The future of gay marriage within evangelicalism

Recently, Ed Stetzer interviewed Trevin Wax, Jonathan Merritt, and Sarah Pulliam Bailey about the future of evangelicalism (see above). This is an interesting conversation that circles back around to the issue of same-sex marriage several times. At about the 38-minute mark Jonathan Merritt speculates on “one possible future” for gay marriage in evangelical churches.

He suggests that evangelicals may end up treating gay marriage like they do divorce. Theologically, they will say it is a sin. Pragmatically, they won’t hold congregants to account for committing that sin. Pastors will try to find ways to include those who live in open contradiction to scripture. That’s how many evangelical leaders deal with divorce. So also–Merritt suggests–it may be with homosexuality and gay marriage.

Merritt says he’s already spoken to numerous well-known megachurch pastors who want to treat homosexuality and gay marriage in precisely that way. They are not announcing that position publicly, but Merritt says that is what many are telling him in private.


  • David A Booth


    First, the issue of evangelical pragmatism is why many of us who are Reformed don’t like to describe ourselves as evangelicals.

    Second, the comparison with divorce breaks down for three reasons: (1) When is the last time you saw a “Divorce Pride” parade. The vast majority of people who go through divorces will tell you how painful it is. Nobody says: “I hope that my children grow up and get divorced some day.” (2) While a divorce always involves sin there is such a thing as the offending and the offended party. The Church will always need to deal with those who are the offended party in a divorce with not only compassion but support. (3) Being divorced is different from engaging in homosexual acts even for the offending party. The act of having become divorced is by definition something that happened in the past. There may be things that are necessary to do in the present because of what a person has done in the past (e.g. seeking reconciliation) but it may also be that there is nothing left to do. Engaging in homosexual acts or maintaining a same-sex relationship involves sinning in the present that the church must call people to turn away from. A much better analogy than divorce would be men and women living together apart from marriage. Of course, this is also increasingly something that churches either ignore or tolerate. In fact, a fair number of mega-churches don’t really have membership and rarely if ever practice church discipline over anything. For those of us in the Reformed tradition it has become increasingly difficult to even recognize such as churches.

    Your brother,


    • buddyglass

      The church I attend doesn’t have official membership. We do have requirements for leadership roles, though, and something like cohabiting (presumably including sexual intimacy) outside marriage would definitely disqualify someone. I suspect that if someone in that position really tried to get involved in the life of the church by, say, joining a small group (as opposed to just attending worship and never speaking to anyone), that their sin would become an issue.

  • buddyglass

    I think I agree with David in disagreeing with Merritt. Divorce is (sometimes) sinful, but it’s a one-time sin and repentance doesn’t always involve remarriage. So it’s possible for folks to exist in the church who are divorced, whose divorces were improper and sinful, but who have repented. This is not true of folks in same-sex marriages, who, if one considers sexual intimacy between same-sex individuals to be sinful, are in a state of constant unrepentant sin.

    More importantly, their sin is publicly visible. Sins can be ignored so long as they remain hidden. When they’re out in the open, though, the church must either treat them as “not sin” or deal with them somehow. Two same-sex individuals showing up at a megachurch and joining a small group, and maybe trying to get involved in lay leadership, is going to be a big problem unless that church has compromised on the teaching that sexual intimacy between same-sex individuals is sinful.

    • Paul Reed

      Sorry, but divorce is not a “one-time sin”, because it’s almost always followed up by “re-marriage” or some other sexual relationship.
      And the church will even perform remarriages. See what Jesus has to say on divorce and remarriage in Matthew 5:32. He calls it adultery.

        • Chris Ryan

          DeYoung’s view is in contradiction to Jesus’ view, no? Sure you can repent of an improper divorce, but once you re-marry you are–in Jesus’ view–committing adultery. That is an ongoing sin same as homosexual sex.

          • buddyglass

            DeYoung seems to argue that, while you shouldn’t remarry after an improper divorce, the divorce is still a real divorce and the subsequent remarriage is still a real marriage. So, rather than compound that sin by an additional divorce you should “remain as you are” (in the 1 Corinthians 7 sense) and repent of your sin but not divorce a second time.

            I agree, though: I’d like to see him deal directly with the passages that talk about “any man who divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery”.

          • John Klink, Jr.

            How does Jesus describe the woman at the well’s (John 4) first 5 relationships? Is it instructive that He did not say, you’ve had one husband and 5 adulterous relationships?

          • John Galbraith

            So here’s one for you. My wife’s ex-husband committed adultery in their marriage bed. He refused to repent and he moved on leaving her with the kids. Also it appears he may have apostatized completely and there was no chance of reconciliation. She moved on and they got divorced.

            Years later we are married and have had two children (In fact Deacon was just born this morning at 1:15am). Would you seriously believe that my marriage at this point is sinful or illegitimate? Also, Paul mentions the believing woman who has a unbelieving husband and he states that if he abandons her she may re-marry ‘only in the Lord’. So there is re-marriage for the widow/widower and the abandoned woman, but to the woman who’s husband commits adultery, as a believer, and makes reconciliation impossible, is bound to stay celibate? I’m just throwing it out there because I doubt it’s so cut and dry as Jesus said ‘X’ so tough cookie for me.

  • Ryan Davidson


    First, I’m not sure what you mean by Reformed. We who are Presbyterians would generally limit the use of that term to those who baptize infants. The notion of a “Reformed Baptist” makes about as much sense to me as “Cessationist Pentecostal”.

    Second, I suspect that Denny was intending to refer to divorce and remarriage, although I agree that the comparison to premarital sex is also apposite.

    In my experience as a single early-40s evangelical Presbyterian (PCA), premarital sex is widely ignored, and rarely disciplined. Further, I can name dozens upon dozens of couples who got married primarily to ease the guilt they felt over their premarital sex (or at least to ease the guilt they feel for constantly lusting for sex). It should be no surprise that a huge number of these couples would up in divorce court within 2-3 years of their wedding day. They’ll say that they “fell out of love.” But that’s not really the story: Rather, they were never in love; the marriage was never more than a private agreement for mutual sex. I’ve remained single, primarily because I travel internationally more than 50% of the time and work 70-80 hours a week. There are many times when I wouldn’t mind having a contract with someone wherein that person agrees to sleep with me whenever I happen to be in town. Put that way, it sounds pretty crass. But the marriages of a lot of 20-something Christians aren’t substantively much different. Dressing up in nice clothes and dropping $100k on a reception doesn’t alter the substantive reality. But what’s the church doing? Ahem…

    And, yes, we treat divorce and remarriage pretty similarly. Sure, we may not allow such a person to be a ruling elder (in a Presbyterian church), but that’s about it. Mind you, if the previous spouse is still living, this person is living in persistent sin and committing ongoing adultery.

    I suspect that we will put same-sex marriage into the same category. As someone who previously identified as gay (and don’t anymore), I suspect that the success of same-sex marriage will actually be its undoing. In fact, I suspect that a lot of people who identify as gay are simply reacting against our culture’s rather narrow social construction of masculinity. I was a skinny, youngish-looking, artsy kid who liked books and fashion and enjoyed sports like running, swimming, and yoga. I stood out in the conservative football-loving hyper-masculine culture in which I was raised. Everyone assumed that I was gay, and I just acquiesced in that judgment. Fortunately, I never acted out on it. A few years ago, I took a job that required me to spend significant time working in Europe, where social constructions of masculinity are not nearly as narrow as they are here. I came to see that, by continental European standards, I was perfectly straight. No longer feeling myself subject to a negative cultural judgment, I stopped identifying as gay and started identifying as straight. I came to see that there was nothing wrong with me; the problem lay with the “conservative” culture in which I was raised–a culture so afraid of feminism that it constructed a ridiculously narrow view of masculinity. Anyway, as the stigma against homosexuality subsides, I suspect that our culture will adopt a more forgiving view of masculinity. That, in turn, will probably lead to fewer teenagers like me feeling the culture’s judgment against their masculinity. So, don’t be surprised if same-sex marriage isn’t old news in about 10 years.

  • Paul Reed

    There is, however, 2 major differences between gays and things like adultery, premarital sex, divorce.
    First, the later are all things a person can outgrow. You can be a young unmarried couple in the church and have premarital sex all the time, but later become “compliant” by marrying. Similarly, a divorce person is allowed to remarry, and thus takes on the guise of a normal, married, Christian couple. And someone who commits adultery can always stop. But there’s really no path to compliance for gays. They’re always going to want to be with the same sex — they’re never going to just get older and eventually comply with our standards. Homosexuals will eventually demand for the church to recognize their relationships.

    Second, things like premarital sex can be “ignored”. A pastor is free to pretend the unmarried 30-year old men in his congregation with girlfriends are all virgins. But you can’t ignore a guy who shows up to church with his boyfriend, let alone when he wants to get married. So bottom line is this: Pastors are not going to have the option of standing on the sidelines like they do with issues like evolution, divorce, and premarital sex. Eventually, they’re going to have to choose a side.

    • Paul Reed

      First, the later are all things a person can outgrow. You can be a young unmarried couple in the church and have premarital sex all the time, but later become “compliant” by marrying. Gays really can’t do this.

    • Paul Reed

      Second, things like premarital sex can be “ignored”. A pastor is free to pretend the unmarried 30-year old men in his congregation with girlfriends are all virgins. But you can’t ignore a guy who shows up to church with his boyfriend, let alone when he wants to get married.

    • Ryan Davidson

      OK. That’s sort of along the lines of what I was thinking, although I was imagining less theonomic variants of Presbyterianism. I stopped paying attention to the OPC when it elected not to discipline Ken Gentry, even though he pled guilty to a sex offense and spent some amount of time on the California sex offender registry.

  • David A Booth


    There is something that those tempted to same sex relationships can do. They can, by God’s grace, work to resist the temptation and to repent if they fail. Thankfully, there really are alternatives to giving in to temptation. This is a truth that goes far beyond the current discussion on same sex relationships.

    I would encourage you to read this interview with Vaughn Roberts. Roberts is an evangelical pastor in Oxford, England who has publicly acknowledged his struggles with same-sex attraction.

    In Christ,


  • Don Johnson

    On divorce and remarriage, I think Kevin DeYoung and many of the above are all reading the Bible incorrectly, they are reading it back to front and taking verses out of context. Both Jesus and Paul were practicing Jews all of their lives, so one needs to read them as assuming everything already found in the Tanach (OT) and not needing to restate it, this provides a Scripture context. Also, they were both 1st century Jews, so they accepted things that 1st century Jews accepted, this provides a cultural context.

    So both Jesus and Paul need to be understood without ripping what they said from its Scripture and 1st century cultural context.

    Any Bereans can study David Instone-Brewer’s books on this, he is a 2nd temple scholar.

      • Don Johnson

        On DIB’s first response, I agree that even when a first divorce was invalid, a second marriage should not be broken up, as in two wrongs do not make a right, as DIB says. His first wife is free to wait for the possibility of remarrying him or not, that is her choice to make.

        On DIB’s second response, the way I word it is Jewish thinking allows for the possibility of using a remez/hint to refer to the whole teaching by quoting just a short portion. The negative way of saying this is that Jewish thought allows truncated teaching to refer to the whole teaching, so reading it using Greek thought that does not recognize this possibility can lead one astray.

        One needs to try to do their best to assimilate the whole of the original teaching of Jesus on divorce from the portions we have in the gospels, esp. as the portions we have SEEM to look like they contradict each other. The way I do that is to start with the largest block of text we have in Matt 19 and then add portions from other places to it to form a comprehensive and consistent teaching on the subject.

        • buddyglass

          “On DIB’s first response, I agree that even when a first divorce was invalid, a second marriage should not be broken up, as in two wrongs do not make a right”

          I think the argument of those who disagree with DIB and DeYoung is that its impossible to dissolve (in God’s eyes) a marriage for improper reasons. That is to say if you legally divorce your wife because she burned the toast then you haven’t really changed anything; in God’s eyes you’re still married. Ergo any subsequent “legal” marriage isn’t a real marriage at all but is actually adultery, since the legally divorced person is still married (in God’s eyes) to his/her original spouse.

          I’m not necessarily advancing that argument; just layout what DIB and DeYoung’s critics likely believe.

          • Don Johnson

            We know it is not impossible to end a marriage for an invalid reason, this is what Paul discusses in 1 Cor 7 where an unbeliever just leaves. It is true that a believer should not do this, but a believer can choose to sin and act like an unbeliever..

            Marriage is a covenant and a covenant can be terminated, a believer should keep covenant vows and only terminate a covenant for cause. If both spouses do this, there would be no divorces, but we know the reality is that we live in a broken world.

              • Don Johnson

                Mat 5:31 “And it was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’
                Mat 5:32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for a matter of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

                Here is how I do it. First I go thru Mat 19 and show the seven corrections by Jesus to what was taught in the so-called Oral Torah of the Pharisees that was written down in the Mishnah about 200 AD. So the question then is how to fit Mat 5 into the larger Mat 19 teaching?

                One key insight is that “it was said” is a ref. to the Oral Torah, since it was oral it was what was said versus the Written Torah or Tanakh was what was written. This is true for the whole section of Matt 5, but the 2 verses in question point us to the Pharisees’ interpretation of Deu 24:1-4. This is where Shammai said the key phrase ervah dabar in Deu 24:1 just meant sexual immorality while Hillel said it meant 2 things: sexual immorality and “matter” therefore “any matter” therefore a husband could use any reason to divorce.

                Another key insight is that in the sermon on the mount, Jesus uses hyperbole as a way to emphasize things, when he does this, it is not meant to be taken literally.

                So I see Jesus referring to the Hillel “Any Matter” divorce in Mat 5:31, which he considers an invalid way to divorce. So Mat 5:32 can be fit right into the Mat 19 teaching right after Mat 19:9. In that larger context, it is easier to see that Jesus is discussing spouses that have been invalidly divorced via Hillel’s “Any Matter” divorce.

  • Seth Odom

    I cannot believe we are even having these kinds of conversations. This only breeds more speculations by those who purport to love the truth yet find provision for unbiblical lifestyles. The Church is still undergoing a “knee-jerk” reaction to fundamentalism. Many were disillusioned by fundamentalism. I know that for a long time I have almost rejected it outright. But nowadays it is more appealing than ever. We are just on the brink of another kind of modernist crisis. This time it is teased out in the form of “gay marriage”, “reasonableness of evolution”, “agreeing to disagree on ordination of women”. All of the said are direct affronts to the created order. Moreover, the desire to be more “relevant” has proved to be more detrimental to the Church than helpful. The faithful in Chris will one day look back on the “relevant” movement as something that spawned a downward spiral that will take centuries from which the Church will recover. I love our Lord and his Body. Let’s not profane it.

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