Back in 2011, Focus on the Family conceded that “we’ve probably lost” the gay marriage debate. Two years later “probably” would be an understatement. We have all but lost this debate. I am making the argument in this piece that this happened years ago when we swallowed certain cultural virtues instead of confronting them.
In their book, The Narcissism Epidemic, authors Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell make the argument that narcissism is on a relentless rise in our culture. Starting in the 1960s, “Americans core cultural ideas slowly became more focused on self-admiration and self-expression”. We raise our children to believe that they are special simply because they were born. Somewhere along the way our “specialness” was tied to our imago Homo (image of man) instead of the imago Dei (image of God). The pervasive belief in our culture is that we are special simply because we are human and not because humanity was created in the image of God.
If I am special “just for being me” it is only logical to conclude that the most important virtue is for me to be “true to myself”. It would be supremely unloving and even harmful for someone to try to change me. It would be a suicidal step away from greatness. The most loving thing that I can do for myself is express me—whatever me is.
Twenge and Campbell note that in generations past, religion kept a check on such narcissism. Not anymore. In fact, for many Americans, God exists to make them happy. Not happy in Him, mind you—but happy in our own flesh. Rather than being a deterrent to such self-centeredness the god of many Americans actually gives us a “thumbs-up” in our quest to be positively awesome.
In sum, our culture believes that every person is amazing simply by existing, the most important virtue is to be true to yourself, and God is passionate about the same thing that we are; namely, me.
How the Church Swallowed This
This is a humorous video but it captures our narcissism:
In some instances these cultural “virtues” have not been swallowed whole. But instead efforts have been made to redeem them. Rather than confronting the unbelieving assumption that I am positively awesome, much of our evangelism material starts with affirming that. We then encourage people to become truly awesome by accepting Jesus.
By and large we have not confronted these “virtues” we have just tried to Christianize them. And it is killing us.
Why this is causing us to lose this debate
How does all of this relate to the current debate over gay marriage? Honestly, you could substitute the phrase “gay marriage” with “culture of divorce” and a host of other issues the church is facing. My argument is that accepting our cultural narcissism has provided a breeding ground for normalizing many things the Lord defines as sin.
Think with me for a moment.
When I assume that I am awesome simply because I exist, will I be prone to be governed by anything external? If I am the standard of awesome why would I listen to what a 2,000 year old book has to say? Why would I care about God’s law? It does not define me.
One of the most common arguments in favor of gay marriage is that “it is who I am” therefore it would be supremely unloving to deprive people of simply expressing themselves. It is denying a freedom that is given by our constitution.
This argument can even be Christianized. God wants me to be happy. Happiness comes through me being true to my desires. Therefore, God would not call people to do something that was making them miserable?
What is the church’s response to these claims?
For years we thought that screaming “stop it” loud enough and long enough would do the trick. We thought that if we simply reminded people of what the Bible says and what the Lord thinks about homosexuality then people would be convinced. Yet we never confronted the core problem—that people have rejected the external message of God as definitive. (See this by Dan Phillips)
Then we tried saying, “You can change”. We confronted the idea that “it is who I am” arguments with a message that said, “You can change”. While that is true, it was ineffective because again we never confronted the underlying belief. When we said “you can change” we were met with an angry response of “why would I want to”. No wonder. If being “true to myself” is the highest virtue wouldn’t it be wrong to try to change?
Furthermore, such a change might cause suffering. It’s who I am. Would God really want me to have to suffer through something like this? Does God really want me to stifle desires? Does a loving God really not want me to express love? Wouldn’t it be supremely unloving for God to make me be somebody that I am not.
What does a church that believes God is primarily focused on our happiness say to such a thing? “You know what you might just have a point!” And so it slowly becomes more and more acceptable within the church. Because by and large we’ve swallowed the same virtues that the culture has.
Our Only Hope is the Gospel
Saying that our only hope is the gospel is quite common. And I agree with the statement. But I want to extend it a bit. When many say, “our only hope is the gospel” what they are really saying is, “Jesus can take a homosexual and change his desires and make him no longer gay”. While, I do believe in the power of redemption and change, and I do not want to minimize that, I believe it is aiming too low.
It’s not just homosexuality that needs to be confronted. It’s an entire mindset. The gospel directly confronts these “virtues” and defines them as the vices they really are. What we need in our day is a robust gospel. One that has God at the center instead of man. One that is willing to suffer for the sake of Christ. One that has it’s identity grounded in Christ and His work and not our own innate awesomeness. One that believes our greatest virtue is conformity to Christ and not some “being true to myself” hogwash.
This is what is needed. And the gospel really does have the power to rock mindsets and transform entire cultures. Yes, I believe that we’ve all but lost this debate on gay marriage. But I don’t believe it’s over. Nor do I believe that it is the central issue. It’s just a symptom—as divorces, abortion, etc.—is a symptom of our larger cultural problem of having abandoned the gospel.
I believe if the church focuses on what we really ought to focus on—making disciples—then eventually our culture will change. And maybe my children’s children will one day look at institutions like gay marriage and say, “Wait, a minute this isn’t what is best for us because this is an attempt to find happiness outside of God.” And maybe the gospel will have so penetrated our culture that righteousness becomes the new normal.
Or maybe it won’t. And maybe we and our children’s children will have to suffer; not because of our stance on gay marriage but because we aren’t drinking the Kool-aid that has man at the center of everything. And maybe we’ll be so passionate about Jesus that we’ll be willing to kiss the Cross if it means glorifying him and winning a few people to the unchangeable truth of Christ.