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Engaging the SSM Debate - Part 3 - How To Speak Well

(This is part 3 in a three-part series on Christian engagement of Same Sex Marriage (SSM). Part 1 can be found here, and part 2 here.)

The high court has ruled that the postal survey will go ahead.

For many Christians, this will mean that the topic of SSM will come up, not least because it’ll be front and centre on the news and social media.

And so how should Christians talk about SSM? Is there a Christ-honouring way of discussing a subject that is so sensitive, especially to our LGBTI friends and family?

I think there is a number of things Christians need to keep in mind as we talk about SSM. And it begins with understanding the culture we’re in:

1) The Political Power of the Phrase “Marriage Equality”

Being against SSM is instantly perceived as being ‘anti-equality’.

‘Marriage Equality’ is a brilliant phrase.

It’s clear. It’s ‘Tweetable’. And in two words it captures the idea that anybody who is for equality  (and who isn’t for equality?) should be for Same Sex Marriage. It’s a cultural and rhetorical trump card.

But there’s also a problem with the phrase ‘Marriage Equality’.

It leaves undefined what ‘marriage’ and ‘equality’ are:  supporters of ‘marriage equality’ simply assumeone particular view of these words – a contested view – and demand that everyone else agree. So if you don’t share their interpretation of ‘marriage equality’, there’s no invitation to politely discuss differences. Instead, you’re automatically assumed to be ‘anti-equality’ – the moral equivalent of a racist.

Which explains why so many supporters of SSM are increasingly unwilling to engage with opponents of SSM: after all, why engage with anti-equality bigots? Better to douse them with the ‘contempt’ and ‘scorn’ they deserve for opposing ‘equality’.

And so, the phrase ‘Marriage Equality’ – while politically potent – tends to ‘short-circuit’ any hope of civil discussion about SSM. Instead, it’s used as a blunt (but effective) cultural bludgeon, shaming people into line.

And this is the environment opponents of ‘marriage equality’ are living in.

So how do speak about such a sensitive topic, in the midst of this culture? It begins with our attitude. And as Christians, we have the best resource ever given to humanity: God’s grace.

Pexels Meeting Students Friends

2) Christians Must Be Blown Away By God’s Grace to Us in Christ Jesus

This will help us to not be offended, and love our opponents.

Let’s face it – it’s hard to be civil, let alone respectful when people attack you. Being called names tends to bring out our inner bull-dog, not our inner diplomat.

So how do we maintain our cool, when under siege for our beliefs? How do we uphold Christ’s radical command to love even our enemies (Matt 5:43-48), when words like ‘bigot’ (and worse) are thrown our way?

The best way, if not the only way, is by being blown away by God’s amazing grace to us in Christ Jesus. When we’re overwhelmed with how gracious God has been to us in Christ Jesus, we’re more likely to be gracious to others (1 John 4:10-11)

As Pastor and author Scott Sauls points out:

When the grace of Jesus sinks in, we will be among the least offended and most loving people in the world.’[1]

And these are the people God calls us to be, even when we’re being attacked.

When the grace of Jesus sinks in, we will be among the least offended and most loving people in the world.

Scott Sauls

3) Don’t Let Our Opponents ‘Suffocate’

Seek First To Understand, And Only Then To Be Understood.

Christians should never let their opponents ‘suffocate’. It might seem like a left-field thing to say, but let me explain.

If you’ve ever been in a situation where you’ve dived under water, and run out of air, you’ll know there’s only one thing going through your mind: getting air – fast! Literally nothing else matters.

Now just like we need physical air – and everything else comes to a stop if we don’t get it – so also we need ‘psychological’ air. We need this psychological air whenever we’re in conversation with someone, and we get it by feeling heard and listened to. [2]

But if you don’t get ‘psychological air’ in a conversation – if you don’t feel understood –  then you get frustrated. You get angry. And the conversation can go south at a rate of knots.

Now as Christians, we’re called to give people psychological air in our conversations (see James 1:19). Even to those we disagree with (Matt 5:44-45) . And we do this by first listening, and understanding what the other person is saying – to the point where they genuinely feel understood.

And here’s the thing: if  people feel they have enough psychological air – if they feel heard –  then they’re more likely to feel loved.

But if they don’t get enough psychological air, they won’t feel loved. And they won’t want to listen to what you’ve got to say.

Which is a key reason for the failure of difficult conversations: people don’t give each other psychological air.

And SSM is often a difficult conversation.

4) Present Clear Convictions, With a Compassionate Tone

You don’t have to win the argument, but you do have to be loving.

Once we’ve sought first to understand, to the point where our friend who supports SSM feels heard by us, we’re in a better position to share our concerns about redefining marriage.

If we get the opportunity, we should do this clearly, in a way that makes sense (and you could follow the points laid out in my previous post).

But we also have to do this compassionately, and lovingly ( 1 Cor 13:21 Peter 3:15). That is, we don’t have to win the argument. But we do have to show love and compassion. In other words, it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it(Whether our pro-SSM friends accept what we say is up to them.)

As author Scott Sauls points out:

God have mercy on us if we do not love well because all that matters to us is being right and winning arguments. Truth and love can go together. Truth and love must go together. [3]
Christians don't have to win the argument. But we do have to be loving.

5) Beware The Dangers of Social Media

Our ‘Virtual Self’ is often unfiltered, and less inhibited in saying things than our real self.

I enjoy social media. But social media can be perilous – as I’ve learned the hard way! So we need to approach it with care. Facebook and Twitter transform us into ‘virtual beings’, who have weakened emotional filters. Online, we can say things to people that we’d never dare say to their faces. We lose our inhibitions: we say what we really think – and risk leaving a wreckage of offended people along the way.

And so, I’ve come to conclude that social media – whilst a half-decent medium for sharing articles, blogposts and photos of cute babies – is a minefield when it comes to the cut and thrust of discussion, especially on heated topics like SSM. My preference is to sit down face to face over a coffee or a beer, and have the discussion.

With that said, I think social media can be used judiciously, as long as we’re biased toward listening and understanding the other person. Then, and only then – carefully, and with many emotional qualifiers – should we express our point of view.

Our 'virtual self' is often unfiltered, and less inhibited in saying things than our real self.

With these attitudes in mind, there are a number of conversation techniques we can use to make a discussion on SSM fruitful.

6) Take The Conversation Further ‘Upstream’

This will allow gospel engagement with the underlying worldviews and beliefs

As discussed in my first post in this series, everyone – including those advocating for SSM – have underlying beliefs about morality, humanity, identity, and so forth. These beliefs drive their views on ‘marriage’, and ‘equality’. And so, if we can take the conversation ‘further upstream’, to see what their underlying beliefs are, we can better understand where they’re coming from, which can also help build the relationship.

But more than that, understanding  ‘upstream’ views gives us a better opportunity for engaging people with the gospel. We can both affirm some of their deepest longings and concerns, whilst exposing the falsehoods of their worldview – and show how the gospel is better.

7) How Do We Take The Conversation Further Upstream?

By Asking 2 Critical Questions:

If we want to take the conversation with our non-Christian neighbours further upstream, we need to ask two important questions:

And if we ‘go upstream’ far enough, we’ll be able to share how the gospel is different – and better – than their particular view of reality.

But as well as going upstream, we can also go ‘downstream’ in the discussion, by pointing out the potential consequences of redefining marriage.

8) Go ‘Downstream’ in the Discussion

Help People Understand the Potential Consequences of redefining marriage.

Most people who are pro-SSM believe that redefining marriage will have no consequences for society at large, except for recognising some gay relationships as marriage.

But as I argued in my previous post, there will be consequences that go beyond allowing gay people to get married, because a change in law inevitably shapes society (for good or ill).

And so, it’s important for people to think about what those ‘downstream’ consequences might be, seeing as they’ve been given the responsibility to make their voice heard in the postal survey.

And over the last week, we’ve glimpsed some of those consequences:

Parts of the Main Stream Media seem to be noticing this trend. Reporting on the above stories, Sunrise Seven host Natalie Barr commented:

[Opponents of SSM] are too afraid to say what they think because of the repercussions’.

Furthermore, the experience of countries like the UK where SSM has been legalised is not encouraging[7]

In light of the above, it’s not irrational to be concerned about the possible consequences of SSM becoming law.

The LGBTI Activist And The Christian

Shane Windmeyer, a prominent American LGBTI leader, wrote about his unlikely friendship with Dan Cathy, a Christian, who is also the president of US restaurant chain Chick-fil-A. In 2012, Dan Cathy made his opposition to same-sex marriage known publically, and this caused a national uproar.

However, rather than head to the trenches, Dan Cathy reached out to Shane Windmeyer, who had organised a national campaign against him and his restaurant chain. Windmeyer revealed their surprising friendship (as well as his decision to suspend the national campaign against Chick-fil-A) after he attended the Chick-fil-A Bowl Game as a personal guest of the Cathy family:

Throughout the conversations Dan expressed a sincere interest in my life, wanting to get to know me on a personal level.
He wanted to know about where I grew up, my faith, my family, even my husband, Tommy.

He continues:

In return, I learned about his wife and kids and gained an appreciation for his devout belief in Jesus Christ and his commitment to being “a follower of Christ” more than a “Christian.”
Dan expressed regret and genuine sadness when he heard of people being treated unkindly in the name of Chick-fil-a — but he offered no apologies for his genuine beliefs about marriage.

 

Showing love and compassion to those who disagree with us, whilst not abandoning our convictions: that’s what Jesus requires of any who would follow Him.

May God give us the grace to be such people.


Photos: pexels.com 

[1] Scott Sauls, Jesus Outside The Lines (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2015), xix.

[2] The metaphor of ‘psychological air’, along with the idea of ‘seek first to understand, and then to be understood’, is taken from Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Melbourne, Victoria: The Business Library, 2000), 235-260. Cf. Robert Bolton, People Skills (Australia: Prentice Hall, 2000), 49-61.

[3] Sauls, Jesus Outside The Linesxxv.

[4] For further info, see the outstanding book: Greg Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan For Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).

[5] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-09-04/same-sex-marriage-petition-against-doctor-pansy-lai-taken-down/8869260

[6] https://au.tv.yahoo.com/sunrise/video/watch/37005973/yes-and-no-campaigners-clash-in-brisbane/#page1

[7] https://www.spectator.com.au/2017/09/whats-changed-in-britain-since-same-sex-marriage/


Akos Balogh is a follower of Christ, husband to Sarah, and father to three children. He is an elder at Southern Cross Presbyterian Church, Lismore, and blogs weekly at akosbalogh.com. You can reach him on twitter via @akosbaloghcom. 

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