I don’t intend to write on this every week, but the controversy is not going away and Christians need to be engaged, so perhaps a few reflections every now and then may prove helpful. Since last week’s post, I’ve been thinking about three more questions Christians may be asking.
1. Why don’t we just separate the religious and civil dimensions of marriage? The premise behind the question sounds promising at first. “Let the state do whatever it wants with marriage. The government can have its own licensing arrangement and the church can solemnize whatever unions it chooses. Won’t things be simpler if we let each institution do what it wants?” Well, on one level we already have this arrangement. Churches can hold all sorts of ceremonies. Your pastor can “marry” a dog to a cat or perform a commitment ceremony between a rock and a tree. The government doesn’t care, but it won’t give you a license and it won’t call it marriage. If the church wants to get out of the marriage business altogether, the government won’t object, but that doesn’t look like Christian conviction, or even compromise, more like total capitulation.
Then, someone may ask, why not take government of the marriage equation and leave it up to individual worshiping communities to decide whom they will marry and what constitutes marriage? Even if our politicians were entertaining such a notion (which they’re not), it would be utterly impossible and completely undesirable. No-marriage is worse than messed-up-marriage. From taxes to estates to child custody, the state has a vested interest in overseeing the legality of marriage. They will not give that up, and it would be an unholy mess if they did. Imagine the chaos if every church or synagogue or mosque handled marriage on its own. Eight people playing cards every Friday would call themselves a church, ordain someone as a minister, and start doing marriages on the side. Hormonal teens with a conscience about sex before marriage would quickly get married one night so they would no longer have to “burn with passion.” Child custody would often be a nightmare. Divorce would be easier than ever. Everything that marriage is supposed to protect and promote would be undermined. We need some institution that is nationally recognized and has the means to enforce its own laws? Whether we like it or not, that institution in the modern world is the state.
2. As long as we, as Christians, can have our view of marriage, what’s the big deal if the government allows for other kinds of marriage? Again, the question hints at an attractive ideal. “Let’s call a truce on this culture war stuff. The world will define marriage one way and we will define marriage according to the Bible. The state has to be neutral, right? People just want Christians to be tolerant of other views and other ideas on marriage. Where’s the danger in that?” The problem is that all the cultural arguments for “tolerating” gay marriage are not-so-thinly veiled arguments against the supposed bigotry of those who hold to a traditional understanding of marriage. What do you think the equal signs all over Facebook mean? They make a moral argument: those who oppose gay marriage are uncivil, unsocial, undemocratic, un-American, and probably inhumane.
If you believe homosexual behavior is wrong and gay marriage is a contradiction in terms, you are fast becoming, in the public eye, not simply benighted but positively reprehensible, like the last slave owner who refuses to get on the right side of history. I understand that Christians tire of the culture war, but it’s not a battle we started, and if (when?) we lose the debate on homosexuality we will lose much more than the gurus of tolerance let on. David S. Crawford is right:
The tolerance that really is proffered is provisional and contingent, tailored to accommodate what is conceived as a significant but shrinking segment of society that holds a publically unacceptable private bigotry. Where over time it emerges that this bigotry has not in fact disappeared, more aggressive measures will be needed, which will include explicit legal and educational components, as well as simple ostracism. [Humanum, Fall 2012, p. 8]
Many Christians are about to find out there is nothing in the modern world quite so intolerant as tolerance.
3. Will all of this spell disaster for the church? That depends. It could mean marginalization, name calling, and worse. But that’s no disaster. That may be the signs of faithfulness. The church is sometimes the most vibrant, the most articulate, and the most holy when the world presses down on her most. But only sometimes. I care about the decisions of the Supreme Court and the laws our politicians put in place. But what’s much more important to me—because I believe it’s more crucial to the spread of the gospel, the growth of the church, and the honor of Christ—what happens in our churches, our mission agencies, our denominations, our parachurch organizations, and in our educational institutions. I fear that younger Christians may not have the stomach for disagreement or the critical mind for careful reasoning. We’re going to need a good dose of the fundamentalist obstinacy that most evangelicals love to lampoon. The challenge before the church is to convince ourselves, as much as anyone, that believing the Bible does not make us bigots, just as reflecting the times does not make us relevant.