In Part One, we looked at how Washington, DC, pastor Anthony Evans’ declaration that the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear a case challenging the DC gay marriage law has set up a “civil war between the church and the gay community” reflected common misunderstandings of the foundations of US government. Part Two dealt with how Evans’ comments—and their conflation of the church and national government—reflect a misunderstanding of fundamental aspects of the Christianity witnessed in the New Testament. In this third and final installment, we’ll wrap up our discussion of the relationship between the church and secular society, addressing the issue of marriage and sexuality more specifically.
Blurring the Lines: Legal Marriage vs. Church Marriage
One striking thing about much of the recent debate over marriage is that nearly everyone presumes that sacred marriage—that is, marriage from the perspective of the church or marriage “in the eyes of God,” if you will—is the same thing as legal recognition of marriage from the perspective of the government. This reflects the way marriage tends to be envisioned in most churches—that is, a couple is considered married only after they have obtained a marriage license, had a legal ceremony performed, and then filed the signed license with the state. This is such standard protocol that it is nearly always followed without question as a matter of course. Without having gone through this process, the couple is regarded as not married—a fact that takes on special importance given an emphasis on abstinence until marriage, which then means something like “abstinence until the governmental forms are official.”
But this conflation of sacred marriage with its civil counterpart is by no means fundamental to Christianity; given an appropriate exchange of covenantal vows, it doesn’t matter whether the couple has civil recognition of their marriage or not. For example, should a government outlaw marriage, Christians would still be obligated to marry in order to have licit sexual relationships, though the marriage would necessarily be performed in secret (as in the mythical story of St. Valentine). Governments have a vested interest in supporting nuclear families and the stability they provide, so they have typically recognized marriages, often (at least in the modern period) conferring certain legal benefits upon married couples. But the fact remains that the Christian concept of the marriage covenant is not the same as the governmental sanction of marriage, nor is Christian marriage contingent on state recognition. Again, as I argued in Part Two, it is critically important for the church to distinguish between its own imperatives and national/state laws, never lumping itself in with the culture at large. The church is the salt, not the full dish, and a well-seasoned dish must be reconciled to the taste of the eater.
“Judge The Insiders”
In terms of sexual behavior at large, the church’s standard is certainly to be different from that of the surrounding culture—though a strong church will certainly impact the culture’s standards. But the important point is that this impact is most powerful when it comes through the witness of Christians successfully living up to the standards of the gospel while simultaneously proclaiming its demands—that is, “by the foolishness of preaching.” Israel was chosen to be God’s special people among the nations, but this was not through becoming a great empire but by being an example among the nations, impressing non-Israelite nations with the faithfulness and justice (non-arbitrariness) of their God. Jesus’ life serves as the ultimate example of this principle that power is flexed from the bottom up, not from the top down. The church’s influence must come through service and proclamation, not by force of legislation. Again, the moment a church looks to and relies upon secular legislation to enforce its aims, it declares its spiritual bankruptcy. This is not to say that Christians are to have no involvement in public policy or lawmaking. Quite the contrary, in a society in which Christians have enough influence to hold office, they must strive to enact and enforce just laws, but the point is that there will always be a distinction between between the laws of a secular nation and the imperatives of the church/gospel.
Paul makes this clear enough in 1 Corinthians 5, where he is dealing with (wait for it…) sexual ethics. After thoroughly rebuking the church for not appropriately handling a situation of sexual immorality among its members and telling them to expel the offending member from fellowship, Paul explains,
I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral* people. I didn’t mean never to associate with immoral people of this world or with the covetous or the swindlers, or with idolaters—because then you would have to leave the world. But now I write to you not to associate with any so-called Christian** who is an immoral* or greedy person, an idolater, abusive in speech, a drunk, or a thief. Don’t even eat with such a person. For why would it be my business to judge outsiders? Do you not judge insiders? God judges those who are outside. But you—remove the wicked man from among yourselves. (1 Cor 5:9–13, somewhat loosely translated)
* The word I’m translating as “immoral” is porneia, a notoriously difficult word to translate having to do with sexual moral violations
** Literally “called a brother”; I have translated it with a more modern and gender-neutral idiom
This passage captures what I think has been one of the biggest blunders of many modern American churches (and church movements): the command is for the church to judge and purify itself, demanding strict adherence among its members, not to enforce its standards on outsiders. Many American churches (often thanks to conflating the church with the USA) do nearly exactly the opposite, proclaiming judgment upon the outsiders and pushing for secular adoption of their standards while excusing the sinful behavior of their church membership, since those people are “saved.” (Part of this comes from a misguided theological notion that believers will somehow be judged by a different standard than the world, a notion Paul vigorously opposes in the early chapters of Romans.) So “outsider” sins like homosexuality become the focus while little attention is paid to the insider problem of (for example) serial divorce and remarriage.
I suspect that, were Paul alive today and writing to the USA, his emphasis would be upon all the “inside” sins that undermine the credibility of the gospel, focusing on things like heterosexual infidelity, greed, the culture of divorce, gossip, slander, and abuse of power and influence for personal gain. I also suspect that he would do some tightening of the fold, demanding that a good many people (perhaps the majority of many churches) either change or be expelled from fellowship, resulting in a dramatic reduction in the number of American Christians. It is awfully hard for the church to say anything meaningful (or believable) to the outside, unbelieving world when there is no real difference between the lifestyles of those within the church and those without. The church has little room to claim the “gay rights” movement is threatening marriage when the divorce rate within the church is hovering around 50%. Isn’t divorce the bigger battle for the church to fight at this point?
The truth is that the church has thrived in cultures where homosexual behavior was not regarded as immoral. Paul most certainly rejected homosexual behavior, but take note that he did so in a society in which it was permissible behavior, both legally and socially. Yes, it was frowned upon in the Roman world for a male to be exclusively a passive partner after a certain age, but homosexuality itself was not condemned in the world of that day, which differentiated sexual behavior somewhat differently from today. Paul and the other apostles weren’t out petitioning the government to outlaw such behavior. The key point for our discussion is that Paul assumed such behavior among the outside world, which he deemed under God’s judgment already; it was the church that was supposed to be different from the world, and this sexual continence was to be enforced exclusively within the church as a requirement for membership.
In Hauerwasian terms, “The first task of the church is to make the world the world, not to make the world more just” (Hannah’s Child, 158). That is, the church should first be the church (in distinction from the world)—only then can it fulfill its mission as the church. Contrary to popular belief, Western Civilization’s taboo against homosexual behavior, derived from the condemnation of this behavior in Judaism and Christianity, has been the historical exception, not the norm. The increasing acceptance of homosexual behavior in the West is not a move forwards to new territory but a move backwards to what has normally been regarded as permissible in most cultures throughout history. Put differently, the culture is simply moving back to pre-Christian norms.
Certainly this shift is evidence of the church’s weakness and ineffectiveness in the West; its witness has been weighed and found wanting. On the other hand, this shift is in many ways precisely what the American church needs to break it out of its slumber; the further removed from Christianity the culture becomes, the more the church will be forced to distinguish itself from the world. The great poison pill for the church is having no distinction between itself and the surrounding culture, a fact that stands in tension with the church’s mission to redeem the world. The point is that the church should spend less time fighting the inexorable shifts in outside culture and spend its time repairing the breeches in its walls that have blurred the distinction between insiders and outsiders. Likewise, the church must be on guard against obtaining its values from the culture. With regard to sexuality, it is important to remember that the so-called “sexual revolution” that has been underway for the last half a century is not especially progressive and revolutionary but more a return to (pre-Christian) conventional values.
Conclusions: Moving Forward
So, what then is the proper response on this specific issue? The answer requires two parts, since the state’s response and the church’s response will be different. From the perspective of the government, if the state wants to have no specifically religious legislation, why should it have anything to do with marriage in the first place, since marriage is mostly—if not completely—a religious concept. So, rather than try to expand the boundaries of marriage to include others, I suggest that the government should entirely eliminate the legal distinction between singles, married couples, etc. Any regulation along these lines—even if homosexual civil unions are recognized—necessarily excludes some. For example, what about those who identify as bisexuals? What about polyamorous units? From a governmental standpoint, any attempt to set a defined limit is going to exclude some groups of people, and it is easier to prevent discrimination (on all sides) by entirely removing the legal distinctions between married, single, etc. If the state feels the need to recognize civil unions for some purpose (taxes, visitation rights, etc.—though there are potentially better ways of handling each of these things independently, such as having a box for “cohabiting” on tax forms), then they should be recognized as exactly that: civil unions, leaving “marriage” to be defined by religious (and para-religious) institutions.
As for the church, I reject Evans’ assertion of a “civil war between the church and the gay community” and the notion that the church has special rights to “have a say-so” in the determination of such matters in the secular USA. And since when are Christians supposed to “fight for their rights” in the first place? Is this how Jesus handled things? I imagine that many Americans suppose that Jesus would have chosen to plead his case before the Supreme Court instead of going to the cross, were the events of the gospels to happen today. Political actions have limited scope; carrying the cross has far more power. Yes, Christians in America have rights as citizens, but Christians have no right to special status within the nation because of Christian status (see Part One). (NOTE: I am not, however, suggesting that Christians in public office should go out of their way to enact or defend laws that contradict Christian teaching; the distinction between church and state is not about individuals leaving their religious beliefs out of the equation—an impossibility— but about institutional separation and balance of power. Christian individuals are obligated to follow their consciences as Christians but should never seek a church-led theocracy. More on that here.)
Rather, the church must first and foremost get its own sexual ethics in order and practice what it preaches. It should concern itself primarily with the behavior of those inside rather than those outside. The church should continue to uphold and preach (in that order) a sexual ethic in keeping with the foundation laid by the apostles, but it should not strive to impose this through governmental means upon others outside the church. From the church’s perspective, why strive to make the unbelievers look just a little more like believers? They’re still unbelievers either way! What business does the church have with judging outsiders? The church should then strive to convince the unbelieving world of the justice and truth of the gospel—and its corresponding sexual ethic—through preaching, by example, and through service. It would be ridiculous to try to outlaw divorce, for instance.
Unfortunately, in part because other, more heavy-handed political approaches have been taken for so long, the climate has become toxic enough that when (yes, I said “when,” not “if”) the tables turn, it will be Christians who are marginalized and have their rights threatened. I anticipate that some will lose their jobs, their companies, etc., and parents may even lose their children as a result of a backlash against perceived Christian “persecution” of and “hate speech” towards this newly protected minority group. Legal neutrality in this area will be next to impossible to achieve, as Frank Beckwith has illustrated (PDF). And perhaps this is as it should be—at any rate, it should push those Christians to recognize the difference between the church and the state. (Of course, in America, when Christians perceive a loss of their rights, they turn to their Bible, the believing community, and to prayer, er, the US Constitution and the courts, demanding that the government protect them. So much for suffering willingly and looking to God for protection and vindication!)
To sum up, probably the best course of action for the church would be to push for the government to distinguish between civil unions (which the state can define as it pleases) and “marriage,” which should be in the religious domain. Regardless of the state’s decision on the matter (largely a matter of wording), the church must distinguish between its own concept of marriage and that of the state. And as I suggested above, every battle against gay rights will lose anyway; it’s only a matter of time before the tide is high enough, so this is also the prudent, strategic thing to do even for those who believe homosexual acts are immoral.
In addition, the church should begin to prepare for the major social changes ahead—and those churches that choose to uphold and proclaim traditional Christian sexual ethics without accommodation to modern changes in thinking should prepare to be increasingly marginalized in society. All the while, the church’s governing ethic must be love of God and neighbor—there should be no consideration of a “war between the church and X group of people.” The church must never mistreat, persecute, or oppress anyone, nor should it seek the restriction of anyone’s rights as a human being. The church should always be prepared and willing to suffer and serve in order that the outsider be redeemed; it should never fight in order that the outsider be castigated. The church’s place of victory is not a political throne but the cross.
An interesting discursion, and I find much to agree as well as disagree with. I’m a little non-plussed when you say that the moment the church turns to legislation it declares spiritual bankruptcy. Just how broadly do you mean that? I think both the antislavery and civil rights movements (especially someone like Wilberforce or later, King) went well beyond Christians merely advocating just laws, but using Scripture to establish and clarify what justice is, and that certainly involved legislation, and a lot more than that (can you say Gettysburg, or later, Birmingham and Selma).
And what about subtler cases like the Danbury Baptists pushing for disestablishment in Post-Revolutionary New England, and so forth? The issues become a lot more tangled once Christian belief is widespread or dominant in a given society, even nominally, and more so in places like America which has been subject to periodic Great Awakenings and such.
I’m less trying to puncture your balloon here than tease out your thinking.
Thanks, Jay. These are all really good points. I’m actually planning to address some of this with an upcoming post, where I’m wanting to start from Bonhoeffer’s suggestions on how the church can act towards the state and then look at how others like King have had a positive impact by pushing the government towards more just laws. I do think the church has an obligation to push for just laws. The divide I’m trying to establish is the difference between influencing secular society towards greater justice and legislating specifically Christian laws at the secular level. It’s a really hard distinction, and I’m still playing with how well the distinction works myself.
You’re also right that it becomes more complicated once (at least nominal) Christian belief is more widely spread or influential in a society, because then the church is put into a position of greater power. One thing I’ve been thinking is that the more “Christian” a society gets, the more the church should be cautious to distinguish between itself and society at large—the more secular power the church has access to, the greater the danger of becoming an agent of oppression itself. Put differently: the greater a leadership role the church has in society, the more it must ensure it is operating from the bottom-up through service rather than the top-down through legislation and oppressive means. This is a way of applying the “upside-down” Kingdom ethic I think the New Testament advocates. The danger I’m pointing to with the point about legislation and spiritual bankruptcy is that the church must always operate through this upside-down ethic, otherwise it is testifying to its embrace of the world’s way of functioning.
As for someone like Wilberforce, I tried (perhaps too allusively) to point out that individual Christians who are in public positions are obligated to seek greater justice and follow their consciences—by no means should they shirk away from pushing for what they believe is a greater justice simply because it is tied to their Christianity. This brings us back to the Bonhoeffer perspective on church and state. It’s a razor edge, and I’m not sure I’ve represented everything especially well to be honest—this is all very much a work in progress. The bigger point here is to make sure the church distinguishes itself from the world and does not seek to impose itself on the world in a top-down manner, as such reflects abandonment of its Teacher.
[…] to the specific issue (marriage and sexuality) under discussion? That question will be addressed in Part Three. Share and Enjoy: If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS […]
[…] This conflation of political and religious spheres has become an increasingly visible problem in the political arena over the past thirty years (tracing at least to the beginning of Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” and the rise of “dominion theology,” which I’ll address later), a conflation that rests on a misunderstanding both of the foundations of US government and early Christian theology. (It has also caused much hand wringing from the secular Left, which worries that fundamentalist Christians are seeking to impose a Taliban-style theocratic system in the USA, a concern that both grossly overestimates and misunderstands its opposition. But that’s a subject for another time.) In this post, I’ll address the first misunderstanding (that of the foundations of US government), before turning to Christian theological issues in Part Two and finally the specific question of a “civil war between the church and the gay community” in Part Three. […]
[…] series “A Civil War Between the Church and the Gay Community?” (Part One, Two, and Three) has involved a discussion of the church’s relationship to the state, with some special […]
[…] series “A Civil War Between the Church and the Gay Community?” (Part One, Two, and Three) has involved a discussion of the church’s relationship to the state, with some special […]
[…] How then does all of this apply to the specific issue (marriage and sexuality) under discussion? That question will be addressed in Part Three. […]