Sunday, July 12, 2015

Recommend-a-blog (10)

William Lane Craig has one of the better-reasoned takes I have come across on the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that has redefined marriage.

Like Roe v. Wade, this is a seismic event for the U.S. and the consequences for Christians who seek to follow scripture will be significant. Craig’s analysis and advice to believers is eminently more sensible than David Brooks’ column in last week’s New York Times, which may as well have been entitled “Resistance is Futile”. (My thoughts on Brooks’ advice may be found here.)

Logical Inconsistency

Craig starts by pointing out the inconsistency of the Supreme Court’s position:
“What is ironic about Kennedy’s opinion is that he eloquently extols marriage as foundational to American society and to civilization itself.

One would think that this provides good reason for preserving the traditional concept of marriage, rather than radically redefining it! Instead, the Court throws caution to the wind and has decided to revise this fundamental cultural institution.”

The “Social Institution”

Secondly, Craig observes that it is only by first redefining marriage as a mere social institution that the Supremes are able to fudge a justification for expanding its parameters:
“In the Court’s view, marriage should no longer be considered to have an essence or nature but is a mere social convention, indeed, whatever the Court declares it to be. The majority opinion justifies this move by pointing out how marriage has evolved: for example, marriage was once viewed as “an arrangement by the couple’s parents” but no longer is so today. Such examples, however, concern only contingent properties of marriage, not its nature or essence (indeed, arranged marriages are still common in parts of the world today). Such contingent changes provide no grounds for the fundamental, essential change wrought by the Court.”
It’s a solid analysis and one I won’t recycle here.

But Here’s the Rub …

Where Dr. Craig may be a little shakier is in his recommendations. I agree completely with him that “Christians must resolve to be resolutely counter-cultural”, but this has been true since Pentecost. By redefining marriage as a mere social institution, the Supremes have made explicit what should have been obvious to believers all along: that the State has no God-given authority over marriage.

Let me clarify that statement: the State has historically arrogated to itself authority over marriage, granting licenses, divorces and so on by judicial fiat. But that authority does not come from scripture. It has simply been assumed by governments all over the world and granted by subservient citizens. For most of history, marriage was simply a private contract between two families. It was only in the Middle Ages that the State became involved at all. The first marriage license was issued to solemnize unions that would otherwise have been illegal.

Changing Our Frame

The scripture gives us no indication that either State or Church legitimately has anything to do with marriage. Even final parental authority over the institution rests on questionable scriptural grounds. When the Pharisees asked the Lord Jesus about marriage (well, specifically about divorce), he took them all the way back to Adam and Eve and the original intention of God for mankind, quoting the book of Genesis to them.

The Pharisees’ mental framework for the institution was merely a legal one (“Is it lawful?” they asked him). But in responding to their question the Lord does not appeal to current Roman customs, the traditions of Jewish elders or even the Law of Moses for his authority. He does not concede their framing of the question. He says instead, “from the beginning it was not so”. His appeal is to the authority of God, not of man: “What therefore God has joined together,” he says, “let not man separate”.

Get that? God joins man and woman together. Not the State, not the Church. Not even the (frequently intense) desire of the couple themselves. If God is not the binding, ratifying force in a marriage, the approval of State, parents, Church and all the love, lust, goodwill or desire in the world do not matter an iota. That fact is made clear in the same passage in Matthew where the Lord says, “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery”. In such an instance, all legal and religious requirements may well have been met … and yet God says it’s not a marriage, it’s adultery.

Without God, it ain’t marriage. Doesn’t matter what the Supremes say. Doesn’t matter what anyone says.

A Christian Response

Let me suggest that for far too long, Christians have let the world and its traditions shape our understanding of marriage. What we ought to do about that is the real question.

Dr. Craig thinks we ought to fight back:
“Just as early Christians were willing to take a stand against the corrupt pagan culture of the Roman empire, so today Christians must dare to be different and to live counterculturally.

That implies Christian activism.”
That’s certainly one possibility. Craig points out that there is not a single evangelical on the Supreme Court, and thinks there ought to be:
“We have not set before our youth the vision of serving God by pursuing a career as a judge. We are reaping the whirlwind of our own passivity and lack of engagement.”
Fair enough. But that ship has sailed. The equality of homosexual marriage is now law. There is a reason there are no evangelicals on the Supreme Court, and I would argue there never will be again. Even a Republican president (assuming the U.S. ever has another) with a significant congressional and Senate majority behind him would have great difficulty getting a conservative Christian confirmed. I suspect a “vision of serving God by pursuing a career as a judge” in a culture in which every assertion of scriptural morality is greeted with accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia and now transphobia is so far beyond a lost cause that those suggesting it have at least temporarily lost touch with reality.

But Craig is right: we let the world frame the question of marriage for us in the first place. That was our mistake, and we are indeed reaping the whirlwind of our own passivity and lack of engagement.

A Counter-Cultural Suggestion

So now those among us who are licensed to solemnize marriages have a decision to make. If it is not already abundantly clear that the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion does not allow Christians to opt out of performing gay marriages, it will be very soon. We will be forced to choose between performing all legally binding marriages or performing none at all.

Many Christians may choke on this, but for me there is no real question here. I would rather see young people standing up among their friends and family and expressing their commitment to one another before God with no officiating presence and no legal standing to their marriages (for at least a period of time, until the relevant local “common law” provisions kick in) than see Christian men compelled to “marry” two men or two women because the gay lobby demands it and the State has now capitulated to their wishes.

Maybe we should start thinking about what we are willing to give up in order to continue receiving government approval for Christian marriage, an approval that scripture nowhere requires. Has government sanction ever made our marriages more durable, more loving or more real in the sight of God? The pastor-, priest- or elder-officiated wedding is nothing more than a tradition, one that is soon to become a millstone around the neck of believers. If it is really God that joins man and woman together, their own expression of intent should be perfectly sufficient. No piece of paper or officiating body can make their union more official. No piece of paper or officiating body can make it less.

Removing legal sanction from the process would be a tough pill for some Christian mothers and fathers of brides and grooms-to-be to swallow, I will admit. It would require going back to scripture and reaffirming our commitment to the principles laid down by Christ himself. For less mature believers, or for those unable to distinguish between precept and tradition, it might well be a stopper. I have to concede that sending out invitations to a wedding not officiated by someone with a license to do so might even result in some Christian guests staying home.

The Cost of Doing Business

Alternatively, if such a scenario seems too far out there and if it is thought that the Church’s investment in performing marriages is of paramount importance, then by all means keep the traditional marriage ceremony while refusing to officiate unions that are not marriages in the eyes of God.

But there will inevitably be a cost attached to taking that position. Be prepared for the fines, harassment and possible jail terms that will result. Be prepared for the loss of tax-exempt status, and possibly the loss of our buildings. And how about those who officiate marriages, who are now on the front lines? Are we prepared to stand behind those who refuse to be Big Gay’s performing seals, paying their legal bills and looking after them financially when they lose their day jobs for being “homophobic”? Because if we ask them to take that stand, that ought to be part of the package.

Either way is fine. Capitulation of our consciences to social pressure is not. And I’m not seeing a third option.

The next few months and years will be interesting times for believers. I suspect we are going to find out rather speedily what we really believe and what really matters to us.


  1. Hi Tom. part 1,
    Thanks, as always, for the insights from you and the whole CU crew. I did enjoy the idea of the top 10 as well a while ago and hope that it allowed for a well deserved break.
    I am just thinking though of those verses in Romans 13:1-7 where we are to be in obedience / submission to those over us (rulers/powers) - except in sin where we have that greater responsibility to God rather than entering into government imposed sin.
    While I most definitely do not go along with David Brooks’ thinking on these things either I’m wondering, as a transition until things either get to worst case and we have no choice or, possibly, the culture comes around to actually having non-shut-down-attacks on churches (difficult to see that anytime soon) whether a middle way can be taken to meet both a secular legal demand of government marriage and an “in the sight of God” marriage where witnesses can attend a Christ honoring ceremony - and without compromising either?
    Generally, I have found that those that live in a common law style relationship in our culture have little regard for God ordained marriage; God has usually not been a part of their consideration as they “join” together. There are common law rights to be sure and, as far as I know, they have a lot of the same rights as a legally married couple under the law. Personally I have seen common law relationships as quite detrimental to children that are raised in that situation but that is another discussion. Common law is seen in our culture as people who have a (sometimes great) disregard for anything to do with Christianity and so I think Christians that would enter into that common law legal state would not be seen as honoring God at all. Biblical or not, a marriage license means something or there wouldn’t be such a fight about it (I realize that the fight goes deeper than whether gays can marry). Though our governments give the same benefits to the married as well as to the common law relationships, there is still a known difference in their eyes that the two are not the same. Everyone I have ever spoken with also have an acknowledgment that a common law couple and an actual married couple are different in what kind of relationship they are in and a common law situation is not seen as the same “depth” of a commitment. I really don’t think the demanders of gay marriage rights have a clue or care what Christ wants in their lives or that compromising or setting aside the Word of God/Bible is setting them up for life failure. I do think Christians might slide into a further moral decline if the government/legal acknowledged side of marriage is set aside

  2. part 2:

    On a personal level, I don’t have a permanent marriage license to perform weddings. It has given me the ability to say no if a couple come along that want to be married but I don’t think are suitable either biblically or ready for what a godly marriage is to be as well as whether they are equally or unequally yoked as Corinthians speaks of. I can get a “one time” certificate if I wish to perform a ceremony right now but no one can force me to go get one and perform a ceremony. As far as using the “church” building: it would be a sad thing not to be able to use the facility for a wedding but as it really is just a building and in no way sanctions a marriage biblically before God, stating “we don’t do any weddings in this building” isn’t much of a problem I don’t think. These days, at least where I am, there are many venues that one can have the ceremony and the reception all in the same place and it is becoming preferable to do so (let alone destination weddings). I would propose a “two stage” wedding. A simple legal ceremony for the government with no fuss or elaborate setting at that time, later in the day or the next day, a ceremony as you want that has vows before God and witnesses as you wish. I personally think the simpler the better for a Christian ceremony but that is up to the happy couple. You can have someone you wish to unofficially officiate (non-legally) at that time and again, because it has nothing to do with legality under the law, no one can force you to perform it. It might even take the pressure off the day as the couple would be married already legally and this then can be seen as the celebration and testimony part of their lives starting together before God. A statement explaining why this is being done in this way can be made if they wish to the guests and fulfills living “peaceably” with all. Don’t make it a political gesture or boast about the “why” - marriage should not be a political gesture despite what goes on in our western culture lately.
    Just some long winded thoughts.

  3. I've never performed a marriage myself so I have no personal stake, but I like the idea of Christians working through these issues prayerfully and thoughtfully before it becomes necessary so that we can respond in a clear, united way.

    It seems to me, as I suggested in the post, that some believers will have strong feelings one way or another.

    I don't see the "obedience to authority" verses really coming into it since the powers that be have not required marriage as a prerequisite for two parties to live together in quite some time. We are not being disobedient if we decline to seek their approval of our unions.

    The public testimony issue you bring up is very significant, however, and warrants a careful and consistent approach. I agree that even the appearance of just shacking up still leaves a bad taste with many, even if the two people doing it were entirely committed to one another and had their families and Christian community behind their decision.

    The "one-time" license thing is interesting. I was not aware that was even possible. I think it's a great idea until someone figures the loophole out and closes it. It's certainly sensible to use it now to insulate ourselves a little bit.

    As you say, getting the legal aspect out of the way separately would certainly solve many of the potential problems. If local churches have a policy of not performing marriages at all, they cannot easily be forced to officiate homosexual unions. The use of the church buildings for those who want access to them is a separate issue, and one where laws may currently differ from state to state and province to province.

    Thanks much for your thoughtful response, W.

  4. An interesting discussion. Clearly, as recently as say, a century ago, a great number of "real" marriages were entirely uncertified by government.

    In the old West, for example, some preacher somewhere just "hitched up" people at their own request, in whatever religious building was local. Earlier than that, the local church proclaimed the banns, and the thing was done "in house," not in a government registry. And before that, no marriages ever were governmentally certified: they were community, family or church events only, and recorded by the church not the government. And yet this were all "real" marriages.

    I think that bears some thought. For while it is true that in our era the idea of a non-governmental marriage has come to seem, at least in modern-day conservative circles, quite scandalous, it was actually the norm for most marriages throughout human history. And I'm sure we would not accuse our own forebears of having us "out of wedlock," would we?

    Still, if people are squeamish, maybe we could still have a marriage that was both according to government and according to church, family and culture. It just wouldn't be the same ceremony. People would go off to city hall and get the paper, sign it, and be governmentally "married." Then they could go off to their local chapel and get married ceremonially, however they wished. The key would be to keep the two ceremonies entirely separate.

    So long as the register was not being signed in a religious building of any kind, the church could not be implicated in governmental demands. And so long as no religious ceremony was being attached to the signing of government papers, the government would have absolutely no business interfering with whatever a local congregation was doing regarding the wedding.

    Something like that might well seem to be the way to least right now. It's at least worth considering, strategically, to maintain our independence of the political whims of the world.

  5. Glad to read these responses, thanks. I am thinking of this "two-stage" wedding only as that immediate stop gap measure for a while in our heated and politically correct days, if things keep going as they are. I don't know how long this kind of thing will/would be needed but I can see the day when it will not be of much use and that marriage might need to go back to those of pre-government controlled days of joining together in the sight of God alone. As the "traditional family unit" keeps getting hacked apart in our Western culture, marriage may only be seen as something of worth to those who have God in view and so a ceremony before God alone will be the only needed thing (and no doubt that will be mocked by the culture of the day too as being "old fashioned and ignorant").