On marriage and the State

December 14, 2008

bible / church / culture / marriage / politics

In the last month or so, much has been made about marriage and its relationship to the State. There were ballots in some states to define marriage as between one man and one woman, there is the recent Newsweek article that tries to look at what the Bible says about marriage, and there is the requested resignation of Vice President Richard Cizik from the National Association of Evangelicals due to his support, not of gay marriage, but of civil unions for homosexuals. Also, Tony Jones and Andrew Sullivan have recently had much to say about the issue.

I sometimes think about including more content about marriage on this blog, but when I think about it I usually think about telling the stories of what I’ve learned about communication, forgiveness, grace, healing, and unconditional love, among other things, through five years of marriage, and marriage to someone who is bipolar II. I still have plans to do that, as relevant times present themselves.

But at the moment I want to look at the relationship of marriage to the State, and how people are making these kinds of arguments and combining them with theology and religion and so on.

First of all, let’s establish that this is a complex issue. The sides are talking past each other. They have foundationally different views of history, culture, and religion that lead to their views on marriage. In all likelihood, there will never be a consensus. If gay marriage becomes completely legal, there will be people fighting to make it illegal again for a long time. If it does not become legal, there will be people fighting to make it legal for a long time.

And in all likelihood, it will at some point become legal.

That aside, what issues are we dealing with in these discussions? One of the significant arguments is that the State has the right to define what marriage is, while the church should have the right to tell the State what its definition should be.

Think about that for a minute. It reeks of the descent from Christianity into Christendom.

My personal belief is that marriage should be a civil issue. If one wants a religious or spiritual aspect of one’s marriage, fine: one can go to a religious or spiritual organization, have a ceremony, and more importantly live a life based on that reality. These ceremonies are great things, but seriously: there is no reason that the civil rights attached to them should be based on anyone’s theological views on anything. We could take a nice step away from the facade of Christendom if we took a step like this.

Within this issue, much of the recent uproar is over what the Bible actually says about marriage. What do you think it says? Why do you think that?

At most, there are three or four passages in the Bible that mention homosexuality, and none of them have anything to do with marriage. Two are in the Old Testament, and one of these is among 613 laws that were designed to create a society that was set apart from those around it, by this as well as other rules like wearing only clothing made of one material, and of releasing all debts and slaves every fifty years. The other occurrence in the Old Testament is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the destruction of which is not about homosexuality.

In the New Testament, it is possible, though debatable, that there are two passages that mention homosexuality. Both are written by Paul, and both are accompanied by mentions of other sins, such as lying and jealousy and greed. In addition to this, there are cultural and political aspects to what it is that Paul is condemning that make it ludicrous for the people of God to build a litmus test upon these passages, especially when we ignore his longer thoughts on many other issues. Paul is always, for example, blatantly against lust. There is much mention of this in these kinds of passages, and it is possible that he is referring to it instead.

As far as defining marriage, the Bible is fairly silent. It does not say that marriage is between one man and one woman, or that it should be defined by the State, or by the people of God. The Old Testament narratives spend a lot of time recounting events. Many times they are trying to prove a point by recounting the event in a certain way, a point which is often obscure to us. Sometimes, the moral issue is never mentioned. Sometimes, it isn’t mentioned until chapters later, or even books later. And sometimes, there isn’t a clear moral statement in a narrative at all.

The Newsweek article doesn’t catch this, and casts the Bible as something of a bumbling, outdated text that we should not consult about our closest relationship. According to Newsweek, the Bible presents an irrelevant marriage model of polygamy because some of its heroes practice it and it does not explicitly condemn it in their stories.

Newsweek, and others like it, are missing the progressive nature of the revelation of God. But so are those on the other side who sit in fear that we’ll embark on a slippery slope that leads us away from God’s design for marriage into polygamy and incest (both of which, of course, occur in the earliest parts of Scripture and are, again, not explicitly condemned).

When Scripture is like this on an issue, it is unnecessary and dangerous to make it a core issue, as evangelicals have done. There are many other issues that are clearly at the core of God’s revelation of himself. Homosexuality is not one of them. Understand that I’m not using this post to state my position on whether or not homosexuality is a sin. I’m simply using it to state that it is not the simplistic issue that evangelicals make it.

More importantly, I’m using it to state that, regardless of one’s view, it is not necessary to make the kind of statements and decisions that evangelicals make and ask government to make, in light of the complexity of an issue like this. Especially when these statements and decisions create the kind of outcasts that God is always with, evangelicals need to choose mercy over judgment.

Their failure to do so is what leads many of us to no longer call ourselves evangelicals, regardless of what we may share.