Christianity,  Culture

Why Doug Wilson lost the debate with Andrew Sullivan on gay marriage

Peter Leithart witnessed the very recent debate between Doug Wilson and Andrew Sullivan on the issue of gay marriage. I encourage you to read his take-aways from the debate. Leithart doesn’t say in so many words that Wilson lost the debate, but he does say that he came away deeply impressed with the difficulties that Christians have defending a biblical view of marriage. Leithart is convinced that Wilson’s arguments (and ours!) are not going to gain traction with secular people. Here’s why:

Perhaps Christians are called to do no more than speak the truth without worrying about persuasiveness. Perhaps we have entered a phase in which God has closed ears, so that whatever we say sounds like so much gibberish. We can depend on the Spirit to give ears as He pleases.

Whatever the political needs of the moment, the longer-term response to gay marriage requires a renaissance of Christian imagination. Because the only arguments we have are theological ones, and only people whose imaginations are formed by Scripture will find them cogent.

I have become increasingly convinced that Leithart is correct. The very best non-religious arguments in favor of traditional marriage are those coming from the natural law folks, and they are not convincing the unconvinced. That leaves us with the biblical case for traditional marriage, which has been roundly rejected by our culture as well. There’s nothing new about unbelievers suppressing the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18), so we shouldn’t be surprised when arguments from both general and specific revelation are rejected by the world.

The roots of our rebellion against God’s order run really deep in the West, and it will take a miracle to re-open a decadent people’s eyes to God’s rule over human sexuality (John 3:3). At this point, there’s no elected official, law, or public policy that will change that basic reality. We are jacking-up concrete when we make public arguments in favor of marriage. The only “renaissance of the imagination” that will give us a greater hearing comes on the other side of regeneration.

It’s not just Doug Wilson who’s losing this debate. We all are. This intransigence has been a long time coming, and we are reaping what we have sown. I am praying and hoping for a break in the clouds—an unanticipated Josiah moment. It could happen. If it does, it will be nothing short of a third Great Awakening.


  • bravelass


    You don’t lose a debate if your opponent is not open to reason. That’s a show trial, not a debate.

    Evangelicals/Protestants will never “win” anything with regard to marriage until they clean house and rid themselves of the contraceptive mentality and the divorce-and-remarriage merry-go-round. A good place to start would be to read, study, and inwardly digest the single most prophetic document of the 20th century, Humanae Vitae.

  • Ken Nichols

    I’ve been thinking about this lately. It seems the liberal/progressive arguments cannot be refuted because there seems to be no fear of, or sense of accountability to, a moral God.
    In a very real sense, they operate as if “this life” is all there is. I don’t know how you reason with that. No spiritual or divine law makes sense to that, save the intervention of Holy Spirit.

    • James Stanton

      What’s ironic, if I’m even using the word properly, is that the aforementioned Andrew Sullivan tries to justify gay marriage as in the conservative tradition.

    • Robert Shaffer

      Ken: This is the fruit of teaching evolution. If we are a mistake, or hapenstance at best, only an animal, and there is no god… there is no law and no accountability.

      You are correct; this argument cannot be won in a debate. It is a spiritual battle only when we are faithful witnesses of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit they come to saving faith. The rest is futile.

    • Paul Reed

      Ken Nichols, exactly right. When we’re arguing with our opponents on this, we basically need to accept that they are atheists or practical atheists. Throw out any concept of creation, accountability, a judgement day, the Devil, angels, demons, heaven, hell, and basically put them on the same level that you would put fairies and Middle Earth.

  • Elizabeth Anscombe

    Could you perhaps clarify what you mean by “reaping what we have sown”? Usually that phrase is used to convey negative meaning—you sowed something bad, don’t be surprised by the harvest. But in what sense have “we” sown something we shouldn’t have in this debate?

    • Andy Moffat

      I think that at the very least we are reaping the harvest that comes from “much talk and little action”. Certainly we have talked much recently about the great moral ills of our age, and we have done some acting against them. But I believe that for a very long time the culture of Christianity in the west has talked and talked and talked about their faith, but done poorly in terms of actually living it out in a loving and gracious “every day, down to earth way” in the trenches of our neighborhoods.

      We must absolutely know what we believe and be ready to speak of it, but our faith must also be born out in our every day actions. Not just the actions of standing against something that we feel goes against our Biblical moral ethic, but also, and I believe more importantly, in the way we carry the love of God to those around us in very tangible ways.

      We must earn the right to be heard – something I don’t believe we have done for a very long time. We have assumed we have our neighbors’ ears when really we don’t because our neighbors don’t have our hands.

      • Elizabeth Anscombe

        That’s an extremely, vague, generalized way of putting things, especially when we know for a fact that some of the most conservative folks out there are also the most generous and charitable when it comes to helping the needy, caring for the fatherless, etc. Also, consider that “being against something” is also being for something—we are FOR live babies, brave men, gentle women, and innocent children. We are FOR souls being saved and not led down the path of destruction. Jesus’ millstone verse is very applicable nowadays.

        • Robert Shaffer

          There is some truth in what both of you, Elizabeth and Andy, say… but at the end of the day is our concern for our sinful culture really about the glory of God, lost men and women, or is it that we do not want to lose our “God blessed” way of life. I woulds suggest to you that in great part our motives are selfish.

          • Elizabeth Anscombe

            I can’t speak for everyone else, but all I know is that I love my country, and I love people made in the image of God who are being corrupted and slaughtered in this culture of death.

  • Adam Groza


    I would suggest that there isn’t a debate going on at all, but rather a PR war. We are losing the PR war for very complex reasons. Suffice it to say, however, that a debate requires the cogent exchange and analysis of ideas. From where I sit, I don’t see that happening at all. At least, not in a public way that would influence public opinion.


  • Alba Rice

    Perhaps we should come at it from a different side…

    “oh, you are a homosexual, well I’m an idolater (or covetous, or a thief…etc…see I Cor. 6:9-11). Now that we have established that we are both sinners, let’s talk about the Gospel…”

    Maybe, just maybe, we are trying to indoctrinate a hard heart that hasn’t been softened by either the Spirit or love…

    just a thought….

      • James Bradshaw

        Andrew Sullivan is a Catholic believer, and he seems to love his partner. “Hard-hearted” doesn’t seem an appropriate description. Do you tell remarried believers that they are not “true Christians” because the Bible condemns divorce and remarriage in almost ALL circumstances? I’m doubting it.

        • Ryan Loyd

          As far as I know, the Bible wouldn’t claim that a divorced and remarried person was not “really married” but rather that a divorced and remarried person started the marriage in sin. The correct thing to do is repent to God and those injured and then attempt to live the current marriage according to God’s law and by His grace. Andrew Sullivan’s sexual relationship with another man is not a marriage at all and calling it such destroys the very definition of marriage. Marriage is what God says it is, not what we wish it was. It is a real, objective thing that God created when He created the first man and woman.

    • Nathan Cesal

      I don’t think you can oversimplify the situation any more than you have…

      (@ Alba Rice, in case this comment doesn’t show up as a reply)

    • Lynn Burgess

      Alba, DEAD ON! Conversely, the self-righteous “Baptist,” of whom I was long one, only turns people away from the gospel.

  • revbart

    Take the long term view and be optimistic. Yes, clearly, our culture is going to conduct an experiment involving same-sex marriage. Now, if you think that is going to lead to a healthy culture, then you’ve got a lot to worry about in the long term. But if you think that this is a colossal mistake that, along with a lot of other mistakes, is going to make this a miserable culture in which to live, then our culture is simply creating, in 30 or 40 years, a large group of dissatisfied people looking for something.

    Maybe we’ll still be here then, pointing them in the right direction.

    If we think that abominations provide a foundation for a rosy long-term future that will keep people satisfied, then we have reason to wonder whether we really believe what we’re preaching. 😉

  • Nathan Cesal

    You are losing the debate because your arguments don’t make sense for a secular society that already allows people the freedom to follow any god they choose.

  • Paul Reed

    @bravelass +1

    If we go back just barely a century, we find that virtually every mainstream church opposed contraception. Now almost none of them do. Shouldn’t this be a warning sign? Are we really that much smarter than Christians of old? I except that in 15 years homosexuality will become like contraception, where it’s tolerated and even encouraged by all but a few congregations.

    • James Bradshaw

      ” Are we really that much smarter than Christians of old?”

      Considering that Christians of old found no issue with burning other Christians alive (as John Calvin did), destroying the synagogues of Jews (as Luther suggested) or taking human slaves for one’s profit (as most of America’s Christian South did along with the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention), yes …. I’d say we’re smarter.

      That is … unless you’d like to argue that pogroms, slavery and anti-Semitism are God’s will …

  • Chuck Rich

    It is fruitless for us to throw darts at controversial sin issues before Christ has transformed a person’s heart. A person that does not have Christ in them has no motive to change their heart and mind. Debating issues like this with those who have no relationship with Christ only addresses the mind, not the heart. So, if we are to influence a society for Christ, that society must first know him, accept him and be transformed into a new creation. Repentance of sin comes at the point where the heart relents to the authority of God. So, debating issues like this from a cultural point of view is essentially demanding that a society to turn FROM sin before they have turned TO Christ. We need to put the horse back in front of the cart, fellow believers.

  • Diane Woerner

    Peter Leithart wrote: “In the end, these dilemmas may not matter. Perhaps Christians are called to do no more than speak the truth without worrying about persuasiveness. Perhaps we have entered a phase in which God has closed ears, so that whatever we say sounds like so much gibberish. We can depend on the Spirit to give ears as He pleases.”

    I think this may be the right perspective to hold, except maybe it’s a “phase” that has always existed. Christianity is by its own admission a marginal phenomenon. “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”

    There are seasons, of course, when larger societies have embraced elements of Christian wisdom, producing eras of relative health. But if these are (as I believe) the “peri-endtimes,” then we should expect “He who restrains” to be drawing back (II Thessalonians 2:7), and humanity as a whole to be desiring God less and less.

    We should draw encouragement from the realization that while we may be in the margins, we’re not off the page entirely. There are many lost sheep wandering around for whom only the truth will satisfy their growing thirst, and it is to these we must speak clearly and boldly.

    And, as Kathryn noted earlier, a key part of what we must speak–and live–is a high comprehension of the sacredness of manhood and womanhood. The rising interchangeability of our sexual natures, where men are morphed into women and women into men, is eroding our own strength and purity. We must never allow the torrent of cultural rebellion to distort our understanding of the ultimate purpose of our sexuality, which is to be the earthly representation of our relationship with God.

  • buddyglass

    Some of Leithert’s comments seems to suggest he views the debate (both the one between Wilson and Sullivan and the larger cultural one) as being primarily about whether same-sex marriage is wrong. Being as Sullivan is gay, married and purports to be a Christian, I’m not surprised he chose to approach the issue this way, but I’m a little disappointed Wilson did as well. Maybe he was just responding to Sullivan.

    In any case, in my opinion they’re tackling the wrong question. Not because that quesiton doesn’t need to be answered, because it does, but because the answer is already clear: same-sex marriage is wrong.

    The more difficult (and interesting) question is: given the above, should believers attempt to prevent legal recognition (called “marriage”) of such relationships or not?

    This might further generalized to: should believers attempt to use the state to enforce Christian moral norms outside of those situations where protecting the weak or oppressed compels them to do so.

    • Ryan Loyd

      But legal recognition of a sexual relationship (or any relationship) between two men is not “marriage”. Marriage is defined by God, not by us. Now the government can decide to act unjustly and treat other people as though they are married when they are not, but it still doesn’t make them married, just makes the government unjust. If the word “marriage” truly does start being used for some relationship other than marriage (and eventually over time it will be for ANY relationship that wants to get certain tax and legal benefits), then it will as a word have become virtually meaningless. It will just be shorthand for a desire to gain certain legal benefits and treatment rather than actually communicate something meaningful.

  • buddyglass

    But legal recognition of a sexual relationship (or any relationship) between two men is not “marriage”.

    Agreed, in the cosmic sense. So the question becomes: should believers endeavor to keep the state’s definition of marriage in line with God’s.

    Or, possibly, “Why must the state define ‘marriage’ at all?”

    • Ryan Loyd

      The short answer is: because marriage is a real thing with real world consequences. For example legal treatment of children and decisions on guardianship, rights of a wife to be supported by her husband (even if he were to abandon/divorce her). These are all real world, legal things that are dependent on how God creates the universe and what he says is right/righteous. I am not saying that society currently treats marriage justly and rightly, but we should fix that, not just throw it away which is what “gay marriage” in effect does.

      • James Bradshaw

        Ryan: What do you fear will be the consequences of gay marriage to heterosexuals?

        Look, since the advent of contraception (used commonly by both Protestants and Catholic couples today, it is said), no one thinks that the primary purpose of marriage is to have children (although it is often desired as part of the package). Most people I’m aware of don’t see their spouse as merely a means to that end but rather an end in itself. I’m not denying that children are often the natural result of heterosexual unions, but you also cannot deny the validity of the relationships of childless couples (either by condition or choice).

        The benefits of marriage on the health, happiness and stability of the people involved are well-known. This, in turn, enables them to better contribute to society.

        Gay men and women (I’m not talking of the very rare true “bi-sexually” oriented person) are, by and large, not going to marry heterosexuals. Would you marry a lesbian who was only marrying you as a means of “fire insurance”? As such, to insist gays live a life of celibacy from cradle to the grave is neither practical nor just.

        Grant them the legal recognition they ask for. It’s good for them and, if a supposedly “promiscuous” group is willing to commit and undergo some risk for another person, that can only help the cause of marriage as a whole.

          • James Bradshaw

            Elizabeth, do you know any gay couples? I do. Some have been partnered for over 10 years. I’ve been with the same person for about two now.

            Here’s the tangible “good” I’ve seen from this relationship in my own life:
            a) I’ve been forced to be more empathetic
            b) I’ve been forced to listen more
            c) I’ve had to become less attached to *things*
            d) I’ve had to put my own assets at risk for the good of another
            e) I’ve had someone to listen to me gripe about work colleagues after a long day
            f) I’ve had a supporter come to be by my side during important life events

            The list goes on and on. This isn’t the sort of thing one enjoys with a mere “buddy” or friend. Sometimes you don’t even find it with relatives.

            If you really expect me (and others) to find all of this “stuff” useless and evil, you’d better come up with a coherent moral framework with which to do so.

            • Elizabeth Anscombe

              Have you considered getting a dog? Unless you have a tendency towards bestiality, a dog will give you all of those same benefits without your living a perverse lifestyle or struggling in a heterosexual marriage.

              I’m only half-kidding. If you consider yourself to be a Christian, you are suffering from some very severe delusions about the natural order and the plan God has designed for you. All of us have desires we must suppress daily. God has called some people to be celibate. Unless you face that, you are not helping yourself, you are living in an illusion of contentment. You have replaced God with the idol of your sin. Until God becomes the center of your moral universe, the road you are taking will, in the end, lead only to pain and misery. You are trying to satisfy with salt a craving that can only be satisfied by water. God wants you to live fully and well, but that can only happen in Him.

            • Ryan Loyd

              James, the goods that you list are all benefits of living in true Christian community (not just a religious club as many churches are). God teaches us to think of others instead of ourselves, to forgive offense, to be generous with our resources, and to be gracious with each other in our weaknesses. Including sexual activity that goes against God’s design and command is not necessary for such growth, but rather drives people away from the source of life, Jesus.

              You asked what I fear concerning gay marriage. Well, in this world of uncertainty I am tempted to fear many things concerning my family, my church, and my community. However, the Bible teaches that I shouldn’t fear such things, but rather should fear God. It is the God who created the world, who is righteous and just, and who will punish the evil doer that I fear. However, as the Bible makes clear, perfect love drives out fear, and the love that God showed in His Son Jesus turned that fear to love when He changed my heart and gave me new life. So I have nothing to “fear”. However, there are real world consequences to pretending the world is not the way it really is. What exactly those consequences will be in America only God knows, but I will hazard a few guesses. For the Church one would be persecution of God’s people who refuse to bow to the God of sexual tolerance. We have seen the tip of the iceberg with this already. Another will be a weakening of natural parents rights to protect and teach their children. Also, the removal of any faithful Christians both from organizing adoption services of any kind and of being adoptive parents unless they bow to the God of sexual tolerance. These are just a few guesses for the church.

              Of course marriage will next be extended to polygamous couples. Though people can’t talk about it publicly I don’t think anyone really denies it privately. The expansion will continue into endless confusion, until the government is forced to remove most laws concerning marriage in order to make things equitable for all. That is just a guess of mine.

              • James Bradshaw

                Ryan, though I support gay marriage, I have also made it clear on both Christian and pro-gay sites that we must reject any censorship of Christian speech as well as any unjust treatment of people who hold views contrary to our own. I do not believe that people should have their careers and livelihoods put in jeopardy for holding deeply held religious beliefs (so long as those beliefs do not reasonably imply that the person is an imminent threat to others which could be the case for some types of radical fundamentalists of a particular religious variety I won’t name).

                I reject any attempts to bully small business owners via lawsuits into providing services that they feel would compromise their values. If a small inn or photographer kindly refused to participate in a commitment ceremony with my partner, I would simply take my business elsewhere.

                Does everyone see things this way? Perhaps not. Rest assured that many of us do, however. The most obnoxious voices are unfortunately the ones that are heard the most.

            • J O E B L A C K M O N


              Since you’re not a Chrsistian, it is impossible for you to understand God’s moral framworck. I Corinthians 2:14 and all that. Aso, make no mistake about it. It’s not the “mean-spirited, narrowminded, bigoted Christians” who oppose homosexuals–it’s God, just like He opposes all unrepentant sinners who reject the gospel becuse they love their own sins.

              Sure hope all these good things you’ve found are a great comfort to you when you’re suffering eternal torment in hell because “that gay sex was just too good to pass up.”

  • Bernard Roberts

    James, the problem is that you are allowing a sinful desire to define who you are. Rather than trying to redefine the created order according our sin, we must acknowledge our sin and turn from it. Its natural for most men to look at women other than their wives, but that doesn’t make it ok.

    • James Bradshaw

      “the problem is that you are allowing a sinful desire to define who you are. ”

      No I’m not. Being gay is just a part of who I am. I’m also a lot of other things.
      I can assure you that if I really believed homosexuality in all circumstances was a moral evil, I’d avoid it (just as I avoid doing other things that I find evil even if doing them would benefit me in some fashion).

      Here’s a challenge for you: perhaps you can convince me of the intrinsic immorality of all homosexual conduct IF you can convince me that human slavery – the taking of persons against their will, putting them in servitude and selling them for profit as one would cattle – is morally acceptable (or even morally neutral).

      It should be an easy task, yeah? As Richard Fuller said “What is sanctioned in the Old Testament and permitted in the New cannot be sin”. It had the endorsement of Paul, the apostles in the Didache, numerous other church fathers all the way up to the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention which was populated by pastors much more knowledgeable about Scripture than most of us are.

      For some reason, though, my conscience dictates it’s wrong. So by all means … argue that human slavery is a God-ordained institution using some coherent moral framework, and perhaps I’ll change my mind on other things.

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