By Geoffrey Roberts
It is rarely good news when Christianity appears in the mainstream media. Sex scandals, abuse and fraud seem to be appearing with frightening regularity and the entire church is often painted by this broad brush of moral failure. Likewise the debate surrounding the legalisation of gay marriage has not reflected well on the Christian community. What could have been a great opportunity for the kingdom of God has degenerated into a public fight between traditional Christian values and modern secularism. A fight where our culture is a willing audience as the media gladly promotes each sound bite, tweet and press release from Christian leaders who are naively sensationalising the hypocrisy and cultural irrelevance of the church.
As a married man, father, Christian, pastor of a local church and celebrant I have been asked quite a few times what I believe about the legalisation of gay marriage. Many of the people I have spoken with are uncomfortable with the homophobic and bigoted ‘Christian’ view they have seen in the media and they are looking for a place to stand that doesn’t require them to persecute the homosexual community or compromise their faith. They want to know where Jesus is standing. I am writing this article to respond to these queries but mostly I am writing because I feel sad, I feel offended and I feel compelled to finally say something about the stunning lack of reference to Jesus in this debate. I can’t write a message on behalf of ‘the church’ any more than I can write a message on behalf of ‘husbands’, ‘fathers’, or ‘celebrants’ but I have something I need to say: I believe the vilification and demonization of the homosexual community and the loudly proclaimed ‘Christian’ view that homosexual couples should not be allowed to marry is distinctly unlike Jesus. Quite frankly, Jesus does not care about our laws… he cares about our hearts.
The kingdom of God
I do not think that the legalisation of morality is the means by which God wants to transform our culture. Greg Boyd, an outspoken American pastor has a belief that I share, a belief that the kingdom of God should not operate in the same way as the kingdoms of the world. He often uses the terms ‘power over’ and ‘power under’ to describe the different agendas of these opposing kingdoms. The kingdoms of this world use force (power over) to impose their views whereas the kingdom of God transforms people by getting underneath a culture (power under), expressing God’s love in tangible, judgement free acts of compassion and self-sacrifice.
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36 NIV)
The kingdom of God is not simply a Christian version of a worldly kingdom. Likewise the values of heaven are not imposed like the laws of the land. The values, transforming power and beauty of heaven were manifest in Jesus through his love and sacrifice not through the conquering of Rome or the establishment of a religious government system. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” (Matthew 6:10 NIV) he was not suggesting that the church should take dominion over worldly structures, he was praying that God would radically impact people’s hearts and minds to establish a new culture totally unlike a worldly kingdom. If the ultimate goal of heaven was to take over the kingdoms of the world Jesus could have simply accepted Satan’s offer when he was tempted in the desert (Matthew 4:8-10).
When the Pharisees asked Jesus about the kingdom of God he responded by saying, “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21 NIV). Despite this clarification the disciples continued to ask Jesus about the establishment of a worldly kingdom.
So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:6-7 NIV)
When we attempt to institute a Christian worldview in our culture through lobbying and legislation we make the same mistake as the first disciples when they asked Jesus if he was planning to restore the kingdom to Israel. Jesus responded to their question by highlighting the most important function of the church – to be witnesses; to testify to what they had seen, heard and experienced of Jesus. Forcing people to live according to Christian morality will not save them. Jesus wanted his disciples to witness to the world not control the world. Worldly governments and laws have no bearing on the kingdom of God. Jesus wanted his followers to be filled with power, becoming supernatural examples and witnesses of his radically different kingdom. The restoration of morality in our culture is not a legal problem it is a witnessing problem. Legislating Christian morality is a poor substitute for acts of service, love and compassion. Not only is it a poor substitute, it is an admission by those imposing it that Christianity has no transforming power in our culture. It is an admission of our failure to be witnesses – an admission of our failure to represent Jesus.
A moral quandary
John 8:1-11 describes a scene where Jesus has just sat down in the temple courts to begin teaching those who were gathered. Before he could start, the teachers of the law and the Pharisees appeared with a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. The Pharisees, hoping to trick Jesus, presented him with this conundrum; honour the Law of Moses and agree to stone the woman or deny the law.
When people ask me about gay marriage I feel a little bit like this. It is a trap. I am given two options: encourage a homosexual lifestyle or pick up my stones. When I find myself in this place I ask myself a simple question: Where is Jesus?
Is he engaging in adultery with the woman? Is he standing with the Pharisees? Is he hidden in the crowd? No, that’s not where Jesus is… he isn’t standing in the legalism to the right or the lawlessness to the left; he is between the woman and the stones. He doesn’t need to commit or condone adultery to honour the woman and nor does he need to kill her to honour the law.
This story actually details an incredibly redemptive interaction that Jesus has with a group of Pharisees. In this scene he does not call them ‘vipers’ brood,’ or ‘white-washed tombstones,’ he calls them to account. He asks of each of them, ‘Are you qualified?’ and one by one, oldest to youngest, they put down their stones. Despite their trap and their vitriol they choose not to be hypocrites. They choose to walk away. The interesting twist here is that Jesus, unlike the Pharisees, is actually qualified – he is without sin! But he also knows that he is going to die; he is going to lay his life down for all transgressions; he is going to satisfy the law so he does not need to condemn and kill the woman. Jesus shows the woman grace and connects with her not by stoning her but by loving her. It is out of God’s love that we are compelled to change not out of law, fear and condemnation.
After her accusers have departed Jesus turns to the woman and to my great surprise he doesn’t offer a 10 week program to fix her life, he simply says, “I don’t condemn you either”. “Go now and leave your life of sin,” this isn’t a command, this is Jesus pleading with her to change her life. He gives her the opportunity to choose transformation or walk away. He doesn’t demand that she behave herself and join the disciples – he doesn’t own her.
Where am I?
When I look at this story I am forced to ask another simple question: Where am I in this story?
Am I standing in the crowd? Am I behaving like this confrontation is too trivial or too controversial for me to risk getting involved?
Am I standing with the woman? Have I changed my theology so that adultery is acceptable? Have I compromised my values to be seeker friendly and culturally sensitive but forgotten where Jesus is?
Or am I holding a rock? Am I cursing the speck in my brother’s eye whilst I have a log in my own? How many times have I imposed my morality on others only to find myself on the opposite side of the courtyard to Jesus?
When I read through this story I am profoundly challenged as I see the truth hidden in the background. It was not the woman who was on trial… it was the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. Jesus did not condemn the woman even though she was clearly a sinner just as he didn’t condemn the sinful woman who washed his feet with perfume or the long line of sinners he associated with. Jesus does not hate these sinners, he hates hypocrisy. He is angered when the Pharisees clean the outside of their cup but don’t address the issues on the inside.
It seems to me that a great deal of attention is being focused on the outside of the cup in Christendom at this time. We claim marriage as a ‘Christian institution’ but maintain the same high levels of divorce as the rest of the world (1). We are inspired to write angry letters about the value of human life yet we are rarely inspired to invite women into our homes, offering to share the burden and challenge of raising children. We are deeply concerned about violence in the media but fail to be concerned about sending young men and women into violent warfare. Why are we not more disgusted by our own greed, lust and gluttony than by the love expressed in a homosexual relationship? Why isn’t the church investing its energy into developing healthy marriages, supporting parents, pursuing peace, and living generous humble lives instead of trying to control the relationships of others?
Here is the painful truth - our love for the homosexual community, our service to the poor, enslaved and oppressed and our concern for refugees displaced by war, famine and devastation are issues that stain the inside of our cup. These are the true issues of justice and mercy in the heart of God. This burden is the platform of the kingdom of God.
When I discuss this issue with people who are strongly opposed to gay marriage they often justify their position by claiming that they are somehow protecting children. I agree that the best environment for a child to grow up in is with their biological mother and father in a healthy family unit but this does not give me license to discriminate against gay couples any more than it does to discriminate against single parents or divorcees. The public debate surrounding homosexual marriage is cleverly hidden behind this type of propaganda; propaganda that is designed to make the agendas of both sides more palatable. Why can’t people simply be honest? Those who oppose gay marriage because of religious beliefs do so because it is their faith view… it is not fundamentally about protecting children. The protection of children has become a convenient (and dubious) ally to foist a biblical view of morality on our culture. If the Christian agenda was truly about the protection of children we would be more concerned about global financial aid, the obesity epidemic and the sexualisation of children than gay marriage. What about kids in the foster care system? Do we care about them enough to welcome them into our homes? What about child slavery and soldiers? Does the kingdom of God only extend to the problems we see in our country? People don’t oppose gay marriage because of its potential impact on children; they oppose gay marriage because it makes them uncomfortable both theologically and physically. When we hide our prejudice behind the false agenda of protecting children we lose our integrity in the debate.
A slippery slope
I can understand the desire to make a stand on the issue of gay marriage because of a religious worldview. I can also understand the view that this issue presents a slippery slope into moral decay and the removal of religious freedoms. It is a genuine concern that the agenda for equality could ultimately remove the ability of ministers to choose who they marry and that Christian schools could be forced to employ unbelievers (just to name a few). What is baffling to me is that this makes the church so afraid! Is God somehow limited by laws or persecution? History has shown the propensity for the church to flourish under these types of circumstances. I am suspicious that we are not really afraid of losing our religious freedoms but actually we are afraid of losing the comfort and structure of ritualised Christianity. We want to be able to live out our faith in the security of our nice buildings, comfy chairs and clean clothes.
A holy mess
Real Christianity is messy. It is about sharing life with all people, especially those whom our culture isolates and misunderstands – especially people who identify as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender. When Jesus walked around he was shunned for freely associating with the fringes of society. The religious police felt that this type of behaviour made him unclean but the beautiful, supernatural truth is the complete opposite. Jesus did not become unclean through these interactions, but those who spent time with him were radically healed, transformed and empowered - they became clean.
Real Christianity is made of daily decisions to lay down our lives, willingly sacrificing for our enemies, protecting those who are isolated, separated and persecuted, giving generously and loving indiscriminately. If we want to stand with Jesus we need to change our attitude to gay marriage. Standing in the crowd, refusing to engage and pretending like this is a trivial issue is unacceptable. If we truly want to be witnesses we need to engage the homosexual community with such great love that they welcome us into their homes like Jesus with Zacchaeus. We need to serve so profoundly that they seek us out at night like Nicodemus or wash our feet with perfume as did the woman in the Pharisees house. We need to put aside our judgements and listen to their story at the city well and share prophecy that compels them to know God. We need to meet them in the streets where people would stone them and stand in front of the stones. We need to show honour, respect and love in such a way that any slander brought against us would be condemned by all. If we truly want to see a change in our culture we should be concerned about our hearts not our laws. The key to seeing transformation in our community and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth is found in witnessing, not politics.
(1) The Barna Group in their research of American believers have consistently found that whilst certain segments of the church have a reduced rate of divorce the overall statistical prevalence of divorce amongst born again believers is identical to non-born again adults. http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/15-familykids/42-new-marriage-and-divorce-statistics-released
I have written a brief follow-up to this article to clarify my position on Christians in politics… you can check it out here - http://homeofglory.tumblr.com/post/24885576207/christian-politics
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