For the most part, Christian ethics are pretty straightforward. Don’t steal. Don’t slander. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Expressing those things on a personal level is usually fairly clear and simple, but doing so at a national policy level is much more difficult. Our diverse and complex nation tries to be Christian and not-Christian, progressive and conservative, freeing and protecting, responsible and permissive all at once. The legal and ethical schizophrenia can be severe. In that environment, our desire for a God-honoring definition of marriage goes easily unheeded.
So as we consider New York’s recent approval of gay marriage, let us be clear about a few things.
First, Scripture clearly tells me to love homosexuals. Christ’s call to love is not reserved to those with similar faith or ethics, not strategically shaped to avoid uncomfortable situations. Love means when you have a homosexual coworker, you befriend them. When you have a homosexual neighbor, you build a relationship with them in all the ways you would a normal neighbor. And when a homosexual person tells a story, you listen just as intently and appreciate their sincerity just as much as you would for anyone else in the world. These things sound simple and obvious, but fearful and unfriendly reactions to homosexuals are common and need to stop.
Second, Scripture clearly tells me the practice of homosexuality is sin. Scripture proclaims it to be a perversion of God’s good gifts, a challenge to his order, a lack of trust in his design. This means that ultimately, like abortion or adultery, Christians are saddened and dismayed by anything that expands and legitimizes the role of sin in our everyday lives. This sounds simple and obvious, but the temptation to simply declare homosexuality to be perfectly acceptable is an increasing problem in the church, especially some of the more liberal denominations.
Third, the Christian hope is never in human government to correct hearts that naturally turn to sin. While we do try to display the hope and beauty of the life God offers, we know the path to destruction will always be wide and well-populated. In a world where society will never fully submit to Christ until his return, morality based on his Word will likewise never fully prevail against a self-idolizing culture. This sounds simple and obvious, but you might be surprised at how many people in the church think of culture wars as a chess match with an endgame, rather than a challenge that will not find final resolution until the Lord returns.
When we arrange those thoughts correctly in our minds, we are better prepared to take on a question like the recent New York law.
In some ways, the conservative outcry over this issue makes sense. Allowing two men or two women to classify themselves as married really is an assault on the classic definition of marriage, and there certainly cannot be such thing as a homosexual marriage which is not an affront God’s commands in this area.
But in another sense, the idea of marriage was already under heavy assault. Divorce laws have made union, even between a man and a woman, an easily breakable thing. And the massive rise of cohabitation and civil unions has already dismissed, “marriage as a holy institution,” and made lifelong freedom the cultural norm. The simple fact is that marriage has lost its grandeur, and has already become merely another word for a temporary civil union, a legal entity whose primary purposes include having a beautiful wedding and simplifying health insurance.
So as Christians, how can we protect marriage in a country that has clearly fallen away from God? And how can we renew the beauty of God’s design for marriage when the word is being stolen out from under us?
First, we should make the debate about the government’s right to recognize the family unit as the long-term building block of civilization, rather than using the “God said so,” defense. In other words, this is a secular political debate based on principles of citizenship, rather than a religious debate of sacred texts. Too many times I have heard Christians say the reason two atheist men cannot have legal familial privileges is that, “God made marriage to be between one man and one woman.” (or, worse, that He made, “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”). This is a non-starter of an argument in a multi-cultural, multi-religious society.
Christians get very defensive about their family lives. We do not want the government or anyone else telling us how to educate our kids, how to handle discipline, or how we should worship. Is it any surprise, then, that those who do not claim Christ as their authority are defensive about how they structure their families? At one moment in history, the majority of this nation was Christian and could be expected to converse about the law using principles from the Bible. Those days are long gone, though, and we would be foolish to expect that muscling Christian ethics through secular political institutions will somehow bring those days back.
However, as Robert George has shown in his work at Princeton, there can be a special recognition of the monogamous one man, one woman familial unit as the building block of humanity’s continuation. The argument, though primarily pragmatic, is a good reflection of our trust that God’s way for society is the healthiest, and it nicely sets marriage apart from other civil unions. We really can make good arguments for healthy political life, based on godly principles, without trying to enforce our religious ethics on those who do not believe. That’s one good strategy for protecting the institution of marriage.
More important, though, is this: honor your marriage. If we want to tell the world that marriage was designed to display God’s created order and to model the relationship of Christ and the church, we need to treat it that way.
That means that when you fight with your wife, divorce needs to be banished from your mind. It means that when a couple at your church seems to be struggling, you go out of your way to help them find counseling resources. It means you open up and allow young couples and even your kids to see that, “commitment,” means there will be bad times too, and that working through those times is part of the deal.
Christians want marriage to be set apart, and I understand that. I agree with it. I am no happier about the legalization of homosexual, “marriage,” than you are. But until our version of marriage is so radically different from the culture’s that it can’t help but notice, an unbelieving world will continue to see us as domineering rather than as ambassadors for the hope of Christ.