Opinion: Formed by culture?

What moves us toward same-sex marriage — the Spirit and Word, or society?

Feb 2, 2015 by

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All of us want any movement toward same-sex marriage to be shaped by the Spirit and the Word and not only by what we see and hear in the culture around us. Yet this is hard. We instinctively move toward stances held by people to whom we compare ourselves in our social groups, wanting to be “insiders.” We need to continually ask ourselves: How much does the Spirit and Scripture, and how much does society, lead movement in the church toward same-sex marriage?

According to the 2014 Relationships in America survey (of 15,738 people, ages 18 to 60), believers who call the church to bless same-sex partnerships line up very close to the population average in their opinions on sexual morality. For instance, in the U.S. as a whole, 31.4 percent agreed that “viewing pornography is OK”; among churchgoing Christians who support same-sex marriage that percentage was 33.4 — versus 4.6 percent among churchgoing Christians who oppose same-sex marriage. Also in the survey, 35 percent in the U.S. as a whole agreed that “no-strings-attached sex is OK”; agreement among believers who support same-sex marriage was 33 percent, again very close to the population average — versus 5.1 percent among believers who oppose same-sex marriage.

Statistics are notoriously easy to misread. But at the very least this survey gives pause. Many progressive believers are joining the cultural mainstream in accepting unbiblical views on sexuality. The same dynamics that lead them in the areas of porn and hook-up sex may be present as they choose their stance on same-sex marriage too.

We need to ask: What underlies the basic arguments that people in Mennonite Church USA make for blessing same-sex partnerships? Do these assertions rest on views from society or from the Spirit and the Word?

Consider an argument that builds from a sense of justice. Progressive believers tell us that “requiring all homosexuals to be celibate is a burden too heavy to bear” (Listening Committee report, Charlotte 2005 MC USA delegate assembly). The church can esteem and admire the self-denial and discipline of a gay man who chooses celibacy of his own volition; but “is it right for the church to demand that all of our LGBT brothers and sisters choose celibacy?” (Rachel Held Evans, March 2013 blog).

Where does the intuition that we are entitled to sexual fulfillment come from? Is it something we learn from Scripture? Or do we take this stance because, as good children of our culture, we believe sex is necessary for human flourishing, that we have the right to enjoy pleasure and avoid any hard road? Would we take this stance if we are thinking of Jesus and his many followers through the centuries who bear witness that “lives of freedom, joy and service are possible without sexual relations” (Richard B. Hays, Sojourners, July 1991)?

Voices around us predispose us to shrink from such thoughts. But the Spirit and the Word tell us of joys much higher than popular culture knows. Let’s not allow the spirit of our age to overshadow the spirit of Jesus.

Harold N. Miller is pastor of Trissels Mennonite Church, Broadway, Va.


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  • Bruce Leichty

    Unless the survey instrument itself is flawed (and as a rule I am not a big fan of statistics), Harold is being modest about the ability to interpret these statistics, I think. And I am one who used to believe that Christian compassion did require acceptance of monogamous same-sex relationships (no more) but who would have recognized (and still does) the sin of casual sex outside of marriage. Culture is deeply impacting even our assumptions about what it means to be Christian and to be loving. We need both Bible and history to avoid reflexivity, and this is a welcome further contribution to the discussion about the decidedly mixed origins of the impetus for inclusion and tolerance.

  • Harold Miller

    Thanks, Bruce.

    I think you and I are right in assuming that the survey instrument is not flawed. The sociologist who led the survey (a prof at UT Austin) has to be ultra careful and thorough in his methodology because he’s often a bit politically incorrect. His results from the Relationships in America survey are actually more stark than I say in the article. Do a Google Images search for “Regnerus-Graph.jpg” to see a graph showing more results. (SSM on the graph is same-sex marriage.)

    I am increasingly concerned at what we see when arguments for inclusion are distilled down to their core. The Spirit and Word seem to evaporate, leaving only the influence of society. Google “Listening and responding to voices of inclusion” (keeping the quotes) for my article showing this. I sincerely hope that someone can show things that the article misses or gets wrong. Because then I could go to Kansas City much more relaxed and tolerant — could be an “insider”!

  • Evan Knappenberger

    Harold, thanks for your letter here. I enjoyed visiting your church last month, and find your opinions well-reasoned and interesting.

    Last year in the EMU listening process I found myself in favor of allowing EMU to open up to homosexuals. However, as I explore the scripture and my own belief in Jesus’ teachings, I find myself agreeing with your critique of sexual entitlement.

    I want to say (along with Cherith Fee Nordling) that while we should not be theologically judgmental of others’ sexual orientations, we should very much be opposed to the idea of sexual entitlement. As much as I appreciate my friends who are gay and their rights to express themselves, I find the people at EMU and in the broader Mennonite world who are pushing their philosophy of sexual entitlement to be in the wrong, even distastefully so at times.

    I think the challenge of the church, including Mennonites, is to articulate a loving, nuanced critique of the ideology of personal entitlement, without pushing ascetic tastes or total celibacy. In other words, it is wrong to relate to pornography instead of humans, it is wrong to relate to humans as sexual objects instead of as humans, and mostly it is wrong to relate to oneself as entitled to behave against the grain of our purpose as God’s creatures, including sexually.

    That being said, I am finding that it is the conservatives on this issue who are the open-minded ones, and it is the progressives who are dogmatic and inflexible in the defense of their philosophy of entitlement. It is the progressives who are alienating me and those like me with their rhetoric, in fact, more than it is the conservatives, and that should say something too.

    Thanks again, and see you around!
    Evan Knappenberger

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