Gay marriage, thinking through the case for toleration

Preamble

Among conservatives toleration has become a dangerous word. Spotting the excesses to which the ethos of toleration leads contemporary society they see the need to reject such ideals. They are, at the very least partly, right. Yet when some of my more conservative friends apply this suspicion of toleration to the question of gay marriage and the church, as an overwhelming majority of delegates to the 2015 NZ Baptist Assembly (Gathering/Hui) seemed to do, I wonder at their rightness.

I am not here arguing for (or against) the claim that churches should marry gay couples – I am not qualified to make the case in either direction, though I have studied some of the arguments for both. I want, however, to discuss the toleration within the Christian community (I’d say “church” but as a Baptist the institutional church is local, and the “church universal” is too ill-defined to be useful). The question I want to begin to address, and to which I would love to hear your responses, is simply: Is homosexual activity so clearly a sin (as defined by our understanding of Scripture) that we must judge anyone who implicitly condones such activity by approving of a gay marriage (whether conducting it, blessing it, or allowing their premises to be used for such) as being in rebellion against God.

Body of the argument

There are issues (e.g. slavery or remarriage of divorced people) on which we have debated, and reached a fairly clear position. In both these examples the biblical hermeneutics involved in our decision are not simple or straightforward. In the first case the Bible does not condemn slavery, and indeed it offers rules and advice to mitigate its conditions, while (at least in Philemon) accepting it as a social and legal reality. However, higher and more central biblical convictions overshadow this. In the case of divorce the biblical case is even less clear. On the one hand, we have Jesus’ statement: “…whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.” (Mat 19:9)1 On the other it seems to me we merely have the claim that circumstances today are so different from those of the first century that we can fulfil the spirit of Jesus’ teaching whilst breaking its letter!

In the case of homosexual activity (and therefore marriage) we have no such agreement. Whilst in Evangelical, Baptist and other church traditions that recognise the central authority of Scripture in governing our practice the very large majority of people, pastors and churches hold to the straightforward reading of those Bible texts that list such activity as sinful, there are still a small but not negligible number who choose to apply a less straightforward hermeneutic (with examples similar to each of the other issues mentioned above).

However, the church ought not to be a democracy. We should together listen for the guidance and conviction of the Holy Spirit. At present there is by no means unity in that conviction.

In these circumstances the case for tolerance (by each “side” of the other, until such conviction becomes more closely “common” or such comonality of conviction is evidently impossible) has recently been made in two related but different ways.2

A group of British Baptist theologians and leaders put out a statement: “The Courage to be Baptist: A Statement on Baptist Ecclesiology and Human Sexuality3 In it they argue, on the grounds of traditional and definitive Baptist ecclesiology and practice, for continued engagement with and listening to each other by both sides as we continue to wait upon the Spirit of God for clarification. In particular they “believe that any such attempt [to impose uniformity in the absence of agreement] would be faithless and born of fear, a denial of our shared Baptist confession of how God calls us to live together.”

Meanwhile one of the authors of the new Zondervan book Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church4 Steve R. Holmes (who is also a signatory to the Baptist statement) has argued a similar case from the grounds of “sola fide” that if salvation is on the basis of faith alone we cannot exclude from Christian fellowship those who disagree with us on this particular moral issue.5

This argument depends on the hermeneutical issues on this issue being reasonably undecided at this time. I realise that my friends on one or both sides of the question may deny that this condition is met. Sheer numbers suggest that the claim is true but I may need to address it directly in a future post.

  1. This can perhaps be softened by recognising the part played by the phrase “for any cause” cf. the Pharisees initial question in v.3 in contemporary rabbinic debate, but this would merely allow divorce for unchastity or desertion, not the sort of “no fault divorce” common in the West today. []
  2. I will mention them in reverse order, in part because that is how I came across them. []
  3. Beth Allison-Glenny et al., “The Courage to Be Baptist: A Statement on Baptist Ecclesiology and Human Sexuality,” The Courage to Be Baptist, accessed December 8, 2016, http://www.somethingtodeclare.org.uk/statement.html. []
  4. Preston M Sprinkle et al., Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church, 2016. []
  5.  Stephen R. Holmes, “An Evangelical Approach to Sexual Ethics,” Shored Fragments, accessed December 8, 2016, http://steverholmes.org.uk/blog/?p=7644. []