Last week marked the beginning of a monumental Supreme Court debate about a state and nation’s ability to define the parameters of marriage. With the recent state elections moving in the direction of affirming same-sex marriage, many Christians are being pressed into an awkward and unforeseen circumstance: They must come to terms with how to respond to the question — What do you think about gay marriage?
At least three religious-sounding responses to the question have made their way into the public eye within the last month. Each offers a possible response to the gay marriage question:
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was recently caught on an NPR audio file lambasting a company shareholder for his opposition to gay marriage. This leaked audio file caused a reaction from conservative groups on Facebook calling for a boycott of the coffee company. But notice the internal logic and sequence of the reported events.
The shareholder, Thomas Strobhar, runs a group called the Corporate Morality Action Center — an organization that seeks to challenge corporations on issues like gay marriage, abortion and pornography. Strobhar apparently purchases shares of a company so that he has a platform to show up and troll CEOs about ethical issues. In this particular meeting, he raised his hand in order to make an unsolicited and unwarranted connection between the affirmation of gay marriage by Starbucks and a recent quarterly dip in numbers. He made the statement in the form of a question to which Schultz responded with gusto.
Schultz could have responded in many ways to Strobhar. His curt, ungracious response was a misstep. But Strobhar was equally guilty of pushing Schultz’s button with a self-described “maverick” style of aggression.
Strobhar’s position presents Option 1 in the response to the gay marriage question. In this position, Christians make it their agenda to confront proponents of gay marriage in bombastic and argumentative ways.
I don’t recommend this approach, mostly because aggression tends to choke off dialogue. This conversation is complicated and requires nuance, facts, longitudinal studies, discussions of natural law and debate about what the Bible says and doesn’t say. Nuance generally cannot prevail when aggression has become the mode of operating.
Option 2 comes from spirituality writer Rob Bell, who stirred up controversy by aligning his evangelical Christian heritage with a pro-gay marriage position. Bell stated:
I am for marriage. I am for fidelity. I am for love, whether it’s a man and woman, a woman and a woman, a man and a man. I think the ship has sailed ... I think this is the world we are living in and we need to affirm people wherever they are.
Bell, like so many Christians, transforms Bible doctrine in a way that accommodates the gay marriage momentum. This option is not appealing for several reasons. Why hold to the Bible’s teaching at all if it directly conflicts with the culture? If one has to transform the Bible’s plain teaching, then just get rid of the Bible. Isn’t Bell trolling all of us in a different manner than Strobhar? In this case, he has nuanced his position without holding to the plain teaching of Scripture.
Option 3 comes from yet another famous CEO: Dan Cathy, of Chick-fil-A, who made some off-the-cuff remarks to Baptist writer K. Allan Blume in a discussion of support for the biblical view of marriage. Cathy summed all this up with his remark, “Guilty as charged.” Pro-gay writers and bloggers pounced on this phrase and reported it as not in response to being pro-Bible marriage but to being anti-gay marriage.
So how did Cathy respond to such criticism? By sitting down with gay activist Shane Windmeyer and talking openly about his pro-Bible marriage position. Windmeyer recalled the first phone call from Cathy:
I took the call with great caution. He was going to tear me apart, right? Give me a piece of his mind? Turn his lawyers on me?
Never once did Dan or anyone from Chick-fil-A ask for (the gay group) Campus Pride to stop protesting Chick-fil-A. On the contrary, Dan listened intently to our concerns and the real-life accounts from youth about the negative impact that Chick-fil-A was having on campus climate and safety at colleges across the country.
Dan Cathy. Hateful oppressor of gay people? Nope. Evil CEO with an evil agenda? Not quite. Homophobic wealthy white Southerner? Negative. Shane Windmeyer called Dan Cathy “respectful” and “civil.” And with this story, we see that Cathy demonstrates a third option in the Christian response to gay marriage: Christians live in the tension of confidently proclaiming the Bible’s teaching while respectfully and lovingly pursuing relationships with those who identify as gay for the glory of God.
By now it is obvious that I wholeheartedly affirm the third position on gay marriage. I commend it to Christians everywhere. I think it is the way forward, because it has historically been the way Christians have approached these emerging issues. The Apostle Paul said in Ephesians 4:15, “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”
When it comes to gay marriage, Christians would be wise to follow Paul’s advice:
Make growing in the satisfying relationship with Christ your daily goal.
Know truth and boldly speak truth.
Make “lovingness” your method and the manner in which you do all things.
Last week the Supreme Court began debating the political definition of marriage. I don’t have much hope for this discussion ending up on the side of the Bible’s definition. There are several God-centered folks who will make some political arguments for the traditional definition of marriage. I am not someone who would be good at speaking into that world. It’s not my calling.
All this said, I am not ultimately saddened by the prospect of the government taking a position that may be contrary to Scripture. My hope rests not in horses or chariots but in the Name of the Lord. I will continue to follow Paul’s advice no matter what the government decides. I have been and will continue to love God, lift up truth, and love people. I hope my gay friends will truly practice the tolerance they talk about by respecting my position.
Doug Hankins is a pastor and theologian at Highland Baptist Church in Waco.