Few issues in recent years in Canadian society have sparked as much general public interest and passionate debate as the potential redefinition of marriage. Judicial decisions in three provinces (Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec) have challenged the historic and traditional definition of marriage as the lawful union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others.
The contention of the courts is that this definition discriminates against same-sex couples who wish to have their unions recognized in law and accepted by society. Indeed during the summer of 2003 the Courts of Appeal in Ontario and British Columbia unilaterally overturned the traditional definition of marriage and declared that same-sex couples may legally marry in those jurisdictions.
The court decision in Ontario was made days before a Justice Committee (appointed to bring a report and recommendations to Parliament on the whole matter) was to table its report in the House. The Ontario ruling derailed the parliamentary process and forced the federal government to decide whether or not to pursue an appeal of the Ontario decision to the Supreme Court.
Recognizing that a decision by the Supreme Court to uphold the ruling of the Ontario Court of Appeal would compel the government to either accept the court-imposed redefinition of marriage or invoke the Notwithstanding Cause (Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms), the federal government did not appeal the decision, but instead drafted legislation which would redefine marriage for civil purposes as extending to couples of the same sex.
Despite the tendency of many media venues to speak of “same-sex marriage” as though we have already redefined marriage, Canada is many months (if not years) away from passing such legislation at the federal level.
Still, the issue is not far from the minds of the politicians or the public. The coming months will give Canadian citizens an opportunity to reflect on the challenges of pluralism and tolerance, as individuals and groups with competing and incompatible views concerning the morality of homosexual practice engage in the public discourse and attempt to have their views reflected in law and public policy.
Despite the glaring absence of any consensus within the scientific community concerning the “cause” of homosexuality (i.e. to what extent homosexual orientation is biologically fixed), almost everyone in Canada today knows that it is not politically correct to challenge the assumption that people are born gay or that sexual orientation cannot be changed. It is very difficult in the public square in Canada today to oppose the redefinition of marriage or any other “gay issue” without being labeled anti-gay or even homophobic.
Paul admonished the Christians in Rome with these words: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will (Rom 12:2).
As I consider the question of transformation of our minds, I wonder if many Christians have fallen into a trap of being so focused on doctrinal issues–in this case, the proper biblical understanding of homosexual practice–that we have lost sight of a larger issue. That is, are we so intent on protecting our rights and our religious freedoms, in our rights-based society, that we have missed the point?
We, as Christ’s disciples, are to be in the world but not of it. We are to be his ambassadors, spreading salt and light to a world where we are aliens and strangers–holy misfits–offering hope and access to an imperishable inheritance, even citizenship in the Kingdom of God and the right to be joint heirs with Christ.
When we get drawn into arguments over rights–our rights versus the rights of some other individual or some other group–are we representing Christ or are we conforming to the pattern of this world? Are we thinking with the mind of Christ, or are we reacting to a threat to our comfort zone?
In Canada today, the marriage issue is dividing Christians. If Satan is orchestrating this frenzy about the legal recognition of same-sex unions, he’s having a great time because the Christian community seems to be going along compliantly with his script. We’re saying and doing the predictable things. We’re reacting. We’re fighting among ourselves. We’re focusing on side issues. We’re drawing lines and erecting walls. We’re being driven by righteous indignation and anger (and maybe even fear), rather than by the kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13. We’re backing ourselves into a corner. And I believe we’re grieving the Holy Spirit and turning people away from Christ, who is, despite our sin, the source of our hope and peace and eternal life.
In the end I think we’ll discover that the issue is not so much the definition of marriage, or even how to deal with the reality of homosexuality in our society. Rather, I think we will come to see this as an opportunity to come to terms with what God means when he tells us to be salt and light.
My ongoing prayer is that the church community will take a deep breath and step back from the turmoil long enough to consider God’s plan and purpose. May we learn how to correctly handle the Word of Truth, not just on doctrinal positions, but in the nitty-gritty realities of ministry. And may we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, committing ourselves to following in his steps in our witness to all those who do not yet know him.
Lois Mitchell is a sociologist who works part-time for the Convention of Atlantic Baptist Churches and Canadian Baptist Ministries in the area of Public Witness and Social Concerns