For some time now I’ve been recommending Girgis, George, and Anderson’s What Is Marriage as the best available explanation for why marriage is for a man and a woman. It’s still on my list, but from this point on, for Christian readers in particular, I have another recommendation to make ahead of that one: Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet’s excellent new book Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage. I shy away from saying this in my reviews, but this time it fits: This book is a must-read.
The earlier book, What Is Marriage, remains the best available natural-law explanation and defense of man-woman marriage. It relies on no biblical sources and makes no moral judgment regarding homosexuality. Rather, it explains from common-sense principles why marriage is what it is. It runs slightly toward the academic, philosophical side.
By contrast, this book by McDowell and Stonestreet:
Presents a biblical as well as common sense defense of marriage,
Includes ideas and recommendations for what we can do about it, in view of the rise of same-sex marriage, and
Does so thoughtfully yet readably: it’s accessible to just about every reader.
Why This Book?
The authors open their book with the arresting admission, “No one wants to be a bigot.” True enough.* Same-sex marriage is on the rise, and to oppose it is hardly popular. So why face the opposition, daunting as it is? Why face the insults? Why write on it?
The simple answer is, it matters…. the speed at which same-sex marriage went from unthinkable to unquestioned is unparalleled in modern memory. A shift of these proportions leaves an enormous cultural wake. Given what is at stake, we can stay silent no longer.
No one doubts there is much at stake here; it may be the one thing both sides agree on. Well, not quite; for as the authors correctly acknowledge, some of the rancor in this debate is the fault of Christians not acting as we ought, in complete love and integrity. They issue a strong call to repentance in the church for all we have done to dehumanize, belittle, or otherwise harm LGBT people.
Marriage Is, Because …
Yet truth is truth, and marriage is what marriage is. There is indeed something that marriage is: something stable, enduring, and not subject to the whims of culture. It is a God-given covenant relationship, “two human beings becoming one, in every way possible.” Marriage is “oriented towards procreation,” and it “comes with an expectation of permanence.” It isn’t defined by government:
We shouldn’t think of marriage as a political institution that belongs to the state. It is a pre-political institution. The state doesn’t create marriage; it can only recognize it. The state, despite all its efforts, will never be able to redefine marriage. Marriage will always be what marriage was created to be, no matter what activist judges, runaway legislatures, or a majority of voters decide. As our friend Dr. Frank Beckwith says, “You can eat an ashtray, but that doesn’t make it food.”
Two separate yet congruent streams of knowledge lead together to that conclusion in this book. First there is the Bible, whose witness regarding marriage is clear and consistent, and then there are non-religious sources. Anticipating skeptics’ likely response to their biblical arguments, the authors write,
“Ha!” you may be thinking. “There go those Christians trying to impose their morality on everyone else. Not everyone believes the Bible, so why would we base our laws on it? You wouldn’t like it if we based our laws on the Qur’an, would you? And besides, what about the separation of church and state?”
Good questions. That’s why we also look at marriage from extra-Biblical sources. As we’ll see, there are plenty of non-religious reasons to define marriage as only the union of one man and one woman.
This dual-focus explanation for marriage is, for Christian readers, one of the book’s great strengths. (Non-believers may still be more interested in What Is Marriage, which rests its argument more on the common ground shared by believers and non-believers.) Biblical truth carries God’s authority, yet Bible-believers need also to be able to explain marriage in terms that are understandable and credible to non-believers, as well as acceptable in a political environment that seeks to reject all religious thought.
A Call To Hope and Courage
Marriage is what it is, and no political maneuverings can make it anything but that. Yet for some it may seem too late. It isn’t.
“It’s over,” he told me [John] grimly. “We’ve lost.”
These words came from a wounded warrior, a pastor who had dedicated much of his ministry calling Christians to apply their faith in the public square, and opposing things like same-sex marriage. But his side, which he had spent so much time and energy defending, had been, he thought, definitively defeated. He was licking his wounds and wondering what to do next.
Sentiments like these are not unusual, and we can sympathize with them. But we also hope they don’t last too long. The legal status of something alters neither its truthfulness nor its claim on our lives. As Christians, we are still responsible to the institution of marriage as God intended it, just as we are still responsible for unborn children, regardless of whether abortion is legal.
God has called us not always to be winners but always to be faithful in following him. If it were true that “we’ve lost,” we would still be responsible to stand for God’s ways in his world.
I’m not sure it’s over, though, and neither are McDowell and Stonestreet. They don’t mention it in this context, but I look back on the history of the eugenics movement in the United States and Britain. Less than a century ago, if you doubted that forced sterilization of the “feeble-minded” was the best thing for humanity, you were standing against the inevitable forward march of history. So much for inevitable forward marches of history, and so much for giving in to supposed such things. I expect it won’t be that long before same-sex marriage, like 20th century eugenics, will be found in the forgotten dustbins rather than the vanguard of history.
A Call To Action
Yet we are in a defensive posture for now, one that’s quite unfamiliar to us. What can we do for marriage? We can stand in courage, knowing what is true. We can repent of our mistakes, as already mentioned. Beyond that, say the authors (with illustrations and explanation behind each of these),
We can change our reputation from those who hate gays, to those who love them.
We must tell the truth about same-sex attraction, homosexual sin, and same-sex marriage.
We can stop implying in our words and actions that homosexual sin is worse than all other sexual sins, and that sexual sins are unforgiveable.
We can defend the religious liberty of all Americans.
We can tell better stories about love, sex, marriage and family.
We can be expect to have conversations about marriage and be ready for them when they come.
And from another chapter, on another level of analysis,
We can teach and model what marriage is, and how it fits in God’s plan.
We can take a strong stand against divorce, as God does.
We can honor the created connection between sex, marriage, and procreation.
We can flee sexual immorality and seek healing for our own sexual brokenness.
In the Strength of Truth, Love, and a Good Conscience
To do this means placing ourselves at the risk of being considered behind the times, homophobic, haters, and yes, bigots. I think if any one thought best sums up the spirit and tone of this book, it’s this that the authors allude to near the end, which the Apostle Peter wrote in two passages, 1 Peter 3:13-18 and 4:14-16:
Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.
If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.
Or to sum it up in fewer words: know the truth, be prepared to defend the truth, be gentle and reverent in handling the truth, keep a good conscience. If you suffer in Christ for your beliefs, let it be to the glory to God; but don’t confuse being insulted for actual insensitivity with being reviled for following Christ.
This is without doubt the most defining dispute between Christianity and secular culture today. Christian, you will face this challenge. Undoubtedly you already have. You will face it whether you are prepared for it or not. Your readiness for it will determine your response and your outcome. Your best response requires right attitudes toward God, toward truth, and toward fellow human beings. It requires being equipped with knowledge.
Apart from your own living relationship with God, there is no better preparation I could think of than immersing yourself in this book. You need this preparation. I will state it this bluntly: you need to read this book.
*Their first words caught me off guard partly because I had said almost the same thing in the foreword to the book I was writing. I had to re-write mine to acknowledge theirs. By way of full disclosure, Sean and John are friends of mine. I wrote this review on the basis of an advance electronic copy sent to me at no charge. Regardless of that, I am confident my review and my assessment are honest and accurate.
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