Christian holiness and the gay marriage debate

If there ever comes a time when evangelical Christians are known for something other than their opposition to homosexuality, maybe today’s Supreme Court ruling will help. We have been living through an era in which Christian morality has been almost exclusively focused on sexuality. Within the Christian community, the gay marriage debate has helped to delineate two entirely different visions for Christian holiness. Do we understand holiness primarily in terms of correctness, or fidelity to a set of commandments? Or is holiness primarily a state of the heart in which we have been emptied of all obstacles to loving God and our neighbor? How you understand holiness determines how you will read scripture and how you think about homosexuality as a Christian.

I. Holiness as correctness

If holiness is about correctness, then the purpose of reading the Bible is to figure out what opinions you are supposed to have about the issues in our world. What is most important to Christians who pursue this form of holiness is that they approve what is supposed to be approved and denounce what is supposed to be denounced. In this worldview, the purpose of the church is to make sure that we are correct. If you don’t correct others when they are in error, then you are allowing unholiness to corrupt your fellowship, so every Christian disciple needs to be brought into accountability and close supervision. In such an environment, conversation about the Bible means learning the correct phrases to say from listening carefully to the phrases that your small group leader and preacher use and then mimicking them.

When you are guided by this conception of holiness, the challenge of holiness is to hold fast to the correctness you have acquired against a ferocious assault of contradictions from the outside world. The opposite of holiness is understood to be agreeableness, or “compromise” (in evangelical-speak). Your holiness is measured in direct proportion to the number of controversial, “old-fashioned” opinions you hold about the set of issues that God has placed in front of you to test your faithfulness, such as the role of women in the church and at home, whether the Earth was created in six solar days or billions of years, whether or not you should spank children, whether or not hell exists, and of course, homosexuality (did I miss any?).

Pursuing this type of holiness means that your thoughts and conversations tend to focus on whatever topics cause the most friction between the Bible and modern sensibilities (as opposed to, say, the areas of spiritual growth where you personally need the most improvement). The reason homosexuality is such a perfect testing ground for this form of holiness is because it pits the Bible against civil rights, which makes the opposition to homosexuality utterly confounding to liberals who get mad and call you a bunch of names, which increases your holiness points through persecution.

II. Holiness as a state of the heart

You can also define holiness as a quest to gain what is called “the heart of Christ.” There are no explicit Biblical references to pursuing the heart of Christ, but it has been a concept in Christian piety since the beginning, most famously delineated in 14th century priest Thomas A Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, which was one of Methodist founder John Wesley’s favorite books. People who see holiness in this way yearn to respond to every life situation the way that Jesus would and focus on eliminating every competing allegiance or obstacle in their hearts to purely Christlike instincts.

With the first form of holiness, the basic guiding question is “Am I perfectly correct?” With the second, it’s “Am I perfectly loving?” To this second holiness, sin is a problem not just because the Bible says it’s wrong, but because it prevents me from seeing Jesus’ heart and being perfectly loving to others. I want to be liberated from whatever idols and addictions corrupt my love and make me oblivious to the needs of others, whether or not they are explicitly named in the Bible. When I go to the Bible, I am not looking for a set of correct opinions about issues; I am looking for a savior to follow and imitate. I understand every teaching in terms of how it will purify my heart so that all my instincts and intuitions are Christlike.

The Good Samaritan story in Luke 10:25-37 seems to be a very plain illustration of the difference between these two types of holiness. Why did the Samaritan stop, but not the priest and the Levite? The text says that he was “moved by compassion.” So it’s a heart thing, not a head thing. The priest and the Levite had all kinds of rules to tell them how to behave correctly. But ultimately their sense of duty was no substitute for having a Christlike heart. In fact, their rules of cleanliness probably forbade them from touching the body of the wounded traveler. Their sense of holiness was understood in terms of obedience to a book instead of love for a God who tells us to love Him in our neighbors.

Now does this mean you can just do whatever you like as long as you’re “loving” to other people? By no means! When our hearts are cluttered with selfish lusts, addictions, and idols, we are too self-absorbed to notice the wounded travelers on the side of the road. We cannot be moved by compassion if we are enchained by anger, lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, pride, or envy. So we seek teachings that cultivate the fruits of the spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,gentleness, and self-control,” through which God dissolves the ugliness within our hearts so they can purely belong to Him.

III. The Gay Marriage Debate

Christians with these two very different conceptions of holiness are almost completely incomprehensible to each other. When someone uses the Bible to find correct opinions on controversial issues, every verse is basically boiled down to “pro” or “anti.” The details aren’t important. Thus, it doesn’t matter whether Paul was talking about a Roman orgy in Romans 1:26-27 or that he specifically named adultery that occurs with multiple same-sex partners as being “against nature.” All of these details are airbrushed out because the proof-text can only be “pro” or “anti.”

It also doesn’t matter that the meaning of the two words malakoi and arsenokotai that Paul used in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 can only be speculated, and they could very reasonably mean the provider and client of a male prostitution relationship. That’s intolerable; God wouldn’t be unclear like that if the purpose of the Bible is to give you clear positions on important issues. That’s why when one prominent anti-gay activist Bible scholar decides that these two words mean the passive and active partners in gay sex, then the debate has been resolved permanently forever and the translation is set in stone because the NIV says so.

If you understand holiness to be a state of the heart that is most surrendered to God’s love, you’re going to read the Bible completely differently than someone who is combing the text to find correct stances on popular issues. Someone who understands holiness in this way wants to know how any behavior sabotages the reign of God’s love in one’s heart. Correctness for the sake of correctness isn’t adequate. The context of every prohibition and instruction matters because the context is part of how we are able to understand analogous behaviors in our time that the Bible doesn’t name explicitly.

To this view of holiness, when you take out prostitution and promiscuity, it’s hard to see what the gender of someone’s lifelong partner has to do with whether or not you are able to love as Jesus loved. So you start to question whether Paul’s teachings have been interpreted incorrectly, and whether the need for the Leviticus prohibition on male homosexuality occurs in an ancient patriarchal context in which “uncovering another man’s nakedness” had disastrous, chaotic implications for the social order.

Incidentally, the command “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman” is only a prohibition on homosexuality if a male reader is presumed, and the reason male readers are presumed by Leviticus 18 is because only men got to decide about sex in a patriarchal order. So to apply Leviticus 18:22 literally and without context to our time means not only 1) that men should not have sex with men, but also 2) that men should be the only decision-makers in sexual relationships.

IV. The Real Issue

To me, the real issue that God is exposing here is that many Christians demonstrate a complete aloofness to Paul’s teaching about justification by faith with the way that they define Christian discipleship and use the Bible. To understand holiness as the pursuit of correctness is exactly like the gospel that Paul’s opponents were preaching to the Galatians and Romans. You cannot betray Paul’s teaching more perfectly than to take Paul’s words and make them into the new “law” that saves us. And yet so many evangelicals have basically become modern-day Galatians substituting a new “law” for the old “law,” not recognizing that putting all our trust in God’s mercy and renouncing the self-justifying pursuit of correctness is the only means by which our hearts can be conquered for Christ, who then gains the access to crucify our sinful nature and resurrect us into new life. It’s understandable that we’d rather be correct than under God’s mercy, but correctness is damnation in those terms.

So the debate about homosexuality is only the superficial means by which the real, underlying apostasy is exposed. If we keep on using God’s teachings to justify and elevate ourselves, we will keep storing up more and more of His wrath. What we need to do when we open the Bible is search for Jesus and ask Him to convict us of any sin that keeps us from loving like He loves. We need to stop making holiness about our approval or disapproval of other peoples’ behavior and instead seek to be emptied and perfect vessels of the love that we have received from our savior.

28 thoughts on “Christian holiness and the gay marriage debate

  1. Pingback: Evangelical Truth vs Liberal Love? | The Evangelical Liberal

  2. I believe homosexuality is a sin. I’ve read the arguments for pro-gay theology but they just haven’t convinced me. That doesn’t mean I don’t love gays. I do my best to not grandstand on one particular sin and I’ve never got involved in the definition of secular marriage. If the country decides to change it then that’s what will happen. That’s how this country works.

    It just makes me sad that this issue is so divisive. I feel like I’m having to choose between God and man. I desperately want to follow what the Word says but it hurts when that position makes people equate me to a person who was pro-slavery. (I guess I’m overly concerned with my personal reputation)

    Whether or not it is a sin we know that we are ALL sinners anyways in desperate need of a savior. If Jesus came back and spoke about homosexuality I’m sure he would put us all in our place. I fully expect to be worshiping around the throne with Saints whom identified as homosexuals. His grace knows no bounds.

    Excellent points though Morgan. We should always be focused on ourselves first.

  3. I think you’ve correctly defined holiness in BOTH definition 1 or definition 2. Holiness is being “set apart” unto God. One would think true holiness is both 1 and 2, not either or.

    Yes, I absolutely agree with you that holiness is asking “Am I perfectly loving?” But Biblical love is defined in different ways than you (or the secular world) seem to be defining it. God defines love in 1 Cor 13, but Jesus also defines it when he says:

    Jhn 14:15 “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.
    Jhn 14:21 “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.”

    1Jo 5:2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments.
    3 For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.

    The loving is defined by the obeying. We don’t follow God’s commandments because we are attaining our salvation by following the commandments… we follow God’s rules because we love Him. This is why Ephesians 5 compares our relationship to God like a marriage between a man and a woman. Just like there are gender roles between a husband and wife, there are roles in our relationship to God. This is why the church is called the bride of Christ. The reason the Jews were charged with keeping the whole law perfectly (while we Gentiles were never under the law) is because they are charged with keeping the Oracles of God (Rom 3:1-2). Marriage between a man and a woman is sacred because it is part of the message – God is telling us something about Himself and our relationship to Him. Just like a man and a woman become one flesh and produce an offspring, when God’s spirit joins with ours (we are saved by grace through faith) we become a new creature… a new creation.

    2Cr 5:17 Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.

    Gal 6:15 For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.

    So heterosexual marriage was meant to be a type and shadow of our relationship with God. It is quite literally part of the message… part of God’s Word to us. Another example of this is circumcision – this was meant as a type and shadow for salvation by faith – how the condemned, sinful flesh passes away, but the righteous, inner man survives. The physical circumcision is part of the message – a literal demonstration of a spiritual truth. This is the role and purpose of the law – to show us how we relate to God.

    Gal 3:24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.

    Salvation is by faith alone apart from the law. By the law can NO ONE be justified. You can’t be good enough to earn salvation. Salvation is a free gift to those who are in Christ. Those who are of the same faith of Abraham (faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ) are the sons of God. Abraham was saved by faith while he was a Gentile, by the way. (Rom 4:10) Homosexuality is not a salvation issue. It is a loving God issue.

    Personally, I am not all that worried about gay marriage. The marriage is not the sin, the gay sex is the sin. Yet, it’s just a symptom of the greater problem – people have rejected God and His word. There is no marriage in heaven (Luke 20:35), so whatever the interpretation of marriage is here on earth, it is temporary meaning it isn’t the true form or perfected, final version of reality. If we are to set ourselves apart from the world, and if we love God, then we’ll want to adhere to His moral law. This is not to say we MUST adhere to His moral law, but rather we are now free to live for God rather than for our own selfish desires. Prior to salvation, we really had no option.

    Politically speaking, there is no real difference between Republicans and Democrats anymore. They both fight and compromise themselves with progressivism because there isn’t anything either of them actually believe in anymore… they are simply trying to get and keep power (the ends justify the means). Personally, I am Libertarian and/or Tea Party in my political leanings. I would like to see the Government stay out of marriage all together.

    I think this video sums it all up as well as I could:

  4. Morgan, I appreciate with much of the content of what you wrote. The part that caught me, however, isn’t the ‘meat’ of your post, but your framing of the issue in the opening paragraph: “…how you will relate to gay people as a Christian…” The subtle, and perhaps unintended, implication is that ‘gay people’ are somehow not Christians–that they’re a (separate? unsaved?) group that Christians (who are not gay?) must/ought to ‘relate to.’ Such a formulation will make (some) gay Christians such as myself wince a little bit since I identify as both Christian *and* gay. I wonder about “Different understandings of holiness determine how Christians relate to their gay brothers and sisters.” (or something similar) that permits readers to at least consider the possibility that sexual minorities are *already* Christian siblings in the very large, many-roomed family/household of God.

  5. You said so many important things here! I like the way you contrasted the two approaches to holiness: Am I perfectly correct? vs. Am I perfectly loving? And I am saving the quote on how the two approaches read the Bible differently. Thanks for an excellent blog!

  6. I’ve been thinking about this issue lately and trying to understand it. This is the best understanding of it I have read so far. I don’t understand people who want same sex relationships, but I shouldn’t let my lack of understanding cause a lack in heart toward them.

    • We can only pursue our discipleship the best we can with the resources God has given us and, to the degree that we are in mentoring and pastoral relations with others, help them on their journey with grace and truth.

  7. Once again, brilliantly stated. I just wrote on my blog about how evangelicals tend to intellectualize the idea of belief, reducing it from a whole-person striving towards a supreme love to holding the right beliefs about God. Once this sleight of hand has been accomplished, it’s easy to construe doctrinal correctness as “faith” rather than a “work” so that all of Paul’s writings seem to be supporting rather than challenging you.

    • Thanks for sharing. I absolutely agree with you that we need to be witnesses first and foremost, which means we have to live in the kingdom and not in the world or there’s nothing to see. Our holiness should be the sweet aroma of the fruits of the spirit. When people see us, they shouldn’t think those are people who are going to judge and criticize me, but those are people who will love and help me even if I don’t deserve it.

  8. Morgan, this is a fine commentary on holiness, but it has little to do with the (secular) question of whether same-sex unions are either good for society, or should be prohibited by the state. (Despite recent appeals to individual liberty, the Constitution is SILENT about marital “rights”.)

    Furthermore, I don’t need (or want) to invoke scripture to call attention to a tacit absurdity in how the LGBT rhetoric began (cleverly) to frame the issue by calling it “Marriage Equality.” After all, who can dare question or spurn the sacred American fundamental principle of EQUALITY? But the fallacy in that rhetoric is that it tacitly presupposes that ‘all marital unions are equal’ (in relevant respects)—i.e., that we are comparing apples with apples. The phrase “marriage equality” bypasses the PRIOR question about gender-pair differences, “ARE they in fact equal?” Answers to such questions are not decided on the basis of a commentator’s anger or grace (or even religion), but on the pros and cons of such unions for the social order.*

    Unfortunately, most backlash against the pro-DOMA advocates has been ad hominem—attacking the arguer, rather than the argument.

    * Note: I am not suggesting that same-gender domestic partnerships cannot provide a good home for children, or that ‘love’ is absent from such partnerships. (But perhaps we ought not to EQUIVOCATE on the meaning of ‘love’ in order to blur the differences between philia, eros, venus, and agape—to use C.S. Lewis’s terminology?)

    • That’s very true. My concern is derivative. I want Christians to seek the holiness of the heart. I think we can have different, Spirit-led perspectives on the issue itself; what I don’t like to see is an understanding of holiness that is about how we stand on other peoples’ behavior.

    • It’s a a question of equality in the sense that the government has no secular reason to be involved in the marriage question beyond verifying whether those involved are consenting adults; It requires a specific mechanism to check that the names on a marriage license include one of each gender.

      The only reason it matters is one of religious belief. We live in a country where the decision of what to believe is supposed to be a matter of personal choice so no person’s beliefs should be binding on those who follow different faith traditions.

    • Marriage is two things: it is a governmental institution as well as a religious institution. There is no evidence of homosexual committed relationships having a negative effect on society. In fact the evidence is contrary. Scientifically speaking, a certain portion of the population is genetically predispositioned to homosexuality–homosexual relationships have been in many societies throughout the beginning of time. Homosexual relationships have not been named by legitimate historian’s as a cause of any of the great falls of empires. For example, the Roman Empire fell because of over-expansion and political unrest, not because of the married relationships of it’s citizens.

      I have found that many of the pro-DOMA advocates have actually been arguing religious reasons and negative feelings about sodomy. (Off topic for one moment, anti-sodomy advocates crack me up! Not all male homosexuals participate in sodomy and I know plenty of straight men and women who do! Plus sexuality is personal and it shouldn’t even be discussed on a governmental level!). Sources I suggest checking out are research done by Kinsey (human sexuality) and Michael Vines makes a very solid biblical argument for gay rights.

      As a fiscal conservative and anti-big government proponent, I just don’t believe it is for the government to have a say in what domestic partnerships we choose–whether or not it is “good for society”. The government uses the term “marriage” for domestic partnership–think about it, many atheists and non religious people are married via the government and not a religious institution. The government’s role should be to provide a level of services: emergency services, road ways, education, prisons, etc, but not to regulate individual choices or to enforce religious law.

      • Andrea, you seem a kindred small government adherent. I too think the government has no business in marriage. However, I have heard the case made that gay marriage produces no children, and children are the most valuable asset of any society because it expands a society both demographically and economically. Take the way pensions are set up, for example. It takes 5 new employees to every one employee to pay for a pension. The roles need expanding for the system of unions to work.

        Moreover, consider this: you said there have been homosexuals throughout history, and I agree with you. Can you name one society on earth that has accepted gay marriage that has been around for the last 500 years? 400 years? 200 years? 100 years?

        Either this is the first time in the history of the world that gay marriage has become accepted, or societies which do accept it don’t stand the test of time.

  9. From Charles Wesley’s sermon “Awake, Thou That Sleepest”

    4. By one who sleeps, we are, therefore, to understand (and would to God we might all understand it!) a sinner satisfied in his sins; contented to remain in his fallen state, to live and die without the image of God; one who is ignorant both of his disease, and of the only remedy for it; one who never was warned, or never regarded the warning voice of God, “to flee from the wrath to come;” one that never yet saw he was in danger of hell-fire, or cried out in the earnestness of his soul, “What must I do to be saved?”

    5. If this sleeper be not outwardly vicious, his sleep is usually the deepest of all: whether he be of the Laodicean spirit, “neither cold nor hot,” but a quiet, rational, inoffensive, good-natured professor of the religion of his fathers; or whether he be zealous and orthodox, and, “after the most straitest sect of our religion,” live “a Pharisee;” that is, according to the scriptural account, one that justifies himself; one that labours to establish his own righteousness, as the ground of his acceptance with God.

    6. This is he, who, “having a form of godliness, denies the power thereof;” yea, and probably reviles it, wheresoever it is found, as mere extravagance and delusion. Meanwhile, the wretched self-deceiver thanks God, that he is “not as other men are; adulterers, unjust, extortioners”: no, he doeth no wrong to any man. He “fasts twice in a week,” uses all the means of grace, is constant at church and sacrament, yea, and “gives tithes of all that he has;” does all the good that he can “touching the righteousness of the law,” he is “blameless”: he wants nothing of godliness, but the power; nothing of religion, but the spirit; nothing of Christianity, but the truth and the life.
    – See more at:

    • That was the sermon that I read my second year of seminary when I discovered the concept of self-justification.

      • My take, for what it is worth, is that Wesley did not treat the two kinds of holiness you identify as at odds with each other (either/or) but as both aspects of the same thing (both/and). They did not participate in all the bad behaviors you ascribe to people who pursue type-1 holiness, but they did see the law and keeping it as integral to the meaning and practice of holiness, which they often discussed in ways similar to your type-2.

        • I think to use the law for the purpose of gaining the heart of Christ is entirely appropriate. And there will be times where I have to trust that what I don’t understand is nonetheless necessary for my benefit and sanctification though I’m going to wrestle until I understand it so I can delight in its wisdom. The fault-line for me is self-justification. It feels like a lifelong struggle to untangle myself from it. Because there are as many ways to justify yourself as there are positions in cultural arguments. There’s a “holiness” of political correctness that is basically the same phenomenon as the “holiness” of “Biblical” opinions.

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