Monday, July 6, 2015

On Same-Sex Marriage

The Supreme Court announced its Obergefell decision last week, and the reaction from Christian quarters has been intense. Some are embracing same-sex marriage as a new and better understanding of God's love, while the majority have condemned the decision as a redefinition of the divinely instituted covenant between a man and a woman. As Franklin Graham intoned to Fox News, "This court is endorsing sin."

While both sides have been repudiating one another, they have failed to see how Jesus delineates between civil law and moral law regarding the covenant of marriage:

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

Matthew 19: 3-8 (NIV)

The Pharisees ask a question about civil law: Is divorce lawful? Jesus responds, however, by answering a different question, a question of moral law: What is right? He makes it clear that God's desire for marriage is that a man and his wife are joined together for life, period. Jesus does provide an exception, but only when one of the spouses has already ruptured the marriage bond through adultery.

In response to the followup question (Then why does God permit divorce?), however, Jesus does not dispute that a divorce is permitted in the civil sphere. Instead, he explains why God utilizes the Mosaic law to regulate this recurrent behavior among the Israelites. God recognizes divorce as a civil procedure (not as a righteous act) because He expects a society's laws to provide protection and justice, despite the imperfections of the humans who live under its rule. The civil law permits, but places boundaries around, "hard-hearted" behavior so that cruelty and chaos do not reign. A man may divorce his wife, but there is a just process that must be followed, and rights of the affected parties (spouse, children) must be respected.*

There is something even deeper going on here, I think. The institution of civil law recognizes that God has created each one of us with a fundamental liberty to choose, but limits this freedom by acknowledging that others--neighbors, spouses, children--are also endowed with fundamental rights that must be respected. Within the realm of Christian ethics, Reformed theologian Michael Horton points to the Christian doctrine of creation as the basis on which Christians must engage respectfully with adherents of diverse faiths. Regardless of differing beliefs and convictions, we all have common needs (such as the need for a rule of law in our daily affairs), common abilities (such as a liberty to make significant choices), and a common dignity as creatures made in the image of God. While this commonality provides the basis for civil institutions, the civic necessity of gaining assent for the law from citizens of every religious background means that our civil institutions can never fully express God's righteousness.

Thus civil law cannot institute the righteousness of God. Is that a problem? In my opinion, it is an opportunity, because it makes godly choices more meaningful. My parents' beautiful marriage of almost 60 years, for example, is not the result of an externally imposed civic law forbidding divorce; it is the fruit of God's love at work in them, enabling a choice to remain faithful-- for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.

So the reality is that in the United States of America, you will not be arrested if you:
  • Commit adultery
  • Get drunk in your home
  • Divorce a spouse
Christians may argue the appropriateness of these liberties, as struggles with Prohibition laws demonstrate. But by and large, Christians respect the laws that permit, but place boundaries around these ungodly acts--even as we lament the behavior itself.

The time is ripe for us, then, to recognize that the Obergefell decision has a certain wisdom to it, because it allows contract law to apply to same-sex relationships. It is no longer "the wild, wild West" in same-sex relationships, and the LGBTQ community is suddenly sobered by the fact that the right to marry is accompanied by the possibility of eventual divorce, replete with ugly court battles. We who follow Christ can graciously extend the civil institution of marriage to those who do not agree with us and at the same time bear witness to God's wonderful good news by living according to a completely different standard--by His grace and strength.
Once again, I thank my beautiful and wicked-smart bride Linda for her assistance in refining and polishing this essay. 

*The pattern of permitting unrighteous behavior but regulating its scope and effect shows up elsewhere in the Mosaic law--for example, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." This regulation prevents revenge from cycling out of control: retribution is limited in scope, and once it's done, it's done. Jesus of course states further that God's will is that we would turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:38-39). Once again, what civil procedure allows and how God defines morality are not the same.