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. 

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*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.
 

8 comments:

Eric Buitenhuis said...

Chris my brother, you know me and I cannot walk away without a good healthy objection :-)

First, marriage is a covenant relationship and not a contract. This is very clear throughout Scripture and demonstrated by God's relationship with Israel and Christ's relationship with the Church. A covenant relationship requires is a dedication that goes far beyond that of a contract, including forgiveness and tolerance of infidelity (adultery or otherwise) that a contract does not have. Personally, I think God that our relationship with Christ is a covenant; it gives me a chance to repent over and over as I continually fall short!

Second, should we condone and bless something that is clearly sinful and outside the intention and explicit definition of our Lord? To bless and ascribe as righteous or holy an activity that Scripture declares explicitly, emphatically sinful is absolutely wrong.

Third, is marriage a concept that we Christians own that we can freely extend it to those whom we see fit? No! This is something defined by God himself even before the fall of man. We couldn't redefine it even if we tried, and our obedience to our Maker entails adhering to His definitions, whether we like them or not. To question them could very well land you in the place of Job, getting a good and proper smackdown by the Maker!

Fourth, in focusing on the civil law aspect, you are missing the big thing. That is, Christ himself asserts the created order, the high place marriage has in it, and the fact that God takes an active interest and participation in a marriage relationship. Christ acknowledges the reality of sin, but that does not mean we have the freedom or authority to give Christian blessing to something that is clearly evil on God's eyes.

Last, regarding "endowed with fundamental rights", although you do not mention what those rights are, I assume that you imply marriage as being a right. Granting for a moment that it is a right, in no way does a traditional man-woman definition deny anyone the right to marry. The fact that a someone has a preference/inclination/attraction/whatever to the same sex does not preclude them from marrying the opposite sex, and there is nothing taking that right away. Only their choice keeps them from fulfilling that.

Regarding the implication that marriage is a right, I say not so. A right is something endowed by our creator. As such it is something that a good government has an obligation to ensure. That is, if you have a right to X, then someone within the government or a delegate must guarantee your right to X. Put another way, if X is a right for one person, then it is a responsibility for another. If marriage is a right, then wherein lies the responsibility? Is it to ensure you have a spouse? Surely not! An example of a right is life, something that carries with it a clear and legitimate responsibility to our government to protect. Liberty and private property are two others that have clear responsibilities associated with them. Forgive my libertarian rant :-)

In any case, do not fall victim to the compromising of God's word. Do not even weaken it. This is a very very simple issue. God defines it as one thing. We cannot use our own sin and weakness as an excuse to say that something is OK and right when it is not. Let us instead extend love and fellowship to those who struggle with it, knowing full well we also have our own mountain of sins to deal with.

Chris Falter said...

I agree in so many ways with you, Eric. God's purpose and design for marriage is a covenant, not a contract, between a man and a woman. We are not to condone, in the sense of being good in God's eyes, anything other than a man-woman marriage for life. In the course of speaking of civil law considerations, I was not trying to dispute these truths. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to reaffirm these convictions.

If I am following your reasoning about how moral considerations get applied to civil law, you seem to be implying that the civil law should bar any violation of God's definition of marriage. If we apply this principle consistently, then:

* same-sex marriage should be outlawed;
* premarital sex should be outlawed;
* adultery should be outlawed; and
* divorce (other than in the case of adultery) should be outlawed.

Am I understanding you correctly? If not, please help me understand how you would distinguish the various cases.

In any case, I believe I am following Jesus' teaching in describing how the relationship between moral and civil law should work. Consequently I think that I am fully upholding the word of God. I would even suggest, in fact, that to boldly go where the word of God does not, however well-intentioned, would tend to dilute the church's focus on living and proclaiming the good news in a winsome and even subversive way.

You are exactly right that we should extend love and fellowship to those who struggle with any sin, even as we are acutely aware of our own shortcomings. That's an excellent conclusion, and of course in full agreement with Galations 6:1 ("Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.") Clearly you have a pastoral gift, and you should consider taking up that ministry as God gives you opportunity. :)

Eric Buitenhuis said...

To not condone something on the moral side is not the same as prohibiting it on the civil side.

Also, instruction of mercy to those impacted by unfaithful partners in marriage is not the same thing as redefining marriage itself.

Chris Falter said...

Thanks for the clarification, Eric. On the moral side, I am not condoning same-sex marriage, but on the civil side I do not advocate prohibiting it. I agree with you that moral prohibition does not necessarily imply civil prohibition. We are, I believe, following our Lord's leading in making this distinction.

The Obergefell decision is the capstone on the American civil marriage redefinition project, but it does not--indeed, it cannot--redefine for marriage for the body of Christ. As I stated in the post, "God's desire for marriage is that a man and his wife are joined together for life, period."

Eric Buitenhuis said...

It seems we as a society are at a point where the Church no longer has much of a say over the civil issues. There are three consistent options the church can take:

1. We kick and scream our objections, hoping that society will listen. We don't allow same sex ceremonies in church facilities. (yes, this is a very biased writing of option one, lol)
2. We conform to society and allow same-sex ceremonies in our facilities. We allow same sex ceremonies in church facilities.
3. We quietly establish a position of objection and civil disobedience. We don't allow same sex ceremonies.

Number three is the only option. It is the option of strength, calm, and composure. It is a position that may find us in court. It is a position that affirms God's ownership of his church and is a position of trust in Him. Option three does not require backflips to find loopholes in moral vs. civil approaches.

I see where you are coming from and appreciate your persistence against my stubborn posts; your grace in writing far exceeds my own. I think in the end I just don't see the need to assert a civil loophole to justify us "letting" them do it, since they are going to do it anyway. Those in power are going to do what they will regardless of our stance, and for that they will have to face judgement (or for their sakes I hope they repent and have the judgement fall on Christ's shoulders).

Eric Buitenhuis said...

It seems we as a society are at a point where the Church no longer has much of a say over the civil issues. There are three consistent options the church can take:

1. We kick and scream our objections, hoping that society will listen. We don't allow same sex ceremonies in church facilities. (yes, this is a very biased writing of option one, lol)
2. We conform to society and allow same-sex ceremonies in our facilities. We allow same sex ceremonies in church facilities.
3. We quietly establish a position of objection and civil disobedience. We don't allow same sex ceremonies.

Number three is the only option. It is the option of strength, calm, and composure. It is a position that may find us in court. It is a position that affirms God's ownership of his church and is a position of trust in Him. Option three does not require backflips to find loopholes in moral vs. civil approaches.

I see where you are coming from and appreciate your persistence against my stubborn posts; your grace in writing far exceeds my own. I think in the end I just don't see the need to assert a civil loophole to justify us "letting" them do it, since they are going to do it anyway. Those in power are going to do what they will regardless of our stance, and for that they will have to face judgement (or for their sakes I hope they repent and have the judgement fall on Christ's shoulders).

Chris Falter said...

Your analysis of the three options before us is very astute, Eric. My post is addressed primarily to those who do not want to allow same-sex ceremonies in church (#2) but are wondering whether to pursue #1 (kicking or screaming) or #3 (maintain our long-standing commitments as a religious community, but let the world go its way). I am saying that following Jesus' way of thinking should lead us to #3. So yes, we are in complete agreement in the path forward.

I am not sure why option #3 should be construed as civil disobedience; nothing in Obergefell mandates that a church change their doctrine or practice. I am also not sure why advocating option #3 should be characterized as "backflips" or "loopholes." To me it seems like faithful exegesis and application, albeit a little more nuanced than anything the news media tends to publish. Heated argument and conflict get higher ratings than careful exegesis and application.

If you think I need to understand something better in order to grok your use of those terms, feel free to shed more light. Or we can simply take satisfaction in having wrestled through a tough issue and found substantial common ground, and proclaim victory. :D

Eric Buitenhuis said...

Two people genuinely seeking Truth will always end up together:
• Truth is not relative
• Jesus promises those who seek will find

The civil disobedience will happen (and is starting already) as lawsuits appear trying to force a church to host a same sex marriage. The same type of civil disobedience has been happening among bakers of wedding cakes, etc. There are and will be a wave of discrimination suits.