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One of the main arguments made in defense of homosexual partnerships is this: Most heterosexual persons today expect marriage to bring them personal satisfaction and fulfillment. Thus, if they do not find this fulfillment in a first marriage, they feel free, if not indeed morally required, to end it and enter a second one. Many Christians will argue that though a second (or a third) marriage is not God’s ideal, it is a necessary pastoral concession to bring people happiness and prevent unnecessary suffering. Therefore, homosexual people must be free to find such self-fulfillment and personal satisfaction in the only form of relationship available to them.
Of the traditional ends of marriage, the first, having children “to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord,” in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, is usually seen only as an option, even by those who want children. The second, that marriage is “a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication,” is not even considered. Only a version of the third, that marriage is given us “for the mutual society, help, and comfort that the one ought to have of the other,” is allowed.
Recently a friend sent me an attractively written plea written by an evangelical Protestant for the full incorporation of both the divorced and remarried and homosexual partners in the Church. Lewis Smedes, recently retired professor of ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary and author of many books used in Reformed and evangelical seminaries, is a charming and affable gentleman and an ordained minister of the Christian Reformed Church.
In “Like the Wideness of the Sea” in the May 1999 issue of Perspectives, he faces the question: “Does the church’s dramatic move [beginning in the 1960s] from the exclusion to the embrace of divorced and remarried persons provide a precedent for an embrace of homosexual persons who live together in a committed partnership?” At the end of the article he concludes that the one act of mercy (allowing divorcees to remarry) should lead to the further act of mercy (allowing homosexual people to marry). He is emphatic that “the wideness of God’s mercy is like the wideness of the sea,” and thus there is room in the Church for those who were partially or fully excluded by former generations because their sexual behavior was considered immoral.
After citing various evidence from church life and the Bible he asks, “Are the two situations significantly and relevantly similar to each other?” He thinks they are and offers five similarities.
First, both groups are seeking to fulfill a fundamental, God-implanted human need for a shared life of intimate, committed, and exclusive love with one other human being. Second, both are fulfilling their God-given human need in the only way available to them, albeit not in the way the Creator originally intended for his children. Third, both are striving to do the one thing the Lord considered supremely important about all sexual relationships: they are living their sexual lives within their covenants with each other. Fourth, both are trying to create the best lives they can within the limits of personal conditions they cannot change. And fifth, both want to live as followers of Christ within the supportive embrace of the Church.
God, the argument continues, is exceedingly merciful. Experience has shown us from the 1960s that God can forgive and restore those who break their original covenant of matrimony and enter into a new one. Learning from this experience, we ought to see that the mercy of God is wide enough to embrace homosexual persons who live in covenant and who desire to be full members of the Church. Some, but not all, who argue this go on to claim that if we carefully read the Bible, we shall see that faithful same-sex partnerships are not condemned even in a passage like Romans 1:18ff.—that it is the quality of the relationship, not its physical nature, that St. Paul is concerned about.
He Is Right
I think Professor Smedes is right: if a church embraces the view of marriage as primarily for “mutual society” and personal fulfillment and therefore allows deviations from the biblical standards as the closest some people can get to the ideal, I cannot see how it can finally resist the full inclusion and blessing of homosexual couples.
The Episcopal Church provides an excellent and thus tragic example of this phenomenon of acceptance and justification: what began as a pastoral concession to a few people in difficult marriages became more or less open permission to anyone to end any marriage, and is becoming the precedent for giving the Church’s blessing to entirely different arrangements. The few Episcopalians who justify this view of divorce and at the same time still condemn the blessing of homosexual partnerships will soon come to see that their position is untenable and illogical, and on their own grounds. They will not be able to deny to homosexual people the freedom they have freely given to themselves.
The “pastoral” solution Professor Smedes offers has an appeal, in seeming to make possible a happiness otherwise denied to homosexual people and in being fair to them in adapting the Church’s moral teaching to their needs and desires as it has been adapted to those of heterosexual people whose marriages failed. Nevertheless, his proposal is unbiblical, denies the power of God to heal and transform, and is probably much too optimistic about the real nature of homosexual relationships.
But the climate of our culture is such that we cannot simply point this out. Before Professor Smedes’s argument can be graciously and firmly answered, the Church has to have in place a high doctrine and practice of marriage. In this, procreation and family life will be seen as of primary importance in the will of God, and the husband and wife will be seen as an icon of Christ the Bridegroom and the Church his Bride, and both of these will require and encourage the life-long fidelity of man and wife. (It would also be good if the simple realism of the second end of marriage were once more acknowledged.)
At the same time such a church will need to be involved in practical ministry of care and mercy to those who have been hurt by the divorce and “lesgay” (now often called the “lesbigay,” for lesbian/bisexual/homosexual) culture. Individual churches will have to structure their lives to provide alternative families for those who have lost theirs, and so in part save divorced and homosexual people from the loneliness they often feel.
And it will most certainly have to make sure that its clergy, the ministers of mercy, are icons of chastity whether married or celibate. It will have to show that self-fulfillment is found in submission to the Lord’s will, even when this is very painful. It will have to show that true satisfaction is gained through perseverance in obedience, not through the search through multiple partners for an elusive, subjective, and this-worldly happiness.
Most of our churches have strayed so far that it will take a long and painful journey to return to the confession and practice of a biblical understanding of marriage. It will be very difficult, but it will also be the greatest contribution conservative churches can make to homosexual men and women.
—Peter Toon, for the Editors