Yeah, We Messed Up, Too

The Church’s Role in Redefining Marriage

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Many Christians are quick to blame the LGBT community for redefining marriage. But we weren’t innocent bystanders either. I’ll explain.

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John Stonestreet

Yesterday I told you about my new book with co-author Sean McDowell entitled “Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage.”

I suggested that same-sex marriage is no longer an issue coming to us from the horizon, but is today’s reality. And now I want to say something that may be surprising.

While the legal battle is by no means over, I think it’s not wise to talk about “preserving traditional marriage” as we often do. Because there’s hardly anything left to preserve or defend. Our culture gave up any coherent understanding of marriage years ago—which is why, instead of defending marriage, we need to rebuild it from the ground up.

Long before same-sex “marriage,” our culture abandoned the understanding of marriage as the God-ordained institution whose purpose is producing the next generation. In its place was substituted a certificate awarded for extra strong feelings of attraction.

Under this new definition, why shouldn’t you have the right to marry someone of the same sex? What now makes or breaks a marriage—gay or straight—is the intensity of attraction. Marriage has, in many ways, become a government registry of sexual friendships.daily_commentary_07_25_14

Now this might seem like a recent definition foisted on society by the LGBT movement, but the seeds of traditional marriage’s demise in the popular imagination were sown before homosexual rights ever entered the picture. And in at least one case, they were sown by a conservative hero.

In 1970, then California Governor Ronald Reagan signed into law the prototype for no-fault divorce. Other states followed suit at an alarming rate.

Under no-fault divorce, spouses no longer had to prove infidelity or abuse to secure a divorce. Many don’t realize it, but this was marriage’s Roe v. Wade moment. And in the political blink of an eye, Americans rejected—by law—the traditional view of marriage.

In its place, Americans embraced what Princeton’s Robert George and the Heritage Foundation’s Ryan Anderson call the “revisionist view” of marriage—the idea that feelings, not marriage’s purpose and design, are the only reason to stay married for life.

Remember the widespread Christian backlash against no-fault divorce? No? That’s because there wasn’t a backlash—at least not one on the scale we’ve seen against gay “marriage.”

Our willingness to yawn at the definition shift that fractured marriage 40 years ago—but only take up arms when homosexuals wanted recognition—has not gone unnoticed. And LGBT apologists have used the Christian blind spot for divorce to great effect.

If we want to be taken seriously when we warn that same-sex “marriage” will dissolve the foundations of society, we need to take more seriously the redefinitions that got us here in the first place.

But we’re not done yet. There’s more repenting to do—including over the way we’ve treated our gay and lesbian neighbors.

Evangelicals in particular have spent decades repeating the mantra, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” Well, we nailed the “hating sin,” part, but as Sean McDowell and I observe in our book, most of us never got around to “loving the sinner.” And, remember, biblical love is active—not passive.


That’s why, as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer leads us, we need to ask God’s forgiveness, both for the things we’ve done, and for those things we’ve left undone.

And there’s one more thing: as with no-fault divorce and any other departure from God’s design for family, the legacy of gay “marriage” will be the brokenness and disappointment humans always inherit by denying God’s design. The Church needs to be ready in this brave new culture to offer hope, repentance, and reconciliation. And admitting where we went wrong in the past is a good first step.

I hope you’ll consider getting a copy of this book, written by Sean McDowell and myself. “Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage” is available at the BreakPoint.org online bookstore.

Further Reading and Information

Yeah, We Messed Up, Too: The Church’s Role in Redefining Marriage

God has a unique and beautiful design for marriage in this world. To learn more about God’s purposes for marriage and his heart behind those purposes, please check out John Stonestreet and Sean McDowell’s new book, Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage.


Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God's Design for Marriage
Sean McDowell, John Stonestreet | Baker Books | July 2014

What is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense
George, Sherif, Anderson | Encounter Books | December 2012

The National Marriage Project website


I disagree with this article. No fault divorce has helped many many women escape from marital rape, emotional abuse, financial abuse etc. There is no such thing as "traditional marriage" that's a catchphrase. I find it hard to understand why someone would force another human being to stay in a marriage they don't want to be in. Was Jesus REALLY so cruel?? If someone doesn't love you than the love of Christ isn't in them so let them leave! Why would the church care to keep people in horrible marriages? What benefit is that to Christ? Traditional marriage is women owned as property and men taking as many as possessions as they wanted! Biblical marriage is SICK and doesn't reflect love in the slightest. I don't think marriage is supposed to be about "attraction" as in lust like oh, she's saggy now, I want a porn star but, it is about love or it's not reflective of Christ at all. I think Christians need to focus on Christ and lay off of marriage. Christian advice has ruined more marriages than anything the state could do. No human being owes another anything except to love them and sometimes love looks like divorce!
Thank you
Thanks John; a much needed message. A related issue which gets even less talk time in churches is the issue of heterosexual relations outside of marriage. As my 17 yr old daughter points out, this is a bigger threat to traditional marriage than gay marriage.
Render unto Caesar...
No, still not far enough back. When the state even put the concept of marriage into the words of any law or tax code, we rendered unto Caesar that which is God's.... that's where it went wrong... vying for influence of behavior in the governments of mere men.
You know, I've been saying in these comment threads for a while now how social conservatives fail to look at the core of various issues, that rather than look at real issues like single motherhood or no fault divorce they would rather just blame the gays because that's easier. This article makes me wonder if, despite not being very popular here, if maybe some of what I've said was actually listened to.

-The Bechtloff
Unilateral Divorce (stop the euphemisms!)
Thank you this commentary 7/25. I've felt this way about our immoral Christian heterosexual culture from the first time my then-pastor counseled me as a new Christian to divorce my husband over 35 years ago. I was appalled at the law, decided to stare down Satan, and saw my husband saved 5 years later. The next to the last straw was when I watched my current pastor marry a divorced-in-men's-eyes man to the very pregnant daughter of a prominent church family while they had been cohabiting. The last straw was reading my denomination's 1973/2008 position paper on the subject of divorce and remarriage last month.

The reason I had to do so, is I'm about to mount a constitutional challenge to my state's unilateral divorce law based on the way the court treated me for biblically standing 9 years for my 40-year covenant marriage then bringing hard evidence of my covenant husband’s massive financial abuse (not visible to me until legal discovery), only to have it tossed and my pension raided for not initiating divorce myself against my conscience and understanding of scripture. That's in God's hands, and while I covet prayer, I'm not complaining about that. It's an opportunity to see what the power of God may do for the whole country in praying down this immoral law!

What I am complaining about is the unbelievable apathy of every last religious freedom ministry I approached for help! They told me my 1st Amendment rights were only "incidentally" violated, and even though I have a Christian family law attorney, they told me they don't "get involved in family law" (REALLY??? - they sure get involved in "pseudo-family" law, don't they?). If the Lord takes my case anywhere, I at least need their political support, if not their financial assistance! My attorney got me in to see someone at a very prominent Christian constitutional / religious freedom firm who works for these groups often. They told me I have a viable state-level RFRA case, at minimum, but it wasn't a "sexy" fundraising issue (surmised already). I also observed that our state family policy group only wanted to battle an egregious “no fault” pending liberalization bill on the “QT” instead of building any vital public awareness or the usual pleas to contact legislators – appalling!

I suspect it's also because most Protestant denominations teach their pastors (unscripturally, in my view) that remarriage after divorce has "biblical justifications", so I'm just an overwrought, financially-aggrieved abandoned wife. Wrong! It's not cheap to go to court and quote scripture from the witness stand against a patently unconstitutional and immoral law. It doesn't endear one to the judge, either these days. I did it because the Lord miraculously gave me the money to get this far, and I care enough about this country to pray, fast and use the platform God put me on. The contacts I made while working to defend the FRONT end of Matt. 19:4-6 helped me as I embark on doing what I can to defend the BACK end of God's definition of marriage. Ryan Anderson said "the law is a teacher" - very true, as even the Church gets "taught" to forget the Higher law.

Thanks for listening, and hopefully, caring in a practical way about this issue. I wasn't sure there were 5 other Christians who share my strong conviction. I do know the restoration battle for biblical marriage is going to have to be fought on several fronts!
Reply to JB
How about the testimony of his son, Michael Reagan? See http://www.marysadvocates.org/michaelreagan.html
Reagan and Regret
I seem to recall reading that signing that bill was one of Reagan's greatest regrets despite being divorced himself. I can't recall the source though. Can anyone verify this?
I've been saying for years, decades – AGES! -- that the "church" has narrow-mindedly majored in the minor, and nitpicked its way into borderline irrelevance!

My Scofield NKJV is nice enough to offer up study aids in Leviticus that lay out the "sex issues" pretty clearly: the stuff in this column (adultery, prostitution, rape, incest, homosexuality, fornication, etc): BAD; the other column, marriage: GOOD. Of course, few good "christians" seem to want to teach the proper place of sex to their children, then get mad if the schools do, or politicians try to legislate the morality that should be taught at home before their little darlings are launched out into the deep. However, what they WILL seem to zero in on is the evils of homosexuality, MINUS the caveat "judge not." I'm thinking about one of the teenagers who frequents our library, all upset and uptight because his pastor's wife is in browbeat mode because he's gay. My line of questioning is always: "Do you believe in God? Do you know what the Word says about this behavior? How will YOU reconcile the two? In the meantime, be nice to PastorWife, she is your elder. SHE will now have to reconcile the "love ye one another../judge not" pieces, and cop to her complicity in driving you, and other youngsters away from the church."

Yeah, I'd have to say the church messed up, on this and quite a few other issues -- from stewardship to apathy -- and most glaringly, personal responsibility. It's hard to take so much of what the "religious community" says seriously, when all it IS IS "religion." Deliver me from the next blowhard whining about "religious freedom!" Spouting off about everything from immigration reform, minimum wage changes, NSA spying, "government overreach," health care reform, and political peccadilloes rings completely hollow -- especially since government sometimes has to step in to do what we step on or over -- if we can't even do the basic, foundational "do unto others.." pieces!

Of course, since we WERE born in sin, shaped in iniquity, and need clean hearts created in us, it's not surprising that we can't get many things right; however, you'd think, as Believers, we would remember from Whom our Help comes, and Who gives us strength to tackle these problems when they arise. If He can make a donkey talk a guy down from doing something stupid, ya think He might be trustworthy enough to provide US with the right things to say and do in any given situation! I guess the question is, are we willing to believe Him and follow the Manual?
I Disagree
Your two premises that "we" did not stand in opposition to the no-fault divorce law and that "we" have treated gays in an objectionable way are both unfounded. I remember when no-fault was being considered, and I remember the opposition
"we" (the Christian community) put up about this egregious affront to the marriage vows. (Here's a more recent article about no-fault as well: http://www.publiceye.org/ifas/fw/9607/divorce.html). In regard to the GLBT bashing--I sure wish you would have stated some cases where this happens. I personally do not know that this is happening(accept for Fred Phelps and his group). We should take accountability where it is due, and now we need to decide how to "parse" the sin and the sinner. How do we go about the ministry to those who believe that they are justified when forsaking their marriage vows because they just simply don't "feel" in love anymore and that there is no biblical mandate when pursuing deviant relationships. To pat anyone on the back is no answer for the dilemma we are in.
Wow, I can't remember the last time a tradcon was willing to do the hard work of actually trying to get to the root of the problem with marriage rather than just blame the gays. This was a fantastic and thoughtful article.

-The Bechtloff