An Interesting Debate

Here is Pastor Doug Wilson debating Andrew Sullivan. Now most debates are just a waste of time. That is because we seemingly have lost the ability to separate argument from personality. The point of debate is to understand the best arguments of the opposing side on some issue that is causing division. I don’t hold out the hope that people are actually converted by debate. I agree with Cranmer that our normal pattern is the heart wants, the will enacts and the mind justifies. The outcomes of debate that I’d like are: 1) exposure of fraud/malice, some sides might just be based on these and debate should expose, 2) finding out underlying presuppositions and 3) the ability to act civil in the face of an opponent. If you have understood the best argument, and it is not based on fraud/malice, then we should be able to act civilly. I don’t think that is the case in most of our society. This debate is different.

Pastor Wilson blogs here. He is the Pastor of ChristKirk in Moscow, Id and engaged in a wide public ministry based out of that church, one of the big ones being a rebuilding of Christian education from elementary to undergraduate. Andrew Sullivan, now back out on his own, blogs here. And if you don’t recognize the name, you probably just don’t get out much as he is one of the best controversialists of the age.

The debate is upon marriage and more specifically same-sex marriage. And both of these men are able to actually be involved in a real debate as outlined above. That is why it is different. I wanted to sort out a few reflections after watching.

1) Based on the showing of hands and the location in Idaho, Sullivan is “the away team”. Sullivan is often infuriating and willfully blind, but he constantly demonstrates one virtue that makes him formidable and worth listening to. Sullivan is courageous, or he demonstrates fortitude. I have trouble thinking of any other representative of northeast elite opinion who would debate Doug Wilson in Idaho. Maybe more to the point, I have trouble thinking of any other one who would think it is there duty to do so. Sullivan is different.

2) Now I want to add two things to that. This can take place in Idaho because the Christian residents are going to act civil. They are not going to “stone the gay guy”. If you watch it you will notice how civil and respectful the crowd is. As much as I’d love to see this same thing in say NYC at say Columbia or NYU, I don’t think it could happen. I doubt that crowd would extend to Pastor Wilson the civility, and they don’t see the need to allow such opinions to be heard. If Sullivan was being real fair, he’d have done a “home and home” gig.

3) Just to hint at that reality, watch right at the start the for/against vote and then tally up and watch the Q&A questioners. The crowd is overwhelmingly agreed with Wilson, but all the questioners, some who get very hostile and snippy, are against him and take to attacking Wilson. Now multiply that to a crowd that knows it is the majority and is feeling its own moral righteousness unrestrained by Christian hospitality.

4) Sullivan is skilled at this stuff in a way that Wilson is not. (Unfortunately Pastors preach. We don’t get too much direct push back.) What comes out clearly is that Sullivan’s arguments are emotional and personal while Wilson is left arguing logic. Around 1:41 Sullivan terms the anti position an “attack on love”. Now that sounds like it is a debate hand-grenade, but the way Sullivan uses it, it felt in bounds and it also expressed the core of his argument. What the Christian is left arguing is something like “you don’t know the definition of that word” or worse “what’s love got to do with it”. Either might be true (first more than second), but if one side is claiming love and the other is arguing definitions, you’ve lost.

5) Wilson admits that multiple times. He said it once earlier in the debate (although I can’t find the time reference) that “we lost this debate decades ago with no fault divorce”. Section 1:49-1:55 is a later section on “ruining marriage” that nicely captures the slanted field. The presuppositions of Christian marriage in the culture vanished some time ago. The institution stumbled along badly for 30 years being ruined by heterosexuals. It is actually quite amazing that anyone would “want in”. I think there are two reasons: 1) the definition of marriage has been changed from “lifelong monogamous pairing pointed toward family life” to “person number one on my emotional register” and 2) introducing same-sex into marriage almost ensures that there is no going back. Both definitions going forward would have to be tolerated.

6) That is important because Wilson around 2:02-2:04 badly answers a question. When asked roughly what the real bad impact of same sex marriage is he bumbles around and has a tough time answering. This is where you needed a Lutheran. The first use of the law is civil. The civil law teaches. If the civil law says that two same-sex partners who have a deep emotional bond is the same thing as a man and a woman joined in a union that produces and raises the next generation, it has placed a falsehood in its teaching. The civil law no longer functions on the most basic level of its existence, and hence over time the populace taught by it would grow more lost. The answer of marriage and civil unions would respect that deeper natural law truth about marriage. I’d even go so far as to say open civil unions up to heterosexual couples. As a pastor there are many times where you’d just like to say, “you don’t understand marriage enough to consent to Christian marriage at this time”. Make the definition explicit. A civil union is a state recognition and regulation of great emotional bonding. But that is not marriage.

6 thoughts on “An Interesting Debate

  1. “If the civil law says that two same-sex partners who have a deep emotional bond is the same thing as a man and a woman joined in a union that produces and raises the next generation, it has placed a falsehood in its teaching.” Your operating under a false premise here. Marriage hasn’t been legally grounded in the need for procreation since at least 1965 and Griswold v. Connecticut. Since then it has increasingly become about romantic love. Your points number 5 cannot be extricated from the changes in the law regarding marriage throughout the 20th century. You’ve already lost the civil law arguments in number 6. Nor does your response answer Sullivan’s question: gay marriage has been legal in Massachusetts and other countries for years now, what has been the societal costs? “It would grow more lost,” is not a substantive response. It’s purely subjective and speculative.

    Your second most obvious error is here: “As a pastor there are many times where you’d just like to say, “you don’t understand marriage enough to consent to Christian marriage at this time”. Make the definition explicit.” If anyone’s asking for your specific consent for your specific synod’s for your specific congregation’s approval of their marriage, they can go to your church. You have neither a monopoly of the Christian definition of marriage nor the state definition of marriage. The real enemy of theocracy is religious pluralism, and we live in a pluralistic society. The Lutheran Church of Sweden began performing same-sex wedding four years ago . . . and some day the same will occur in St. Mark Lutheran, with or without you.

  2. I and Pastor Wilson would agree with your first point. We, meaning heterosexuals, wrecked marriage as a civil construct a long time ago with Griswold being one of those landmarks. But it is not a false premise because right now outside of a few states the law still is recognizable as conjugal marriage. Actually recording in black letter law today’s understanding would mar it for the longer term. Since social change works across generations you really have to wait to see what the changes of one generation produce 25 years later when they are fully internalized. The Episcopal church’s collapse on birth control in the 1930’s produced a generation taught that sex and marriage are not inevitably joined. By the 1960’s that had been internalized. With that separation we have just continued to open the wound against the family. I deal with the world created by no fault divorce, no strings sex and abortion, but most people still have a notion that marriage should be different; my children will be taught by changed law that not only is marriage not different, not just that people sadly don’t live up to the ideal, but they will be instructed that if the marriage is no longer emotionally fulfilling, even if you have kids, its time to bail. That teaching will counter what they are instructed at home. That is not speculative, but firmly based in history and the way social changes work. It doesn’t even require that word prophetic that progressive Christians are so enamored with.

    The statement of the second paragraph is more a lament on the first. People come in and inquire about marriage all the time. We spell out the same definition of marriage that the church has taught for a very long time spelled out in the wedding liturgy itself. 1) Marriage is the image of Christ and the church, i.e. marriage is the secondary reality pointing to the deeper truth. 2) Union of man and woman from pre-fall times meaning it is of the natural order. 3) Entered into reverently and deliberately which means you should understand what you are doing. 4) Forming of a one flesh union which is both for delight in the present and finds its telos or purpose in procreation. Many really don’t get that or are just nodding yes because they want to use the space. Responsible pastoral practice would suggest the justice of the peace.

    Nobody claimed monopoly. But I would claim to be speaking with the church of all times and places. Putting romantic love as the definition of marriage makes a hash of God’s covenant faithfulness (hebrew chesed). God is faithful when we are not. That is what makes his promises so rock solid. Marriage as romantic love makes that a picture of Christ and his church that cuts against exactly what God was saying with Biblical marriage imagery. A church, even St. Mark’s might perform such rites, but don’t fool yourself, they are the rites of the false prophet.

  3. Yes, we concur in regards to the hash heterosexuals made of the previous understanding of marriage, and what I was referring to as a false premise is the notion that procreation is the civil law basis for marriage (“If the civil law says that two same-sex partners who have a deep emotional bond is the same thing as a man and a woman joined in a union that produces and raises the next generation, it has placed a falsehood in its teaching.”). Civil law does not distinguish in granting a license between a man and a woman who wish to enter into marriage to raise the next generation, or, as you acknowledge, a man and woman who want to give it a go, and maybe it will work out. But we shouldn’t be too nostalgic for the past, for there are darn good reasons the old version of marriage fell apart. You deal with the world of no fault divorce, no strings and abortion, while your predecessors dealt with routine beatings, whorehouse visits, out-of-wedlock children, infidelities, back alley abortions, and the soul crushing trap of decades of loveless, often violent, marriage. Society can’t go back to that, nor does it want to.

    The mention of pastoral duties brings up an interesting question: how would you counsel a gay couple with three children? Maybe the children belong biologically to one partner (conceived in a previously heterosexual marriage), maybe they were sired with an opposite sex gay couple, maybe they were adopted. Regardless, they are a family, and gay families with children are now an established reality in America. Would you counsel the couple to be sexually promiscuous, and live a life of contingency? Or would you advise them to be faithful to one another, loyal, committed, providing greater stability for their children? How would you try to reinforce that commitment? Though tattered, and far from foolproof, marriage can provide more of the former, unless, of course, you want to reserve it for the families of first class citizens. Unless you want to make homosexuality illegal, you must either grant homosexuals and their families the same rights, or designate them as a second class incapable of enjoying the rights as other families. The history of that stance in America is not a proud one. “For ye are all one in Jesus Christ,” someone once wrote. It’s foresight to prepare an answer now, so you can tell a little girl why her parents can’t get married, why her family is false and rejected by Jesus. You should practice because other churches will be saying yes to her parents’ marriage, and saying no, over time, will be harder.

    In your second paragraph you cite the union of man and woman “from pre-fall times meaning it is of the natural order.” And what of polygamy? Was the natural order different given the many instances of Old Testament polygamy? What then is the “natural order”? (Catholics claim “natural law” prohibits contraception after all.) Marriage in the vast span of human history has changed radically, often altering dramatically within a period of decades, and the modern turmoil is not that knew. (The prohibition for a deacon to have only one wife in 1 Timothy is evidence of how many early Christians were polygamous.) If you read Stephanie Coontz’s “Marriage, A History,” or Elizabeth Abbott’s “A History of Marriage,” or E.J. Graf’s “What Is Marriage For,” you might be stunned by what even late 19th century Christians considered normal marriage behavior. Tradition, in turns out, is but endless innovation.

    “But I would claim to be speaking with the church of all times and places.” Really, do you still burn witches as ordered by God in Exodus 22:18? The Catholic Church did, and so did Martin Luther. Clearly, that was a Christian church of a different time and place, “rock solid” promises or not, things changed. Many Lutheran churches in Germany and more in America are marrying same sex couples, so how fortunate for you that the true apostolic succession resides in West Henrietta, NY!

    “A church, even St. Mark’s might perform such rites, but don’t fool yourself, they are the rites of the false prophet.” You may not have the institutional memory, but it wouldn’t be hard to research: who was the last pastor at St. Mark’s that refused to conduct interracial marriages? Given its established history, there’s bound to be one last pastor, maybe even as recently as the 1950s. Was that good Christian man — so concerned about his flock and God’s word — convinced of his righteousness, convinced that if such an abomination would be carried out at St. Mark’s, it would be “the rites of a false prophet”? I imagine so as the once unthinkable moved into the ponderable, then possible, then marginal, before finally being accepted. At some point in the future, perhaps nearer than either of us would guess, a congregant will be asking when St. Mark’s finally saw the true light of Jesus’s love in regards to gay families.

  4. I’ll just turn to the gospel. God describes what he has done for his people like a marriage. And when He does so what He means is permanent faithfulness even when the bride is not lovely. If I were to accept the revised definition of marriage based on emotional connection, that changes the entire biblical picture of God’s promise. Yes there are countless ways that we are imperfect pictures of Christ and the church. That is the definition of being a sinner. But those imperfections don’t mar the original. If I take the emotional view, then that allows God to dump me when he’s tired of me. His promise only holds as long as He is emotionally engaged. How long do I think I could emotionally engage God? Thankfully that is not the definition of love or marriage that God works on. He works on covenant faithfulness. When we were sinners, Christ loved us. A love defined by the cross, a complete emptying of the self. We can demand our rights, or we can submit to the gospel.

  5. PB: “I’ll just turn to the gospel.” And in doing so, and striving to become a disciple of Christ, will you hate and leave your family as Jesus has commanded in Luke 14:26? “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” And if you haven’t done so in pursuit of a truly Christian life, why not? Jesus could not be clearer in what he asks of his followers.

    Obviously, no one relies on scripture alone – no one simply, literally, turns to the gospel for guidance without having their own temporally and culturally constrained hermeneutic to inform them of what the gospel means (or their denomination) in their own time. If you want to claim a transcendent hermeneutic, one that is part of an unchanging and eternal church, true for all ages, then you must explain how the gospels failed on the moral issues of the past. Did the gospels justify slavery, torturing and burning heretics, imperialism and racial discrimination? For centuries they did, but, over the long arc of history, dissident Christians broke with tradition and demanded new interpretations and the rights that go with them. They were told no and that they should “submit to the gospel,” but they did not listen, for they knew that though the arc of history is long, it bends towards freedom . . . and the message of Christ’s love and brotherhood is the fulcrum on which it bends.

    The marriage you describe between God and his people is not translatable into human relations, let alone civil law; it is not a signifier that undergirds a symbolic order of marriage — it is not even the marriage of individual human beings. PB: “If I were to accept the revised definition of marriage based on emotional connection, that changes the entire biblical picture of God’s promise.” This is nonsensical. What you’re saying is that God’s promise to all the faithful is dependent on an individual’s conception of marriage. You can’t have thought through the implications: Ronald Reagan was divorced, is he now in Hell? He obviously didn’t believe in the “promise” of marriage with his first wife. Did you learn this argument is seminary?

    PB: “If I take the emotional view, then that allows God to dump me when he’s tired of me. His promise only holds as long as He is emotionally engaged.” This is just a bizarre theology. The view you take of marriage allows God to dump you, to withhold Christ redemption from you and all faithful sinners? If you believe that marriage should be premised on love, instead of arranged by promises to one’s families, as they were for centuries (traditionally arranged marriage), then God will lose his love for you? Do you realize how incoherent that sounds? You’re saying that your interpretation of someone else’s relationship alters the covenant. That divorce destroyed God’s covenant.

    Like Doug Wilson’s stumblings in his debate with Andrew Sullivan, your incoherence is synecdotal of the poor reasoning that is only ushering same-sex marriage in ever faster.

  6. Your tortured and mendacious readings of scripture, your inability to distinguish between the moral absolutes (the law) and our inability to keep it which is proof for the need of the gospel not a reason to dispatch the law, your boring fundamentalist inability to understand metaphor, your misunderstanding of love, your worship of a gleaming city produced by our efforts, and your need to argue at length on a low traffic blog speak to a guilty conscience. How I wished to gather your children, but you were not willing. Behold, your house is left to you. (Luke 13:34-35)

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