After both Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan pushed for acceptance of same-sex marriage over the weekend, North Carolina became the 30th state to amend its constitution to define marriage as an act between one man and one woman.
Now President Barack Obama has affirmed his support of same-sex marriage. In an interview with ABC News, President Obama stated:
"I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don't Ask Don't Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I've just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married...
"I, you know, we are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others but, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it's also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated."
President Obama's statements should come as no surprise. His refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act and his comments about "evolving" on the issue both pointed to this moment. I tweeted last weekend that I expected such a move from the President. To me, the surprise is the timing of his announcement. I, like many others, expected this announcement after he had won a second term in November-- though it appears he has planned to do so before the Democratic National Convention. This announcement accelerated the timeline of an inevitable conversation.
So how do we as evangelical Christians respond?
Last year I wrote a brief post on the future of the evangelical response regarding homosexuality after Howard Schultz withdrew from speaking at the Willow Creek Leadership Summit. In that post, I listed five principles to consider about the issue of homosexuality and evangelical churches. I've fleshed those principles out a bit here.
The issue is not going away and you cannot ignore it or seek to downplay your views. Since Stonewall, the gay rights movement has continued to gain influence and homosexuality is increasingly a public issue to which you must have an answer. Evangelicals have responded poorly at times and earned a reputation for intolerance. Now, in seeking a more biblical and grace-filled response, we cannot erase our past mistakes, however, we can control our attitudes and responses in the future by being clear and gracious at the same time.
The culture sees this as a "justice" issue-- Christians discriminating on the basis of immutable characteristics.
Christians have always believed and taught that God's standard and intent is a man, a woman, a marriage, and a lifetime. To us, that just makes sense and it seems clear in the scriptures, but to an increasing number in our culture, this is simply discrimination. President Obama clearly justifies his reason for supporting gay marriage because of the Golden Rule-- the idea that we should treat others justly, as we would want to be treated. So, we should not be shocked at their response. Many people believe that we are discriminating against other people by restricting marriage from gay couples-- much like keeping black people out of a certain section of a restaurant. They see that as unjust and us as bigots.
Though it is easy to make the case in the church that homosexual practice (and marriage) is incompatible with scripture, it will be an exceedingly difficult case to make in today's culture.
I mention in my new book Subversive Kingdom an example of running for school board. A half a century ago you would not have been considered for public office in most communities without a strong record of service in and loyalty to a local church. Today that same qualification, if the church teaches biblical truths about homosexuality, is a detriment to one's candidacy in many areas of our country. This will become more of an issue in days to come. Believing what the Bible says about homosexuality will hurt your reputation and will be hard to defend as a "good and right" view in society.
Building bridges and showing grace and love is needed, lacking, and essential when dealing with people with different views and values.
Some Christians seem driven by the need to take every opportunity to condemn homosexuality. Instead, I do not think you or I need to begin every conversation with a statement of our opposition of homosexuality. We can, indeed, show grace and friendship to those who struggle, while believing and teaching what the scriptures clearly say. Without hiding our beliefs, we need to look for opportunities to have conversations, build relationships, and show grace.
At the end of the day, all evangelicals will still have to deal with an issue on which the evangelical view is perceived as narrow and bigoted.
Evangelicals will continue to be pressured to accept a worldview rooted in cultural acceptance rather than biblical revelation. While President Obama's thoughts on certain issues may evolve, the biblical teaching has not. We can listen to Dan Savage and decide to "ignore" the Bible's teachings on homosexuality, or we can live with the fact of what the Bible teaches and recognize that, because of such, our reputations will suffer.
Homosexuality is not an easy issue. Christians have said a lot of unhelpful things about the subject over the years-- but that does not mean we cannot say helpful things now. The most helpful truth is the biblical truth. In the midst of a complicated issue, we need to admit to poor engagement in the past, speak of the complexities of the issues involved, but always point to biblical truth and change that can be found in Christ.
Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay's Missiologist in Residence. Ed is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine and Catalyst Monthly, serves on the advisory council of Sermon Central and Christianity Today's Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. Ed is Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and Visiting Research Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Ed blogs daily at EdStetzer.com.