The Christian church on earth is always, in a sense, in exile. Whatever the incidental identities of her members may be—whether of nationality, race, class, or gender—their ultimate identity is that they are in Christ and belong to him. Compared to the ephemeral categories that human cultures have created for distinguishing one from another, this foundation in Christ is absolute and final. As a result, the church never belongs to this world, but always looks to another.
Yet there are times in history when it is more dramatically obvious, and perhaps more painfully experienced, than at other times, that the church is in exile. In America, given the past cultural dominance of a form of civic Protestantism that is now vanishing rapidly, the sense of being an exile community is likely to be sharpened in the imminent future.
At the heart of this unraveling lies the politics of sexual identity. While many Christians rightly see the advent of legalized abortion as a very significant step in the legal redefinition of what it means to be a person, the coming of so-called same-sex marriage is set to have far more immediate impact upon the everyday lives of Christians.
On one level, we should note that abortion—the killing of innocents—is a more dramatic crime than two men marrying each other. The former involves evil inflicted on a victim. The second, wicked as it is, involves mutual consent and no necessary violation of an innocent third party. Thus, Roe v. Wade is without doubt a devastating blow to notions of legally protected personhood.
Yet the way in which the gay marriage debate is developing may well have a far greater impact upon the way we all live our lives than does the legalization of abortion. Most significantly, gay marriage has become the issue on which the First Amendment is now coming under incredible pressure.
First, we need to understand that the gay marriage issue is not simply about the legitimate bounds of sexual activity. Many Christians respond to accusations of singling homosexuals out for excoriation by pointing to the fact that we also object to sex between unmarried heterosexuals. That is a good argument, but it misses the full significance of the gay issue. To object to heterosexuals having sex outside of marriage is to object to an illegitimate expression of a legitimate identity. To object to gay sex, or gay marriage, is to deny the legitimacy of an identity.
This is why parallels are so easily drawn by gay activists between their demands and those of the earlier Civil Rights movement. They see their struggle as one for a fundamental identity, not one for an incidental lifestyle choice. And this is why the church is about to feel the reality of her exile.
It is one thing to believe something that the world regards as nonsense. There are plenty of Christian doctrines that fall into that category. The doctrine of the Incarnation is an obvious one. The idea that the transcendent God, who created and sustains all things, should condescend to take human flesh and dwell in space and time as a particular man is foolishness to the world. That he should die on a cross for the crimes of others is morally offensive to the natural man. That he should be resurrected and will return again is nonsense to the unbeliever. Yet Christians can hold each of these beliefs and still be considered decent and polite members of civil society.