Same-Sex Marriage And The Church

Feb 10th, 2024 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

Within the Christian church, broadly speaking, the LGBTQIA movement and the growth of same-sex marriages have caused controversy, division and divisiveness.  A brief overview:

  • On 17 December 2023, the Anglican Communion (i.e., the official state church of England) witnessed Anglican priests officially sanctioning blessings of same-sex partnerships for the first time.  The Church of England’s ban on church weddings for gay couples remains, but this decision to allow blessings has infuriated several conservative Anglican bishops from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific.  The 85 million Anglican Communion is therefore much divided over this issue.
  • The United Methodist Church (UMC) will eventually split into two separate churches over this issue.  About a quarter of US Methodist congregations (about 7,650 congregations) have received permission to leave the Methodist church over this issue and form a new church, the Global Methodist Church.  Officially, the UMC forbids same-sex marriages and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” but “progressive” Methodist churches are defying these rules.
  • Hundreds of congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (USA) have left their respective denominations over this issue.
  • The Eastern Orthodox and the Russian Orthodox Church both strongly disapprove of same-sex marriages.

But it is the Roman Catholic Church’s recent statement on blessing same-sex relationships that has caused no small uproar.  Carl Trueman,  professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, has written that “The confusion surrounding the pope’s recent statement Fiducia Supplicans, a document that is ambiguous about whether Catholic clergy can bless those in same-sex relationships, says much about the times in which we live. Catholic theologians will argue that Rome has not changed, that the fog of distinctions contained in this latest statement means that it does not affect core Roman dogma. But that is not the point: The watching world cares nothing for such sophistry and sees here a fundamental cultural shift. And it seems naive to think that a fundamental change in pastoral practice will not lead to a significant transformation of attitudes. Such compromises—and this is most surely a compromise—always end up being far more sympathetic to the position they are moving toward than that from which they are moving away. When the pope sows chaos within his church on the matter of gay blessings, it is likely to affect us all—Catholic clergy and laity, certainly, but also us Protestants.”

According to the instantaneous media take on it, the pope, in Fiducia Supplicans, authorized priests to “bless” same-sex couples, full stop—although the Declaration itself stated that such “blessings” were not to be considered liturgical, had to be spontaneously requested, involved the “blessing” of individuals, and should be conducted in such a way that the Church’s teaching on marriage as the “inclusive, stable, and indissoluble union of a man and a woman, naturally open to procreation” (as Pope Francis put it last July) was not compromised. But the caveat issued by the Church will not be understood that way by most.  Trueman adds several additional thoughts to this controversy:

  • “Catholicism has for many years given us an umbrella under which we can shelter from the worst excesses of the broader culture. Whether it is the fight against abortion, intrusive health care mandates, or the imposition of political ideology through regulations governing adoption, the Catholic Church has led, and has had the financial power and cultural presence to do so in a way unavailable to Protestants. Strange to tell, she has also been able to maintain with relative impunity some positions that the broader culture finds intolerable among Protestants.”
  • “Most immediately, Fiducia Supplicans will affect the pope’s own clergy, who will now come under huge pressure to bless same-sex couples even if their own consciences are troubled or compromised by doing so. Many will no doubt feel some sympathy for Luther at the Diet of Worms, when he stated clearly that it was not safe for a Christian to speak or act against his conscience.  But Catholic clergy will not be the only ones touched by this dilemma. When the leadership is ambiguous on such an important matter, it weakens the position of the laity. What of the public school teacher under pressure to accept the kaleidoscopic identities of the sexual revolution? What about the employee of the software company pressured to do the same? . . . That is the position in which the pope’s latest antics have placed ordinary people—people for whom taking a stand on the truth could cost them far more than it would ever cost the pope. The public school teacher could lose everything.”
  • “This will also affect Protestants. Whether we like it or not, the officer class of our culture cares little for debates about transubstantiation and papal authority. It makes no real distinction between Catholics and Protestants. In its eyes we are all Christians and thus the shenanigans of the pope will put pressure on us all. The argument will be that, if Rome can change, why can we all not change? The possibility of sheltering under that broad cultural umbrella that Rome has provided will be withdrawn on this issue and we will feel the pain of that.  There are two kinds of leaders: those who see their role as remaking their organizations in their own image, regardless of the collateral damage done to those further down the totem pole; and those who seek to protect the interests of the weakest and most vulnerable of those dependent upon them. Throughout his papacy, Francis has presented himself as the latter, but now it would seem that this has been no more than a specious cover for being the former. A good leader speaks with clarity. Francis seems incapable of doing so. And unfortunately, given the high profile of the Catholic Church, the chaos in Rome has implications for Wittenberg and Geneva, too.”

How have Catholic churches outside of America and Europe processed Pope Francis’s “Pastoral Meaning of Blessing?”  After the rule was issued in December, Zambia’s bishops conference said same-sex couple blessings were “not for implementation in Zambia.”  The bishops conference of Malawi refused to permit “blessings of any kind” for “same-sex unions of any kind.”  Furthermore, the Catholic bishops of Africa collectively rejected same-sex blessings arguing that it “would cause confusion and would be in direct contradiction to the cultural ethos of African communities.”  This declaration is a rather clear rebuke of Pope Francis and underscores the global divisions over Francis’s conciliatory approach to this volatile issue.  Cardinal Fridonlin Ambongo of Kinshasa, Congo, president of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, declared that “Unions of persons of the same sex are contrary to the will of God and therefore cannot receive the blessing to the Church.”  He added that “In addition to these biblical reasons, the cultural context in Africa, deeply rooted in the values of natural law regarding marriage and family, further complicates the acceptance of unions of person of the same sex, as they are seen as contradictory to cultural norms and intrinsically corrupt.”

The accommodation of the church to same-sex marriage or “blessing” such relationships is nothing short of staggering.  How is it that what was once unthinkable, became debatable and is now acceptable?  There are many ways to approach such questions, but most certainly the accommodation of American culture and law to postmodern autonomy is a major factor explaining the church’s accommodation to same-sex marriage.  In terms of law, the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy was decisive.  In that decision, Kennedy wrote that “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”  In other words, liberty is absolute autonomy:  I alone determine what is valuable, worthwhile and meaningful.  There is nothing outside of me that defines things of worth and value.  In 2003, Justice Antonin Scalia fully understood the implication of what Justice Kennedy was saying:  “This reasoning leaves on pretty shaky grounds state laws limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples.  Today’s opinion dismantles the structure of constitutional law that has permitted a distinction to be made between heterosexual and homosexual unions, insofar as a formal recognition in marriage is concerned.  If moral disapprobation of homosexual conduct is ‘no legitimate state interest’ for purposes of proscribing conduct . . . what justification could there possible be for denying the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples?”

American culture, law and the broader church have completely abandoned any recognition of God’s Creation Ordinance in Genesis 2:18-25.  In that central text, God makes clear that marriage is monogamous, heterosexual and a “one-flesh” union between a man and a woman.  [Each time Jesus and Paul in the New Testament discuss marriage and sexuality, they reference this Creation Ordinance, for it transcends all time and all cultures.]  There is no lack of clarity in this text, but throughout history human beings have chosen to ignore it and God has simply “given them over” to the natural consequences of this choice (see Romans 1:18-32).  As God’s clear teaching on marriage and sexuality are opposed, other vices follow in terms of human sin, and the downward spiral of self-destructive behavior follows.

See David Crary in the Omaha World Herald (14 January 2024); George Weigel, “’Contextual’ Theology and Fiducia Supplicans in First Things (10 January 2024); Carl Trueman, “The Pope, Same-Sex Marriage and Protestants in First Things (28 December 2024); Francis X. Rocca in the New York Times (12 January 2024); and Jason Horowitz in the New York Times (5 January 2024).

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