Christian Concern's Communications Manager Paul Huxley considers recent advice that Christians should attend a same-sex ceremony.
The last couple of weeks have seen many pastors and theologians chime on the question of whether faithful, Bible-believing Christians should attend the same-sex 'marriage' of a family member.
The question was first brought up by Alistair Begg, an influential pastor who has had a long and faithful public radio ministry.
In an interview, he said:
"I mean, you and I know that we field questions all the time that go along the lines of 'My grandson is about to be married to a transgender person, and I don't know what to do about this, and I'm calling to ask you to tell me what to do'—which is a huge responsibility."
He's right: it is a huge responsibility. With his experience and his solid track record, it makes his answer even more surprising.
He asks the grandmother if her grandson is clear that she is a Christian and that she "can't countenance in any affirming way the choices that he has made in life". When she says yes, he gives her the advice: buy a present and attend the ceremony.
Begg's advice is clearly motivated by kindness and a zeal for evangelism. He rightly wants to see the grandmother be clear to her grandson about her Christian beliefs. He wants her to do that while simultaneously offering surprising, lavish generosity to someone at risk of thinking that Christians hate him.
Some, including FIEC National Director John Stevens, have agreed with Begg.
But, like many others who have responded to the comments, I'm convinced this is a deeply unwise counsel.
Same-sex 'marriage' isn't marriage
It's worth making clear straight away that same-sex 'marriage' is not marriage.
The law may call these relationships 'marriages', but Christians believe that marriage was created by God, not society. Marriage can only exist between one man and one woman, so a male-male or female-female relationship cannot be marriage.
Several years ago, the well-known pastor John Piper explained why he wouldn't attend a same-sex ceremony leading with this point. He also explained how this distortion of marriage defiles the God-given imagery of Christ and the Church as husband and bride – a point also made by Carl Trueman in his critique of Begg's advice.
In this respect, it would be significantly easier for a Christian to attend an Islamic or Hindu wedding (without participating in any elements of worship) because the purpose of the event – to marry a man and a woman – is legitimate.
A wedding is participatory and celebratory
Up to this point, I'm sure Alistair Begg and others who have taken his side would agree. They might want to say that it is possible to go to such a ceremony without in any way condoning what is happening.
I think the nature of a same-sex 'wedding' makes this impossible.
Let's consider a typical Church of England Marriage Service and what is involved.
This may seem strange to consider – aren't same-sex marriages not yet possible in the Church of England?
Actually, they are. If one of the couple has a Gender Recognition Certificate, they are legally allowed to 'marry' in a Church as if they are man and woman, husband and wife.
A Church of England marriage service typically starts with these words:
"In the presence of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we have come together to witness the marriage of N and N, to pray for God's blessing on them, to share their joy and to celebrate their love." (Common Worship)
From the start, the service is set up as a celebration. Those in attendance are not merely witnessing but participating.
Then come the declarations. The minister says:
"I am required by law to ask anyone present who knows a reason why these persons may not lawfully marry, to declare it now" (Common Worship)
A Christian who remains silent at this point, knowing that under God's law (if not British law) this marriage is not possible or legal, is unravelling their witness.
Shortly after comes the question:
"Will you, the families and friends of N and N, support and uphold them in their marriage now and in the years to come?"
To which the congregation is expected to give a hearty "we will".
What is the Christian to do at this point? Remain silent? Shake their head? Shout no?
Maybe it would be possible for a Christian to attend in this way – to witness clearly to their family that God disapproves of this relationship. They could dress in dark, solemn colours, maybe hold a sign and heckle the minister throughout.
It is very difficult to imagine this achieving Begg's aim of gracious generosity.
The reality is that attending such an occasion is an endorsement.
How capable is the Christian?
Let's say that the Christian is skilfully able to navigate all those challenges. Maybe the wording in the ceremony makes the event less participatory. Maybe someone smart and skilful could dodge these problems and avoid the appearance of condoning what is happening.
Does that make it good advice to a grandmother?
Sadly, a typical Christian is nowhere close to being equipped for this Lion's den, particularly those asking celebrity pastors for advice.
The ceremony and reception are going to present this union as beautiful and good. Many Christians who know and believe what the Bible says on sexuality will still be emotionally vulnerable to this kind of deception. A strong story, the smiles on peoples' faces, music, dance, wine; many Christians have been tempted by such things to believe that sin isn't such a big deal after all.
On top of those temptations, the Christian is going to be pressed by others in attendance: "wasn't that beautiful?", "they make such an adorable couple, don't they?". How many Christians would deftly handle that situation without either compromising or causing a scene?
What about the 'weaker brother'?
In a Twitter thread, Ash Cunningham made some of these points, then applied the principle of the weaker brother from 1 Corinthians 8 (see also Romans 14). He speculates about a pastor who believes they could attend such a ceremony:
"But what about my brothers and sisters who haven't done the same thinking as me? What about those who feel constantly on the back foot in a culture that completely rejects their sexual ethics and they see me seemingly affirm that which I ought not to affirm?
"Could that not cause them to give up, or to relegate it to a lesser-mattering issue? In vs 13, Paul presents it as an absolute no-brainer – If attending will scatter my brother then I will not attend. Even though I have the authority and right to do so, it would be a sin (vs 12)."
This principle is often misunderstood or not applied properly, but I believe he's right here. Taking this action would very likely be a deep cause of concern and division within a church.
Is this 'a wisdom issue'?
Some have suggested that since the Bible doesn't speak directly to this issue, it is only a wisdom issue, that Christians can agree to disagree on.
While technically true – partly because the Bible would view 'same-sex marriage' as nonsensical – it fails to reflect analogically from the Bible's teaching.
'Wisdom issues' are normally situations where the Bible presents examples of two contradictory examples. For example, Proverbs 26:4-5 tells us both to "answer a fool according to his folly" and not to "answer a fool according to his folly". Wisdom is – in part – to apply the correct principle when things are not straightforward.
However, I have not yet seen an example from scripture quoted by Begg's defenders of the kind of actions recommended – where someone is commended for attending a celebration of what God calls an abomination and bringing a gift to those involved.
Immoral sexual practices are closely linked with idol worship in scripture. Throughout the Old Testament in particular, faithful kings and prophets are applauded for destroying these idols and disrupting these practices – not for expressing disapproval while turning up with a gift.
This is not confined to the Old Testament. Theologian Robert Gagnon and pastor Regan King both alluded to 1 Corinthians 5, in which the apostle Paul warns about a man in the church having sexual relations with his father's wife.
As Gagnon argues, incestuous marriage is a very close parallel to same-sex 'marriage' and it is completely implausible that he would offer Begg's advice.
It is also hard to believe that Begg or his defenders would tell Christians to attend an incestuous marriage with a gift.
There are better ways to show love
The purpose of Begg's advice – to reflect the amazing grace of God towards sinners – is praiseworthy. But for those reasons and others, I think this is a bad mistake, which I deeply hope he will reflect upon.
There are other ways to show the family member love in this situation.
Dave Brennan of Brephos gave one example:
"I think a good way of showing love for someone like this would be to go all out on their birthday, for example, and still show them love in all sorts of ways, but not celebrate the sinful 'marriage'."
This rightly disconnects the gift and grace from the occasion and connects it to the person. Love is clearly being shown to the grandson and not to the immoral partnership.
Christian love "does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth." (1 Cor 13:6 ESV).
If a family member is committing themselves to a partnership that will distance themselves from God, that you believe is damaging them, you need to make it clear you cannot celebrate it, because you love them.
By all means send gifts, but not for the 'wedding'.
All this may not be enough – some will still take this as hateful conduct and cut themselves off from this relationship. Christians who 'fall short' of Begg's advice should not be made to feel like the broken relationship was their fault.
Jesus would comfort them:
"...everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life." (Matthew 19:29 ESV)
This article was first published on the website of Christian Concern and is printed here with permission.