“You’re on the wrong side of history.”
These words cut Christians seeking to defend orthodox Christian sexual ethics to the heart. The implication is clear: the gay-rights movement is the new civil-rights movement. Failing to embrace gay marriage now is like opposing mixed-race marriage then. Christians invoked the Bible to justify their racism then, and they’re using the Bible to justify their homophobia now. Hold your ground on this issue, and you’ll find yourself on the wrong side of history.
But as strongly as the Bible cuts in favor of mixed-race marriage, it cuts against same-sex marriage for believers. Part of me wishes this wasn’t true. I’ve been romantically attracted to women since childhood. Were I not a Christian, I expect I’d be married to a woman today. But whichever way I hold my Bible, its message on marriage remains the same. And as I’ve dug more into the Scriptures, I’ve come to understand the purpose of marriage more deeply, and how the love-across-difference of marriage pictures Jesus’s love for us.
Meanwhile, as I’ve reflected on the “wrong side of history” claim—compelling as it first appears—I’ve come to see five fundamental problems with equating same-sex marriage to mixed-race marriage.
1. Sexual Activity Is a Choice
We do not choose our racial heritage. I was born to white parents in England, and when I asked a part-Greek best friend in high school why her skin was going nicely brown in the sun while mine remained white she replied, “Because I’m from the Mediterranean, and you’re from the moon!” We don’t choose our racial heritage. But while we may not choose our sexual attractions, we do choose our sexual actions.
As strongly as the Bible cuts in favor of mixed-race marriage, it cuts against same-sex marriage for believers.
Perhaps an analogy will help. My Myers-Briggs personality profile is ENFP: “the Campaigner.” I enjoy public speaking, and my high-school class in the U.K. voted me “most likely to become prime minister.” But I now live in America, and because I wasn’t born here, I could never run for president. My birthplace, like my racial heritage, was given to me. I had no choice in the matter, and it isn’t susceptible to change.
My same-sex attraction is more like my inclination for public speaking: It’s a mix of innate predispositions and contingent life experiences, a blend of chosen and unchosen, and according to the latest empirical research, might well be susceptible to change over time. But I make decisions about what I do with it. And one of the most important conclusions of the #MeToo movement is that sexual decisions carry moral weight. We can debate all day long where those moral boundaries lie. But sexual activity carries moral weight in a way that racial heritage does not. We must not confuse the two.
2. There Are Biological Differences Between Men and Women
Motivated by racism, 20th-century scientists tried long and hard to find significant biological differences between people from different racial groups, and they failed. But there are real biological differences between men and women—differences that are highly relevant in the context of sex. Comparing same-sex marriage to mixed-race marriage is, therefore, quite illegitimate.
To be sure, some people are born intersex, with biological traits that place them somewhere on a spectrum between male and female, and others experience profound discomfort with their biological sex. But the reality of sex difference remains. And whereas mixed-race marriages are positively advantageous when it comes to having kids (greater genetic diversity being correlated with lower risk of genetic disease), same-sex marriage is a biological dead end. Of course, childbearing isn’t the sole purpose of marriage—the Bible is clear on this point—but it is a relevant consideration and another reason we can’t equate same-sex and interracial marriage.
3. More White Westerners Than People of Color Support Gay Marriage
Accusing everyone who doesn’t affirm gay marriage of being backward and bigoted isn’t a strike in favor of tolerance and diversity. If you sample the global population today, white Westerners are far more likely than people of color in the two-thirds world to affirm gay marriage, and white Americans are more than 10 percent more likely than black Americans to affirm gay marriage.
Accusing everyone who doesn’t affirm gay marriage of being backward and bigoted isn’t a strike in favor of tolerance and diversity.
Undoubtedly, some people oppose gay marriage out of bigotry. But I’m not one, and nor are most people I know who hold to heterosexual marriage on religious grounds. Noting that women of color are the most likely to be Christian, leading black public intellectual Stephen Carter observes, “When you mock Christians, you’re not mocking who you think you are.”
4. Most Religious Traditions Are Opposed to Homosexuality
Opposition to homosexual sex is common to the two largest global worldviews—Christianity and Islam—as well as to most other major religious traditions. This is another reason why blanket accusations of bigotry don’t promote diversity. Moreover, given the global population trends, the claim that those who oppose gay marriage will be “on the wrong side of history” is likely to be inaccurate. Rather than assuming that the arc of history bends a certain way, we must all pay careful attention to how our moral stances are formed, and consider each ethical question on its own terms.
5. The Bible Grounds Marriage in the Gospel
As I’ve dived more deeply into what the Bible has to say about marriage, I’ve become increasingly convinced that its boundaries around sex aren’t arbitrary rules designed to keep people out. Rather, there is a gospel logic to Christian marriage. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God is pictured as a faithful husband to his people, and Jesus declares himself to be the bridegroom (Luke 5:34). The New Testament then pictures human marriage as a scale model of Jesus’s love for his church (Eph. 5:22–33), and in the Bible’s last book, the wedding of the Lamb (Jesus) to his Bride (the church) brings heaven and earth back together (Rev. 19:7; 21:1–2). What’s more, this Bride is gloriously multi-racial, composed of “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9)
To be sure, the history of racism in America should be a cautionary tale to Christians today not to try to cloak their sinful prejudices in biblical garments. We must search the Scriptures and examine our own hearts: hearts the Bible tells us will be prone to self-righteousness and resistant to loving those who are different from us.
But the past failure of Christians to listen to the Bible when it cuts against their culture doesn’t license Christians today to do the same. Segregationists were racist not because they were following the Bible but because they weren’t. Indeed, their racist views depended on ignoring the clear teaching of the New Testament, which insists on love and brotherhood across racial and cultural difference.
Christian sexual ethics were as shocking to their original first-century Greco-Roman context as they are today. If Christians are to learn from history, the lesson must be this: hold fast to Scripture’s radical demands, whether the cultural tide is coming in or out. You won’t know which side of history you’re on until the last day.
Read more from Rebecca McLaughlin in her new book, Jesus Through the Eyes of Women: How the First Female Disciples Help Us Know and Love the Lord (TGC, July 2022). Purchase through the TGC Bookstore or Amazon. This article is adapted from Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion (Crossway, 2019).