Is the Traditional Definition of Marriage Harmful to LGBTQ People?

Is the Traditional Definition of Marriage Harmful to LGBTQ People?
April 9, 2019

By Preston Sprinkle, President of the Center for Faith, Sexuality, and Gender.

This question is dear to my heart, because many of my friends, who identify as LGBTQ, are so dear to my heart. And many of them have been harmed by the church. Drew Harper, a gay man raised in the church, captures the widespread experience of many when he says:


To be gay in the American evangelical church is to be dead. You’re an outcast, a refugee. A diseased person.


Story after story, person after person, Drew’s summary rings true with so many LGBTQ people raised in the church. Without a doubt, the American evangelical church has not been the most hospitable and loving place for people who experience same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria.


But—and this is the question—what’s causing the harm? There might be any number of things causing the harm: ignorance about the complexities of sexuality and gender, fear of “the other,” bigotry toward those who struggle with different things than you, social pressure to dislike certain people, 20th century perspectives about masculinity that shames anyone who simply experiences same-sex attraction, unscientific and unbiblical assumptions about people “choosing” to be gay. Added to these possible causes is the historically Christian theological view that sex difference is an intrinsic part of marriage and that same-sex sexual behavior is sin.


One writer believes it’s the latter: The historically Christian view of marriage (or, as he puts it, “condemning same-sex relationships”) is what’s causing the harm. 


Condemning same-sex relationships is harmful to LGBT people. Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount that good trees bear good fruit (Matthew 7:15-20), but the church’s rejection of same-sex relationships has caused tremendous, needless suffering to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.


Another pastor agrees when he puts it like this:

It is precisely because a person holds an anti LGBTQ belief that they treat LGBTQ people differently. It is because a church holds a traditional view of marriage and puts limitations on and excludes LGBTQ people that causes disconnect between leaders and gay kids.


The harm argument—that a historically Christian view of marriage and sex is harmful to certain people—has become one of the most widespread arguments used to argue for same-sex marriage in the church. And since we know that harm has been, and is being, done toward LGBTQ people, we need to be eager to identify the cause.


It’s certainly true that some Christians have harmed some gay people. I whole heartily agree. And most likely, these same Christians held to a traditional view of marriage. But this correlation in itself doesn’t show that it’s their beliefs (about marriage and sexual ethics)that’s causing the harm. Correlation doesn’t prove causation. And if you actually care about the harm that some (or many) gay people experience in the church, you should be eager to go beyond assumptions about correlation and get to the heart of causation. And this is why I have several queries about the so-called harm argument.


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First, broad-brushed generalizations used to weaponize an ideology are unhelpful and can be in themselves harmful. Here’s what I mean.


Sweeping generalizations like “Christians” and “LGBTQ people” are very unhelpful—as if every LGBTQ is harmed by every Christian who believes in a traditional sexual ethic. After all, what about the millions of LGBTQ people (in the U.S. alone) who believe in a historically Christian view of marriage and sexual ethics? They don’t say they are harmed by the very theology they believe in. Or are they not really LGBTQ since they don’t hold to a particular set of beliefs about marriage? Are they not intelligent enough to evaluate and reject/embrace the historically Christian sexual ethic? Could it not be dehumanizing to use “LGBTQ” in such a restrictive sense so as to exclude a significant number of people who are actually LGBTQ but doesn’t adhere to a particular ideology? Does not our value and worth as humans run far deeper than the ideology we adhere to?


Yes, it’s certainly true that some Christians have harmed some LGBTQ people. It’s also true that some non-Christians harm LGBTQ people.


It’s also true that some Christians help LGBTQ people. One of my friends has worked with over 5,000 LGBTQ people and their families, helping them toward reconciliation, understanding, and love. As a result, he’s received countless responses that go something like “I (or my kid) wanted to kill myself and now I want to live after talking to you.” And my friend passionately believes in a traditional Christian sexual ethic. He also cares deeply for people in ways unseen by the common human.


The fact is, some people harm some people, and some Christians who hold to a traditional view of marriage actually help some LGBTQ people.


It’s also true that some straight Christians harm some LGBTQ people.


Some LGB people harm some T people, and some T people harm some LGB people.


Some feminist L people accuse biologically male T people of harming women.


Some LGBTQ people, who have come to believe in Christ, now say they have been harmed by the narrative that affirms same-sex sexual relationships and marriage.


And on and on it goes. We could also point out that some Christians who believe that sex outside of marriage is wrong have harmed other Christians who have had sex outside of marriage (through shame, emotional abuse, even physical abuse). But this doesn’t mean believing that sex outside of marriage is the cause of the harm. (The true cause of the harm probably lies in the manner in which they hold to their beliefs and their failure to believe other vital aspects of the gospel narrative—like grace, love, and forgiveness.)


As we try to get to the root of the harm, let’s be more precise and avoid sweeping generalizations.



Second, before we ask the question “Is it harmful?” we need to ask “Is it true?”


Many things that are “true” could be interpreted as harmful. For instance, loving your enemies could viewed as harmful, which is why some Christians practically reject this command (not in word but in the way they live)—it’s just not livable; it’s just not practical; it’ll cause enemies to harm my family.


Uprooting your family and moving to a foreign land as a missionary could cause lots of emotional, psychological, and even physical harm on you or your family. This doesn’t in itself mean that overseas missions is therefore wrong.


Or, imagine that you’re in a really tough marriage. There’s no infidelity or abuse involved and you don’t have any kids. But, you’ve fallen out of love. You’re arguing all the time. You don’t find each other attractive. The feelings you once had for your spouse are not there anymore. And you can think of half a dozen of other people you’d rather be with. (Yes, I’m describing the majority of modern marriages…) Staying in the marriage—one could argue—will cause psychological and spiritual harm. But does this mean that divorce would be morally right?


No need to answer that question. My only point—one we should all be able to agree on—is that looking at the perceived harm that a particular action might bring is not sufficient by itself to determine whether that view is morally right.


The harm argument might not be the best way to determine truth. We need to determine whether something is true before we consider its potential harm.



Third, Marriage and sex are not essential for human flourishing


Some could say that it’s not that Christians who hold to a traditional sexual ethic are harming LGBTQ people. It’s that the belief itself is causing the harm.


That is, if LGBTQ people are trying to follow Christ and they are forced to believe that marriage is defined as the union of a man and a woman, then this belief itself will cause a massive amount of distress, depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation.


This is a worthy suggestion to consider. But I find it to be problematic for one main reason—it employs a view of marriage and sex that’s foreign to the New Testament for it to work.


The fact is—the gospel doesn’t come with a promise that you will get married, fulfill your romantic desires, and live happily ever after. If this causes you great distress, then the root cause of this distress is not a Christian sexual ethic, but the misleading assumption that God has promised you marital and sexual fulfillment. And this equally applies to marriage-crazy straight people, just as much as to gay people, considering the way of Christ.


Unfortunately, the modern evangelical story contains a rather dangerous sub-plot, and it goes like this.


After high school, you will slug your way through a tragic period of singleness where you should be preparing for your climatic stage in life—marriage. (The purity gospel added: If you remain sexually pure, stay away from bad boys or girls, then God will reward you with the perfect spouse and only then will you live happily ever after.)


But then you turn 25. And no soul mate. You’re nearly 30. Still no soul mate. You round the corner at 35—argh!! Still no soul mate! God, what's wrong with me? What's wrong with you? Why am I not married yet?


The fact is, the gospel never comes with a promise that you will marry the person you desire and live happily ever after. And if this disrupts you, then you need to reconsider New Testament Christianity. Do a word search on “gospel;” look up every time thet word “hope” or “promise” is used in the Bible. The fact is: there’s not a shred of God inspired evidence that humans need a sexual relationship or marriage to fully image his nature and flourish as a human being.[i]


And it’s the evengelical church, who trypically believes in a traditional sexual ethic, that has said otherwise. We are the ones who have somehow smuggled the marriage-narrative into the first century gospel and baptized our converts into it. We are the ones who have idolized marriage and made single people feel like second-class citizens because they haven’t tied the knot. We are the ones who have glossed over Paul’s radical statements about the beauty and supremacy of singleness in 1 Corinthians 7.


We are the ones who have created the argument now used by progressive Christians, who say that it’s harmful for LGBTQ Christians to live without the hope of marriage and sex.


I fear that some affirming Christians are unconciously employing the conservative evangelical marriage narrative to make their argument work. Rebaptizing the marriage narrative in an affirming ideology has the potential of causing a lot of relational and psychological damage for people who think that Jesus—our single Savior of marital age—offers the guarantee of marriage and sexual fulfillment for those who choose to follow him.


If we were serious about determining the true harm toward LGBTQ people, one could argue that it’s the secular ideology, which makes sex, romance, and marriage essential for human flourishing, that’s the real culprit. Immersing people (gay or straight) in an unbiblical ideology that makes them/us feel incomplete, unsatisfied, or unworthy might be the very thing causing the harm.


Lastly, the harm argument could go both ways. Some could say that advocating for sexual immorality (sex outside of [a male-female] marriage) is itself eternally harmful (1 Cor 6:9-11; Eph 5:5; Rev 2:14, 20). But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about some versions of a transgender ideology that’s starting to harm children in particular. 


As is now well known, gender identity among prepubescent children is very fluid. According to over a dozen studies, 60-80% of children who exhibit cross-gender behavior will end up identifying with their biological sex after puberty. We now know that puberty blockers (medication that delays a child’s natural process of going through puberty) have some serious medical hazards. We also know that cross-sex hormones and sex reassignment surgeries can have serious and irreversible effects on people. And we also know that children and youth can embrace a cross-gender identity for many different reasons—not simply because they are that gender.


This is why many secular scientists who specialize in gender dysphoria and who also have no moral problems with sex reassignment surgery say we should use much more caution in allowing children and youth to socially or medically transition. And yet—certain forms of a transgender ideology are causing, one could argue, counselors and doctors to experiment on children in ways we haven’t seen since the dark ages.


For instance, certain forms of this ideology could be accused of:



Or allowing a repeated sex offender, who’s violated several female children (he claims to have violated 60), into female-only spaces simply because he identifies as a female.


Please note: I’m not using these examples as an argument in the other direction, that an LGBTQ—or T—affirming ideology is itself harmful. That’s not how Christians should construct her or his ethical system. We need to appeal to a higher authority as our base and go from there. I only cite these examples to illustrate my final point: harm arguments can go in both directions and this helps illustrate why anecdotal stories are insufficient grounds for constructing an ethical system.





These are only some initial thoughts as I consider how the harm argument has been framed. One of the main points I want us all to consider is that the harm argument cannot be justified by anecdotal evidence alone. Traditionalists have their anecdotal stories of people being harmed by an affirming ideology. Progressives have their anecdotal stories of people being harmed by a traditional ideology. Stories are helpful, but they are limited. Which is why we need to cross-check our anecdotal stories with sociological evidence.


And this is what we will do in our next post. Is there sociological evidence that helps us unravel the correlation/causation conundrum when it comes to the harm committed against LGBTQ people?


[i] Genesis 2:18 is often cited to suggest otherwise: “it’s not good for man to be alone.” Later in the chapter, Adam marries Eve. Does this mean that marriage is God’s solution to loneliness and that humans need to get married to be truly fulfilled? I don’t think it does. In this passage, Eve is not just Adam’s spouse but also another human companion on earth. Adam was alone in the sense that he was the only human on earth (according to the story). Eve therefore represents not just a spouse but also human community. Throughout the rest of Scripture, the solution to human loneliness is non-sexual companionship and not marriage. Marriage has many functions and purposes throughout the rest of Scripture (procreation, mirroring Christ and the church, illustrating creational unity among diversity, and others), but solving human loneliness—a meaning that would be foreign to the ancient world—doesn’t appear to be one of them.