06/26/2013 11:00 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2013

Christian Holiness and the Gay Marriage Debate

If there ever comes a time when evangelical Christians are known for something other than their opposition to homosexuality, maybe today's Supreme Court ruling will help. But the gift of the gay marriage debate has been its exposure of two entirely different visions for Christian holiness. Some Christians define holiness in terms of correctness, or fidelity to a set of commandments. Others define holiness as state of the heart in which we have been emptied of all obstacles to loving God and our neighbor. How you understand holiness determines how you will read scripture and how you will relate to gay people as a Christian.

I. Holiness as correctness

If holiness is about correctness, then the purpose of reading the Bible is to figure out what opinions you are supposed to have about the issues in our world so you can approve and denounce what is supposed to be approved and denounced. In this worldview, the church exists to keep us correct. In such an environment, conversation about the Bible means learning the correct phrases to say from listening carefully to the phrases that your small group leader and preacher use and then mimicking them.

The challenge this holiness offers is to hold fast to the correctness you have acquired against a ferocious assault of contradictions from the outside world. The opposite of holiness is understood to be agreeableness, or "compromise" (in evangelical-speak). Your holiness is measured by the number of controversial, "old-fashioned" opinions you hold about the set of issues God is using to test your faithfulness, such as the role of women in the church and at home, whether the Earth was created in six solar days or billions of years, whether or not you should spank children, whether or not hell exists, and of course, homosexuality.

Pursuing this type of holiness means that your thoughts and conversations tend to focus on whatever topics cause the most friction between the Bible and modern sensibilities (as opposed to, say, the areas of spiritual growth where you personally need the most improvement). The reason homosexuality is such a perfect testing ground for this form of holiness is because it pits the Bible against civil rights, utterly confounding liberals who get mad and call you a bunch of names, which increases your holiness points through persecution.

II. Holiness as a state of the heart

Other Christians define holiness as a quest to gain what is called "the heart of Christ," a concept most famously delineated in 14th century priest Thomas A Kempis' Imitation of Christ. People who see holiness in this way yearn to respond to every life situation the way that Jesus would and focus on eliminating every competing allegiance or obstacle in their hearts to purely Christlike instincts.

With the first form of holiness, the basic guiding question is "Am I perfectly correct?" With the second, it's "Am I perfectly loving?" To this second holiness, sin is a problem not just because the Bible says it's wrong, but because it prevents me from seeing Jesus' heart and being perfectly loving to others. I want to be liberated from whatever idols and addictions corrupt my love and make me oblivious to the needs of others. When I go to the Bible, I am not looking for a set of correct opinions about issues; I am looking for a savior to follow and imitate. I understand every teaching in terms of how it will purify my heart so that all my instincts and intuitions are Christlike.

The Good Samaritan story in Luke 10:25-37 seems to be a very plain illustration of the difference between these two types of holiness. Why did the Samaritan stop, but not the priest and the Levite? The text says that he was "moved by compassion." The priest and the Levite had all kinds of rules to tell them how to behave correctly. But ultimately their sense of duty was no substitute for having a Christlike heart. In fact, their rules of cleanliness probably forbade them from touching the body of the wounded traveler. Their sense of holiness was understood in terms of obedience to a book instead of love for a God who tells us to love Him in our neighbors.

Now does this mean you can just do whatever you like as long as you're "loving" to other people? By no means! When our hearts are cluttered with selfish lusts, addictions, and idols, we are too self-absorbed to notice the wounded travelers on the side of the road. We cannot be moved by compassion if we are enchained by anger, lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, pride, or envy. So we seek teachings that cultivate the fruits of the spirit: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,gentleness, and self-control," through which God dissolves the ugliness within our hearts so they can purely belong to Him.

III. The Gay Marriage Debate

Christians with these two very different conceptions of holiness are almost completely incomprehensible to each other. When someone uses the Bible to find correct opinions on controversial issues, every verse is basically boiled down to "pro" or "anti." The details aren't important. Thus, it doesn't matter whether Paul was talking about a Roman orgy in Romans 1:26-27 or that he specifically named adultery that occurs with multiple same-sex partners as being "against nature." All of these details are airbrushed out because the proof-text can only be "pro" or "anti."

It also doesn't matter that the meaning of the two words malakoi and arsenokotai that Paul used in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 can only be speculated, and they could very reasonably mean the provider and client of a male prostitution relationship. That's intolerable; God wouldn't be unclear like that if the purpose of the Bible is to give you clear positions on important issues. That's why when one prominent anti-gay activist Bible scholar decides that these two words mean the passive and active partners in gay sex, then the debate has been resolved permanently forever and the translation is set in stone because the NIV says so.

If you understand holiness to be a state of the heart that is most surrendered to God's love, you're going to read the Bible completely differently than someone who is combing the text to find correct stances on popular issues. Someone who understands holiness in this way wants to know how any behavior sabotages the reign of God's love in one's heart. Correctness for the sake of correctness isn't adequate. The context of every prohibition and instruction matters because the context is part of how we are able to understand analogous behaviors in our time that the Bible doesn't name explicitly.

To this view of holiness, when you take out prostitution and promiscuity, it's hard to see what the gender of someone's lifelong partner has to do with whether or not you are able to love as Jesus loved. So you start to question whether Paul's teachings have been interpreted incorrectly, and whether the need for the Leviticus prohibition on male homosexuality occurs in an ancient patriarchal context in which "uncovering another man's nakedness" had disastrous, chaotic implications for the social order.

Incidentally, the command "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman" is only a prohibition on homosexuality if a male reader is presumed, and the reason male readers are presumed by Leviticus 18 is because only men got to decide about sex in a patriarchal order. So to apply Leviticus 18:22 literally and without context to our time means not only 1) that men should not have sex with men, but also 2) that men should be the only decision-makers in sexual relationships.

IV. The Real Issue

To me, the real issue that God is exposing here is that many Christians demonstrate a complete aloofness to Paul's teaching about justification by faith with the way that they define Christian discipleship and use the Bible. To understand holiness as the pursuit of correctness is exactly like the gospel that Paul's opponents were preaching to the Galatians and Romans. You cannot betray Paul's teaching more perfectly than to take Paul's words and make them into the new "law" that saves us. And yet so many evangelicals have basically become modern-day Galatians substituting a new "law" for the old "law."

So the debate about homosexuality is only the superficial means by which the real, underlying apostasy is exposed. If we keep on using God's teachings to justify and elevate ourselves, we will keep on storing up His wrath. What we need to do when we open the Bible is search for Jesus and ask Him to convict us of any sin that keeps us from loving like He loves. We need to stop making holiness about our approval or disapproval of other peoples' behavior and instead seek to be emptied and perfect vessels of the love that we have received from our savior.