It’s no secret that the Western world has undergone a dramatic transformation regarding issues of sexuality and gender identity. Twenty years ago, the widespread acceptance of gay marriage seemed largely unthinkable. Even just 10 years ago, issues of transgenderism were far from mainstream consciousness. Many in our culture have seen these shifts as an unqualified good, a needed sign of progress toward a more just and inclusive society.
But for many Christians these changes have been bewildering. The world we thought we knew has been pulled out from under us. The Christian view of marriage as being between a man and a woman, and the basic assumption that we’re all made as men and women, may not have always been championed by our culture, but it was at least seen as a legitimate (if quaint) part of Western thought. Now such views are increasingly seen as an actual danger to society.
So how did we get here, and what should we do about it?
I want to suggest at least four changes that account for how our culture has come to this moment, and then propose seven ways in which we can respond.
Four Significant Cultural Changes
1. Our moral intuitions have changed.
In his landmark book The Righteous Mind, psychologist Jonathan Haidt shows that our moral convictions tend to come about intuitively rather than rationally. We have a gut feeling about what is morally right and wrong—and the intuitions driving that gut reaction have changed in the past decade or so. Particular moral taste buds have come into play: Does a given course of action seem harmful or not; freeing or oppressive; and fair or discriminatory? These primary factors, Haidt argues, determine our moral conclusions.
This being so, we can see how Western culture so quickly embraced gay marriage. Applying the first of the three moral taste buds: Does it do harm to anyone else? Surely if the lovely gay couple down the street is allowed to marry, it’s not going to affect me in any adverse way?.Second, prohibiting gay marriage feels oppressive rather than freeing. Surely someone has the right to love whom they want and to express that love in the way they want. And, third, it seems deeply unfair to oppose this. How can it be fair or just for one couple to be able to marry but not another couple? Viewed this way, supporting gay marriage seems intuitively right. No wonder many once opposed have shifted their thinking in recent years.
Additionally, we can see why so much Christian reasoning against gay marriage seems to fall flat: it’s not accounting for these changing moral intuitions. Many Christians, without knowing it, are appealing to moral reasoning that simply doesn’t connect to a typical secular person. I remember watching a TV debate about whether evangelical churches should allow gay marriage. The proponent for doing so made a succinct (and, to the audience, compelling) case: “God is love. I have found love with another woman, and so this is something God wants to bless and the church should celebrate.”
In response, an evangelical pastor kept replying, “But the Bible says marriage is between a man and a woman.” He is right. And yet he was appealing to something (the authority of Scripture) that had little traction with those watching. (The response to the “God is love” argument is to point out that God being love doesn’t mean he approves of everything we think is love. It means God knows far more about love than we do, and so we must listen to him if we are to know how to order our loves—and thereby love one another appropriately and well.)
2. Our view of minorities has changed.
Secular people today look back on previous discrimination against LGBTQ+ people and feel appalled. We are now aware of the pain caused by past homophobia and demonization of the gay community. We see movies like The Imitation Game and TV shows like Transparent and are moved to compassion for the people our culture once overtly victimized. In many ways, we Christians can applaud this change. There’s ample biblical reason to be appalled at bullying and of this (or any other) kind.
This sense of societal shame over past discrimination has led to the phenomenon of intersectionality. Because of what has happened in the past, and of how certain groups have been silenced, we now privilege minority and victim status. And if someone’s at the intersection of more than one such status, that voice has exponentially more credibility in the public square. It’s not a level playing field—and intentionally so. If someone is, say, black, female, and lesbian, her voice counts more than someone who is male, white, and heterosexual.
This dynamic has also led to great concern about minorities being emotionally or psychologically harmed. Some time ago I was invited to speak on sexuality and the gospel for a Christian group on a secular university campus, and the campus LGBTQ+ advocacy group organized a protest. I met with the protestors shortly before the meeting started, to listen to their concerns and see if there was any assurance I could give them. As they voiced their worries about the event, it became clear that the most significant concern was that my words would be harmful to any gay people of faith who might be present at the meeting. When I pressed further, I discovered that at least part of what they meant by harm was simply the presence of a contrary opinion, however graciously it might be expressed.
We can see, then, why so much progressive thinking is censorious, especially on our university campuses. If someone’s viewpoint is going to cause harm, then it doesn’t need to be engaged with or debated. It just needs to be silenced and shut down.
3. Our view of sex and marriage has changed.
This has taken place over a longer period of time than the others, going back to the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
First, our view of sex has changed. For many, it has been uncoupled from procreation. It’s simply a means of recreation, and shouldn’t have to be anything more. This goes some way to explaining why, despite advances in ultrasound technology and growing understanding of the sensitivity and development of an unborn child, the pro-abortion lobby is so vociferous. It’s not ultimately about the status of the fetus; it’s about the right to have recreational sex without reproductive consequences.
Second, our view of marriage has changed—not just in that many Western countries now legally recognize same-sex marriage, but also in a prior and more significant way. Marriage is no longer a lifelong covenant ordered toward procreation. It’s now effectively a flexible romantic contract; an opportunity to celebrate deeply fulfilling romantic feelings for one another. And should those feelings subside—should one partner no longer be a means of romantic fulfillment for the other—then either or both are free to dissolve the marriage. This view of marriage obviously doesn’t demand that the couple be heterosexual. If marriage is about celebrating romantic feelings, then it would seem deeply unfair to exclude certain types of relationships from marriage.
4. Our anthropology has changed.
Today, the “real” you is the you that you feel yourself to be deep inside. The hero narrative of our day is the person who searches deep within, discovers who they are, and then persists in expressing what they’ve found even in the face of opposition. The “real” you is someone only you can discover; no one else can determine your identity.
In addition, the physical body is entirely accidental. In atheistic evolution, the body is simply the lump of matter you’re attached to. It has no intrinsic meaning or significance. Indeed, evolution shows us that any physical thing can literally become anything else, so there’s no reason why we can’t fashion our physical body into something entirely different from what it started out as. If accidental, then it follows that it’s incidental. The body is canvas on which I can express my identity, but it doesn’t in any way determine that identity.
If your body is accidental, then it follows that it’s incidental.
These four changes reveal something vitally important if we’re to navigate our cultural time: the traditional, Christian understanding of sexual ethics and gender identity isn’t just quaint and old-fashioned. It’s dangerous.
We need to bear in mind that the above changes affect not just secular society They’re also deeply ingrained in many people within our churches. For those younger than 25, this is the oxygen they breathe. It’s the only reality they’ve ever known.
The upshot is that there are many people in our churches who aren’t biblically convinced about how to understand these issues; and many others who are biblically convinced, but not emotionally convinced—they understand what the Bible says, but it sure doesn’t feel compelling.
Seven Ways We Need to Respond
As we begin to think about how we respond to this cultural reality, we need to take on board the following suggestions.
1. We need to listen well.
One of the most underused verses in pastoral ministry is from the book of Proverbs: “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Prov. 18:13).
A similar point is made a couple of chapters later: “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out” (Prov. 20:5).
We need to listen well, because so much of where someone is coming from isn’t immediately apparent. Our hearts are “deep waters.” Our initial impression of someone, and their initial words to us, may reveal only a small part of what’s stirring them in the depths of their heart. Listening well will help us to see what’s going on under the surface. If someone is happy to share something of their story (and we must always ask to see if they are, rather than simply presuming), then we’ll get a sense of where they’ve come from and how they’ve come to be where they are now. We’ll know something of the ups and downs they’ve experienced along the way.
This can help us to know where we might best start to share something of Christ with them. If they’ve been particularly hurt along the way, we might start by talking about how Jesus won’t break a bruised reed; about how he’s someone to whom we really can entrust our deepest bruises. If we sense considerable pride, we might show how humbling and challenging the words of Jesus are for us all when it comes to issues of sexuality. If we sense confusion about who they are, or a sense of restlessness and dissatisfaction with life, we might introduce them to Jesus’s encounter with the woman at the well in John 4, and how he both reveals our identity and also offers living water that will always satisfy.
The danger of not listening is that we speak reflexively without giving due thought and consideration to our words. We can be unsympathetic, not having taken care to discover sensitivities that might be present.
2. Don’t say to someone what you can’t say to everyone.
Some time ago I spoke at a secular university in Canada, and a student approached me afterward: “I’m gay, and I’m not a Christian. I used to run an LGBTQ advocacy group at another college. I’ve read your book and am meeting up with a pastor to look at the Gospel of Mark.” Intrigued by his involvement in Christian things, I asked him what was drawing him to think about Christianity. He thought for a moment before saying, “I realized Jesus treats me the same as he treats everyone else.” He explained that the advocacy group he’d led had been predicated on the notion that “we’re different: we have a parade; you celebrate us. When it comes to Pride month we try to see which companies we can get to give us the most stuff.”
As he began to look at the message of Jesus, though, he realized he wasn’t different. He didn’t want to be. At the most fundamental level, the message of Jesus is exactly the same for him as it was for everyone else. It struck me at that moment that there’s an equality we have with the gospel that we don’t get in a culture that prides itself on equality.
There’s an equality we have with the gospel that we don’t get in a culture that prides itself on equality.
One of the biggest misconceptions people have concerning sexuality is that Christianity is unfair. We have one set of rules for one group, and another set for another group. People think we hate and want to condemn the gay community. The assumption is that Christians think LGBTQ+ people are beneath them.
The best way to correct this misconception is to show how the gospel puts us all in the same boat. Jesus always levels the playing field. All of us are fallen and broken in our sexuality. All of us have disordered desires. None of us is all we should be in this area. All of us will have to learn to say no to certain sexual desires if we are to follow Jesus.
The same is true for gender identity. We all come to God with deeply flawed views of our own identity. None of us truly understands who we are, and all of us locate our deepest meaning and sense of self in the wrong things. When it comes to gender dysphoria, all of us experience forms of brokenness with our physical bodies. None of us is in a position to be looking down on others, however different their fallenness might look to our own. None of us is a freak; all of us are painfully distorted image-bearers of a wonderful God.
This isn’t to say that all of us have had the same experience. I have experience of living in a body that has been subject to the same fall as everyone else. But I’ve never experienced the pain of gender dysphoria. So while I want someone with that struggle to know that we’re all in this together, I’m not going to pretend to know what they’re going through. They will need to teach me on that point.
Nor is it to say that all sexual sin is alike. Some sexual sins are more grievous than others. Some represent a greater departure from the Genesis 1–2 blueprint of one man and one woman in covenant marriage. Bestiality represents a more significant departure than adultery, homosexuality than heterosexuality. But in a fallen world none of us has grounds for feeling superior. All of us by nature fall catastrophically short of the glory of God.
So especially in early stages on interaction, don’t say to someone what you can’t say to everyone. Let someone know what the gospel of Jesus says to everyone on this issue before attempting to explain what it says to them. My fear otherwise is that they’ll think they are being singled out in a way others aren’t.
3. Recognize the cost of discipleship for all.
The cost of discipleship looks high for those coming to faith from an LGBTQ+ background. But that must not disguise the fact that the cost of discipleship is high for everyone. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). The key word is anyone. To follow Jesus, all of us will have to say a deep and profound no to some of our deepest intuitions and longings. Jesus doesn’t put “self” in front of “identity”; he puts it in front of “denial.”
By denying self and following Jesus we don’t become less who we are; we become most truly ourselves.
This call needs to be spelled out. Jesus goes on to say that there is a sense of “losing our life” in following him (v. 35), that there will be times when it feels like obedience to him is taking life from us. And yet the glorious paradox is that by going through this loss, we are actually gaining life. By denying self and following Jesus we don’t become less who we are; we become most truly ourselves.
But this cost of discipleship is going to look cruel and unusual if it’s applied rigorously to those following Christ from an LGBTQ+ background but isn’t seen to be applied to everyone else. If the cost of discipleship is too high for LGBTQ+ people, then it is too high for anyone.
4. Show the goodness of God.
A friend of mine has a 2-year-old daughter who, most of the time, is an absolute delight, but at mealtimes is—how shall I put it?—challenging. Like many 2-year-olds, food is frequently deemed unacceptable to her, regardless of whether it was her favorite even a few days before. Needless to say, this is exasperating for her parents who want to her to be well fed and grateful, preferably without having food flung across the room at regular intervals.
The problem is that many people view God like that 2-year-old. They think he arbitrarily decides he doesn’t like certain things, and biblical sexual ethics seems to confirm this view. It all seems so random.
This being so, it’s not enough to simply teach what the Bible says. We need to be sure to teach why the Bible says it, to show that there is a rationality and goodness to what God says.
Every time God gives us a prohibition, he’s protecting something good.
Every time God gives us a prohibition, he’s protecting something good. So we need to teach the positives behind the negatives, and show that God’s Word isn’t in fact arbitrary but instead points toward what is best and most life-giving for us. Whenever God says no to something, he is saying a much bigger yes to something else. Unless we thrill people with the biblical vision for marriage and human sexuality—especially how they point beyond themselves to God’s love shown to us in Christ—we won’t be providing the full spiritual resources needed to fight deep and besetting sinful desires. As Thomas Chalmers reminded us many centuries ago, we need “the expulsive power of a new affection.”
Rebuttal isn’t persuasion. Pointing out the errors of unbiblical thinking isn’t by itself going to awaken hearts to God’s truth.
5. We need to keep the storyline of the Bible in view.
Ultimately, marriage is a biblical-theological issue. The Bible begins with a marriage, between Adam and Eve, and ends with a marriage, between Christ and his bride. This first marriage points to the final one.
It’s no accident that the plotline of the Bible starts in a garden with a man and a woman coming together. They have been made for each other. The created binary of male and female joined together is a picture of the eventual union of heaven and earth, when all human marriages will take a bow and leave the stage for the ultimate marriage between Jesus and his people. This is heady and beautiful stuff. It’s a narrative we all enter into and anticipate in our earthly states now, whether married or single. If marriage points to the shape of the gospel, then singleness points to its sufficiency, for this union with Christ is the only marriage we truly need.
This being so, we can’t mess around with the definition of marriage without going against the grain of what the whole Bible is about. Our theology of marriage flows from our understanding of the gospel. It’s why I’ve yet to see a church that has changed its view of marriage without also ultimately changing its view of the gospel.
It’s why I’ve yet to see a church that has changed its view of marriage without also ultimately changing its view of the gospel.
It also reminds us of the crux of all our theological reflection and discussions about human sexuality. Even if the Bible made no direct mention of homosexuality, we would still know what to think on these matters, given what Scripture says about marriage being by definition heterosexual and the only godly context for sexual activity. The Bible doesn’t give us a theology of homosexuality; it gives us a theology of marriage. Which is itself a theology of the gospel.
6. We need to keep pointing to Jesus.
We need to point to the life of Jesus. The most fully human and complete person who ever lived wasn’t married, never entered into a romantic relationship, and didn’t have sex. So while (in the appropriate context) these are good gifts, they can’t be essential to individual human fulfillment. To say we must have them to be complete is to diminish the humanity of Christ, which Scripture warns is the spirit of the antichrist (1 John 4:3).
We need to point to the teaching of Jesus. He taught that sex outside of marriage is sinful (Matt. 15:19–20 and parallels), that sexual desire and not just behavior is morally culpable (Matt. 5:28), that marriage is between a man and a woman (Matt. 19:3–6), and that the only godly alternative to marriage is celibacy (Matt. 19:10–12). We have to come to terms with these teachings. Contrary to the impression commonly given today, Jesus isn’t neutral when it comes to sexual ethics.
If we have a problem with these positions, our problem isn’t with the church, or evangelicalism, or Christianity, but with Christ himself. We can’t turn away from these beliefs without turning away from him. We believe what we believe about marriage and sexuality because we believe what we believe about Jesus. If someone wants me to abandon my view of marriage, they must first persuade me to abandon my view of Christ. As the saying goes, “Those who hear not the music think the dancers mad.” We can’t expect people to fully understand how we live and what we believe unless they understand who Christ is to us.
Finally, we need to point to the claims of Jesus. He alone brings ultimate and lasting satisfaction (John 6:35). In fact, God created human sexuality for this reason: to point to a deeper appetite, a more powerful longing, and a greater consummation that can only be found in him. Jesus, not sexual fulfillment or any other contemporary idol, is the one who truly feeds and fills our souls.
7. We need confidence in the gospel.
Reading between the lines of the early verses of Romans 1, it seems that the believers in Rome thought Paul was reluctant to come to them. His gospel message had borne fruit way out there in the provinces of the empire, but this was Rome. This was different. Rome was the center and apex of the world. Greek thinking and influence could be seen everywhere. What could the gospel possibly have to offer here?
So Paul makes it as clear as he can that it hasn’t been reluctance that kept him from Rome. Quite the opposite:
For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but have thus far been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and barbarians, both to the wise and foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew and also to the Greek. (Rom. 1:9–16, my emphasis)
How these Roman Christians felt about their fellow citizens being beyond the reach of the gospel is how so many of us today can feel about the LGBTQ+ community, as though the gospel is somehow less effective with this part of our society. Yet it takes God no more strength or grace to save one kind of sinner than any other.
When it comes to responding to the cultural changes we see all around us, we mustn’t think our job is simply to “hold the line.” Instead, it is to discover with Paul the harvest that awaits.
- 7 Ways to Navigate a Sexually Shifting Culture (Sam Allberry)