There are two levels on which the gay marriage debate typically takes place. The first is an in-house Christian discussion about whether and to what degree a homosexual lifestyle is compatible with Christian discipleship. (In the Christian view, marriage is an aspect of discipleship.) The second is a broader cultural discussion about the place of same-sex couples in American society and jurisprudence. We can call the first the Christian discussion and the second the gay rights discussion, even though same-sex marriage is only one aspect of the gay rights movement.
The trouble emerges when these two discussions are not sufficiently distinguished from one another.
The church, I am afraid to say, is much more confused than the world on this matter. This is for a couple of reasons. First, many in the church feel that the results from their discussion will have a significant impact on the results of the broader cultural discussion. It is assumed that if Christians conclude that the Bible forbids homosexual practice, it follows that America must outlaw same-sex marriage. For this reason, many in the church (such as Bishop John Shelby Spong) argue that even if the Bible does condemn it, the loving thing to do is to ignore what the Bible says. Others won’t go so far as to overturn scripture, but instead refuse to provide an answer at all (Brian McLaren recently urged the Christian community to commit to a five-year moratorium on pronouncements about homosexuality).
But the church is even more confused than this, I am afraid. The church has largely lost track of its own understanding of marriage and adopted the world’s instead. Everyone knows the world’s understanding: two people fall in love, and enter into an egalitarian relationship, which either party can dissolve at will, provided they fall out of love first. Children complicate this understanding of marriage, but only barely. Christians have by and large taken this notion of marriage (a relatively recent development in western culture) and run with it, making it “Christian” simply by adding, “You’re not allowed to fall out of love.” This has given rise to an entire cottage industry of tools and resources (Five Love Languages, The Love Dare, the books of John and Stasi Eldredge, Promise-Keepers) to prevent Christians from falling out of love. But the traditional Christian understanding of marriage has nothing to do with falling in love. “Love” for the church only names what a lifelong marriage in the end amounted to and contained within it. Marriage for Christians has traditionally been understood as an aspect of Christian discipleship, a gift from God that enables us to more ably follow Jesus. (Celibacy and ministry are also understood as such gifts.)
With its worldly understanding of marriage firmly in grasp, and its fear of ruining the lives of its homosexual neighbors, the church has largely come to a place where it makes no sense to deny marriage to same-sex couples, who, after all, can feel just as “in love” as any Christian, and often seem to do much better at it.
What the conversation needs if it is going to become intelligible is a divorce. Once we disentangle the Christian discussion from worldly rights-speak and worldly understandings of marriage, we can get on to the actual business at hand. For my part, I understand the Bible as teaching that a homosexual lifestyle is incompatible with Christian discipleship, which means that same-sex marriage has no place in the church. Those with same-sex attraction, along with many heterosexuals, will be called to live in the church as single and celibate, which means that the church as a whole is called to be a people whose friendship, hospitality and love can overcome the loneliness that can mark such lives.
But whatever my answer in the Christian discussion (and it is a complex discussion, whatever anyone says), it has no direct bearing on the gay rights debate. From my perspective, I would critique the entire notion of marriage as a civil institution. The state cannot marry anyone, gay or straight, and if it feels that it should recognize certain civil unions for tax purposes or allow individuals to name others as insurance beneficiaries or legal custodians, I don’t see what the church’s ethic has to do with anything.