Dr. Mark Achtemeier

Covenant Network Regional Conference
Westminster Presbyterian Church

Minneapolis, Minnesota

October 27, 2012


The issue of gay marriage now rocks our culture and our politics, generating new headlines almost daily. I trust I don’t need to remind any of you about the ballot measure coming before the people of Minnesota ten days from now, one that seeks to enshrine a defensive prohibition of such unions in the text of the State Constitution.

Habakkuk says “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him![1] The Presbyterian Church has gotten pretty good at that. At a time like this, it seems both odd and out of character for the PC(USA) to be presently keeping silent on the issue. Our most recent GA voted to boldly study this issue.

There is good reason for this silence. It is not that our church has any shortage of people who are willing to speak out; what we lack is anything remotely resembling a consensus. Indeed gay marriage, even more than ordination, seems to be the electrified third rail of Presbyterian politics. It is a divisive and dangerous issue for the church.

The Cost of Speaking Out

I had a conversation the other day with a minister friend who serves a prospering, small-town church in the middle of the Iowa countryside. Now Iowa, let me remind you, cemented its status as one of the leading, cosmopolitan centers of the country by legalizing gay marriage long before other more provincial and copycat locales jumped on the bandwagon—I’m thinking of New York, for instance.

Talking with my pastor friend about this, he professed a certain desire to be open-minded on the marriage issue, but he also confided to me his terror of being asked to actually officiate at a same-sex wedding. “If word got out that I did a ceremony, or even if we just tried to talk about it, it would blow up my church,” he said. “Lots of people would leave. The congregation I serve and my own livelihood would be at risk.”

This is a situation that is repeated across our church. Another friend of mine pastors a large congregation that has been considering a move to the new ECO denomination. “I hate schism,” this person said. “I think it’s unfaithful. But if I can’t come up with a way for my people to put some distance between themselves and the gay-affirming actions of the Presbyterian Church, they will go elsewhere. My job will disappear.”

Across our church there are legions of faithful pastors who are finessing this issue, who are laboring to nurture and build up shaky fellowships of diverse Presbyterians under the unifying banner of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We need to honor these faithful servants of the Lord and pray for them and support them to the very best of our ability. They are quietly carrying on a great work in our midst.

You and I dare not lose sight of the cost, human and institutional, of pressing forward with the marriage debate in the PC(USA). But while there is a cost to speaking, there is also an enormous price associated with the church’s continued silence. With fear and trembling, and in full awareness of the burden it will impose, I want to suggest that the cost of silence has become crippling, and the time has come for Presbyterians to speak a gracious word from the Lord on gay marriage.

The cost of keeping silent

A huge part of my own journey on this issue has been a growing recognition of the grievous psychological and spiritual damage that well-intended, compassionate Christians inflict on gay people. Our lesbian and gay brothers and sisters, children of God, hear repeatedly over the course of a lifetime that there is only one way they can ever be acceptable to God and their fellow Christians: They must become a kind of person they are manifestly unable to become.

I had a conversation with gay man recently who was in deep distress. A committed evangelical Christian, he tearfully told me about the profound self-loathing that had resulted from a lifetime of fervent but unsuccessful attempts to fit in with the fellowship of Christ’s followers. The effects on him had been devastating. Yet he was one of the fortunate ones who was reaching out for help rather than succumb to the impulse toward utterly self-destructive behavior or suicide.

The cost of keeping silence on this issue is quietly present in the legions of anguished souls who have been driven away from our congregations, away from Christian faith, and sometimes away from life itself by the unrelenting personal condemnation they hear in the church’s proclamation.

But there is another, equally grievous cost to our silence: Our church’s quiet complicity in the status quo now serves to undermine the credibility of the Gospel.

Last week there was a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal that contained a distinguished-looking picture of Billy Graham, holding his Bible. The ad urged readers to vote for candidates who among other things “support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman.”[2]

This is our present reality: While the PC(USA) keeps silence, other churches across the land loudly proclaim that their opposition to gay marriage is deeply rooted in the Gospel and the Scripture. And because of this, broad reaches of American culture have become convinced that the Christian Gospel is something hateful.

Now it is important to stress that these perceptions of Christian hatefulness in opposing gay marriage are for the most part mistaken, certainly within the bounds of the PC(USA). I myself stood for quite some time among the ranks of traditionalist Presbyterians, and I will testify that the most common motivations I found driving such perspectives were compassion and a desire to help people who were struggling.

But it is also important to note that while perceptions of traditionalist Christian hatefulness are often mistaken, they are not irrational. Reasonable outside observers of the church’s life might very easily form the impression that Christianity is about hate. There are good reasons for this.

Ignoring gay voices

Our churches suffer from a loss of hearing. Two forms of selective deafness now jeopardize our ability to proclaim the Gospel.

In the first instance, our traditionalist churches have turned a deaf ear to the actual voices of gay and lesbian people. Over and over we hear from them, “I did not choose to be gay in the first place, and I can’t choose my way out of being gay.”

All too often, such testimony arises not as neutral self-description. It arises as an anguished cry after years of struggling to find the “cure” that is supposed to be the only possible path to peace with God.

Over and over again when this cry arises, churches have turned our attention to a small number of individuals who claim to have made a successful break with homosexuality. Their witness is increasingly compromised by the number of former adherents who are recanting such claims. As a case in point, you may recall the news reports this past summer about Alan Chambers, the head of Exodus International, a Christian “ex-gay” organization. Mr. Chambers, on the basis of long and bitter experience, is attempting to back his group away from their previous claim that same-gender orientation can be cured.[3]

But even if we grant for the sake of argument that a small number of people may have made a break with a former same-sex attraction, this does not give us license to close our ears and turn our backs upon the countless thousands of gay people, many of them aspiring Christians, who tell us, “That path is simply not open to me.”

Yet that is what our traditionalist church has been doing. In the face of a mountain of empirical evidence and personal testimony, we turn our backs on gay people and say to them in effect, “Because you don’t fit our (allegedly) biblical paradigm for how this is all supposed to work, we’re going to stop up our ears and close our eyes and pretend that none of you exist.” Is it any wonder that the surrounding culture, witnessing this spectacle comes to think of Christianity as callous and uncaring?

But it gets worse. Not only have our churches turned a deaf ear to the voices of gay people, we have also shut our ears very selectively to the voice of our own theological tradition. I refer to the teaching of the Protestant Reformers against mandatory celibacy.

Ignoring our theological Tradition

When Martin Luther and John Calvin went back to the Bible to purify the life and witness of the Church, their conclusions included the strong conviction that it was unfaithful and cruel to impose vows of mandatory celibacy upon whole classes of people.

Now let’s be clear what we are talking about here. In declaring that imposed celibacy was a cruel and unbiblical practice, the Reformers were not saying that sexual self-control is an unrealistic ideal, for young people or anyone else. The celibacy question is not about waiting till you’re married; it’s about whether you ever hope to get married at all. The Reformers condemned the church of their day for requiring priests, monks and nuns to forever renounce hope of falling in love and getting married. Such requirements, they declared, were spiritually harmful and biblically unfaithful.

And yet our churches of today, heirs of the Reformation, turn a deaf ear to our own heritage and glibly proclaim that of course it is proper to require lifelong celibacy of people as long as the people in question are gay.

This theological amnesia is highly selective. We of course reject celibacy requirements for heterosexual clergy. Even in places where you might be able to make a biblical case for such requirements we refuse to consider them. Try suggesting sometime that straight people who’ve been divorced should embrace celibacy and not seek to remarry again. See how far you get with that one.

Across the board we follow the Reformation rejection of mandatory celibacy, except in the case of gay people. How do you suppose this comes across to people on the outside of the church?

A crisis of credibility

The results are about what you’d expect. A few years ago a widely-reported survey from the Barna organization found that 85% of un-churched young people saw the church as judgmental, hypocritical and anti-gay.[4]

Take a deep breath and let that figure sink in for a bit. These young people represent the future prospects for the growth of the church in our society, and a staggering majority of them view the church as hateful institution.

Just imagine what would happen if perceptions like that really took hold in the culture. We would have a church that wasn’t able to attract a new generation. It would be a church whose median age would get steadily older as the existing membership aged, a church whose numbers would decline as the last generation it was able to attract passed slowly from the scene. Does any of this sound familiar?

The Presbyterian Church has not created the impression of hateful Christianity by itself, nor will it be in our power to fix it quickly. I fear that the public image of Christianity has been poisoned for at least a generation, and our church is in for an extended period of struggle and difficulty.

In times like these there is an urgent need for lights shining in the darkness, for voices raised against the prevailing winds of church culture, for biblical proclamation of the Gospel that is good news for all people, gay and straight persons alike.

Let us be absolutely clear: This is not a call for the church to adjust its proclamation according to the prejudices of popular culture. It is a call for the church to be courageous in proclaiming the truth we have been given, because the long-term cost of silence is a discredited Christianity and a culture closed off to the Gospel.

The vocation of groups like the Covenant Network will be critically important in the months and years ahead. It is not within our power to turn back the rising tide of cultural and historical forces that are sweeping our church into a period of decline. But we are confident that the day will come when God will purge the poisonous legacy of exclusion and hatefulness from our culture’s image of Christianity. Until that time it falls to you and me to keep the lights of a gracious witness burning in the midst of the surrounding darkness.

To carry out that task, to make that positive Christian witness, you and I must be absolutely clear that our affirmation and celebration of gay marriage is a consequence of the Bible’s testimony and not its contradiction. It is to that task that we now turn.


Billy Graham’s full-page newspaper ad made reference to “the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman.” Well what is that biblical definition? There is certainly nothing in Scripture resembling a dictionary entry, no passage which says, “The official definition of marriage is xyz.

I suspect Rev. Graham had in mind the creation account in Genesis 2, which concludes with a reflection on the consequences of human creation as male and female:

“Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”[5]

There is no question that this text sets forth the regular and customary pattern for God’s ordering of human life.

So our question is not whether there is a standard pattern for marriage in the Bible. Arguably there is. Our question is whether the existence of that standard pattern means that God automatically rejects or condemns lives that are ordered differently from that pattern.

Patterns and exceptions

We have no evidence that Jesus uttered a single word about same-gender relationships over the course of his ministry. But in a debate with the Pharisees about divorce, Jesus does reference this Genesis 2 statement about a man leaving his father and mother and clinging to his wife.[6] Some critics of gay marriage claim that this reference constitutes Jesus’ own endorsement of heterosexual marriage as God’s exclusively authorized pattern for human life.

But there is a bit of irony in using Jesus’ citation of Genesis 2 to argue for heterosexual marriage as the only acceptable pattern for human life, because this quote comes to us from the lips of a Savior whose own life does not conform to the pattern! Jesus does not cling to a wife in his own life, nor does he recognize any personal obligation to be fruitful and multiply.

This is significant, because classical Christian teaching about Jesus insists that in him we see not only “the image of the invisible God,”[7] but also an image of perfected humanity. Jesus’ sinless life provides us with a picture of what God intends human life to be. That being the case, it is very hard to claim that the heterosexual union of male and female in marriage is the only acceptable pattern of God’s will for human beings. The Savior’s own life departs from the pattern. So does the Apostle Paul’s.

Clearly it would be silly to deny that the marital union of male and female is God’s ordinary arrangement for structuring human life. But Jesus’ own example makes clear that having a usual and customary pattern for doing certain things does not automatically mean that alternatives patterns are defective.

When I want to drive from my home town of Dubuque to one of our neighboring cities, there are established routes with four-lane, divided highways that service the vast majority of the traffic. But the existence of those ordinary and customary routes doesn’t mean the person is wrong who travels a more scenic route through the countryside or along the Mississippi River. The relevant question for evaluating a route is whether it leads to your destination.

God clearly chooses to bless a great many people through the ordinary, “Plan-A” route of faithful, committed marriage between a man and a woman. The question before us today is whether God might also allow for alternative, “Plan-B” routes like same-gender marriage to lead to that same destination of divine blessing.

In particular I want to consider whether embracing such alternative routes to blessing would be in character for the God of the Bible. Does Scripture give us reason to believe that God would ever be willing to bless arrangements for human life that depart from the customary and ordinary Plan-A patterns of God’s will?

The Character of God

Let us begin with a powerful image from the book of Hebrews, chapter 13. In this passage the apostolic author is trying to help Jesus’ followers make sense of the persecution they are facing from the religious establishment of their day.

To make sense of it, the Apostle points out that Jesus’ sacrifice, like the sin offerings of old, took place outside the camp: our redemption took place outside Jerusalem, outside the temple, outside the entire structure of the religious establishment prescribed in the Law of Moses.

Jesus…suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.[8]

Note this carefully: God’s redemption of the world through the cross of Christ is a “Plan-B” arrangement that stands dramatically apart from God’s ordinary “Plan-A” religious establishment of the Holy Temple and the Holy Priesthood in the Holy City of Jerusalem.

The early church, the community of Jesus’ followers, is a Plan-B people who have gone to Jesus outside the camp, outside the ordinary structures, outside the religious establishment of the Jerusalem Temple. “We have no lasting city”: we have recognized there is no Plan-A structure or arrangement or institution that can match the blessing God has showered on the world through the ultimate Plan-B arrangement of the cross.

I ask you: is this the kind of God who might work outside the ordinary Plan-A arrangement of marriage between a man and a woman in order to bring blessing to same-gender partnerships?

This passage from Hebrews is no isolated instance. The entire story of the Bible is one of God bringing blessing outside the ordinary structures of Plan-A arrangements and expectations.

Old Testament Examples

Plan-A at the creation was for Adam and Eve to continue in loving and faithful obedience to God, and to fill the earth with their loving and faithful and obedient offspring. But we know how that plan came out, don’t we? Plan-A wound up on the rocks, and from that point on, the entire witness of the Bible is the story of God bringing blessing and redemption and salvation to a fallen world that stands outside the pattern of God’s original intention.

Plan-A expectations would assume that the chosen people would arise from an attractive and vigorous young couple who could get the clan started with a large number of strong and healthy offspring. God ostentatiously underscores the Plan-B nature of the world’s redemption by bringing forth the chosen people from Sarah and Abraham: an infertile, elderly couple who are long past the years of childbearing.

Plan-A expectations would assume that the chosen nation would become strong and prosperous and independent. Yet Plan-A winds up on the rocks as God’s chosen people fall into slavery and captivity in the land of Egypt. The whole story of the Exodus is God’s execution of an alternative Plan-B in order to bring blessing.

In fact, clinging too tightly to our Plan-A expectations can blind us to the working of the God of the Bible. In the time of Christ, the scribes and Pharisees knew perfectly well from their reading of Scripture that the Messiah would rally the armies of Israel and cast off the shackles of Roman occupation. Clinging too tightly to these Plan-A expectations made many of them completely blind to God’s actual redemption of the world through the Plan-B appearance of a suffering and crucified Messiah.

Now we’ve been talking a lot about politics and history here. Is there any evidence in Scripture that God might be willing to bring blessing outside the normal Plan-A patterns for marriage? Let me cite two examples:

The witness of Malachi

The first example comes the period of the Israel’s history known as the restoration. As you may remember, the fierce Babylonian empire had conquered the Israelite nation, tearing down the walls of Jerusalem, burning the Temple and carrying off the survivors into exile and captivity in a foreign land.

Seventy years after this catastrophe, an instrument of God’s mercy arose in the form of a pagan ruler named Cyrus the Persian. Cyrus allowed the people to return to the promised land of Israel and rebuild the Temple.

The people returning to their homeland desperately wanted to get it right this time. They were eager to be the light to the nations that God had elected them to be. But in the midst of their idealism, a great sin came to light that threatened to undermine the integrity of the whole project of restoration and reconstruction.

Way back in the time of Moses, you see, God had warned the men of Israel not to marry women from the surrounding pagan tribes. The purpose behind this command was clear: Israel’s religious life needed to stay focused on the God who had brought them out of Egyptian slavery and into the land of promise. They dared not risk diluting or corrupting pure worship by mingling with foreign cults or pagan deities.

But centuries later, during the time of the restoration, it came to light that a great many of those hopeful and idealistic exiles returning to rebuild Jerusalem had in fact married foreigners. The Book of Ezra, chapters 9 and 10, records the nation’s response to this crisis. A great zeal for righteousness sweeps through the people, and the tragic but necessary decision is taken to separate themselves from all the foreign wives and children.

Enter Malachi the prophet. Following on this great purification, Malachi brings a word from the Lord that first of all reiterates the command to marry within the tribe of Israel.[9] But then in Malachi chapter 2 the prophet delivers a blistering condemnation of the decision to divorce the foreign wives and children.[10]

 [T]he Lord was a witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant…

In the face of irregular marriages contracted in direct opposition to the divine command, God elects to bring blessing anyway. God rejects in the strongest terms the peoples’ pious attempts to force their marriages back into a normative Plan-A pattern.

Again I ask: Is this the kind of God who would consider bringing blessing to other kinds of marriage that stand outside the regular Plan-A pattern?

A New Testament Witness

Finally, consider one more striking example from the New Testament. Every year when the Christmas season comes upon us, we ponder the annunciation to Mary and the events surrounding the birth of the Christ child. In popular piety Mary’s virginity is a symbol of purity, and rightly so. But to focus on this aspect alone is to miss the truly stunning significance of Christ’s conception in the womb of the virgin.

In point of fact, young Mary is an unwed bride-to-be who turns up pregnant long before her marriage is consummated. A dark cloud of scandal and immorality lies thick upon the landscape of her life, and that cloud threatens to turn lethal: Levitical law prescribes death-by-stoning as the penalty for betrayal of a husband-to-be.

Joseph, righteous man that he is, responds with mercy to this personal humiliation. Joseph decides not to press charges, but to send Mary off to fend for herself,[11] most likely into a life of either begging or prostitution.

The Gospel of Matthew tells us that an angel intervened before Joseph could carry out his plan, but could you imagine a more striking sign of God’s intention to identify with the sexually marginalized? God comes to us, the eternal Logos assumes human flesh, deliberately and dramatically… and scandalously… outside the norms and structures of Plan-A marriage.

Now this is not to say that all sexual norms are overturned in the Scriptures and anything goes. There is a particular shape to the blessing that God communicates to us through the gifts of love and marriage and sexuality. Three weeks from now in Kansas City we will consider in more detail the particular shape of those blessings and the way biblical sexual morality, rightly understood, leads us into them, gay and straight people alike.

Celebration and Thanksgiving

For now let us celebrate how the Bible from front to back testifies to a God who delights in bringing life and blessing into situations that stand outside the camp: outside the regular norms and bounds of majority expectations. Let us take encouragement from the Bible as we boldly raise our voices in joyful witness to the life and blessing we see actually poured out upon the covenanted partnerships of our gay and lesbian friends. And let us take the Bible’s testimony as assurance that we stand on the solid rock of Christ and his Word when we acknowledge and celebrate the blessings of our Plan-B God.

Finally let us give thanks for our Plan-B church. For a time it may not be as rich or as large or as growing or as successful as our Plan-A expectations might have anticipated. But this can be the church where voices rise in joyful affirmation, where the light shines in the darkness, where praise and thanks and celebration resound for the goodness of God toward all God’s beloved children.

My brothers and sisters, let us work and pray to become that church together!

Dr. Mark Achtemeier is a Presbyterian minister, writer and theologian residing in Dubuque, Iowa. He may be contacted at [email protected].

[1] Hab. 2:20

[2] Wall Street Journal, Thursday October 18, 2012, page B3.

[3] “Exodus International, ‘Ex-Gay’ Christian Group, Backs Away From Reparative Therapy.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/27/exodus-international-ex-gay-christian-group-reparative-therapy_n_1630425.html

[4] “Study: Youth see Christians and judgmental, anti-gay.” USA Today Oct. 10, 2007. http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2007-10-10-christians-young_N.htm?loc=interstitialskip

[5] Gen:2:24

[6] Mat. 19:4-6

[7] Col. 1:15

[8] Heb. 13:12-14

[9] Mal. 2:11

[10] Mal. 2:14-16

[11] Mat. 1:19

© 2012   P. Mark Achtemeier.  All Rights Reserved.