (in)famous for an article he published about the effects on children raised in a same-sex couple households.

In this article, Regnerus documents the beliefs of churchgoing Christians (attending 3 or more services per month) regarding sexual morality. He specifically looks at the differences in beliefs between those who support same-sex marriage and those who oppose same-sex marriage. The related issues include pornography, cohabitation, hook-ups, adultery, polyamory, and abortion.

Here are some of the highlights:

Primarily, this exercise concerns the attitudes of all churchgoing Christians who express support for same-sex marriage. And since the LGBT population remains a small minority (and even smaller in organized religious communities), it’s reasonable to conclude that the sexual morality that “welcoming” congregations or individual Christians profess will have largely been fashioned—and maintained—by sympathetic heterosexuals. These are and will remain the majority (and hence, the norm) in all congregations, save for the Metropolitan Community Church and perhaps scattered congregations of the United Church of Christ.

Regnerus includes a table with the numbers and makes some observations:

So what do the numbers say? The table above displays the share of each group who either “agree” or “strongly agree” with the seven statements listed above. At a glance, there is a pretty obvious fissure between Christians who do and do not oppose same-sex marriage. More than seven times as many of the latter think pornography is OK. Three times as many back cohabiting as a good idea, six times as many are OK with no-strings-attached sex, five times as many think adultery could be permissible, thirteen times as many have no issue with polyamorous relationships, and six times as many support abortion rights. The closest the two come together is over the wisdom of a married couple staying together at all costs (except in cases of abuse).

Churchgoing Christians who support same-sex marriage look very much like the country as a whole—the population average (visible in the third column). That answers my original question. What would a pro-SSM Christian sexual morality look like? The national average—the norm—that’s what.

He concludes:

Churchgoers who oppose same-sex marriage sense that they are out of step with the rest of the nation about sex and relationships. (The numbers above reinforce that.) And Christians who favor legalizing same-sex marriage often remain embattled with those who oppose it, and yet sense that their own views on sexuality still lag behind those gay and lesbian Christians from whom they’ve have become convinced of the legitimacy of same-sex marriage. That, too, is true. Gay and lesbian Christians, in turn, have much in common with gay and lesbian non-Christians—their social circles often overlap. The sexual norms of the former are not as permissive as the latter, but are still well above the national average in permissiveness. The latter likely constitutes a reference group for gay and lesbian Christians (together with heterosexual Christians with whom they are in fellowship).

The full article is worth your time, and you can find it here.

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Mark Regnerus, “Tracking Christian Sexual Morality in a Same-Sex Marriage Future,” The Public Discourse, August 11, 2014.

Book Review: God and the Gay Christian

*The following book review will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Southwestern Journal of Theology. Published here with permission of the editor.

God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. By Matthew Vines. New York: Convergent, 2014. 213 pages. Hardcover, $22.99.

Same-sex marriage, gay rights, and alternative sexual lifestyles seem to dominate the public consciousness today. From professional sports players coming out as gay to judges overturning marriage laws to allow same-sex marriage, the conversation regarding homosexuality is constantly around us. In most of these instances, the conversation pits Christianity against a secular worldview hoping to affirm homosexual identity. However, a highly anticipated book recently changed the focus of the conversation from “Christians against the world” to an in-house discussion among self-proclaimed evangelicals. In God and the Gay Christian, Matthew Vines attempts to reform the historic teaching of Christianity on the issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

Vines proposes that “Christians who affirm the full authority of Scripture can also affirm committed, monogamous same-sex relationships” (3). In order to support his thesis, the author sets out to debunk the traditional interpretation of the six main biblical passages that have been used to condemn homosexuality. In addition, he seeks to show that celibacy for the person struggling with homosexual desires is a damaging state that undermines their expression of the image of God. Finally, he desires to show that committed, monogamous same-sex relationships are on par with traditional heterosexual marriage and should be supported by the church.

In order to make his argument, Vines works from a few key assumptions. First, he assumes that suffering is inherently evil. In his opening chapter, Vines draws on Jesus’ parable in Matthew 7:15–20 regarding a tree and its fruit. He compares any pain or suffering brought to homosexuals through the condemnation of their sexual activities to be bad fruit brought forth by a bad tree. By contrast, he considers the affirmation of homosexual activity to be good fruit produced by a good tree.

Vines’ second assumption is that Scripture and its authors know nothing of sexual orientation. As a result, none of the traditional interpretations of Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1:26–27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10 are valid for contemporary discussions of sexuality. He believes that modern understandings of sexuality as immutable and unchosen dismiss any interpretation that condemns homosexual behavior for any reason other than gross excess.

The author also assumes that biological difference and role complementarity have nothing to do with marriage and sexuality. Vines believes that Scripture does not speak of biological difference as valid for sexual expression. He also holds that any discussion of role complementarity is grounded in a cultural hierarchy that understands women to be less than fully valuable. As a result, he builds a vision of sexual expression and marriage on commitment and covenant-keeping.

Using these assumptions, Vines builds his case that Christian teachings need to be modified in order to support same-sex relationships. In modifying these teachings, Vines embarks on a dangerous hermeneutical path that leaves some questions unanswered and creates some problems that he does not foresee.

First, Vines elevates his personal experience above Scripture as a source of authority. This is not a critique of which he is unaware. In fact, he says he was confronted by a church member early on with this exact critique (13). Even though he claims not to do so, he in fact affirms this very thing. He states, “I had a second reason for losing confidence in the belief that same-sex relationships are sinful: it no longer made sense to me” (12). His own experience of trying to affirm his lifestyle with the text of Scripture led him on a journey to reinterpret the Bible in light of his own experience. We see this throughout the book from his basic desire to have same-sex relationships no longer be called a sin to his condemnation of expecting celibacy from Christians who struggle with same-sex desires. His personal experience and desires do not fit that biblical expectation, so he believes it must be wrong.

Second, Vines fails to defend his position that committed, monogamous same-sex relationships are equal to marriage. The biggest failure in his argument is that he does not explain why such relationships have to be monogamous. He dismisses the idea of the potentiality for procreation as a key aspect of marriage (137–141); thus, he can no longer claim any natural extension of parenting as a reason to limit marriage to only two people. He considers the key element of marriage to be covenant-keeping, yet he fails to provide an argument why this would limit marriage to two people. As a result, he assumes marriage is monogamous but provides no real reason for such a limitation. His choice of monogamy is arbitrary in light of his definition of marriage.

Finally, Vines neglects to realize that his claims regarding homosexuality open the door for misunderstanding the Christ-Church relationship. While discussing the text of Ephesians 5 and its implications for marriage, Vines argues that the authority and submission structure in the text is built on ancient patriarchy. He notes the connection to slaves and masters in Ephesians 6 as evidence that we can no longer justify role complementarity since we do not affirm the institution of slavery. However, there are two serious failings of his argumentation. First, he ignores the fact that parents and children are also mentioned in Ephesians 6. The authority of parents over children, and the subsequent submission of children to parents, would also have to be overturned by Vines’ argumentation; however, he does not even mention those verses. In addition, Vines’ argumentation requires elevating the church to be equal with Christ. In doing so, one steps into the realm of heresy since Scripture states that the church is in submission to Christ. Vines’ cultural hermeneutic fails to protect against this logical conclusion to his own argument.

While this book has been highly touted by a number of pastors and theologians, the arguments fall short of making a biblical case. Instead, Vines sets out to make Scripture align with his own desires rather than conforming himself to the truth of Scripture (Romans 12:2).