In speaking about homosexuality in my church and in different venues around the country (and sometimes around the world), the most common question I’ve received (by far) is whether a Christian who believes homosexual behavior is wrong should attend a gay wedding.
The question is often a painful one. It’s one thing to hold to biblical views on marriage and sexuality in a culture that increasingly hates those views. That’s hard enough. But to tell your son or daughter or brother or sister or mom or dad or cousin or buddy from college that you won’t attend their (ideally) once-in-a-lifetime event feels like too much offense to give and too much of a burden to bear. I sympathize with sincere believers who really want to honor God and communicate love to their friends and family at the same time. These are difficult days to be Christians with convictions about marriage.
And yet, as much as we can feel the weight and the heartache of the question, the answer should be no.
I’ve written on this subject before, but my response assumed in part that the wedding ceremony would have some religious component to it:
A wedding ceremony, in the Christian tradition, is first of all a worship service. So if the union being celebrated in the service cannot be biblically sanctioned as an act of worship, we believe the service lends credence to a lie. We cannot in good conscience participate in a service of false worship. I understand that does not sound very nice, but the conclusion follows from the premise, namely, that the “marriage” being celebrated is not in fact a marriage and should not be celebrated.
That was the gist of my argument. I went on in the article to address a number popular objections (e.g., Jesus hung out with sinners; we should fear being contaminated by the world; we don’t want to turn people off to God’s love), and at the end I made a passing reference to ceremonies that were not religious in nature. But I didn’t deal head on with the question posed in the title of this post: What if the wedding is thoroughly secular, does that change the moral calculus?
You may be thinking, “I get your point about a Christian wedding ceremony. But my friend doesn’t claim to be a Christian. He and his partner are total agnostics. Their service won’t be religious in the least. I’m not going to worship God. I’m just going so my friend knows I care about him.” I’ve heard conservative Christians make similar arguments several times. I see their appeal. I don’t, however, find them intellectually or spiritually compelling.
In short, as personally painful as it may be, and as much as the world will call us names and castigate our motives, those who believe marriage is between a man and a woman should not attend a ceremony that purports to be the marrying of a man and a man or a woman and a woman, even if that ceremony is completely secular in nature.
Why such a “hard line” stance? Here are three reasons.
1. The purpose of a wedding ceremony is to celebrate and solemnize.No matter the formal liturgy or no liturgy at all, the reason a couple puts together a wedding ceremony is so that others can join in celebrating with them. Isn’t this why invitations speak of “honoring us with your presence” or “join us as we celebrate”? Isn’t this why at a reception the couple invariably takes time to thank all their friends and family for coming? Isn’t this why we throw rice or blow bubbles or release balloons? Isn’t this why we wait in line to give the newlyweds a hug?
Two (unmarried, of age) people can fill out the necessary paperwork and get married at the courthouse or on a beach or in the basement without any planning, any fanfare, or any guests. But hardly anyone gets married in this way. Instead they plan a party. They line up food and drink and music and invite their friends. There is nothing in the secular nature of a wedding ceremony that makes it less of a celebration. And there’s the rub: how can we celebrate what we deem to be a serious moral transgression and an definitional impossibility?
2. Wedding ceremonies are almost always public in nature. Many Christians are quick to parse out their support: “They know where I stand. They know what I believe. I’m not coming to support the marriage. I’m coming to support my son and let him know that I still love him.” Again, I sympathize with this reasoning and do not dismiss lightly. But in addition to minimizing the previous point about celebration and solemnization, this line of thinking ignores the public aspect of a wedding (and no matter how small the event, if you are being invited to attend it is a public ceremony).
Attendees at a wedding bear witness to the exchanging vows and the making of promises. In a Christian understanding, they do so before God and man. In a secular environment, they still do so before a watching world. Why do we go to the trouble of having ceremonies for graduation or retirement or Super Bowl champions? Because the occasion calls for celebration, solemnization, and public recognition. Whatever beliefs we may espouse privately, when we attend a wedding we state publicly that the union, which the event creates and commemorates, is legitimate and deserving of honor.
Consider an analogy. Suppose your friend was an avowed racist. You’ve known this friend for a long time. You’ve told him before that you don’t agree with his racist views. He finds those conversations offensive and hurtful, but the friendship endures. One day he invites you to his white robe and hood ceremony at the local chapter of the Klan (I have no idea if they have such a thing, but let’s imagine they do). There will be a small event at the local park to bestow this rank upon your friend. He would love for you to attend. Will you? I doubt any of us would. (1) We’d be too embarrassed to be seen in public at such an event, no matter what we’ve said in private about it. And (2) however much we care for our friend, we can’t have anything to do with an event that is so repugnant to the beliefs we hold dear.
Yes, I understand analogies are imperfect. No, I am not suggesting that racism and attending a gay wedding are the same thing. The point of a negative analogy like this is to get you to reconsider one position you do like by comparing it with one you don’t like. Why would we normalize what would be better stigmatized? How can we publicly endorse what we claim to privately condemn?
3. The stark either/or options are not of our making. The emotional plea is strongly felt by friends and family members who want to maintain biblical fidelity without burning bridges: “If you really loved me, you would be there. You say you care about me, but you don’t care to show up on the most important day of my life. If you can’t be happy for me, how can we have a real relationship?” Most evangelicals don’t wake up in the morning looking for ways to compromise. It happens with a tug here and a pull there, often with the best of intentions, usually because of people we love. Who wants to burn bridges? Who wants to be a hater? Who likes upsetting people we care about?
But this is where we need to remember that the either/or options were not (I trust) our idea. Not supporting a child’s decision in one area does not mean you are no longer interested in supporting him or her in other areas. Loving across our differences is a two way street. If traditional Christians have to learn to love gay and lesbian friends and family members despite decisions they disagree with, then gays and lesbians should learn to love their Christian friends and families despite decisions they disagree with. We should take time to hear why our attendance means so much to them. And then, hopefully, they will take time to hear why our faith in Christ and obedience to the Bible mean so much to us. We won’t agree. But maybe we can begin to almost, possibly, just a little bit, agree that we are going to be in this for the long haul so we better find out how to care for each other, even when we think the other person is living according to convictions that we can’t support.
“I can’t say yes to your wedding invitation, but I’d love to have you over for dinner.” Give that a shot.