In the debates surrounding marriage in our country, it is often easy to get the impression that conservative Christians are against homosexual people because we are arguing against incorporating homosexuality into the definition of marriage in our society. That makes sense. If there is a “yes” side and a “no” side on the question of the laws and society in general, I guess most of us are on the “no” side. What often doesn’t shine through is the fact that behind the “no” is a greater “yes.” That is to say, there are some positive values that proponents of “traditional” or “natural” marriage are in favor of that drive us to deny homosexual marriage as an institution that we can affirm.
This post is directed toward people who disagree with me completely on this issue. I would like to convince you that conservative Christians are not motivated by blind hate or malice, but rather that there is a reasoned and positive view of life from which we are operating, and because of that, we say “no” to particular lifestyle choices. To be clear, I am not trying to convince you that our system of ethics is the right one (we could always have a conversation about that later if you want). I simply want to refute the notion that is prevalent these days that Christians are “unreasonable,” “hateful” or “bigoted” and are motivated by a desire to hurt people.
I want to do this by demonstrating that one of the goals of our ethics is human well-being, and I want to show that we have not selected homosexuality as “the one thing we are against,” but rather that the positive vision we have for human well-being necessarily excludes a variety of other options in the area of human sexuality.
Behind any distinctively Christian ethic is a vision or goal for mankind expressed by the term “human flourishing.” While everything that has been created is designed to show how great God is, part of the way that God’s greatness is expressed is through His good plan for humanity. His plan is for our good and not our harm, and the way this good plan for humanity is expressed is through human well-being. The Hebrew term “Shalom,” in the Old Testament is often translated “peace,” but is not peace defined negatively in the sense of an absence of conflict, but defined positively in the sense of the presence of human well-being and prosperity (which is not strictly economically defined). This concept of human well-being is what we mean by “human flourishing.”
There are a couple of important aspects to this concept. (I should add that I have no particular expertise in this area besides that fact that I am by conviction a conservative Christian who wants to be as consistent as possible with my faith. Ethics is not really my area of expertise.) The first aspect that is important is that human flourishing is inherently a God-centered concept for Christians. God made us, and made us for Himself in a special way to show what He is like and to have a relationship with us. He is the designer of humanity and humanity doesn’t function apart from conformity to His design. He is also intimately engaged in the working out of human history, and so any refusal to conform to God’s design is not simply a rejection of an impersonal set of principles that are conducive to human well-being, but an offense to the person who has so designed humanity. So as distinct from a secular enlightenment view of human well-being, the Christian vision of human flourishing is not primarily viewed horizontally (that is, with reference to other people), but is primarily viewed vertically (that is, with reference to God who made us and daily gives us life and health and provides for our needs).
Does a person need to be a Christian to experience human flourishing? Yes and no. In the fullest sense, human flourishing is not possible without healing the relationship with God that has been broken because of sin. Jesus Christ died on the cross and was raised from the dead to forgive the sins of anyone who will turn away from their sins and trust in Him. He offers to restore that broken relationship freely as a gift to anyone who will turn to Him. Human flourishing exists in its fullest sense only as we place ourselves, by faith in Christ, under the authority of God (this is what the Bible refers to as “the kingdom of God”).
In another sense, though, even a person who is not a Christian, but who lives within the moral order that God designed, can experience some amount of human flourishing. The person who has not been reconciled to God through Christ and yet basically lives a moral life, while still in need of forgiveness and reconciliation with God, can experience some of the well-being that comes from living according to principles that are conducive to human well-being.
As Christians, we simply do believe that a person must turn to Christ to have a relationship with God. That is what Christians have always believed, and we are not making that up simply to snub people who believe differently that we do, nor are we ashamed of it. We have not seen the need to “update” our faith to fit modern sentiments, because we believe that that would actually destroy our faith and transform it into something different – some form of humanism. (I don’t say that in a derogatory way, but descriptively a faith that teaches that man is fine the way he is is called humanism, and that is a different religion than Christianity). I say this all to say that although we know that we Christians fall short of loving others daily (to our shame), we actually do want people to experience the ultimate well being that comes through faith in Christ as savior and Lord.
But in light of the fact that many people reject the Christian faith (and we respect the fact that faith cannot be coerced), how are we to live in a broader culture together? As Christians, we still believe that some measure of human flourishing is possible by those who are not Christians, and so while our preference is to see people become Christians, we want to promote in our culture, when possible, those principles that will lead to human well-being at whatever level is possible. This means that when it comes to issues like human sexuality, we will do our best to encourage principles of behavior that will be most likely to bring about human well-being and discourage principles that we believe work against the goal of human flourishing.
And to be honest, it is not only Christians who do this. In a culture like ours in which the government is participatory, all of the citizens have a right and responsibility to work to bring about the well-being of its citizens. As a Christian, I am under no obligation to work for the promotion of a vision of life that I don’t believe in. And if you are not a Christian, you are under no obligation to work to promote the Christian vision of human well-being. We are each free in this country to argue out of our perspectives and promote the particular vision of well-being that is consistent with our world view. We may argue and debate and discuss the reasons we have for our point of view, only let us do it with integrity rather than by name-calling and demonizing. I say this to some degree to both “sides” of the debate.
So human flourishing is inherently God-centered. A second important principle is that human flourishing is as much corporate as it is individual. You get a sense when you read the Bible that God is not quite as individually focused as we are in our western post-enlightenment culture. God is concerned with people, yes, but He is also concerned with humanity when viewed as a whole. He is also concerned with nations and people groups as they are viewed as a whole. And so it is worth noting that when God looks at humanity, He notices when one person does something wrong to another person, but He also notices when one “people” does something to another “people.”
This corporate view of life (along with the individual, because we are also individuals before God) comes into play when we discuss human flourishing, because the current trend in America seems to be a concern for the rights of the individual without regard for how that might impact the well being of society. Of course, we also don’t want to promote the well being of society at the expense of the individual either. But as Christians we are concerned to promote patterns of living that are good for humans in general and our culture in particular. This point might come across as rather irrelevant, but I am concerned about the degree to which our culture is concerned about the well-being of the individual as an “exception” to the rule to the expense of creating meaningful patterns of life that will create a strong culture and society. The rights of the individual seem to trump the well-being of the society as a whole to an unhealthy degree.
I hope this has helped you to understand some of what the conservative Christians are thinking about and the positive values to which we are honestly, though I am sure inconsistently, aspiring. Next I would like to demonstrate that when it comes to sexual ethics, Christians have not singled out homosexuality or homosexuals for negative treatment. We simply don’t hate homosexuals. Sometimes I imagine the relationship of Christians to homosexuals in our culture can be difficult because when they come into contact with one another, the homosexual thinks to him/herself “they think I’m bad because of something I have no control over,” and the Christian thinks to him/herself “they think I’m a bigot because I believe what Christians have always believed.” Let’s face it, that sets us up for some nervousness and standoffishness. And then there is the fact that we belong to such different subcultures that we find it a challenge to have meaningful relationships and tend to just not interact that often.
But what I would like to do now is sketch some of the basics of human sexuality according to the Christian faith and try to show that there is more to our view of human sexuality than the fact that we are “not homosexual.” I should be clear that our sexual ethics are determined by our faith, and we believe that our faith is really given to us by God. Nevertheless, I want to show you that we think it is also reasonable, and actually does lead to the human well-being. I want to do my best to be faithful to what Scripture and the Christian traditions have taught, but I also acknowledge that this is a daunting task for some guy sitting in his office writing a blog as opposed to a well researched book. If I fail to argue this well, I hope that you won’t hold all Christians everywhere responsible!
Certainly an important aspect to the Christian view of human sexuality is that it is by design a male-female relationship. But since that is the area in debate that I want to place in context, I will address that last (although it will be assumed in many of the other aspects).
Human sexuality is to be personal. That is simple but really important. We may not treat another person as an object in order to satisfy our desires. This is as true in marriage as outside of it. We reject any form of sexual activity that turns other people into a tool for another person’s gratification because this harms both the “objectifier” and the “objectified.” This includes pornography, prostitution and any other entertainment or even attitudes that make a person a tool for our own pleasure. Sex is an inherently personal activity, and anything that diminishes the personhood of another person is wrong and harmful to the well-being of humanity.
Human sexuality is also to be undertaken in a responsible way. We have to realize that there are consequences for our actions, and that we cannot get all the privileges of adulthood without any of the responsibilities. People who engage in sex need to know that it is ordered toward reproduction (see below), and that a baby might be the result. Human flourishing is increased when people who engage in sex do so responsibly. Our culture demonstrates a desire to take away the consequences for our actions by promoting contraceptives for kids and legalizing abortions. But contraceptives are certainly not fool proof and we strenuously object to the killing of an unborn person because someone doesn’t like the consequences of their actions (I understand that some people seek abortions in cases that have nothing to do with their own actions. I am not really addressing that here. I think that the numbers show that in the majority of cases, abortions are sought because of the consequences of consensual sex.)
Human sexuality belongs within the commitment of marriage. If you thought we were old fashioned because we don’t believe homosexuality is morally permissible, this ought to be a shock! Although our culture as a whole has accepted the idea that people will experiment with sexuality before marriage, we still believe that God made sex exclusively for the context of the marriage covenant. We believe that it is detrimental to human well-being when people who are not married are having sex. There needs to be the safety of unconditional love that surrounds the intimacy of sex for the well-being of the people involved. This is especially so because sexuality is designed for procreation and children need an environment of safety, stability and love to really experience well-being as God designed it. And while we are being honest, boys and girls who are essentially not old enough to make mature decisions are not ready give the kind of unconditional love that makes sex great. (For example, we would never make a sixteen-year old boy or girl commit to a particular job for the next eighteen years of their life, and yet, especially for girls, that is exactly what sex potentially is – the commitment to the hard job of raising a child for at least the next eighteen years!) The same powerful act that can so wonderfully express the kind of love fostered by an explicit, lifelong commitment can also inflict a kind of lifelong injury and emotional/relational harm when it is used by immature people for their own pleasure. Human well-being demands a marriage commitment as the context for all sexual activity.
Not only does sex demand marriage as the context, but that marriage must be a lifelong commitment. The kind of unconditional love discussed above is really not possible unless each member of the marriage knows that the other person is in it “for better or worse, in sickness and in health.” If the marriage can be terminated at any time, the whole family’s stability is at the mercy of one or the other spouse’s whims.
This means that we are still against the legality of the “no fault divorce.” One person recently said that the debate about homosexuality is just part of the bigger debate about marriage, and that it goes at least as far back as the legalization of no fault divorce. At that time, our culture decided that the permanence of marriage really wasn’t part of the definition for us. And yet divorce, while it is not an “unforgivable sin,” is not a pretty thing. Divorce is not good for human well-being. It represents a permanent break in the foundational institution of society. Families in which parents divorce have incredibly higher rates of poverty and drug abuse. Because of this, promotion of marriage as a lifelong institution is one of the best ways we could fight poverty and juvenile delinquency! Granted, being married is no walk in the park at times. There are disagreements and stress, etc. But God can give us grace to make it though. Marriage as a permanent institution is good for human flourishing, both for spouses and children.
Marriage is made for two people. This is part of the divine design, but it is also for the benefit of the people involved. This means we are opposed to polygamy. Each member of the marriage has an exclusive relationship with the other person. There is no vying for attention of threats to the member’s place in the home or competition for rank. There is an intimacy in which each person is for the other alone. We don’t think that marriage that involves more than two people best promotes the safety and stability of each member of the family.
Marriage is for people from different families. There are certainly concerns that come with incest that have to do with genetics and health issues, etc., but it is also a concern that the boundaries between children and parents are distinct. The roles need to be distinct for human well-being to be promoted. The parent child relationship is important for the well being and development of the children, and (at least from the Christian perspective) it is important for the children to get a conception of God as the father who gives and nurtures us without having any need supplied by us. There is both a genetic and psychological necessity for the well-being of humans that people only marry those from other families.
Sex is ordered toward procreation. It is designed with procreation in mind even when it doesn’t happen. Different branches of Christianity teach different things about this. Catholics, for example, have traditionally believed that procreation is the goal of marriage and that any attempt to interfere with procreation is immoral. This is why Catholics have traditionally been opposed to contraceptives. Protestants have no stated position on the morality or immorality of contraceptives, but vary from believing strictly that contraceptives are wrong to believing that they are permissible. I am personally inclined to think that the Bible does not explicitly command a particular view on contraceptives, but that if a family were to desire to have fewer children than they might “naturally” have, the motivation would be important. I certainly don’t think it is legitimate to not have children out of a concern for one’s own comfort, for example. But that is just my opinion. What is not debatable is that sex is ordered by design for procreation, and that it is good for a society when children are being born. This is especially true in stable homes in which they will be reared in such a way that they may be able to be a positive influence on society and a bearer of the burdens of others.
Another aspect of the Christian view of human sexuality is that marriage is an ordered institution. In any institution, whether it is a country or a corporation, we understand that there must be organization. Someone must be set aside to lead and give direction to the group. When this happens they are able to give structure and direction to the group so that the group can work together and accomplish more than they could as individuals. The family is the same way. Each of the members of the family has a place in that family with rights and responsibilities. Each member of the family has a particular role to fill. Most specifically, Husbands are to lead and provide and wives are to support and nurture. When there is confusion over roles, the result is not freedom, but chaos and confusion. We know this to be the case in every institution. For example, there is a reason that our country doesn’t have two presidents. It is because there cannot be two leaders. While it is true that decision-making can function well much of the time with less structure and less formality, when there is disagreement, having two people with equal say will end up in a stalemate.
In Christian thinking, the different roles within the family institution are given to the different genders. This is because we affirm that there is something really special about each gender that equips it to fulfill a special role in the family. Not long ago, people were trying to say that there was no appreciable difference between men and women, but this is simply not true. There are differences in our design beyond the outward and physical. There are different hormones that give us different kinds of temperaments, and if I understand right (I am certainly not a biology major) there are differences in how our brains function as well.
I think this leads to the conclusion that there is something very special about being a man or a woman that is underappreciated by our culture. Now it is certainly true that among men and women there are spectrums of masculinity and femininity, and that there are things like pink and blue that are cultural ways of expressing the gender differences. Certainly there can be an unhealthy way of making some people do activities that they just don’t like and aren’t suited for because “that’s what boys do” or “that’s what girls do,” but nevertheless, there are differences. (You can ask my mother, she says that she tried to take away my toy weapons when I was little and give me a baby doll and she says that I held it by its arm and started shooting things with its legs!) In my opinion, while feminism may have helped in some areas (for example, equal pay for men and women who do the same work), in general the message seems to be “Women are only equal if they can do everything that men can do.” I think that this confuses equality with sameness and attacks that fact that men and women are both special in different ways.
Christians believe that these differences, generally speaking, make men good husbands and fathers who can go out and work to care for their families and lead them and protect them. It is something they are to do in loving service for their families, and it is a special call and challenge for men; one they were made for. Similarly, the gender differences, generally speaking, make women good wives and mothers who are able to complement their husbands and nurture their children. This is also a worthy calling!
I think that it is possible that in some cases the push to tell women that they can do anything that men can do has told men that there is nothing special about being a husband or father and women that there is nothing special about being a wife and mother. If there is nothing special about being a husband or father, why should I make the sacrifices that go along with the calling? I think this could be a possible contributing factor (notice I did not say determining factor) to the huge numbers of single mother families in our culture. I also believe that there may be women out there who would actually be happier and more fulfilled staying at home with children, but have been told for so long that they aren’t equal to a man unless they have a successful career. Christians believe that being a husband and father is a huge and important calling, as is being a mother. We believe that we were designed to fulfill those roles according to our gender and that, when done right, it is personally fulfilling and provides stability and order in which humans (especially children) can thrive.
Finally, I return back to the issue that human sexuality is inherently a male-female relationship. Even the nature of things demonstrates this. The fact is, gender is by nature a complementing thing. It is simply not the fact that there are a number of genders among which we are free to engage with in sexual behavior. There are two genders that are not simply different, but complementary. Christians have traditionally understood marriage as an institution for the well-being of human society that is based on the complementary nature of gender.
In summary, Christians (generally speaking) have believed that human sexuality is ordered for human well being, and specifically that it functions that ways when two people of complementary gender from different families engage in a permanent marriage commitment in which sex is intended to be responsible, personal and procreative. The fact that sex, in many marriages, is not responsible, personal and procreative does not diminish the fact that it is ordered toward those ends.
So that is my best shot (without spending a whole lot of time researching the subject) at describing the view of marriage that Christians believe leads to human flourishing. I hope I have shown that when Christians oppose homosexual marriage in our country, that it is not because we see heterosexuality as “the opposite of gay,” but rather that we have a view of life that we believe is ordered to the well-being of mankind, and that homosexuality is one of various ways in which people can try to live outside that design, and that we promote our views of human sexuality not because of a need to dominate other people but because we are concerned for the well-being of our society and the people who make up that society. In conclusion, I hope that this post has helped to convince you, not that we are necessarily right, but that our view of human sexuality is based on a positive and reasonable desire for human well-being, and not motivated by unthinking hatred or bigotry, as it seems popular to assert these days.