By Bob Allen
Religious arguments against same-sex marriage are weakened in society by the breakup of traditional families, a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention said at a recent film festival connecting LGBT sexuality with evangelical Christianity.
“Because I believe homosexuality is prohibited in the Bible, the issue of same-sex marriage in the church is also prohibited,” Karen Swallow Prior, a Liberty University English professor, said in a panel discussion at the Level Ground film festival Oct. 8-10 in Nashville, Tenn.
“For the church the purpose of marriage, among other things, besides being fruitful and multiplying, is also to be a picture of the relationship of Christ and the church,” she said in counterpoint to an affirming view of homosexuality presented by Professor Luke Timothy Johnson of the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.
Prior said she believes the purpose marriage serves in the church “spills over in its goodness to civil society,” but she recognizes that in a secular society many people outside of the church are going to have a different idea.
“But I still ask the same question,” she said. “I ask, ‘Well what is the purpose of marriage in civil society?’ It seems clear to me that the purpose of marriage is to provide for and protect a society’s future citizens, and every future citizen comes from a male and a female. Even if it’s in a test tube, ultimately its origins are in that union. So I think the purpose of marriage in a civil society is the nurture of its future citizens.”
“The only tricky part for me,” she equivocated, is that statistics now show that many if not most children in the United States are no longer being raised in a home with their biological mother and father.
“We have already broken families even before those families are created,” Prior said. “That points to a great failure of opposite-sex marriage. I think that’s partly why we have more acceptance of same-sex marriage, because of this great brokenness.”
“I don’t think that same-sex marriage is the answer to that civil purpose,” she continued, “but I do concede that what I see as the purpose of marriage, even civil marriage, has been weakened by that failure on the part of opposite-sex marriage.”
Prior, one of three women among 70 scholars selected by ERLC President Russell Moore for a think tank launched in 2014 named the ERLC Research Institute, has been criticized for her participation in the Level Ground movement, started in 2013 by two Fuller Theological Seminary students — one gay and one straight — to create “safe space for dialogue about faith, gender and sexuality through the arts.”
Prior explained her support for Level Ground in a blog Nov. 5.
“As a Christian strongly committed to biblical authority and to orthodox Christian teaching on human sexuality and marriage, I am thankful for the opportunities Level Ground has provided for me to share my convictions, especially with those who do not hold them,” she said. “The truth of Scripture is only served by open discussion and testing. The power of that truth allows me to enter the spaces provided by Level Ground with confidence.”
“I can think of no other venue that has allowed me to speak the truth in love as Level Ground has,” she continued. “Just as important, Level Ground has challenged me to even greater strength of conviction as its programs have expanded my knowledge and understanding of those whose experiences and views are vastly different from mine.”
During their conversation, Johnson asked Prior if being a minority voice in a gathering where the vast majority of the audience is LGBT-affirming made her feel uneasy.
“I love people, and I love learning,” she said. “That’s why I teach. It’s a little challenging, a little adrenaline-producing, but I’m very comfortable.”
As an English professor in a school that does not have a theater department, Prior — after apologizing for the stereotype — said she earned the nickname “gay magnet” at the conservative Christian university in Lynchburg, Va., because of the number of students who have come out to her about their same-sex orientation. That reputation spread beyond the campus in April 2013, when a former student credited her in his own coming out story told in an article in The Atlantic titled “Being Gay at Jerry Falwell’s University.”
Prior said in her blog that she supports Level Ground’s “extraordinarily brave vision” to foster relationships between people with different opinions, elevate public discourse and “encourage reconciliation instead of division.”
The topic of Prior’s panel discussion in Nashville was “convicted civility,” a term coined by theologian Richard Mouw to describe a model of conversation in which “Christians act like Christians even when they disagree.”
“I am firmly convicted that we can disagree on this issue and disagree in love,” Prior told the audience at Level Ground.