I will never forget it; sitting in the row of white folding chairs, in the middle of a hazelnut orchard, watching my twin brother marry his partner. Making the decision to sit there, in those seats, had been a difficult journey for my wife Suzanne and I, but as we sat there, we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God had led us to this decision. We had anticipated having to face this decision for several years. The longer My brother and his partner were together, the more we knew that we would inevitably have to wrestle with a decision. It was going to be a very consequential decision. If we chose not to go, we knew it would negatively impact our relationship with Matty and Will. But if we did choose to go, it would have its own consequences. Having surrendered my own homosexual struggle in obedience to Christ almost 18 years ago, and at that point in our history, being in full time ministry helping people walk out of homosexuality for over 8 years, we had to wrestle with what our attendance would communicate, not just to my brother and his partner, but also to those connected with our ministry. We had to wrestle not just with the impact on our own family, but the other families I came into contact with in my ministry. Could our decision negatively impact others? Would it negatively impact Portland Fellowship (the ministry I was on staff with)? We prayed, investigated the scriptures, and sought counsel. In the end, there we sat, in the row of white folding chairs.
It wasn’t just a difficult journey for Suzanne and I. As the minister at opened the ceremony, she shared these words; “We know that there are those of you here who do not agree with this union, yet you have made the choice to be here because you love Matty and Will… and for that, they thank you.” As difficult as it was for us, I know it was painful for them to recognize this fact, and to acknowledge it on their wedding day. Doing so was extremely gracious of them.
Why do I share this story? I do not share it because it is easy… In fact, the easiest thing would be to not talk about it. I don’t want to constantly remind myself of the discomfort of that day, and I certainly don’t want to constantly remind my brother of it. It hurts both of us. I also do not enjoy the sometimes callous and caustic rebuttals and reactions people have had to my sharing our decision, and inevitably will have to this blog post. This is a polarizing discussion, and commenters seem to forget that real people have to wrestle and live with the consequences of these decisions. It is one thing to theorize… it is quite another to live through this experience, and to continue to live in it.
So in light of all that, why do I share? I share our story because I believe it is instructive. I share it because my brother and I, who have fought to have an honest, respectful, and loving relationship with one another, respecting our differences and accepting our disagreements, both agree that if by sharing it, it can help other families find permission to relate, or if relationships between family members that are already strained by differing worldviews can have a way to not fracture beyond, or from my perspective, if families can avoid succumbing to a false either/or decision, than it is worth the discomfort.
I think that what our story demonstrates is a missing perspective in the seemingly never ending debate on whether a Christian, who believes same sex behavior is sin can in good conscience attend a wedding of two people of the same sex, or provide a service like baking a cake or arranging flowers for such an event. Most of the opinions on this topic tend to fall one of two extremes; the “Jesus ate with sinners, so just go and love them” side, or the “No one who calls themselves a Christian would ever be caught dead at, or providing a service or good to a gay wedding” side. It seems that on either end of this spectrum, these camps are firmly entrenched, convinced of their “rightness”. So, to clarify, if you have firmly established yourself on either of these sides, than please just know, I have no interest in changing your mind, debating the issue, or frankly hearing your criticism of my decisions. There is no new info or argument that can be “brought to my attention” that I did not consider and wrestle before making the decision to attend the wedding. So, this blog is not for you. But, maybe you are someone who feels like your heart is being ripped out of your chest when you hear both polarized opinions, because neither seems right. Or you are someone who knows that sooner or later your loved one is going to ask whether or not you will attend their wedding, and you know that your choice will drastically effect whatever relationship you have managed to keep with your loved one. Maybe you are that person who is pleading for a way to represent the love and grace of Jesus, yet also the truth and holiness of God. Or you might be a business owner, and you have heard that to provide a service for a gay wedding makes you as spiritually guilty as if you had officiated the ceremony yourself, yet you also feel convicted that choosing not to provide a service to the wedding misses the mark of God’s kindness to those in sin. Or maybe you are in a state where to refuse to offer your services is a violation of the law, and you are wondering if you only have one of two choices, obey the law, or shame and betray Jesus. If you find yourself in, or near any of these examples, than I hope this will help.
Presence vs Celebration/Approval
At the crux of the “Don’t be caught dead at a gay wedding” side is the issue of celebration /approval. I have heard countless commentators make the argument that no Christian in good conscience, being committed to biblical understanding of marriage, sexuality, and sin, can celebrate a gay union. I absolutely agree. We cannot celebrate sin. I would even go a step further to say that we cannot attend such an event if, by our passivity and silence, our presence could be understood as celebration or approval by the couple marrying. But it is absolutely unfair and intellectually dishonest to say that by mere physical presence alone, or the action of baking and selling a cake, that we unequivocally are “celebrating” or “approving” of the union. To celebrate something is to rejoice in it, to praise it, to act with uninhibited joy and endorsement of it. Synonyms to celebrate are to commend, laud, glorify, or to applaud. If my wife and I were celebrating my brother’s wedding, than there would have been no opening words of recognition by the minister. Clearly, we were not commending, endorsing, glorifying, applauding, or praising the event. Our presence was not the same as celebration. We understood that, My brother and his partner understood that, and most important to this conversation, God understood that. It is well established in scripture that God does not look merely at the external, but knows the heart. God has consistently throughout the scriptures used his people, present in pagan cultures and contexts, yet fully surrendered to His will. One of my favorite examples of this is Daniel. Examples from the book of Daniel are used quite a bit in the religious liberty angle of this issue. Many Christians have likened baking a cake or attending the wedding to the call to bow down to idols and forsake the worship of the one true God. Yet we forget that Daniel, and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego lived in and served in a pagan, idolatrous kingdom. In the midst of paganism, idolatry, sorcery, and wickedness, they managed to serve the reigning kingdom and maintain their integrity and favor with God. We would never say that Daniel was guilty of celebrating idolatry or divination, merely because he was held in respect by the king, or even though he was made the chief of the magicians, enchanters, Chaldeans, and astrologers (Daniel 5:11-12). We understand that while performing his tasks, he remained surrendered and dependent on God, faithful to God, and blameless before God (Daniel 6:22) How is it possible that we can understand that Daniel, as the appointed chief over those who performed witchcraft, can be found blameless before God, yet when a gay wedding is involved, someone who sits in a chair or pew, or who stirs flour, eggs, milk, sugar, etc. together in a bowl and bakes it at 350 degrees, is unequivocally guilty of celebrating sin? Again, if you have already made up your mind, I am not interested in changing it, but if you are wrestling with your own choice, I believe you can take solace in the fact that if Daniel managed to remain present, serving, and obedient and blameless before God, than maybe it is possible for you.
We went to my brother’s wedding. We demonstrated our unconditional love to him and Will. We showed them respect, and value. We also had a lot of difficult and uncomfortable conversations leading up to the wedding. We wrestled together with them over our disagreements and our respective frustrations about the differing convictions on either side. We accept that we cannot change their minds, and they accept that they cannot change ours. We know where we all stand, firmly in disagreement and love. So, is it possible to be at the ceremony and not be celebrating and “participating” in sin. Yes, I believe it is.
But why would you want to attend or serve?
Let’s take a minute to examine the ministry of Jesus. Not the eating with sinners part just yet, but the Gospel mission of Jesus as a whole.
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:1-8)
“Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, 2 to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone. 3 At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. 4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. 8 This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.” (Titus 3:1-8)
“43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:45-48)
Christ’s incarnational mission is captivating to me. God emptied himself of divinity and became a servant, enduring our rejection, and ultimately dying on our behalf, so that we might be reconciled to the Father. The restraint of God, and the mercy of God, and the passion of God to do such a thing is excruciatingly humbling to me. And the fact that we are called to do the same is cataclysmic to my own sense of self preservation. Christ taught and demonstrated a type of love and sacrifice that should shake every soul, and burn with a holy fire any and every self-centered motivation. Unless we look at Christ’s ministry eating with the sinner through the lens of His incarnational, self-sacrificing mission to reconcile us to the Father, we will reduce it down to love, affection, or warm regard. Jesus became present to humanity, and to the sinners He was eating with, to invite them to be restored in relationship to the Father. He engaged with people personally, in the midst of their humanity, their brokenness, and their sin defiled, self-gratifying lives, and called them to repentance. If Christ simply would have come to “love on” people, they may have had affection for Him, but ultimately they would not be reconciled to the Father, because they would never recognize the need to repent. Christ beautifully demonstrated that presence with sinners is a necessary element in order to call them to repentance.
Somewhere in the “just love on them” side of the argument, we have lost the reality that we are only reconciled to God the Father when we recognize our need for repentance, and we don’t get there without someone sharing the truth of need with us. Therein lies the fault in the “bake them two” or “just go and show them love” perspective. We are called to share the truth, and to avoid this uncomfortable and difficult requirement is in no way loving. Just like it is intellectually dishonest and unfair to say that mere physical presence or providing a service makes us guilty of sin, it is equally dishonest to say that Jesus just “loved on” people and if we do the same we are blameless.
Jesus always called the people He spent time with to repent of sin and be reconciled to God. He was close enough in proximity and relationship with sinners to make the religious leaders of the day furious and obstinate, yet was direct and truthful enough with those very same sinners to either lead them to repentance, or repel them by the strength of his call to holiness. Truth and love in perfect balance. To say that this was easy or conflict free would be naïve. Christ was misunderstood by the religious leaders of his day, and rejected by many who he sought to save. We have to keep in mind, that for every “sinner” who Christ ate with, surely there were several who chose not to repent and stayed in their life of sin. Christ knew that the people he was on mission to save had a free will. Even done in perfect balance, and perfectly representing God the Father, truth and love do not always lead people to repentance. All that to say, we do not have control over the results of missional engagement.
But what about the business owner?
Allow me to share another story.
I have a good friend who is a professional musician here in Portland, OR. Several months ago, during a conversation about all of this, I warned her that she was going to need to think through how she would respond if a gay couple wanted to hire her for their wedding. It was only a week or so after our conversation that a gay couple contacted her, wanting to meet and discuss the possibility of hiring her to sing at their reception. She called my wife and I and asked for our advice as to how to proceed. When we met, I asked what her greatest fear/conflict was with their request. Let me paraphrase her response:
“If I perform at their reception, I am worried they are going to believe that I am ok with their marriage. I can’t approve of their marriage, but I can’t turn them down because that is against the discrimination law. I don’t want to lie and say that I am already booked. I also don’t want to be one more Christian that rejects them and pushes them further away from Jesus”
I think a great many find themselves in this predicament. It seems to be a no win situation. How do we not be perceived as celebrating/ approving / endorsing sin, and yet not reject people, violate the law, and push people away? As we discussed our decision to attend my brother’s wedding, and our process with them relationally, we came up with a plan for how she could proceed with this couple. Later that week she met with the couple and went over her contract, rates, song options, and time commitment. After all of the standard contractual information was taken care of, she let them know she had something else she needed to discuss with them. This is, roughly, what she said:
“Before you hire me, I believe it is your right to know who you are hiring. In addition to being a professional musician, I am also a worship pastor at my church. I am a Christian, and I believe in traditional biblical marriage and sexuality. Because of that, I do not agree with gay marriage. If you do decide to hire me, I need you to know that you are hiring someone who could not, and would not be agreeing, or celebrating with you. I could not, in good conscience, allow you to hire me without you knowing that, for my own conscience, and out of consideration for you in deciding who you want to include in your wedding day.
That being said, I also want you to know that as convicted as I am about my beliefs about marriage, I am also equally convicted and believe that I am called to love my neighbor as myself. That call includes showing respect and kindness to those who I do not agree with. I need you to know that if you do choose to hire me for your wedding, I will offer the same professional service I would to any other client. My performance will not reflect my lack of approval or celebration. This is your wedding, and I felt you had a right to know if you were hiring someone that could not celebrate this day with you, and that you had the right to choose to hire someone else if that is important to you. I know that this may complicate your decision on whether to hire me or not. You do not need to answer me right now. Take whatever time you need.”
In the end, they did not hire her. They did, however, thank her for her honesty and felt that her handling of this was very respectful. She did not violate state law by refusing to serve them, and she did not compromise the truth by avoiding telling them of her beliefs. But let’s say they had hired her? She would have, in good conscience, been able to offer her service to them, knowing it was clearly communicated that she did not agree with their wedding, and that she was not celebrating with them. She would have also been representing Christ’s incarnational love, choosing to serve those who do not agree with her, and making herself uncomfortable to show them a picture of our God who is kind to those in sin, and makes himself a servant to those who may very well reject him, all while being a truthful witness who clearly communicated that their choice was not in line with the commandments of the God we serve. Regardless, to that couple, she may have been one of the first examples of a Christian who did not reject them, or condemn them, yet spoke truth to them in a respectful and loving way, but was also willing to empty themselves of their own self concern, and be present as a servant. More to the point: The incarnational Gospel mission of Jesus just might include baking a cake, or singing songs, or sitting in a chair.
But what about the “weaker brother” argument?
If you have gotten this far, and I haven’t lost you yet, I think it is important to discuss one more issue. I have heard it argued that even if you could ensure that the couple marrying knew you did not agree, and that you were not celebrating, what about the weaker Christian who might see you there “eating food sacrificed to idols” and their faith be compromised or wrecked because they misunderstand your actions. (See 1 Corinthians 7) It is an important argument to consider. Our decisions do not just affect ourselves, but the larger body of Christ as well. I read one article in which the author stated, incredulously, that if you could manage to ensure that your motive and presence at such a wedding was not understood as approval, and that you were actually there missionally (which he highly doubted was possible) than you had the responsibility NOT to talk about it and hide your decision from other believers, because they may be confused and led astray.
Unfortunately, I have seen that faith is being shipwrecked and people are being led into heresy because this is NOT BEING talked about. Parents of gay children are facing this issue, and when presented with faithfulness to a traditional understanding of scripture (and the assumption that this means you must abstain from attendance at your child’s wedding) and possibly losing the relationship, or changing your view of scripture and keeping a relationship… the children are winning, and theology is being altered to accommodate. The problem is that many of these “parents” are pastors, professors, or leaders in the church, and being faced with this false dichotomy, the kids win and the bible loses.
The reality is, this issue is not as black and white as we wish it were. We can’t say “attend the wedding” or “bake the cake” without honestly admitting that there is a great deal of responsibility to communicate truth if we are to have the liberty to offer our presence or service. However, we also can’t say “abstain or you are guilty of sin” without honestly contending with the fact that not only is that not unequivocally true, but failing to demonstrate the love of God personally and sacrificially to people in sin is to deny the heartbeat of Christ’s Gospel mission. I want to challenge both camps. To the “just love them” people, how is withholding the truth loving? Are you withholding truth because you don’t want to deal with the discomfort of relational conflict? If so, you are not acting in love, you are acting in selfish self-preservation. Likewise, to the “abstain” folks. How are you sacrificially demonstrating the incarnational Gospel to your gay loved one? If you don’t have a gay loved one, then how about to those in the LGBTQ community? How are you emptying yourself, and being a Christ like servant, becoming present to their lives so that you might have the opportunity to share his love? Truth is indispensable, but follow Christ’s example and get in relationship with those who need to hear it. And you know what, some will reject the truth, and some will receive it, but our responsibility is not the result, rather, to be faithful ambassadors of Christ to those who need His Gospel.
To those in the middle, with the son, daughter, brother, sister, friend or customer... God can lead you in this. He can give you the words to say. He can give you the grace to sit in a chair, to bake a cake, to be present and to serve. But beyond the single day…the event that may feel like the end of the world or the final battle to be lost or won, he can give us the grace and the wisdom to get past that day, and live the Gospel work of being incarnational in ongoing relationship. My wife and I love Matty and Will. They love us too. Our relationship is intact. We may never agree. They may never change their minds and repent. Right now, they see nothing to repent of. But if they ever do, we want them to be assured that we have always loved them and been there present with them, and that is proved through our presence in their lives now. Choose to be present, maybe even “wedding” present. Or maybe share the Gospel, baked at 350 degrees with a butter-cream frosting.