The question I asked yesterday, put plainly and simply, is this: How shall we proceed in a time when the Christian church is divided over same-sex marriage? We are quite clearly at the place in church history, at least in the West, where Christians clearly do not agree on the issue of homosexual marriage. How shall we then proceed?
The Christian Century, a magazine from the progressive side of Christianity, recently did an editorial in their March 20 issue titled “Blessing Gay Marriage.” They stated:
Inside and outside the church, marriage has long been defined as the lifelong commitment of two people to sharing in all things in life–children, property, money, joys, sorrows, poverty, prosperity. What Christians have added to this general understanding is not an insistence on procreation but rather an insistence that marriage mirrors in some way God’s fidelity to creation and to God’s people.
Am I missing something here? The historical facts, and most Christian advocates of gay marriage agree about this point, are that “the general understanding” among Christians has indisputably been that marriage takes place, regardless of what the law or the state says, between a man and a woman. As a letter to the editor, published in the May 1 issue clearly says, “For the Christian Century to suggest otherwise is a misleading sleight of hand unworthy of this publication. Moreover, it is by no means clear that current ‘general understanding’ of marriage among Christians includes gay marriage.”
The writer calls this a “misleading sleight of hand.” Is that too strong a statement? I do not think so. I find myself in agreement with it now more than ever. I have tried, as hard as I know how to try, to get my mind and heart around this gut-wrenching issue. I count more than a few homosexuals among my good friends. I sincerely think I take an open and welcoming stance toward all people. I believe Jesus requires this stance of me. But I do not understand biblical marriage as a covenant between two persons of the same-sex; e.g. faithful to one another and monogamous, or otherwise. But this is, quite admittedly, a religious matter. It is a doctrine of Christian faith. While we remain in this divided state, which is not about to be resolved by “sleight of hand” arguments, we must acknoweldge that devout Christians disagree, sometimes profoundly. Some of my conservative friends cannot agree with such a response, which makes the effort to listen and learn extremely hard but no less needed. For such Christians this issue is black and white thus advocates of same-sex marriage are not Christians at all.
But there is another issue, an issue that I do not hear much about among those who agree with me that same-sex marriage should not be blessed and embraced by the church as Christian doctrine. This issue is, however, inextricably involved in an overlooked issue in our contemporary debates about marriage. This issue is the separation of church and state.
For all of our talk about church and state, clergy in the United States function as clerks of the state when it comes to marriage. This varies among our states but in most the clergy are required to get a legal license before they can perform a civil marriage. Most of them do this and have done it routinely.
In Illinois, where I have been an ordained minister for over forty years, I can perform a wedding and affix my signature to a county court document that legally marries two people in the eyes of the state. In fact, until around 2000, I would say at the end of the religious ceremony: “By the law of God, and by the law of the state of Illinois, I now pronounce you husband and wife.” Note what is being said here. I have the legal authority to make something binding before the law of my state.
Something about this has troubled me since I was first ordained. On what basis should I, a minister of Christ’s church, be performing civil ceremonies? What makes me a legal servant of the state in joining a man and a women together in holy marriage? This confusion is not present in most other Western nations.
Some years ago I officiated a wedding that opened my eyes to this problem. I had a couple who were married in a church ceremony in Germnay. They wanted to have their marriage recognized legally in America. They came to my study and I did the legal part and then signed the document making them husband and wife under the law of the state of Illinois. For the first time I was profoundly troubled about this arrangement. The separation of church and state was being confused in a profound way and I plainly knew this to be true.
You might say, “So what?” Well, here is my response to that question. When you blur the separation of church and state, and the state becomes increasingly anti- or non-Christian, then you have a very serious problem. An easy confusion arises between “legal rights” and “holy rites.” They are not the same! I think even the most progressive and liberal ministers would have to agree with me on this point. We have joined together what no Christian would have begun to comprehend in the first three centuries of the Christian Church. Now that the culture is moving away from an established “Constantinian” church we need to rethink this matter very seriously.
To this end I propose a solution – let the state define the legal issues and let the church define the role of the clergy and the church. Religious bodies already differ among themselves on this issue. Nothing in the foreseeable future will create complete unity about same-sex marriage. Even if, and this is a huge and unthinkale if, the whole church were to change its view about marriage this will not happen for a long, long time. 90%-plus of the global church is not even remotely close to embracing same-sex marriage. It may be that history proves my view to be wrong but this will not happen in our lifetime, regardless of the stance adopted by a growing number of mainline churches.
So what should we do in America?
- Let the “rite” of marriage stand as a Christian doctrine and practice and let churches and ministers follow their conscience and ecclesial moral beliefs on the matter. Let the state perform legal marriages.
- Ministers and churches should stop officiating civil ceremonies. Just stop signing legal documents and urge couples to get one at the county court and then come to the church where family and friends can celebrate the “rite of Christian marriage” before God, family and witnesses.
- Stop trying to force people to change their minds by bullying them, on either side of this divide. Such a tactic is not according to the law of Christ–which is to love.
- If your conscience compels you to agree with me, and thus to oppose same-sex marriage inside the church, then say so and then learn how to explain why this is so with clear, compelling argumentation. Do not verbally assualt the motives of those who do not agree with you. Watch your language and learn to speak with great care.
- Model to everyone how to disagree in Christ’s love while the culture, and parts of the visible church, wrestle with this thorny moral issue. Refuse to demonize those on the other side of your viewpoint.
- Recognize that no matter how you see this issue, in the culture or in the church, there is more to learn as you listen and respond to what is transforming the way that we all understand marriage in our civil society. The church must do a far better job of explaining a biblical doctrine of marriage that is clear and positive.
- Learn how to welcome people that you disagree with into your conversation and into to the love of Christ. If same-sex practice is morally wrong, and I have no doubt that it is, then allow room for the Spirit of God to change people without trying to force your understanding upon them. God changes the heart! We can teach moral truth, and reject moral relativism, without being obtuse or unnecesarily offensive. Reinhold Niebuhr was correct when he said, “There is no deeper pathos in the spiritual life of man than the cruelty of righteous people.”
- Finally, if you hold a “traditional” view of marriage be prepared to be misunderstood, perhaps hated. Don’t have a chip on your shoulder about this but understand that our culture is changing rapidly. This new cultural moment calls for missional Christians and churches to embrace an ethic of deep love that does not deny what the Scripture teaches about marriage but at the same time it welcomes sinners into the fellowship of Christ’s community. Even if you believe that same-sex practice should be stopped you can learn to give room to the Spirit to work through good teaching and faithful practice that models vital Christian faith in a culture that increasingly embraces a view of marriage that no longer fits the historic view of the Christian Church.
My friend Richard Mouw, former president of Fuller Theological Seminary address the question we all ought to consider more deeply at a time like the present when he says: “Humility is the spirit of self-examination. It’s a hermeneutic of suspicion toward yourself and charity toward people you disagree with.” I pray for such a spirit and encourage you to do the same. Here we might be able to recognize our differences and stop the war that presently destroys the witness of many of us.