How to engage the gay marriage debate

Same sex marriage is at least really giving Christians some serious air-time. However, sometimes our manner of speaking on the topic is not creating an overly positive image! Here are four principles to consider on how we should engage on the topic.

Firstly, let’s discuss the issue with gentleness and respect. We need to recognise that this is a very emotionally charged topic with strong feeling on both sides, and often, we have the two camps completely talking past each other on this topic. I often hear Christians talking about this topic, mostly I can’t help thinking what you’re saying would completely infuriate a gay person, and also many just ordinary heterosexual Aussies. Many non-Christians I imagine could well hear what Christians say, and just respond by thinking- “you Christians just hate gay people, don’t you?”. So, let’s work hard at thinking and talking about this topic in a way that makes sense to non-Christians. My encouragement would be that whenever this topic comes up in your family or with friends, imagine you’ve got a gay person standing next to you as you talk about the issue and talk with them in mind. If you don’t practice talking about this complex issue in a sensitive way in a safe environment first, you are unlikely to be successful when the subject comes up in a more hostile environment.

The reason why this debate is so polarising is because Christians can be coming at this topic from a completely different starting point from secular people. It’s like an NRL devotee and an AFL devotee having an argument about the best shape of a football. You’re going to have a very frustrating discussion if you don’t realise you’re starting with two different frameworks. Similarly, Christians and secularists have very different starting points about marriage. Christians believe that God designed marriage, so we don’t get to make up the definition of what it is. Secular people believe that marriage is just a social convention we created, so we can adjust it as we like. So, this is why a lot of the arguments which Christians make against same sex marriage are just not convincing to non-Christians- they just roll their eyes at them, and this is why secularists are not going to be very successful at convincing Christians.

Let’s realise there is going to be differences of opinion in this question, and that arguments will only prove to have limited success. We need to speak with respect and gentleness on the issue.

Secondly, we can affirm the desire for justice and dignity for all people. A good place to start in any debate is by affirming the good points of an opponent’s point of view. Let’s start then by acknowledging that the motivation for changing the definition of marriage for most people is not a sinister socialist plot to re-engineer society, but rather a sincere desire to bring greater justice and dignity to a minority who have long struggled for social acceptance. It is to bring affirmation and acceptance for a group of people who typically suffer greater rates of depression, drug abuse and self-harm. If I was in a discussion with a passionate advocate for same sex marriage, I would start by complimenting them on their passion for justice and compassion. I would suggest that this is the fingerprint of God on their hearts. And I would far prefer to talk with them about why they are so passionate about justice and mercy for the disadvantaged- and whether they get that desire from God or not.

Now of course, they will respond, “well, if you believe in justice and compassion, why are you not showing justice and compassion to gay people by allowing same sex marriage?”. And the answer of course, is that there are other factors to consider as well which make us believe that it is not the ultimately most just and compassionate decision to make, and  that will be the occasion to present your case for a traditional understanding of marriage. But having started by affirming their passion for justice and compassion will lead to a far more healthy and respectful conversation.

A third factor we need to consider is that the Christian marriage horse has already bolted to some degree. The institution of marriage in most people’s minds is already a watered down concept from the Christian vision of marriage. The great majority of couples live together first before getting married, and when they do that, what are they saying? They’re saying that marriage doesn’t really matter. It is just a piece of paper. Divorces are easily obtained, and even fidelity within marriage is on the decline. So, the institution of marriage has already fallen off its lofty perch in the mindset of most western people- it’s already been treated very differently from a traditional Christian ideal. Thus it’s no surprise that many people don’t have any huge problems with tinkering with it even more. The virtue of chastity and the idea of sex being only for a married relationship is laughable for most secular people. That is another reason why the Christian view of marriage is difficult to get across, and why we shouldn’t be surprised if our point of view isn’t readily embraced.

Finally, I would say that in spite of the difficulties in presenting our view, Christians should engage in the debate and should participate in the postal  vote. Some good Christian friends argue that this isn’t an issue that we should get too worked up over. They say that we Christians are about helping people have a relationship with God. We’re not about telling non-Christians how they should live. So, therefore, it’s simply not our business to be making a big fuss about this.

I think there is some truth to this. We aren’t really a Christian society. Trying to force people to live by Christian ideals when they aren’t Christians is rather counter-productive. Our mission is to tell people about Jesus, not to be having a temper-tantrum when non-Christians live in line with their beliefs.

However, having said that, we live in a democracy. It is our privilege and responsibility to have our say in what we believe is good for the future of the country. Jesus spoke up when he was asked his opinion on the moral issue of his day- the issue of divorce, even when his conservative response was way out of line with the majority view of his day. So, as Christians, I do believe it is our responsibility to speak politely and winsomely into our culture with what we believe marriage should be, and why we believe the Christian view of marriage is best for our country’s future.

Let’s engage in the debate with wisdom, grace and boldness. Most of all, we will really need to be soaking all our words and actions in prayer for this is such a polarising and divisive topic which influences peoples perceptions of Christianity so easily.