In June this year the United States Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for individual states to ban same-sex marriage. The court ruled that the denial of marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and the denial of recognition of same-sex marriages, violates due process and the equal protection clauses of the fourteenth amendment. This was met with celebrations not only in America but around the world as a victory for freedom and equality. Although same sex marriage has been recognised in South Africa since 2006, the recent U.S decision has put the so called ‘marriage debate’ back on the agenda. However it also put many Christians on the back foot as conversations began again in earnest about why we were not joining in the celebrations. What follows is not so much a Christian defence of heterosexual marriage, but some reflections on the shift in culture surrounding the re-definition of marriage itself.

The movement for ‘marriage equality’ began the conversation by doing two very clever things. Firstly, it framed the debate in terms of equality. This immediately put the issue in the same category as civil rights, or in our context, the fight to end apartheid. Who would dare argue against such equality? The answer is, only bigots. By framing the debate in this way, they instantly demonized anyone who wasn’t on their side and ended any chance for an intelligent and thoughtful discussion.

The irony of course is that this simply breeds a new kind of prejudice. The definition of a bigot is someone who has strong and unreasonable beliefs who will not listen to or accept the opinion of anyone who disagrees with them. Without considering the arguments against so called ‘marriage equality’ the yes camp forms negative opinions about those who disagree simply because they disagree. And that in itself is prejudice.

Writing for the Sunday Independent, Brendan O Neill had this observation about those who voted to recognise same sex marriage in the recent Irish referendum. ‘The most striking thing about the yes camp has been it’s intolerance, it’s hostility to dissent, it’s demonization of its opponents, the casualness with which it wrote off swathes of Ireland as bigots and cretins, unfit for public life. This is the disturbing irony of the yes camp; it presents itself as the historic antidote to the backwardness of old Catholic Ireland, yet it rehabilitates, in updated lingo, the intolerance of old Ireland.’

As a result, Christians are under suspicion and accused of discrimination and even hate speech when they speak up in defence of marriage as defined by God in Genesis Ch 1-2 and later reaffirmed by Jesus in Matthew Ch 19. And yet it would be worth reminding those who take offense that disagreement is not the same as discrimination, and that love is not merely acceptence in order to keep the peace. Love is seeking what is best for others. And so as cultures and laws increasingly  ‘suppress the truth by their wickedness’ (Rom 1:18) Christians must continue to love their neighbours, both gay and straight, by offering the better way that is found in God’s word.

The second crafty thing the movement for marriage quality did was to assume the conclusion in the premise of the question. By calling gay marriage ‘marriage’ the conclusion had already been reached before the issue was even discussed. In doing this they managed to avoid the actual issue which was, ‘Should we redefine what marriage is?’ That was the fundamental question on the table which never got a proper hearing. The debate is not whether we should acknowledge the love that same sex couples have for each other, but that whether or not that love should be affirmed as marriage.

Marriage is an institution, a mechanism of social order that is designed to achieve a specific purpose. That purpose is to give legal space for one man and one women to have an exclusive sexual union that allows for the generation and raising of children which are recognised as their own. A theological purpose can also be added to this (for those who think theology matters), that marriage is a reflection of the union between Jesus Christ and his people, the church. The institution of marriage is therefore bigger than the concerns or motives of those who enter into it.

What this all means is that redefining marriage to include two people of the same sex actually destroys the concept of marriage altogether. It is an impossibility to talk of same sex marriage, just as it is impossible to talk about a man falling pregnant. Therefore redefining marriage cannot help homosexual couples achieve the ‘equality’ that they are hoping for, because it is no longer marriage they are entering into. Abraham Lincoln was credited with having asked the question, ‘If we should call the dog’s tail a leg, how many legs would it have? To those who answered, ‘five’ he pointed out that the true answer was four; calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one. The same is true of renaming same sex partnerships ‘marriage’. 

Christians must always love their neighbours, gay or straight. Christians must recognise that everyone is made in the image of God and are therefore to be treated with dignity and respect. Christians do not get to choose who they will share the word of life with, it was because God so loved the whole world that he sent his son to die on the cross. But Christians must also speak the truth in love, even when it is unpopular.   

Written by Scott Tubman

The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position or standpoint of the Reformed Evangelical Anglican Church of South Africa.