It's a difficult issue to avoid at the moment, largely because culture seems to be moving fast, and in a direction that is away from historic Christianity. There are three big issues here, and it's important to recognise that they are distinct issues - far too many people on all sides confuse them, to their peril.
1. What should our attitude be to people who experience same-sex attraction?
Simple - Love and compassion, same as everyone else. Sure, they are sinners, but so am I. Their same-sex attraction is not the most important thing about them, and we should resist labelling them as such. For years people have suffered opprobrium because of feelings they did not choose to have, and now they have become a political football. Treat them as individuals whom God loves, just like you are.
2. Is same-sex sex consistent with Christianity?
Again, the answer is pretty simple - No. Quite a few people disagree, but they always seem to do so on the basis of trying to treat people lovingly rather than having actually looked at the texts - they seem to twist the Bible's teaching on this to make it seem more compassionate. And I understand where they are coming from, I really do. But I still haven't seen a single decent argument from the Bible that same-sex sex is a good thing or a single respectable Bible scholar who argues that either Jesus or Paul would have approved of it. For those who do try to argue that same-sex sex is consistent with the Bible, here are a few questions which show the futility of their position:
- If Paul had been told about a same-sex couple who wanted to marry and have consensual sex, do you honestly think he would have approved? (see here for Andrew Wilson pushing Rob Bell on that very question, which Bell keeps on avoiding.)
- At the time the New Testament was written, were there people who were gay in the modern sense of the word? (if yes, then Paul wasn't just speaking into the context of pederasty; if no then orientation is only a social construct)
- Can a human life be perfectly fulfilled without sex?
- If you could be convinced that the New Testament condemned all same-sex sex, would you agree with it?
John 8 is a wonderful passage for thinking through our response to individuals. Having stopped all the criticism and condemnation of the woman there, Jesus turns to her and says "Neither do I condemn you; go now and leave your life of sin."
It's also worth saying that there's a big question for the church to wrestle with here. The Bible clearly speaks a lot about the value of same-sex friendships, and for centuries it was accepted as normal for two male friends to share a house without having sex. The question is "if there are two men who experience same sex attraction, and want to live together as friends but without having sex, is that ok?" I'd say yes...
3. To what extent should we expect society to regulate itself by Biblical standards?
This is the key to the same-sex marriage debate. In general, the older generations think this is still a Christian country. Constitutionally, of course, it is, but that is becoming more and more of an anomaly and it wouldn't surprise me if the gay marriage issue leads to disestablishment in time.
It is clearly wrong to expect Christians to disengage their brains either when in church or when relating to the big political questions of the day. Because Christians believe that the Bible is in some sense a record of God's revelation into the world, they should therefore see that it does have something to say. And since Christians believe that God's revealed way of running our lives is better than the way we'd just figure out for ourselves, we also believe that society would be better if it defined marriage as one man and one woman for life.
But I don't think that's the issue any more. In the 1960s, bishops argued that just because homosexual sex was a sin did not mean it should be a crime - it should be in the same category as greed and pride. We accept that same-sex sex should be legal now; we even accept that it makes perfect sense for there to be a form of legal recognition for same-sex partnerships. None of that is an issue any more.
4. So what's the problem?
The issue with the currently proposed law is none of those. If the proposed legislation were to rename "civil partnerships" as "same-sex marriages", I don't think there would be anywhere near as much opposition. The problems with the proposed law are essentially threefold.
- First, it is a big change without any mandate - it wasn't in a manifesto, there hasn't been proper public debate, etc.
- Secondly, it is desperately trying to say that two different things are in fact the same thing, and not quite managing it.
- Third, by saying that same-sex marriage is the same as marriage, it's opening the door for future discrimination against those who disagree on principle. I don't see the quadruple lock as surviving a legal challenge once same-sex marriage is ensconced as a human right, and I'm willing to bet we will see ministers and churches taken to court over this within the next decade.