We should not be surprised that a new poll indicates that almost half (44 percent) of young evangelical Christians between the ages of 18 to 29 favor same-sex marriage.
Some will argue that this is the result of the secular culture undermining the Bible. I would argue this is the result of a new generation of Bible-believing evangelicals reading their Bibles with fresh eyes and insight. For those who do their theological and ethical thinking, as Karl Barth reportedly advised us to do, with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, it is hard to maintain a biblically based opposition to marriage equality.
This change in the convictions of young evangelicals is not happening because they are not taking the Bible seriously but because it is hard to read the Bible consistently and holistically and still maintain a position that excludes gay and lesbian persons from the Kingdom of God, or the church, or equality, or the blessings of marriage and family life.
The Bible's focus is upon God's movement to liberate those who are enslaved and oppressed (Exodus), God's requirements that we live together in ways that are just and fair (the Prophets), the reconciliation of humanity with God and humanity with humanity by tearing down the walls of division among us (the Cross), and the movement of the Holy Spirit to create inclusive community not based on culture or class but grace (the Church).
Doing our theological and ethical thinking with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other leaves us with decisions we need to make. Either gay and lesbian individuals are persons who have chosen to intentionally rebel against God by deciding to romantically love another of the same gender in defiance of God's will or else they are another group within the rich diversity of humanity that God intends to liberate, treat justly and fairly, reconcile, and include.
Either same-gender love is a distortion and perversion of what it means to be truly human ... or else it is a variation within the fullness of the human family.
Either gay and lesbian persons must be eliminated through some sort of "conversion" to heterosexual practices or involuntary celibacy or worse, or else they must be respected as they seek to apply biblical moral teachings to their own particular situation in life.
More than 40 years ago, the Anglican theologian Norman Pittenger addressed these questions in his book entitled "Time for Consent." He argued on the basis of the biblical revelation in Christ that sexual behavior must be judged by its character alone. Is it characterized by commitment and trust, tenderness, respect for the other and the desire for ongoing and responsible communion with the other? Or, conversely, is it characterized by selfish sexual expression, cruelty, impersonal sex, obsession with sex and an unwillingness to take responsibility for the consequences? He argued that both gay and straight people desire and need deep and lasting relationships and that appropriate sexual expression should not be denied to either group. He argued that there should not be a double standard of morality, introducing the concept of moral equality -- not judging two different groups by different standards of morality.
The Bible is deeply sensitive to double standards. Some of Jesus' harshest criticisms are reserved for those who lay heavy burdens on the backs of others that they themselves are unwilling to carry (Matt. 23:4). The attempts to use a few verses in the Bible to justify a double standard for straight and gay people will not withstand a careful and thoughtful reading of the Bible. I believe young, thoughtful evangelicals are discovering this not as a result of the culture blinding them but as a result of the Bible opening their eyes to the dishonesty and hypocrisy of straight Christians who claim for themselves the blessings and comforts of marriage while denying it to others.
The Bible has a way of not remaining hostage to a culture or ideology. Its revelatory focus on liberation, justice, reconciliation and inclusion has a way of liberating it from repressive cultural assumptions that some try to use it to reinforce. When young people ask me whether the Bible doesn't oppress women and gay people, I advise them to read it thoroughly, deeply and thoughtfully... and with a newspaper in their other hand. The Bible itself, studied with open minds and hearts, is more trustworthy than many of us who quote it.