Thoughts on Sodom, the Same-Sex Marriage Debate, & Kingdom Theology

Gay marriageFrom time to time my church runs a type of ‘think tank,’ lead by a member of staff. We discuss culture, ethics and the Christian worldview, along with our approach to the secular world. A few weeks back we considered the same-sex marriage debate. I do realise that this is much more than a topical debate for many and because of its sensitive (as well as volatile) nature I encourage generous reading. I have written previously on the topic of homosexuality, here, but I am always hesitant to because of the milieu of warring factions and wounded people. So by way of preface, let me say that this post is an attempt to answer whether Christians should impose a Christian sexual ethic on our governments or culture, those outside the auspices of the church and Christ’s lordship.

As many discussions on homosexuality often tend to go, someone reached back into the Old Testament and brought up – ‘brought out’? – Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19). ‘These events clearly show that homosexual relations signify the near death and utter derailment of society; Sodom and Gomorrah had to be wiped out. And the unruly time of Judges ends up at this same dire situation: homosexuals run rampant, indicating that society is all but lost (Judges 19).’ But is that really what these passages are about? Do these two instances pinpoint homosexuality as the terminus of a godless society? A terminus which we should attempt to spare our society from? To put it crudely, quoting Kim Fabricius, both incidents are “about gang-bangs”. If one turns up Ezekiel 16:49-50 these debauched events are brought into clearer light. As Andrew Marin says, “[they] are described as overfed, unconcerned, nonjustice-minded people who tried to potentially and literally rape their guests”. These passages are not directly addressing the issue of homosexuality. Though, I do believe they model people who did not know Yahweh or had wandered far into idolatry.

Sodom & GomorrahTheir idolatry had carried them into unrighteousness, godless orgies, and passionate inhospitality, a fair description of culture through history. Idolatry, the worshiping of other gods – along with or apart from Yahweh – was the root cause not only of their immorality but also their judgment. Jesus’ words to his disciples in Matthew 11 thunder loudly against those who would use these stories to argue that we should save our society from sin by imposing regulative Scriptural ethics. To quote our Lord, “It will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you” (11:24), ‘you’ being those who did not repent at the preaching of the kingdom of God (11:20), the heralding of Jesus the Messiah (11:2). Where does this leave us? To exaggerate the implication of our desire to impose Christian ethics on our secular society: we should lobby against religious freedom. Surely our biggest concern should align with Jesus’. In which case let us not go halfway in merely enforcing biblical sexual ethics; let us demand allegiance to Christ our Lord and remove the space for idolatrous beliefs and religions.

David VanDrunen's bookBut there is another question, which in my opinion bears significantly on this discussion: the two-kingdoms debate. Having recently read a few titles from N.T. Wright and David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms I realised that the conversation about Christianity and culture shares massive points of contact with the same-sex marriage debate. I appreciate that those belonging to both positions possess a more nuanced theology than those summarised from Wright and VanDrunen and outlined (below). But for the sake of the larger question at hand I will favour reductionism.

Wright – a major proponent of the redemptive transformation of culture, or the one-kingdom approach – argues that Jesus inaugurated God’s kingdom and that the kingdom project is continued by Christians bearing witness to Jesus’ lordship and holding authorities accountable to it (p223, Simply Jesus). While we do not oppose everything that the government does we must critique, denounce, and speak up where need be (p224). That is how Jesus exercises his sovereignty today and makes his kingdom a reality.

On the other hand we have the two-kingdoms approach, which distinguishes between the Noahic and Abrahamic covenants, the common and redemptive kingdoms. Within this view it is held that we do not impose Scripture’s authority onto the common kingdom for the church must tend to its God-given business in announcing God’s salvation (p31, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms). Despite VanDrunen’s attempt to have his cake and eat it, in his discussion on politics (p194-203), politics belong undeniably within the realm of the common kingdom (p194). This must mean that in matters of ethics and the authority of Scripture we cannot justify imposing Christian morality and norms. Misty Irons helpfully reminds us that Christ’s lordship is the very reason we can submit to the government, Christian or not. She strongly challenges the devotion of our energies into legislating the Bible. She is, I think, much more consistent in praxis with her two-kingdoms theology than VanDrunen is with his.

Andrew Marin's bookSo what is our place in the debate? Before anything else we need to figure out whether we hold to the redemptive view of culture or belong to the redemptive kingdom. And to potentially disregard the question entirely, having recently read Andrew Marin’s book, Love is an Orientation, I am convinced our primary role in the world is not legislation. Nor is it retreat. It is gospel proclamation. Andrew Marin says, “The way forward with the GLBT community is not a debate on the Bible’s statements about same-sex sexual behavior but a discussion of how to have an intimate…relationship with the Father and Judge.” If we wish to speak out then we should take the line Justin Welby recently did, and many others have: ask what is best for society at large. Will a redefinition of marriage undermine families as the base communities and cornerstone of society, a normative place for child rearing, and the idea of marriage as a covenant? That is a question for another blog post.

Graham Heslop
I have an insatiable appetite for books, occasionaly dip into theology and am presently serving full time at Christ Church Umhlanga in Durban. Most often found on the beach, a soccer field, or my couch
  • I think you gave away your conclusion in the first paragraph where you said, “those outside the auspices of the church and Christ’s lordship”.
    I agree that “our primary role in the world is not legislation” but often it seems that we neglect deep concerns because they’re not primary. The social agenda comes to mind: an agenda that invariably forsakes the primary concern for something secondary and yet that has identified a gaping hole in our gospel. Salvation is not all there is to it.
    I haven’t figured out what I would do given dictatorial authority over a country and I would probably go for something along the lines of “it’s bad for our society” and so legislate against it and yet allow religious freedom.
    It’s a difficult subject though, I’ve been thinking for a while how Christians can voice an objective opposition to broadcasting porn in any form even to adults and have failed to come up with anything really solid.

    • The question of porn is interesting. What I have noticed is that non-Christians, even non-religious, sociologists have written on the harmful results of porn and how it has subversively changed how we think, and behave. You’re right to say that we shouldn’t neglect secondary concerns such as justice, human rights and mercy ministries. I mentioned the Archbishop of Canterbury, despite having absolutely no inclination as to the details of his kingdom theology, in my post because I am convinced that his approach to legislation and the social agenda isn’t driven by Scripture or argued from Christian presuppositions. Why would anyone outside of the church listen to God’s design or ideal for marriage? Someone like Ryan T. Anderson is an interesting example. Despite being a Christian his writing on the topic of same-sex marriage is sociological and psychological. Again, I think that is the only option left to someone who holds a two kingdoms theology and wants to effect ethics or culture. Their rationale can’t be, I don’t think, “the biblical ideal is…”

  • Stephen Murray

    I’m glad you pointed out that Misty Irons is consistent in her application of 2K’s theology – a point many of my 2K’s friends refuse to acknowledge.

  • Misheck

    “I am convinced our primary role in the world is not legislation. Nor is it retreat. It is gospel proclamation.” You might want to unpack what you mean by that… For example, What do you mean by ‘gospel proclamation’? Does it include lobbying with the intention to ‘legislate’? If not, how is that not ‘retreat’? But I guess, ‘to retreat’ is also pregnant with controversy, given where one stands on the ‘one’ or ‘two’ kingdom theories.

    • Thanks for the question Misheck, it’s great to hear from you. I think that my intention with the post was to demonstrate that redemptive transformation of culture – the one kingdom theology I outlined from Wright – requires that Christians not only lobby but also legislate because the kingdom is tied to culture, and therefore it is tied to government, secular ethics, and so on. On the other hand, the two kingdom theology I referred to from VanDrunen leaves Christians who want to legislate in a difficult situation. Their theology limits gospel proclamation to preaching salvation inside and outside of the church, worshipping God in the ways Scripture makes clear, and living in the awkward overlap between the redemptive and common kingdoms. The overlap means their first concern is preaching, worshipping and practicing Christian discipleship, that includes ethics, without seeking to transform the world around them, since it will not last. The only thing that will last are people who belong to the redemptive kingdom. So the question is, why are adherents of two kingdoms bothered with legislating scriptural ethics?

      • Misheck

        Thanks for clarifying. I have personally found too many inconsistencies within the two kingdom conception of the present reality of the christian life let alone the question of legislation. VanDrunen himself acknowledges inconsistencies in the last chapter of his book. Am trying to find time and read Oliver O’Donovan, whom VanDrunen cites, almost suggesting that they are buddies, but of which I take that they are opposites. I still think many ‘2 kingdomers’ have a minimalist view of the resurrection – that has been loudly made clear by N.T Wright in especially his Surprised by Hope. Having read little on Christian ethics by O’Donovan, I suspect more or less of N.T Wright’s thinking in his The Desire of the Nations and Resurrection and the Moral Order, which I hope to find time to read.

  • I am busy reading Lesslie Newbigin’s classic, Trinitarian Doctrine for Today’s Mission, and thought he made some instructing comments regarding the church’s role in the world. He argues that the church witnesses to her Trinitarian God’s purpose in the world, which gives meaning to world history. Newbigin clearly states our task as God’s people is to witness to the real meaning of history – the summation of all things in Christ – thus fulfilling the role of suffering servant and witness, not attempting the role of controlling governor. This makes sense. For the church is not the instrument of God’s governance but the place where God’s rule is made manifest as they’re compelled to make a personal decision for or against God. Our concern should be faithfulness to the task of proclamation, not measuring our success according to the number of adherents or visible influence upon worldly affairs. (All of this is from chapter 5, or V: “Missions and the shape of world history).

    • Interesting, I would want to keep a much firmer hold on Christian responsibility in the world. I am concerned with language like, “Our concern should be faithfulness to the task of proclamation, not measuring our success according to … visible influence upon worldly affairs.”
      Being God’s world, I will pray “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” and I would actually say I do have a role to transform my society/culture. Whether that means opposing porn channels or fighting for school kids who don’t have resources or against corruption – these concerns should, I think, flow out of a desire to see God’s world run God’s way.

      • The whole debate swirls around the question of “Christian responsibility in the world”, the task given to God’s people. Newbigin (so too VanDrunen) argues that our role is not the establishment of God’s kingdom, nor ushering it into the present (for such language cannot be found in the New Testament, a point made by VanDrunen). Instead we witness to its presence in the church, the place where God visibly and currently reigns. The difference between the two ‘kingdom models’ (which I reduced in my post) is that N.T. Wright would call things like opposition to corruption, lobbying against porn channels, and making sure school kids have books actual transformation or redemption of our world, a kingdom task, whereas VanDrunen would say preaching the gospel is all we are called to do in the kingdom advance. It’s worth stating that ‘two kingdoms’ does not think Christians are excused from such nobel and necessary acts of justice and reform amidst culture; they just don’t think it’s kingdom work.

  • -Every law is the codification of someone’s morality (or immorality).

    -As Americans, each of us has a duty to influence government, as our Founders declared that “to secure these [God-given, unalienable] rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed ….”

    -As Christians, we have an obligation to speak God’s word faithfully, regardless of the consequences. It’s out of love that God wants (us) sinners to repent.

    American Christians face two problems in addressing sodomy-as-marriage: First, many are afraid to be called names. (You have to expect that when you’re standing up for what is right, you will meet resistance, and it won’t necessarily be pretty.) Second, Christians often confuse Law and Gospel, speaking and acting as if they are somehow better than “those sinners over there.”

    No one likes to be told that they’re doing something wrong; worse yet is being told that you are something wrong. But that is the essence of “Repent …,” and that message is better-received from someone who knows that he’s a sinner, too.

    In terms of “giving to God what is God’s,” we should obey His commands on sexual purity in our own lives, and we should speak His word faithfully to others, warning against sin (and proclaiming the forgiveness of sins). We should also respect and pray for our elected officials and obey man’s law (where possible).

    With regard to “giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” we have an opportunity I doubt Luther ever could have imagined: As part of “We the People” from whose consent government’s just powers are derived, we are all Caesar, and so we have a right and a duty to influence government for the common good.

    Here’s James Madison, the Father of the Constitution in an 1821 letter to F. L. Schaeffer:

    “It illustrates the excellence of a system [American Constitutional government] which, by a due distinction, to which the genius and courage of Luther led the way, between what is due to Caesar and what is due to God, best promotes the discharge of both obligations. The experience of the United States is a happy disproof of the error so long rooted in the unenlightened minds of well-meaning Christians, as well as the corrupt hearts of persecuting usurpers, that without a legal incorporation of religious and civil polity, neither could be supported. A mutual independence is found most friendly to practical Religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity.”

    What were the Framers’ intentions? Did Madison mean here that a person’s religious faith should have no influence on politics and government? Of course not, as he’s citing Luther’s teaching on the Two Kingdoms as the foundation of American religious liberty!

    And that “wall of separation” to which Jefferson famously referred? That was intended to protect Religion from the state, not the state from Religion.

    • I don’t know if Christians in support of homosexual marriage as a human right, not unlike religious freedom, can be said to be afraid of being called names. People like Misty Irons and Andrew Marin (who I mentioned in the post and subsequent comments) have come under heavy fire for their position, from those outside the church as well as Christians.

      I agree with a lot of what you’ve said. Rendering to God what is his does mean sexual purity, biblical ethics and calling on others to repent. And you’re absolutely right in saying that Christians tend towards pride, looking down on ‘sinners’ while failing to appreciate that the only difference is they’ve understood God’s grace. But I’m not sure that calling those who don’t know Christ to repentance means calling them out on sin. The imperative for godliness always follows the indicative of the gospel, if it is too remain grace. What I’m saying is that I don’t know if the church has a place calling the world to submit to God’s Word before they have submitted themselves to Christ’s lordship, within the two kingdoms model.

      While there is scope for influence – a Christian politician’s politics will undoubtedly be motivated by his faith – I remain unconvinced that we’re called to be a Christian business (for example) unless by that you are referring to issues of godliness, integrity and excellence. I think this, because as you said, every law is the codification of someone’s morality and within the two kingdoms model the biblical code is restricted to the covenant of grace, God’s kingdom in the church.

      • Neither a Christian nor an American can support sodomy-as-marriage as a “human right.” The Christian’s God calls it “sin,” and the American recognizes that rights are not derived from lusts, but are given by the Creator. (Imagine the chaos and immorality that would ensue if all one needed for a “constitutional right” was a stirring of the “marital impulse” toward whatever one desired.)

        The Founders recognized that our rights come from God.

        Faithfully preaching the Law is not “calling the world to submit to God’s Word,” it’s showing sinners their sin and their need for the Savior. After all, why submit to Christ if you don’t need Him? First Law, then Gospel.

        And where does God say that “the biblical code is restricted to the covenant of grace”? Is not one of the uses of the Law to maintain civil order?

        Aren’t you confusing Law and Gospel?

        • Santiago, for the sake of discussion, I think you need to remove yourself from the topic a bit. You come across as very aggressive to people who I would say are essentially on the same side.

          I must say, I also disagree with Graham’s statement, “I’m not sure that calling those who don’t know Christ to repentance means calling them out on sin.” So I hear what you’re saying, “First Law, then Gospel.” Part of the gospel is our need of Saviour which, the puritans and the reformers recognised, is communicated excellently by “Law”.

          However, the role of governing a country is different from the role of preaching the gospel. It is not the role of the state to call people to repent. A Christian legal system would necessarily outlaw other religions (as these are a rejection of Jesus – the rightful Lord). I don’t think the ideal legal system would do that; I think God would have us promote justice for all.

          In the case of homosexual marriage, which I would oppose, the argument in favour of it is equal rights for all. In other words, the institution of marriage offers some kind of legal protection and stability to partners in a relationship that homosexual’s have a need for. What it means to oppose this is that you would deny them this protection on the basis of your higher moral code. The problem is that on this basis, I could say that because you’ve broken the speed limit, you and your children don’t have the right to an education.

          I don’t think that the way you are opposing homosexual marriage is loving or effective. Having said that, I will reaffirm that I would oppose homosexual marriage because I think that there are good arguments.

          It also seems to me that you are missing the Two Kingdoms debate to which Graham is making reference. The idea that “the biblical code is restricted to the covenant of grace” is the interpretation of the Two Kingdoms model just as you have your interpretation of the meaning of Scripture which is equally fallible (unless you’re a member of the papacy or something ;).

          • So, James, I cannot state plainly what I think?

            We live in a Constitutional republic, and under our system, all have freedom of religion, the foundation of which, according to James Madison, is Martin Luther’s exposition of Christ’s teaching.

            With regard to “homosexual marriage” — a contradiction in terms — I’m not speaking to a fellow sinner in need of the Gospel — how can a fellow beggar not be empathetic to his peer? — I’m stating in general terms an objective fact.

            Would you advocate ameliorating any other sins? If you were to argue against genocide, would you worry about the mass murderer’s needs? Would stating clearly that slaughtering innocents is immoral be “unloving or ineffective”?

            “biblical code” sounds like Law. Law is not Gospel. I did not state definitively that Graham was wrong; you’ll note the words, “Aren’t you confusing ….?”

            As for interpreting Scripture, aren’t you implying that no one can know what the authors of the Biblical texts intended? Or are you implying that if someone disagrees (with your friends, at least), then they can’t possibly know for sure what Scripture means?

            People are fallible, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t read.

          • Hi Santiago,
            I think what I was trying to say in that first paragraph is that we can communicate as fellow Christians, made in the image of God. Speaking the truth, absolutely! But never without love. I realised even in writing this reply that if I were to state plainly what I think, it would have been disgustingly sinful. So all I’m asking is that we have a conversation as children of God with mutual respect for each other as individuals showing respect to each other even when we think the other is wrong.

            “homosexual marriage” is a contradiction in terms if we choose to define marriage as the covenant standing before God as husband and wife. If we were to define marriage as a contractual standing before the state between two partners, it is not a contradiction. So you aren’t stating a fact, you asserting your interpretation. Please understand that I am not denying that biblical marriage is between a man and a woman but I am denying that the state’s definition requires that it be between a man and a women – the time to debate the legitimacy of this definition is not now though.

            Would I advocate ameliorating any other sins? I would not advocate ameliorating any sins whatsoever. However, considering the fact that I am just as unworthy to be in God’s presence as any genocidal, pedophile, sex trafficking, rapist, my desire to see justice done is not as great as my desire to see sinners saved, even homosexuals, even arrogant and self-righteous people like me.

            I’m glad we understand each other with regards to biblical code, I’m sure Graham could point you to some worthwhile reading on the Two Kingdoms debate.

            With regards to interpreting Scripture, what I am advocating is some humility. I really do believe everything I believe but that doesn’t mean I’m not willing to realise that I’m wrong about something. So your interpretations of Scripture are valuable to me as I seek to move closer to a better understanding of the truth – that doesn’t mean I think you’re right, it does mean that I will weigh up what you say against what I say in the hopes that I will better see what God says.

          • Just because you cannot state plainly what you think without being “disgustingly sinful” does not mean that others cannot (or are you implying that what I wrote was “disgustingly sinful”?).

            If I define marriage the way that God does — “biblically,” as you concede — then how is it “my interpretation”?

            And how is speaking Law plainly “desiring to see justice done” and not part of “desiring to see sinners saved”? Are you implying that when Christ preached “Repent, and believe the Good News,” that He was seeking only justice done against His hearers and not their salvation?

          • Hey guys, I’m sorry for the extended silence, I have been away with little reception and no laptop at my disposal. It appears that the conversation has developed substantially making any comment at the bottom of this string somewhat less valuable or able to answer all of the questions raised. Before attempting another humble offering, I do want to reiterate the question posed by my post, regarding kingdom theology.

            What is it exactly do we believe our role is as the people of God in the world? (See my comment below referring to Lesslie Newbigin on Christian mission.) I set the question within the kingdom debate, which in reality touches closely on eschatology and ecclesiology (to name just two) and broadly on everything else, which is expected given Christian theology’s comprehensive and organic nature.

            If my answer to the question is too scattered – across the comments and post itself – then let me state it again: our role as God’s people is the proclamation of the gospel to those outside the kingdom of God. The emphasis must be on proclamation, for enacting the kingdom, through the transformation or redemption of culture, seems to be an idea absent from the New Testament. So I agree with the last paragraph you wrote Santiago, our desire should always be the salvation of sinners; and the Law serves us in showing people they need God’s grace to be right with him (James made that point somewhere above). I just don’t think that legislating biblical code (or ethics or morality) is proclaiming the gospel and advancing the kingdom of God; at present, all it has done is drive people away from the church.

          • Hey Santiago. Are you saying that Luther believed Scripture (more specifically, exegesis of Christ’s teaching) speaks about religious freedom?

          • In my defence, the point I was trying to make was this: adherence to the biblical code, that being Christian behaviour and morality and the putting off of sin, follows on from an understanding of the gospel, lest it become works righteousness. To put it another way: while justification entails sanctification it must precede it (Michael Horton). So those who don’t know Christ need to know God’s Law condemns them, as sinners they stand condemned. But the call to Christ isn’t a summons to obedience but faith; to put it in a more helpful way, the gospel means we’re saved from disobedience (to the law) through faith. From then on – as those who’re both justified and definitively sanctified – we are called to be obedient to Scripture, not before.