The gospel demands that the church open marriage to all people and the church risks becoming irrelevant if it doesn’t “get with the program,” systematic theologian William Stacy Johnson told the Covenant Network of Presbyterians at its national conference Nov. 1 here.

Echoing the Covenant Network’s theme, Johnson said, “Marriage matters and it matters that we have this conversation because marriage is an entrance ramp into the church or an exit ramp out of it.”

Religious researcher Robert Wuthnow says that the one sociological factor in predicting whether a person will become a church member is whether he or she is married, Johnson said. Even conservative attorney Ted Olson says, Johnson said, “Marriage is the most important relationship in life and we’re going to deprive same-gender couples of that?”

Citing polls showing exponential growth in the number of Americans who support marriage equality, Johnson ― a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and author of A Time to Embrace: Same-Gender Relationships in Religion, Law and Politics ― said, “People are not  stupid. They know what’s going on and the church’s refusal to extend marriage to same-sex couples is one factor in the absence of young people.”

They sense, Johnson added, “that something’s not right, which tells you that they know the gospel somewhere down deep inside, and the sooner we know it, the sooner we’ll build the church up rather than shoot each other in this battle ― its insanity.”

Christians have to come to the marriage equality discussion from the Bible, Johnson insisted. “Marriage matters when we talk about the gospel,” he said. “All of Reformed theology and liturgy assumes that gospel is a task, a journey. Resurrection means that God isn’t finished with us, that the gospel hasn’t come into complete fruition. It informs us that God is for us, Jesus is with us and the Holy Spirit is among us. Marriage is one place where that truth can be recognized and exhibited despite our flaws and failures.”

The gospel message is one of acceptance and inclusion, Johnson said. “I know because I’ve looked at the life of Jesus, who engaged in radical solidarity with everyone, he said. “If we don’t stand the same way, we can’t call ourselves Christian.”

Theologians and church leaders have taken similar stances on other issues throughout history, Johnson said. “Karl Barth stood up in Nazi Germany and said, ‘if you’re not preaching against the concentration camps you’re not preaching the gospel.’ Black South African leaders said the same about apartheid with Barmen De, and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches with the Accra Declaration [on the economic and environmental impact of globalization]. How could people worship God and not speak against these things with the gospel at stake?”

The tide is turning and the arguments have shifted, noted Johnson. In the recent trial in California that led to marriage equality in that state, “opponents had no evidence to present and produced only one witness … who admitted on cross-examination that {marriage equality] would help couples and their children. When asked to produce evidence that same-sex marriage is a bad thing, they couldn’t.”

Johnson said: “The burden of proof used to be on LGBTQs (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer persons) to prove their worth. The burden of proof is now on the church to explain why we were so stingy for so long. The situation is so bad that now the burden of proof is on the church to prove it really matters, that it’s relevant in the real world.”

The fact is, Johnson said, “There is no such thing as gay marriage. There is simply marriage. And gay and lesbian people want theirs’ recognized. And people get it. They’re not stupid.”