Your beliefs don’t shift in an instant. We research and agonize, bouncing between hope and despair, until one day we hear ourselves say something a former version of ourselves never would have said. That’s how I came to support same-sex marriage in the church. When I came out as a teenager in Baptist circles in the Bible Belt, I never would’ve imagined God would still like me if I married a woman one day. And I want to try to explain, in theological(ish) terms, how I ended up here.
It seemed reasonable to be taken to an ex-gay ministry within days of coming out to my family my junior year in high school. At that point, gay people were hardly mentioned in the church, and when we were, we were told God thought gay people were gross. The main message from conservative Christians was that the Gospel would transform sexual minorities who sought the face of God, washing us, sanctifying us, and eventually making us straight.
A little lesbian who wanted so badly to be good, I abandoned my skepticism and latched onto the hope for “freedom from homosexuality.” I stuck around for almost a decade, hopeful that God would show up and surprise me if I remained committed to the process. When Exodus International asked if I would join their speaking team, I jumped in with a message of hope in what God would likely do in the future.
Eventually, we learned that even the most dedicated wouldn’t be able to change their orientation. Evangelical Christians shifted their theology a little at that point. Pastors and leaders decided that perhaps God’s transforming work would not result in orientation change, but it would result in the grace to pursue lifelong celibacy. Initially, Christian leaders were troubled when those of us committed to lifelong celibacy referred to ourselves as gay. They insisted we refer to ourselves as “same-sex attracted,” which implied we were basically straight people whose attractions happened to misfire from time to time. Then they realized it’s a bit much to demand lifelong celibacy from this one group of people and to define the terms of how we were allowed to talk about it, so it became more acceptable for us to say we were gay.
Some of this made me uneasy but I tried to be a sport about it, assuming those in leadership were more theologically sound than me and that their intentions were likely holier than mine. When Evangelical leaders said their views were rooted in sincere theological beliefs rather than homophobia, I believed them. In their minds, that is true. In my mind, that was true.
Thoughtful Christians have taught that all of Scripture points to a theology of marriage that involves one man and one woman in a lifelong commitment with a green light for sex in that context alone. This is based on the idea that the Bible is our ultimate authority, but it’s complicated by the fact that we bring an interpretive lens to the Bible. When we support women’s equality in all areas of leadership in the church, we trust one interpretive lens over another. Both sides are sincere Christians and both view the Bible as authoritative––they just differ on how the Bible, which was written in a patriarchal context in the 1st century, should apply to empowered women in the 21st century.
Since we interpret in community, we ultimately choose to trust one group of leaders in their interpretive endeavor over another. There’s safety in numbers, right? So I stuck with the crowd and assumed conservative pastors and Christian leaders probably brought a trustworthy lens to Scripture. Throughout my twenties I was committed to lifelong celibacy.
As the debate raged, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the way the arguments shifted. Initially we were told we should become straight, so I tried to become straight. Then we were told a traditional theology meant lifelong celibacy, so I was on the celibate track. We were taught that a marriage between a man and a woman is primarily about sanctification: a place to learn how selfish we are in a sort of lifelong mini-monastery. We were taught that marriage is also about companionship because God said it’s not good for humans to be alone. We heard that the marital bond creates an energizing love that overflows into the kind of hospitality that helps us to welcome the hurting into our homes.
As more LGBT people came out and more theologians said a Christian marriage could actually extend to same-sex couples, traditionalists grew anxious. Pastors realized there is no reason two gay or lesbian Christians could not live into the kind of marriage they’ve taught all along: one that’s about sacrifice, sanctification, companionship, and reflecting God’s faithful commitment to the church. So they scrambled for some sort of explanation for why we should continue to apply the text in a way that excludes same-sex couples from marriage, and many now say it’s because the capacity for procreation is central to a traditional understanding of marriage.
The problem is that Protestants have never taught that procreation is central to marriage and we don’t actually believe that or we wouldn’t be cool with birth control. We suddenly adopted a quasi-Catholic view of sex and marriage but only when it comes to gay people––not when it might burden straight people.
For 13 years I was mostly on board with leaders who maintained that marriage was between a man and a woman, assuming they were onto something I was missing. I’ve been on board with this at a great cost––a cost that’s been worth it because I deeply love the community I’ve come from, the community that I still consider my family. But I watched many people use their power to protect themselves rather than using it to protect the most vulnerable. I saw them make decisions about LGBT people while excluding us from the community of interpretation. Over the course of hundreds of conversations, with tears and prayers and vulnerable pleas, my heart was broken. Many Christian leaders have scrutinized the people they could’ve learned from all along, anxiously creating new arguments that kept sexual minorities from pursuing calls to ministry, playing the piano in the church, or building a home with someone they loved.
When you put that example next to someone like Eugene Rogers, you start to feel like there’s something very life-giving and very Christian in the affirming view of marriage. He sees marriage as a school of virtue that nurtures generosity in gay and straight couples alike: “For marriage is an example of the concrete discipline that most of us (liberal and conservative) lack: in marriage we practice common discernment over self-interest. Marriage cultivates concern for one another: it offers lifelong hospitality; it enacts love; and it exposes our faults in order to heal them. It is the marital virtues that the church need, not only with respect to the Bridegroom, but with respect to one another.”
He goes on to say: “The married know that they have learned moral virtues––patience or temperance or courage, fidelity, hopefulness, and charity––because of a vulnerability to their spouse that they could not learn from any other person. Eros makes a way to the heart; without the vulnerability it brings, charity grows cold. This is not a lesson of “sexual liberation,” if sexual liberation involves evading commitment and discipline. This is a lesson of the incarnation.”
He says marriage exposes our faults in order to heal them and the grace cultivated in a lifelong commitment nurtures moral growth. When I considered the fruit of that kind of teaching over and against the fruit of one that views LGBT people with suspicion, relegating us to lifelong singleness with very little tenderness, I came to believe that we should celebrate same-sex marriage. It became hard for me to understand what exactly was driving traditional teaching on marriage if it was not fear of change––a very particular kind of fear that’s often expressed through homophobia.
But we don’t have to live in fear any longer. Same-sex couples are getting married, and many of these couples are decisively Christian, and these Christian couples are a witness to a watching world that’s been disillusioned by the hypocrisy they’ve seen in the church. No amount of disagreement with these marriages will invalidate their Christ-like example of love and faithfulness. It will not diminish the power of their testimony when their love creates an energy that welcomes in the hurting, the lonely, and the forgotten. These couples exemplify a vibrant faith fueled by a man from Nazareth who embodied love and forgiveness in the way He lived and died. That is, after all, what a Christian marriage is all about.