Is New York's Gay Marriage Law the Death of Marriage?

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.

About Ben Bartlett

Ben Bartlett lives in Louisville, Ky., with his wife and two terrific kids. His degree is in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy from Michigan State University, and he has a bunch of education from a bunch of other places with nothing official to show for it. He has taught high school speech and debate, worked for a congressman in Washington DC, and worked in the health and energy industries. He is interested in how pop culture, history, politics, and theology interact with the inner and community lives of individuals... which is weird because he now works as a business analyst. Few things make him happier than reading, discussing, and recommending books.

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    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.

    One of the elders at my previous church said something that has always stuck with me. Basically, he said, Christians need to stop talking about family values, the death of marriage, etc., until we put forth some time and effort and prove that we can value our own marriages and families. Right now, with the divorce rate among professing evangelical Christians being comparable to the general society, we don’t really have a whole lot with which to support our rhetoric.

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Ben,

    I agree with you mostly. But under the third point, I have to part ways with the idea that we have to make this a pragmatic argument. You write, “In other words, this is a secular political debate based on principles of citizenship, rather than a religious debate of sacred texts.” Do you think that is true? That this is a ‘secular political debate’? This is certainly not that at all. There have always been people who engage in homosexual sex, and there always will be until Jesus comes back. In fact, it seems that in the past it was even more prevalent and accepted than it is now. (Greece and Rome, perhaps?) So the world is in absolutely no danger of becoming de-populated because of homosexual activity.

    I think, in the end, that this really is a purely religious discussion that is being leveraged for political points. The only reason that I say anything about any sort of sexual immorality of any kind is because of the Bible. I should plainly say so. Being in a “secular” government does not mean that I have to act like my motivations aren’t religious.

    Jason,

    We really should stop saying that. The truth of what is right and what is wrong is not dependent upon our ability to do what is right. We bare witness to the truth, and part of that truth is that we all sin terribly. This does not mean that we cannot speak the truth about marital fidelity or any form of sexual immorality. In other words, we cannot remain silent until “our house is in order” because that day will not come. Our theology compels us to admit that we cannot fix ourselves, and that the only hope comes through Jesus.

    My point is that we can never cease to speak out about all forms of sexual immorality. Pre-marital sex, adultery, and homosexual sex are all forms of rebellion against God. The fact that evangelicals divorce at the same rate as unbelievers changes nothing about this, right?

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    @Brad: I agree that we must speak out (Biblically and prophetically) against the sin we see in society. Also, our inability to do the right thing does nothing to decrease its right-ness, nor does it decrease our responsibility for proclaiming its right-ness. But it does decrease the likelihood of anyone outside the Church actually paying attention.

    The Church as a whole suffers from a massive credibility issue. We can speak out against sin all we want, but unless we provide a compelling alternative example, I don’t see it doing much good. Why should anyone pay attention to us telling them that they need to get their house in order, to use your phrase, if we can’t do the same for ours?

    I don’t think that speaking out against societal sin and strengthening our own marriages, families, etc. is an “either/or” situation. Rather, it’s a “both/and” situation. Unfortunately, the Church seems to be much better at doing the former than the latter. We’re much better at pointing out the sins everywhere else than confronting and dealing with the sins in our own midst. Some effort should be applied to even out the scales, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it can help provide a compelling witness to those whom we wish to convince of the rightness and efficacy of what the Bible says.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    I appreciate the heart behind your comment Jason and I know what you mean. I guess I just think that its not my fault or your fault or any particular Christian or Church’s fault that marriage is a mess in Christian circles and I can’t wait until that time comes to speak the truth in love as opportunity arises.

    I do hope that the collective testimony of the church with regard to marriage would grow to reflect the glory of the Lord more clearly–I just know that this side of Christ’s return that testimony will always be marred and unless we proclaim the Lord’s vision for our families we will never see change.

    I think where your comments are helpful is in understanding the church’s role in this regard. The church should primarily be proclaiming the truth in this regard to its members and calling them to faithfulness therein rather than primarily preaching at people who aren’t listening and are in fact constantly misrepresenting them.

    I think there is value in Christians speaking out about marriage in the public square. Not everyone is convinced in their own mind–there are those who will listen. We just need to make sure that we speak with grace in mind in that realm.

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    The church should primarily be proclaiming the truth in this regard to its members and calling them to faithfulness therein rather than primarily preaching at people who aren’t listening and are in fact constantly misrepresenting them.

    Precisely.

  • Ben

    Hey guys,

    Thanks for the insightful back and forth. This is definitely a tough line to walk in some ways. Without targeting any one argument in particular, I wanted to highlight a couple of thoughts that I think are significant to the discussion.

    -First, though I agree there are moments for speaking prophetically (actually an area of great interest for me), I am struck by a couple interesting things. Prophetic speaking was nearly always done by the people of God TO the people of God. In other words, though there are some notable and excellent exceptions, most of the prophetic witness is against the wrongs of God’s people. In the OT this meant Israel. For Jesus, this usually meant Israel. Later, for the apostles, it meant speaking against sin and false teachers, but that was almost all internal to the church. I point this out NOT to say we shouldn’t speak to the culture, but just to note that we should be very careful about our use of the prophetic voice. Its primary goal many times seems to be challenging sin among those who know it to be sin, and calling them back to faithfulness.

    In the article I mention that there is a dangerous tendency among Christians to hang on to the idea that we are a Christian nation. This is something Drew Dixon pointed out to me, and it was so helpful I felt it had to be included. We simply are not a Christian nation, and we need to get over that. If we were, maybe the prophetic voice would be a more helpful tool, but such is no longer the case in the political sphere.

    -Second, I really believe one of the most important conversations in the American church for the next twenty years will be over the right division of citizenship in your nation and citizenship in the Kingdom of God. As the country increasingly turns away from the gospel, we have to know the right way to interact… and it’s my believe that that as our political influence wanes, we will be forced to lean more heavily on what we should have been leaning on all along; proclamation of the gospel, condemnation of sin as rebellion against God without trying to force morality politically, and living as a city on a hill and a light to the world.

    That’s really where I’m going with this… the American church needs to start learning how to divorce our citizenship in God’s kingdom from our citizenship in the world, so that we can live as ambassadors in a strange land rather than acting like political insiders trying to jam America into a Christian ethical framework.

    -Finally, regarding ethics in the church, my point is not that we can’t name sin as such. I’m simply saying that developing holiness in the church and proclaiming the gospel to unbelievers is more important than winning incremental political battles so that non-Christians won’t do things we don’t like. Obviously there are limits to this perspective (yes, I would stop a non-Christian from murdering someone if the opportunity presented itself), but I still think there’s a clear emphasis in the NT on holiness in the church rather than political victories among the nations.

    Thanks for all the helpful comments!

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    …we should be very careful about our use of the prophetic voice. Its primary goal many times seems to be challenging sin among those who know it to be sin, and calling them back to faithfulness.

    Thanks for bringing up this very important distinction. When I used the term “prophetic” in my earlier comment, I had forgotten about it. In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have used the term in that particular context.

    That’s really where I’m going with this… the American church needs to start learning how to divorce our citizenship in God’s kingdom from our citizenship in the world, so that we can live as ambassadors in a strange land rather than acting like political insiders trying to jam America into a Christian ethical framework.

    Amen and amen.

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    With all the warnings the last couple decades concerning the death of marriage, I just thought I’d let you guys know that my marriage is alive and well and doesn’t seem to be suffering any noticeable ills. A lot of people seem tok be concerned that unbelievers doing other things would somehow diminish our marriage so I just wanted to let everyone know they can breathe sigh of relief. If I were the New York Times in the ’50s, I’d probably have a headline like: What A Relief!! or Marriage In No Danger.

    I thought about linking to Misty Irons’ old article, A Conservative Christian Case for Civil Same-Sex Marriage, but then I thought that Brad might crack in two, leaving a rift in spacetime that would create a portal to rival the Black Mesa incident. And the Combine might actually do something that could damage my marriage. Like kill me. Which would sadly and irreparbly damage my marriage.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Ben excellent points on citizenship and prophecy.

    @Jason–rereading your comment above, I realize that we really aren’t disagreeing on anything. I suppose I just wanted to warn against taking your pastor’s logic too far. In other words just because Christians have made mistakes in a certain area doesn’t mean that we can’t speak the truth on those issues both in the church and in public. I know you don’t think that we have to reach a certain level of faithfulness in marriage before we can speak to what God’s Word says about it. Anyway I have already devoted more time to that subject than it deserves as we are in essential agreement.

    This discussion reminds me of the “Confession Booths” that sprung up after Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz came out. Christians would set up booths at public events and festivals where people would go in only to have a Christian inside confessing Christendom’s great sins (like the Crusades or practice of Slavery) to them. The problem with this is of course that it is very easy to confess someone else’s sins but a lot harder to confess your own–thus when one comes to this realization the “humility” of such an event evaporates.

    @Seth the first half of your comment was a win! With regard to the second half, you might as well have just linked it–now you have just made people have to take the time to google it themselves.

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne
  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    By the way Rich, that’s just such a cheery picture. It makes me smile every time I see it. Not like a huge, maniacal Joker smile. Just a small normal one. /clarification

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    @Seth – yeah to be truthful that’s kind of why I picked it.

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Seth,

    I can’t tell if you are complimenting me or making fun of me, which means, of course, that you win.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    More just playing off the fact that our ideologies and reading of the Christian ethos seem so desperately at odds that pretty much anything I heartily endorse will be entirely alien to you and vice versa. It’s possible that you could read Irons’ piece and think, you know what, that makes a lot of sense. But I don’t think you would. I don’t think you agree on enough of the foundational issues that make her approach at all sensible.

    But in other news, I’ll take the wins where I can get them.

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Seth,

    I went over and read most of that article. I stopped when she wrote, “People who like having sex with family members or dumb animals are making perverse sexual choices. By contrast the vast majority of homosexuals did not choose to be homosexual.” I get so sick of people mocking people who can’t help that they are attracted to animals. I thought this was a free country?

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    Allow me to introduce you to the Patriot Act (i.e. disabuse you of that notion).

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Yeesh. Don’t remind me. I also heard about that new TSA thing we got going. Spooky.

    Seriously though, I think she does have a point in her article and I was with her up until that paragraph and the nature of homosexuality (as if the nature of it made any difference in the morality of it). I do think, however, that not allowing polygamy is a real problem here. These relationships, when formed by consenting adults, seems to have a valid argument for civil rights. I will be bold and say that I consider polygamy more acceptable as a marriage than calling a homosexual union marriage.

    I am not saying that I wouldn’t be ok with calling homosexual unions civil unions, I just have a serious problem with screwing up perfectly good definitions. So maybe I’m a dictionary stickler and a religious zealot at the same time.

    You may call the Patriot Act people on me now. Or the TSA. ;)


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