by Shane Scott
In my previous article I looked at the various ways the culture of the first century responded to the gospel. The gospel was well-received by society at first (Acts 2:47). While opposition quickly arose, it was initially limited to a small cadre of activists, the Sadducees (Acts 4:1-2). Even when the resistance to the gospel expanded to include a broad array of opponents – Pharisees from around the empire (Acts 6:9) – for the most part, early Christians could count on the civil authorities to provide basic protection (as in Acts 18:15-16). This continued to be the case even when society at large began to turn against the gospel (such as in Ephesus in Acts 19:23-41). But by the end of the NT period, the civil authorities abandoned their role as the restrainer of evil, and became its enabler (fearfully described in Revelation 13:1-10).
In this article, I want to try to set where we are in American society in this biblical context, using a particular issue – the same sex marriage controversy – as a prism through which to understand the times in which we live. Then in a future article I want to look to the New Testament for direction as to how we should respond.
I remember the huge firestorm of controversy that erupted during my childhood when a prime time TV show, Soap, featured an openly gay character. For that (and many other reasons), various religious groups (even the ultra-liberal United Church of Christ) boycotted the show, and the National PTA designated it as one of the worst shows on TV.
By the mid 1990s, many popular TV shows had recurrent gay characters (Roseanne, Ellen, Will and Grace). But while homosexual characters were gaining mainstream acceptance, same sex marriage was not. On rare occasions, movies and TV shows would feature gay weddings, but this did not reflect societal opinion as a whole. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, defining marriage for federal purposes as the union of a man and woman. This law passed by a vote of 342-67 in the House and 85-14 in the Senate.
Since then, the tide of public opinion has completely turned. In 2001, 57% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, and only 35% supported it. This year, 55% support it, and only 37% oppose it. And a recent Gallup poll found that 20% of Americans believe that clergy should be compelled to perform same-sex weddings even when they are conscientiously opposed to them! Reflective of this enormous reversal in public opinion is the aptly named TV show Modern Family, which features a gay married couple.
And as our culture’s view of same-sex marriage has changed, so too has its view of those who oppose it. Those who hold to biblical teaching on this issue are now compared to racists who opposed interracial marriage in the 60s, or stigmatized as hate-filled extremists.
Why such vitriol? The gospel encountered widespread opposition in first-century society as its demands for submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ challenged the beliefs and practices of ancient pagans. The same-sex marriage issue presents the convergence of three cherished beliefs by our modern pagan culture that are irreconcilable with Christianity.
The first is materialism, the belief that all that exists is the material world. Since that is the case, there is no real sense of form or purpose in the natural order, and so the concept that men and women are natural sexual complements is rejected out of hand. “Parts is parts,” we can do with them as we please. And this leads to the second deeply held belief of our pagan society, individualism. Everyone should be able to marry whomever they wish (or have consensual relations with whatever they wish) because all that matters is individual liberty. And this is directly connected to a third treasured value of modern paganism, emotionalism. Since there is no order or purpose to nature, we are free to do whatever we feel like.
Materialism, individualism, and emotionalism are diametrically opposed to the gospel. There is no way these impulses can live in harmony with the radical demands of Jesus, who said: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24). Same-sex marriage is hardly the only challenge to the authority of Jesus stemming from materialism, individualism, and emotionalism. Greed and divorce do as well. But same-sex marriage is one of the key flashpoints in the clash between paganism and Christianity today, and as we share the gospel, we cannot be surprised by the animus of those who are enraged at the notion that “there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:7).
So we are in a situation roughly parallel to the latter part of Acts, when the conflict intensified between the gospel and paganism. Just as the early Christians looked to the civil authorities to protect their freedom to spread the gospel, we should do the same. For instance, in Acts 16 Paul used his rights as a citizen to insist that the magistrates in Philippi clear him of wrongdoing so that the church he left behind could have some space to grow. I believe we should use our rights as citizens to safeguard the free course of the gospel.
And yet, I can’t help feel a little nervous about where we are headed. LGBTQ advocates have wasted little time pressing home the advantages the shifts in popular sentiment have given them. One activist has threatened, “If your organization does not support the right of gay men and women to marry, then the government should be very clear that you’re in the wrong…it makes perfect sense for our elected representatives to register their disapproval by abolishing the tax exemption for organizations who cling to narrow-minded and anachronistic views.”
UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh has warned: “If I were a conservative Christian (which I most certainly am not), I would be very reasonably fearful, not just as to tax exemptions but as to a wide range of other programs — fearful that within a generation or so, my religious beliefs would be treated the same way as racist religious beliefs are.”
So if you feel like you don’t understand your culture any more, that you are besieged by activists with an aggressive agenda, that you are scorned for holding the gospel, that the horizon looks very ominous, you are right! The enormous influence of the entertainment industry, the bullying threats of big business, and the increasing hostility of the federal government have converged to create a vortex that is drawing more and more Americans, even professed Christians, into its swirling waters.
But all is not lost! In the next article we will look at a parallel situation in the NT, and draw out some lessons for how we should respond to these troubling times.