Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet. Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2014. 176 pp. $10.00.

Although the American and French Revolutions occurred only 13 years apart, and made use of similar terminology (“freedom,” “liberty,” “equality”), they could not have been more different. In breaking from England, our founding fathers did not seek to remake society or to abandon the traditional, Judeo-Christian understanding of God, man, virtue, duty, and justice. True, they chose to move away from the national churches and entrenched aristocracies of Europe; however, in doing so, they strengthened respect for both civil and ecclesiastical authority and founded a family-centered, church-going nation.

Not so France. The French revolutionaries, like the Soviets and Maoists of the 20th century, sought nothing less than an overhaul of existing social, economic, and religious structures. Rather then secure justice for all, they redefined the whole notion of justice, calling for a radical kind of equality that tore down all distinctions. In France, Russia, and China, human nature became malleable, something to be remade by social engineering.

In a disturbingly similar way, though the proponents of same-sex marriage have consciously borrowed their terminology from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the two movements are, on a foundational level, worlds apart. In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King demonstrated that the collective witness of our Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian heritage calls for civil rights. Far from opposing our nation’s founding documents, King showed they provide the best grounds for establishing the inherent value and dignity of each person.

Not so same-sex marriage. For those seeking to secure the rights of two men or two women to marry, the ultimate goal isn’t to extend political, legal, medical, and hereditary rights to homosexuals (civil unions would accomplish that), but the radical redefinition of marriage itself. Social engineering, not justice, is the endgame, and that is why those who refuse to acknowledge or participate in the redefinition have been increasingly silenced, subjected to ridicule, even threatened with legal action.

Real Question

In their well-argued, irenic book, Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage, Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet wisely keep their readers’ attention fixed on the real question behind the debate: what is marriage? Engaging directly the false analogy between civil rights and same-sex marriage, McDowell and Stonestreet maintain that while the color of a person’s skin is irrelevant to the nature and function of marriage, the sexes of the partners is not:

A male of one ethnicity and a female of another can become one in every sense that a couple of the same ethnicity can. And an interracial sexual union is ordered toward procreation and can abide by the same standards of exclusivity and permanence. . . . But same-sex couples cannot procreate nor can they become “one” in the same sense opposite-sex couples can. (61)

Given the main audience of their book, McDowell, an apologetics professor at Biola University, and Stonestreet, executive director of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, naturally shape their arguments around the Bible’s definition of marriage. Nevertheless, they make it clear that the biblical understanding of marriage as the lifelong union of one man and one woman geared toward the birthing and rearing of children is hardly confined to Christianity. Quoting a 2004 article by Maggie Gallagher, the authors explain that “there are three obviously true facts about the world that make the institution of marriage necessary: ‘Sex makes babies. Society needs babies. Babies deserve mothers and fathers’” (44).

Purely Personal

In addition to flouting the clear moral and sexual teachings of the Bible, same-sex marriage advocates cut the conjugal tie loose from its essential social function, reducing it to a purely personal concern. Not only do they separate marriage from its universal, cross-cultural link to procreation and parenting, they redefine its purpose to that of serving the emotional and sexual needs of the partners. Many moderns, especially young people, who read the previous two sentences will likely throw up their hands and exclaim, Of course marriage is all about love. McDowell and Stonestreet observe that such a notion marks a shift in the historical view of marriage. After all, when a couple fills out a marriage form, they are never asked to affirm that they love each other.

According to McDowell and Stonestreet, this shift in the definition of marriage is, in great part, the result of a shift in the definition of human identity. Whereas traditionally man was viewed as an essentially religious being, today “people are seen as fundamentally sexual creatures, not metaphysical ones” (69). One of the fruits of this shift—which the authors trace in the theories and writings of Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Kinsey, and Hugh Hefner—was the passing of no-fault divorce laws: laws that enshrined the “soul-mate model” of marriage (73).

Practical Matters

After devoting the first half of their book to clarifying and accounting for the revisionist view of marriage that sparked and continues to fuel the same-sex agenda, the authors turn to more practical matters: what should Christians do in the face of the sudden and unprecedented triumph of same-sex marriage? The one thing we cannot do is remain silent and crawl back into an escapist subculture. Our Lord’s teachings and example do not leave us that option; we are not to be of the world, but we are to be in it.

We also cannot satisfy ourselves with casting stones from the sidelines. It’s up to the church to provide society with a compelling counter-vision of true, godly, lasting marriage. We need to tell stories of faithful couples who have struggled against temptation to form strong families, and we need to model such stories in our own lives. But before we do that, we must first repent of our own failure to support the marriages of our fellow church members. And we must repent as well for those times we’ve ridiculed or mistreated gay people inside and outside the church. While standing firm on the Bible’s (and history’s) definition of marriage, we must ever seek reconciliation, remembering that we are all sinners saved by grace.

Wake-Up Call

Same-Sex Marriage offers a needed wake-up call to churches who’ve failed to equip their congregations with a strong and clear understanding of what marriage is, but it overlooks a vital dimension of the issue. The authors do a thorough job exposing the “revisionist view” that “marriage is malleable,” that it is “whatever societies make (or remake) it to be” and must therefore adjust “to ever-evolving moral and sexual norms” (59). But they do little to expose the revisionist view of gender that has accompanied and justified that malleability. In schools and colleges across the county, including many “Christian” ones, students are taught that there are no essential differences between men and women, that masculinity and femininity are merely social constructs.

McDowell and Stonestreet are correct to discern the seeds of gay marriage in the separation between sex and procreation fostered by the success of Paul Ehrlich’s 1970 book The Population Bomb, the dissemination of Margaret Sanger’s eugenic theories through Planned Parenthood, and the wide availability of contraception, sterilization, and abortion. But those seeds would likely not have taken root and sprouted without the more recent separation between sex and gender. What good is it to say marriage is the union of one man and one woman when our society no longer recognizes male and female as essential, God-created categories?

Over the last several decades, this postmodern deconstruction of masculinity and femininity has, I believe, been fostered by the widespread acceptance of gender-neutral language. Many recent Bible translations (NRSV, NLT, CEV, NIV 2011) have adopted such language, despite the fact that God himself (Gen. 5:1–2) refers to the human race by the name of the first man, Adam. McDowell and Stonestreet do not use one of these translations (they use the ESV); still, I think their own use of gender-neutral language has the unintended consequence of downplaying the sexual complementarity on which strong and fruitful biblical marriages rest.

Despite these misgivings, however, I believe Same-Sex Marriage offers a welcome contribution and helpful guide to one of the most pressing issues of our day.