This article appeared as an opinion piece in the Mennonite World Review, Feb 2, 2015, p10.

Formed by culture?

What moves us toward same-sex marriage — the Spirit and Word, or society?

Harold N. Miller

All of us in our denomination want any movement towards same-sex marriage to be shaped by the Spirit and the Word and not only by what we see and hear in the culture around us. Yet this is hard! We instinctively move toward stances held by people to whom we compare ourselves in our social groups, wanting to be "insiders." We need to continually ask ourselves: How much does the Spirit and Scripture, and how much does society, lead movement in the church toward same-sex marriage?

According to the 2014 Relationships in America survey (interviewed 15,738 persons, ages 18-60), believers who call the church to bless same-sex partnerships line up very close to the population average in their opinions on sexual morality. For instance, in the U.S. as a whole, 31.4 percent agreed that "viewing porn is OK"; among churchgoing Christians who support same-sex marriage that percentage was 33.4 — versus 4.6 percent among churchgoing Christians who oppose same-sex marriage. Also in the survey 35 percent in the U.S. agreed that "no-strings-attached sex is OK"; agreement among believers who support same-sex marriage was 33 percent, again very close to the population average — versus 5.1 percent among believers who oppose same-sex marriage.

Statistics are notoriously easy to misread. But at the very least this survey gives pause. Many progressive believers are joining the cultural mainstream in accepting unbiblical views on sexuality. The same dynamics that lead them in the areas of porn and hook-up sex may be present as they choose their stance on same-sex marriage too.

We need to ask: What underlies the basic arguments that people in Mennonite Church USA make for blessing same-sex partnerships? Do these assertions primarily rest on views borrowed from society, or on views that arise from the Spirit and the Word?

Consider an argument that builds from a sense of justice. Progressive believers tell us that "requiring all homosexuals to be celibate is a burden too heavy to bear" (Listening Committee report, Charlotte 2005 MC USA delegate assembly). The church can esteem and admire the self-denial and discipline of a gay man who choses celibacy of his own volition; but "is it right for the church to demand that all of our LGBT brothers and sisters choose celibacy?" (Rachel Held Evans, March 2013 blog).

Where does the intuition that we as humans are entitled to sexual fulfillment come from? Is it something we learn from Scripture? Or do we take this stance because, as good children of our culture, we believe sex is necessary for human flourishing, that we have the right to enjoy pleasure and avoid any hard road? Would we take this stance if we are thinking of Jesus and his many followers through the centuries who bear witness that "lives of freedom, joy, and service are possible without sexual relations" (Richard B. Hays, Sojourners, July 1991)? What if we witnessed a robust and vital faith in the Christian story [read example] making the demand for celibacy seem reasonable and hard-but-doable rather than harsh and unattainable?

Voices around us predispose us to shrink from such thoughts. But the Spirit and the Word tell us of joys that are much higher ones than popular culture knows. May we not let the spirit of our age overshadow the spirit of Jesus as we weigh the rightness of same-sex marriage.