Is Same-Sex Marriage an Issue of Equality?
One of the things I sometimes hear is that I am a victim of discrimination. Traditional Christian teaching, still followed by many denominations and churches, holds that only opposite-sex couples can unite in Christian marriage. In these contexts, two people of the same sex cannot unite in Christian marriage. This, it is claimed, is discrimination against people like me who feel exclusively attracted to people of the same sex. For those who make this argument, the acceptance of same-sex marriage in the church is a simple matter of equality, and failure to accept such unions is discrimination.
There are some things in this argument that resonate with me – and probably with most of us – because they are good things. There’s a hunger for justice. There’s a right belief that inappropriate discrimination is wrong and that equality is something we should be fighting for. These very beliefs are rooted in the Christian tradition: they flow from the truth that every person is made in the image of God, and from the example of Jesus.
But I think this argument is also confused and unfair. Same-sex marriage is not an issue of equality. Restricting Christian marriage to opposite-sex unions is not about discrimination, it’s about definition and distinguishing.
Christian marriage is, by definition, the union of a man and a woman. This has always been Christian belief, rooted in God’s creational design, as revealed in Genesis 1 and 2 and reaffirmed by Jesus (Mark 10:1-12 and Matthew 19:1-9). And it’s a purposeful definition: the union in difference of opposite-sex marriage reflects the union in difference of Christ and the Church. Restricting marriage to opposite-sex unions is not about discrimination; it’s about definition. It’s simply an outworking of what marriage is.
This same principle can be seen elsewhere in life. For example, I couldn’t join the Royal College of Surgeons because I am not a surgeon. The fact that they would deny me membership of the organisation is not unacceptable discrimination; it’s simply an outworking of definition. Similarly, I couldn’t get an academic scholarship through a scholarship scheme for ethnic minority students. Again, that wouldn’t be outrageous discrimination; it would simply be an outworking of definition.
The traditional Christian restriction of marriage to unions of one man and one woman is an outworking of the definition of Christian marriage, not an act of inappropriate discrimination. And same-sex unions aren’t the only place we see this at work. Whatever our views on same-sex marriage, there will be some forms of relationship we don’t feel can qualify as an acceptable marriage. For us that might be unions of more than two people or unions where one person is already married to someone else. The point is, we all have a definition of marriage that we feel should dictate who can and cannot enter into such a union.
So people can and do disagree that Christian marriage is, by definition, an opposite-sex union, and that is a conversation that needs to be engaged in. It’s something to be discussed, debated and defended, not a conversation to be overlooked or shut down through unfair accusations of discrimination and inequality.
The traditional Christian perspective on marriage is also an issue of distinguishing: distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable sexual relationships.
The general concept here is unexceptional. Pretty much everyone agrees there are some relationships that are inappropriate and that should not be sexual. That’s not really an area of disagreement. However, disagreement emerges when we consider where the line falls between acceptable and unacceptable sexual relationships.
For Christians following a traditional sexual ethic, that line is dictated by God’s plan and design for sex, as revealed in Scripture: that the only relationships that should be sexual are marriage relationships between a man and a woman, reflecting the relationship between Christ and the Church.
Christians are not unusual in distinguishing between relationships that can legitimately be sexual and those that should not be. We might place the dividing line somewhere different from other people, but the fact we believe there is a line is not unusual.
This being the case, we should be able to explain why we believe the dividing line should fall in a certain place and should be up for discussing and defending that in dialogue with others who would put the line in a different place. Claims that Christians following traditional Christian sexual ethics are unfairly discriminating fail to acknowledge that we all distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable sexual relationships. Such claims can also be used to try and shut down the conversations that might help us to better understand each other’s positions.
So, I don’t think there’s any reason to say that I am a victim of discrimination when churches and denominations hold to the traditional Christian sexual ethic in relation to marriage. It’s not about equality and discrimination; it’s about definition and distinguishing. Claims of inequality and discrimination are unfair and unhelpful, making it hard to cultivate respect for each other and to dialogue about our differences. So let’s put to one side the strategy of accusation and instead take up the strategy of conversation.