An Evangelical Seeking a Commonsense Solution on Same-Sex Marriage

An Evangelical Seeking a Commonsense Solution on Same-Sex Marriage May 15, 2012

Bob Hyatt doesn’t blog enough. But when he does, it’s good.

Bob is a friend — he stayed at my house last week — but he’s also a thorn in my side. Almost every time I post on issues of human sexuality, he writes a comment here or on Facebook, gently chiding me from the other side of the issue (some of you who disagree with me could learn a lesson from Bob about civil engagement.

Well, Bob has a thoughtful post up today about a middle ground in the same sex marriage debate:

On one side, the Church is going to have to realize that gay men and women, in wanting what everyone else has, are asking for something reasonable. Rights of inheritance and property, custody and visitation- all of the rights granted currently by the state in marriage are good things, things we can affirm, even in relationships that we wouldn’t necessarily endorse. After all, even if we hold a more conservative view on divorce, I don’t see many churches advocating for divorced couples to lose the right to have custody over their step-children should something happen to their spouse. We may not endorse the relationship, but we can certainly try to understand the desire of those in it to have the same legal rights as other couples. And more than understand it- I think we can advocate for it, and practically demonstrate that we do in fact “love everyone.”

At a bare minimum, those who claim the stance “Welcoming but not affirming” must come to grips with the very practical question of what that looks like not just on Sunday morning, but it the public/civic arena too.

On the other side, those pushing for SSM need to understand the depth of feeling involved in and around the word marriage- what is for many Christians a sacrament and for all Christians sacred. To have the State legislate an understanding of what is essentially a religious term, and to legislate it in a way contrary to the faith and practice of so many is profoundly offensive. This goes beyond legalization into the realm of endorsement and definition, and as such, is qualitatively different than many other culture war issues.

As long as we’re talking about “marriage” we’re going to continue to see a stalemate on this issue as those who believe in a traditional, biblical view of sexuality and those who want the basic rights afforded to others all around them each refuse to give an inch.

So what’s the solution?

Read the rest to see Bob’s solution: Bob Hyatt » Last Chance For a Win-Win on Same-Sex Marriage?.

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  • Thanks Tony- I’m getting ready to say some nice things about the Church Planters Academy later this week! 🙂

    • Sarah

      I know this has been said before, but I don’t know why no one is picking up on it: make civil unions mandatory for everyone, as they do in many countries in Europe. Then, if they want to, the couples can have wedding ceremonies at their places of worship for the sacramental rite. The civil union takes care of legal equality without stepping on the toes of the religions that object to same-sex marriage.

      I think this would be a middle ground solution. What do you think?

      (BTW, I am from a mainline protestant denomination that ordains gay and lesbian clergy and leaves it up to clergy to decide what to do in states that allow same-sex marriages.)

  • The problem, fairly unique to the United States, is that the church and the state are harder to separate and American Christians generally like it that way. The case is clear that there is a good political need for same-sex unions. From the state’s point of view, it should be allowed as a matter of equality. And from many in the church’s point of view, they don’t want to give up “the sanctity of marriage.” Now if they considered the religious sanctity of marriage to be the domain of the church and not the state, and if they considered legal rights to be the domain of the state and not the church, then there would be no conflict.

    A few years ago in Canada we legalized same-sex marriage but any church/denomination/religion is still allowed to refuse performing them (and most do refuse). I honestly think most of the problem would be solved if our American brothers and sisters simply made a distinction between a civil union and a religious one – let the state do what is best for the state, and let the churches decide according to their conscience and biblical interpretation what they think is best for the church. I don’t see why it would bother a church to have the state allowing the union if they are still perfectly entitled to stay out of declaring God’s blessing on it. Maybe you need to have separate names since a lot of the debate seems to be a dispute over who gets to control “marriage.”

  • Gary

    I love how Bob parses out the legal from the religious.

    The legal sphere seems to be principally a 10th Amendment issue. States govern civil marriage. In many church sanctioned weddings, the officiant proclaims, “by the power vested in me by the laws of the state of [____].” If, for instance, plural marriage is illegal under the state laws, the officiant would not have the authority to officiate such a marriage. In this scenario, the officiant is acting as an agent of the *state* thus making the ceremony *civil* (not necessarily exclusively civil though) in nature. I would think that the ceremony is governed by the authority invoked.

    The religious sphere seems to be principally a matter of ecclesiology and canon law. A church can “reserve the “right to refuse service” to anyone whether it be based upon not attending the premarital counseling, not being a standing member, not being in good standing with the congregation/communion/clergy, or otherwise the union not being one approved (such as in the case of divorce in some churches). In many church weddings, the officiant proclaims, “by the power vested in me by the [the ____ Church or God Almighty].” In this scenario somewhat parallel to the other, the officiant is acting as an agent of the *church* and/or *God* thus making the ceremony *religious* (and again, not necessarily exclusively religious though) in nature.

    In both scenarios, I would think that the ceremony is governed by the authority or authorities invoked.

    In the context of freedom of religion, the individual gets to choose whether or not to be under the right God’s authority and the right church’s authority. The individual gets to choose which church and which God under which to submit. If this freedom is usurped, perhaps the individual and individuals as the governed collective should restore the right for themselves and for others.

    Beyond these two domains–the legal and the religious–there is at least one other, the linguistic. Many individuals have the difficulty to accommodate two different *concepts* being mapped to one *word*. Fair enough, perhaps we should refer to the Holy as Matrimony and the civil as marriage, or alternatively as the sacred as marriage and the civil as a union.

    There seems to be not only a crisis of esslesiology here but also one of Incarnationality. We are struggling to be comfortable and comforted with loving the good (and the bad I guess with a different/same kind of love) in a broken world.

  • Frank

    From a faith perspective this solution would be acceptable I would think, however our society, culture and state have a vested interest in keeping marriage as a unique social construct of one man and one woman as demonstrated by Casey’s link to the secular “What is Marriage?” paper from Harvard.

    This most likely will end up in the SCOTUS and it is almost inevitable that they will uphold marriage as one man and one women and therefore expanded civil unions with all the relevant legal rights will be the new reality.

    • Gary

      Seems a quite likely outcome in a few years.

      “Marriage or civili union” will be the primary legal thing upon which will hang laws pertaining to taxation, estates, visitation rights, etc.

      “Marriage” will be granted to whoever the specific religion/denomination/church/clergy at had accepts as canonically valid.

      “Marriage” can be linguistically defined as between “one man and one woman.”

      A justice of the peace will be able to perform a “civil union” for homosexual or heterosexual couples but only a “marriage” between “one man and one woman.”

      Would guess this happens in the next Obama administration or the succeeding two-term Democratic Presidency.

      Perhaps at some point later in my life the linguistic gamesmanship will lose its transitional meaningfulness.

      • Charles

        The problem with civil unions (state)/marriage (church) “solution” is the that the laws of the state (515 of them in Minnesota) use the term “marriage” to define, describe, establish legal contracts and such. It’s fine to separate church and state (we should) but it’s not easy nor simple.

  • I’m glad to see my novel proposal isn’t so novel after all. Thanks for sharing this link.

  • It’s not so dissimilar to the situation in the UK: “Civil Partnerships” were introduced with barely a murmur. Same sex couples can sign the civil partnership register at the Town Hall in a ceremony very similar to a civil marriage – and enter into pretty much identical rights and mutual obligations as a married couple would. Of course, many people colloquially refer to these as marriages. And they haven’t really troubled Christian groups very much. The law was changed recently so that CP ceremonies can also be conducted on religious premises if the local congregation wish it. This caused a bit more angst, but is not very contentious.

    Now, the Government is consulting on a change to the law to allow same sex couples to enter into marriage. That simple change of name (*) is causing a huge amount of controversy, with conservative churches adopting all the rhetoric which has been honed in the USA. Thanks guys.

    (*) There will also be a little tidying up of the law because in some unusual cases gay couples are unintentionally disadvantaged: these are fair points of principle, but in the vast majority of cases CPs and married couples have exactly the same status.

    • Alis

      It is hugely contentious for people within those churches where the leadership are pushing to bless religious unions as marriages. You are considered to be a bigot and homophobic if you object. I think insisting that everyone has to have a civil ceremony and can then choose a religious ceremony if they wish would help enormously – it puts us all on a level playing field.

  • Pingback: A commonsense solution on same-sex marriage? « Near Emmaus()

  • Evelyn

    The “biblical” view on marriage, or should I say the “gospel” view is: “Be celibate unless you absolutely can’t help yourself and then you can get married but it isn’t the ideal state (i.e. it is sinful). And, while you are in that union, try to be continent about your sexuality.” It isn’t: “Get married and have hot sex now.” So, marriage is about continence. It isn’t some spiritual, family-oriented entitlement for heterosexuals. It is anti-spiritual. It is for people who don’t have enough spiritual discipline to stay celibate.

    Why is it that the church holds homosexuals to a higher spiritual standard than heterosexuals by urging them to stay celibate? What is it that the church gains by having POWER over people’s marriages and sex lives? Could it possibly be the subordination of women? And who gains from that? There is nothing “religious” about it. It is political.

    • ME

      It’s possible God holds homosexuals to a higher spiritual standard and what the church is after is upholding what God wants. To suggest the church is simply after power over marriage is not giving those churches very much benefit of the doubt.

      To me, your first paragraph hits the nail on the head, but, I take it in a different way. Why can’t we say, look, sex is not that important, it’s not so terrible if God doesn’t want gay people to have sex. We don’t need to fight so hard over something that is not important in a Christian life. I understand the SSM point of view, but, I’m concerned they blow the issue out of proportion and it comes across sometimes as catering to culture.

  • Absolutely right. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Says so right there. I suppose the Founders didn’t think of marriage as a religious question, but if it wasn’t, it certainly has become one.

  • Basil

    I found the article patently dishonest. The author does not acknowledge Christian opposition to any and every proposed local or federal legislation that would protect and extend the civil rights of LGBT persons (like protection from employment discrimination, or adoption rights or…). The proposed creation of civil union structures is legally not feasible (due to the sheer volume of state, federal and local laws that would need to be rewitten) and it shares the same “separate but equal” underpinning of racial segregation.

    • I understand this critique and add another. I am frustrated by the way the article sets up a false division between the (apparently monolithic) Church and Christians on one side and (also apparently monolithic) advocates for SSM. It assumes the two are mutually exclusive which is nowhere NEAR true, and it completely discounts that there are people of faith who are not just advocating for a civil liberty, but believe this sacred institution we call marriage should be accessible to all couples regardless of gender.

  • “those pushing for SSM need to understand the depth of feeling involved in and around the word marriage”
    Many do understand, of course. This consideration cuts both ways: It charges up the decision without clearly pushing it one way rather than the other. “All the more important to have equality about this so deeply felt thing,” someone advocating SSM while understanding the depth of feeling surrounding the issue might well think.

    “To have the State legislate an understanding of what is essentially a religious term, and to legislate it in a way contrary to the faith and practice of so many is profoundly offensive.”

    Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Here’s another:

    “To have the State legislate an understanding of what is essentially a religious term, and to legislate it in a way that excludes a large portion of the population from something deeply important and which is granted to the majority of the population is profoundly offensive.

  • Curtis

    Well, the state could get out of the marriage business. But the real issue is that the word “marriage” has become overloaded. It means too many different things to too many people. Perhaps, instead of waiting for the state to dump the word “marriage”, the church can come up with their own word to use for the sacred binding of a man with a woman. Some churches use the name “Covenant Marriage” to distinguish their union of a man and a woman from civil marriage. Instead of waiting for the state to change the name for the civil contract between life partners, perhaps the church should come up with their own name for their sacred union of man and woman?

  • You know, I used to think exactly the same thing: everyone gets a civil union, and marriages are the religious ceremonies in the churches. But then I realized something: I’m a gay Christian. I go and get civilly unioned, so legally I’m just like everyone else under the law. But in my church, I’m not. I’d call my husband and myself married – covenanted under God just like my fellow Christians. But they’d call me *not* married. So the very same issue still exists, only now it looks like this: how do Christians love one another – and the world – by clinging to some sense of elitism? How do my fellow Christians and I *really* have community when I’ll always be that guy that got into the “club” through a loophole?

    It’s a heart matter, and quite frankly, it’s one that I think the Christians on the “hell no” side are *wrong.* Even if they’re ultimately right, they’re wrong in how they’re hurting people through their actions. So even if they’re right about God not being okay with gay, they’re wrong anyway.

    So no, I don’t think a civil-unions-for-all compromise is the answer.

  • The culture war over same-sex marriage would make alot more sense if we would all admit that’s exactly what it is–a culture war. As in, culture in the anthropological sense. It seems strange to me that gay people have yet to admit that the particular form homosexuality has taken in Western culture in the last 2000 years is a factor in this discussion. It takes other forms in other cultures. In other words, it could take other forms than the dysfunctional one traditional in Western culture, which unfortunately alot of gay people still identify with, as can be seen in the character portrayals in the TV show ‘Queer as Folk,’ for example. I think people would be alot more comfortable with the issue of gay rights in general if they thought that gay people were going somewhere with the whole thing instead of hindsight-rationalizing a transitory and dysfunctional form.