Rev Alistair Begg has come under criticism for advising a member of his congregation to attend their grandchild’s wedding to a transgender person. It’s a very complex issue, says John Stevens, but not one we should divide over
I have never attended, or even been invited to a same-sex wedding. If I were, I would feel very conflicted, especially if it were of a close family member. Would I go?
This is a reality facing an increasing number of Christians who are committed to biblical orthodoxy and firmly believe that marriage can only be between one biological man and woman.
Alistair Begg, a Scottish pastor ministering in America, recently caused controversy over pastoral advice given to a grandmother invited to attend her grandchild’s wedding to a transgender person. He said it was matter of wisdom. Many have criticised him, and he has been cancelled from some ministry opportunities.
In an episode of his ‘Truth for Life’ podcast, Begg gave this advice: “Well, here’s the thing: your love for them may catch them off guard, but your absence will simply reinforce the fact that they said, These people are what I always thought: judgmental, critical, unprepared to countenance anything”. He added that, as long as the grandson knew she was not “affirming” his life choices, “then I suggest that you do go to the ceremony, and I suggest that you buy them a gift.”
After Begg refused to retract his opinion or apologise for the advice given, broadcaster American Family Radio said they would no longer air his program.
But Begg’s approach is not new. Similar advice is given by organisations here in the UK such as Living Out and Focus on the Family. There is a diversity of views on this issue even within the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FEIC) which I lead. Those I know personally who have faced this situation have all chosen to attend the same-sex wedding they were invited to.
Those who criticise this approach do so on different grounds. Some say it is never morally acceptable to attend a same-sex wedding because it celebrates sin, and marriage is a creation ordinance. Others accept it is a wisdom issue but regard his specific advice as unwise.
We fail to appreciate the events Joseph, Daniel, Nehemiah and Esther would have attended with their pagan masters
While the Bible teaches clearly that marriage is for one man and one woman, what it says about our complicity in the sin of others is much more nuanced. Jesus ate with sinners even though his culture regarded this as approving of their sin. Eating with tax collectors was not the cultural equivalent of us going for a meal with colleagues, but more akin to a leader of the French Resistance attending a party hosted by local collaborators.
In 1 Corinthians Paul makes clear that believers can associate with sexually immoral people in social situations, but cannot participate in demonic idol worship in the temple (see 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 and10:14-34). On which side of the line does attending a gay marriage fall?
Working out the consequences
When a close family member enters a same-sex marriage, there has often been a whole chain of events that relatives have had to navigate. They will have come out as gay, likely cohabitated, perhaps had children. If we have welcomed them into our family, accepted their invitations to dinner, possibly allowed them to stay over in the same room at Christmas, celebrated their birthdays and the arrival of their children with joy, then it is understandable if the couple feel that refusing to attend their wedding is hypocritical hair-splitting.
The same goes for all the ways in which we might functionally accept the reality of the relationship after their same-sex wedding. Are we to live in permanent hostility or denial?
While I have sympathy with those who argue that attending a gay marriage would constitute condoning or celebrating sin, this is true of many of our social interactions. How many Christians have celebrated the wedding of a cohabiting couple who were not repentant, where the wedding was inevitably the affirmation of their whole relationship, perhaps in a church at which a false gospel was preached?
Would they refuse to attend the wedding of a close relative to a divorcee when there were no biblical grounds for that divorce, and the marriage could be considered a celebration of adultery? Is it wrong for Christians to attend a Roman Catholic wedding at which mass is celebrated, or a Hindu wedding at which blessings in the name of false gods are pronounced? Those who argue that it would be wrong to attend a gay marriage in any circumstances ought to equally argue against any such associations. While marriage is a creation ordinance, Romans 1 teaches that all sin and idolatry is against creation, and all sex outside of marriage is a violation of the creation order.
Participating in sin?
The crucial question is whether attendance at a same-sex wedding inevitably connotes participation in sin. Some have likened it to facilitating an abortion or buying a drink for an alcoholic. However, I don’t think this analogy works for an event that will go ahead whether you attend or not. Begg advised the grandmother to attend only because the grandchild was an unbeliever, and the grandmother’s Christian views were well known. She would not be misunderstood as approving the sin, but rather as loving the person.
In some instances the nature or context of the ceremony would mean attendance amounted to participation. However, it may be possible to attend without, for example, clapping or joining in with words of affirmation, in much the same way that an evangelical Christian might attend a Catholic funeral or Hindu wedding without joining in with the service.
The Bible provides surprising examples of faithful believers attending intrinsically sinful events or ceremonies. When Jesus ate with sinners, he said it was his very purpose to be among sinners. This does not mean he only went to preach or have evangelistic conversations, but to enable relationships in which that might be a possibility.
Eating with tax collectors was not the cultural equivalent of going for a meal with colleagues
The most intriguing biblical example is Namaan, who sought the permission of Elisha to accompany his master, the king, when he worshipped in his pagan temple, even seeming to bow down with him. Elisha blessed him in attending without participating (see 2 Kings 5). I think we fail to appreciate the events Joseph, Daniel, Nehemiah and Esther would have had to attend as they served their pagan masters.
Wisdom and conscience
If it were my child, grandchild or sibling, I think I might be willing to attend for the sake of the relationship, provided that my biblical convictions were clearly known, and that I was not forced to participate in affirmations I believe false. I doubt that I would attend the same-sex wedding of a colleague or acquaintance, and I would find it harder to justify attending a same-sex wedding in a church than a civil ceremony.
I am grateful for Alistair Begg’s honesty. He reflects the views of many. Whatever we might think about the wisdom of his specific advice, I am distressed by the lack of grace and compassion shown by some to those who are facing this immensely painful and difficult issue in their families.
It is not an issue we should divide over. We need to allow believers to exercise their judgement in conscience before God.