Church, Marriage, Culture, and the Law

This past week I’ve been speaking to different groups about gay marriage. I confess that I don’t actually enjoy talking about this topic, but as a resident theologian, I’m inevitably asked to help groups of pastors and churches come to some conclusion on this matter. It’s a big issue in Australia as it has been in the USA and UK. This week a senate motion to recognize same-sex marriages performed overseas was defeated in the Australian senate. But the issue is not going to go away any time soon, especially when it is treated a justice issue for the LGBT community and when the media is overwhelmingly behind it.

The best thing I’ve read on the topic is by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George, What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (New York: Encounter, 2012). I strongly recommend this book! The authors argue that the debate is not about homosexuality, but about the definition of marriage. They contend that marriage is a comprehensive union of a man and a woman. Marriage is not simply the recognition of one’s emotional attachments, long-term sexual partner, or domestic situation. Instead, it is rooted in a sexual ecology of the complementarity between men and women and is oriented towards family. Or, as I would say, marriage is for partnership, procreation, and the promotion of family. They point out the legal absurdities that emerge if marriage is defined as anything other than such a union between a man and a woman. For instance, if marriage is simply the government’s recognition of one’s emotional attachments, there is nothing to say that marriage must be between only two persons, be permanent, and be exclusive. In fact, I would say, given this definition of marriage, a same sex marriage is no more a marriage than a Big Mac is a Falafel.

At the same time, I recognize that in the west Christendom is over. We live in largely post-Christian, secular, and pluralistic contexts. As such trying to impose Christian ethics on people who are not Christians is like trying to push a round peg through a square hole. Therefore, I think we should get government out of marriage and religion out of state regulated relationships. I propose that Australia, the UK, and USA adopt a European model whereby everyone and anyone gets a civil union to recognize the legal status of their relationship, but marriage becomes an exclusively religious rite that is unregulated and non-recognized by the government. In practice that would mean, on Friday you go to your town hall and get the local magistrate to issue you with a civil union, then on Saturday you go to your church or synagogue and have a marriage ceremony. On the government’s view, only Friday matters as a legal contract between two parties, and marriage has the same legal status as baptisms and confirmations. The advantage of this model is that it provides liberty to the state to sanction relationships with legal benefits and rights for both parties, it ensures the religious liberties of churches who don’t have to perform rites or sanction relationships that they don’t want to, and it means that churches do not have to act of agents of the state in performing civil marriages.

On an interesting point, wrestling with the matters of the church, marriage, culture, and law is not new. Let me give an example. Bishop Callistus I of Rome (d. ca. 223) encountered the problem of what to do with a number of women from the senatorial class converting to Christianity. The problem was that Christian noblewomen outnumbered the Christian noblemen. A Christian woman belonging  to the “clarissima” had three options when it came to marriage. First, she could marry a pagan man of the same social status, but this would mean a mixed marriage and lead inevitably to apostasy as it would be incumbent upon her to adopt the religion of her husband. Second, she could marry a Christian of lower station, and thereby forfeit her status as a Roman noblewoman, but that was hardly an attractive option with its loss of social position. Third, she could live in concubinage with a socially inferior Christian, like a freedman or a slave, without being legally married. Callistus chose the third option, concubinage, as an alternative to mixed marriages or the social decline of Christian women, neither of which were in the interests of the church. I think the story of Callistus I shows that when it comes to marriage, law, and culture, we can be confronted with problems not of our own making, and we often have to choose between the lesser of two non-ideal situations. 

  • Felix Alexander

    Why do you propose civil unions? Europe has distinguished between civil and religious marriage for some time and it hasn’t stopped them from having the debate. What difference will one word make?

    State and federal goverments already recognise that relationships exist apart from marriage and apart from any action of the government, and for the most part gives them the same (or similar/equivalent) rights and obligations as a married couple have. I think it’s time to cut back—there should be nothing like civil marriage or civil union, just recognition of relationships that clearly already.

    De facto relationships seem far superior to legal marriages or civil unions because there’s no risk of confusing parliament for lord and also because it means the state is actively recognising of its own volition that it isn’t Almighty and that there are parts of our lives that it can’t control. From the Christian perspective, it might remind some of us that it’s not through democratic or political processes that salvation comes.

    • Patrick

      From day 1 of this debate I’ve held the view that marriage by definition precludes homosexuals(or a lot of other combos) marrying each other at least since the 1st century AD.

      It’s not a matter of picking and choosing, that’s the gay agenda folks doing that. It’s the simple definition of marriage since the 1st century.

      I’ve researched and not been able to find much data where the ancient pagans defined marriage otherwise. A little,not much. Homosexuality was widespread back then, but, they apparently saw that as a “sideshow” thing for fun, not committment.

      Jewish atheist, we Christians shouldn’t get to set the course of society, we get to follow what we believe Christ thinks and if that positively affects society, good. If it causes consternation from anti Christian bigots such as yourself, good for that, too.

      • BillWAF

        Calling MrRoivas an anti-Christian bigot on the basis of what he wrote above is simply stupid.

      • Valarie

        ” we get to follow what we believe Christ thinks and if that
        positively affects society, good. If it causes consternation from anti
        Christian bigots such as yourself, good for that, too.”

        Then follow what Christ thinks. Love one another, period. No “buts”. Stop throwing Old Testament laws in our faces that Christ buried when He was. When you focus on law, on “hating sin, but loving the sinner”. you’re focusing on hate. When you realize that we are all sinners, even you Patrick, and realize that it isn’t your job to impose morality on anyone other than yourself, you are freed from the law Christ abolished with His resurrection. Thus you are free to love, without condition, without regard to sin in someone else.

        You talk about ant-Christian bigots. Have you ever wondered why they are the way they are? Most are not anti-Christian, they are anti-CINO (Christians In Name Only). The modern day Pharisees Those that say “Oh. Lord, I am so thankful I’m not like that sinner over there. Holy, Holy, I am Holy”. Those that preach love, but have no clue how to practice it without hate. Those that drive gay Christians out of the church, and leave them broken and confused. “Christian” parents that push their children into reparative therapy programs that do not work, and cause harm that sometimes cannot be undone. “Christians” that make gay folks feel so ashamed that they turn to suicide.

        You want to point the bigotry finger? Just remember that there are fingers leveled right back at you.

  • MrRoivas

    Contrary to your beliefs, marriage doesn’t belong to Christians. So stop feeling entitled to take it away from everyone else in favor of “civil unions.” I am a Atheist Jew, and when I find the right person, I am going to get married. Not a “civil union,” married. And you can’t do anything about it.

    • Bobserver

      In religious/atheisitic terms an Atheistic Jew is a contradiction. If he should marry another contradiction such as an atheist “Jewess” or “Jew” (after all, as you say, I don’t know his sexuality) then there shouldn’t be a Jewish wedding (marriage) but only a civil ceremony (nothing wrong with that).

  • Rick Wilson

    The civil union solution is a hedge. In the US there are growing numbers of churches who–with solid theological reflection and pastoral interest–willing and eager to extend a marriage ceremony to same-sex couples.

    I am befuddled by the social status argument (actually, a mere anecdote that has not been pressed as an argument) at the end of the post. Is loss of social status a reason to adopt an alternative lifestyle contrary to the values of either community (in the anecdote)? I don’t think so.

    A more moral and productive argument would include acknowledgements of (1) the evolution of social relationships and marriage over time, (2) the changing demands of pastoral action, and (3) the power of the pastoral to overrule the simple answers to complex theological questions.

    I have yet to read anywhere a substantial argument that removes the same-sex marriage issue from issues of justice, race, and class.

    • Frank

      Clearly solid theological reflection does not always produce correct theology. There is no supports whatsoever for homosexual behavior in scripture, just the opposite. Sad that some churches are denying the Word of God and Gods created order.

  • Matthew Hanzelka

    I agree. Any two people should be able to enter into a civil union, and let the religious ceremonies (“marriage”) be handled by religious bodies. I think Dr. Roger Olson makes substantially the same argument here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2010/08/a-modest-proposal-to-end-the-gay-marriage-debate/

  • x x

    Perhaps it’s better expressed this way: secular governments are (and have been for a long time, and are not likely to give up being) in the marriage business. Churches are in the holy matrimony business.

  • Harry

    Your description of what goes on in continental Europe is inaccurate. What happens at the town hall is a wedding leading to a marriage, NOT a civil union. And rightly too. The state not the church owns marriage and the definition of marriage. if you accept that the civil ceremony is a wedding, then your proposal makes a lot of sense to me.

  • Scott__F

    It was my understanding that until about a thousand years ago, the church was not all that interested in getting involved in the marriage racket, with marriages taking place outside the church followed by a service in the sanctuary.


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