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Thinking About Thinking About Same-Sex Marriage

May 14, 2012
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When I wrote last week’s article (Daily Bread) it was one of those articles that I could post at any time. The general idea, that our larger abstract ideas often have real practical consequences and that our abstract ideas are not always as Christian as we might believe, is a driving force for many of my articles on this blog. I believe that Christians should have a uniquely Christian perspective on the world which may cause Christians to evaluate certain issues in very different ways than non-Christians. Now, a lot of people claim to do this in a way that doesn’t cut it for me. It’s easy to do this on the shallow end, to lift a huge set of presuppositions from culture and make a Christian decision only within this non-Christian framework. If I didn’t believe this, I wouldn’t have written many of the articles on this site.

What I did not expect was that within only a few days of my posting the Daily Bread article that my home state would provide an example of larger abstract issues having practical consequences. I am referring here to the vote that North Carolina took to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions. I’m not particularly concerned with the oddities of this case (like the fact that same-sex marriage wasn’t legal in North Carolina prior to the amendment) but I am interested in asking what large ideas fed into the specific decision that many churches made to push for this amendment and what caused other churches and religious individuals to oppose it. These questions are more general and can be applied to other situations. Moreover, this was a case in which several larger concepts had to come together in the correct way to create this ban and yet only about one and a half ideas were clearly articulated. I find this lack of attention to the larger concepts that undergird our world disturbing.

As I see it there are four major ideas that came together in North Carolina’s constitutional ban on gay marriage and civil unions. The first is the debate about the moral status of homosexual activity. This is one of the only large issues that was explicitly acknowledged as an important issue for the debate about the proposed law. This is a very important issue in large part because if someone had no moral qualms about homosexual activity then it is very, very hard to imagine that they would support a ban on same-sex marriage. However, I believe that the more vocal supporters of the ban failed to properly recognize the other important issues. These issues are the concept of marriage, the role of government, and the nature of sin.

Marriage

The proponents of North Carolina’s marriage amendment (and the proponents of same-sex marriage bans in general) frequently referred to the ban as an issue of the definition of marriage. However, marriage was not actually defined in the law that was passed, nor is it usually defined in these situations. A billboard I frequently passed by demonstrated the issue here pretty clearly. It depicted a stylized male and female figure joined by a plus sign who were followed by “= marriage”. Nobody actually takes that simple statement seriously. If I hand a book back to a female librarian the fact that we are a man and a woman does not make this interaction marriage. Defining marriage as the parties to the agreement is nonsense and yet much of the talk about defining marriage does just that.

Now, the North Carolina law came a bit closer to defining marriage when it also banned any other sort of “legal domestic union”. This suggests that the authors of the ban believe that marriage is a legal domestic union and wish to prevent the development of same-sex marriage-in-all-but-name. But is “legal domestic union” really a good concept of marriage? I suspect that if that had been presented as the definition of marriage which the law sought to enforce then many Christians would have voted against it.

The giant issue that exists under any discussion of whether or not individuals of the same sex can marry is what marriage is. This isn’t a pointless diversion as if we all agree on this issue. In reality, there is no single Christian idea of marriage held by all, or even most, Christians. Some Christian ideas of what marriage is focus on children. Some of the earliest Christian texts that I’ve come across that mention marriage seem concerned to point out that the married Old Testament figures were not married because of their sexual appetites but to produce children. (These texts are written by celibates which may be relevant to the concerns the texts address.) Other Christian ideas of marriage focus on lifelong companionship and mutual support. Some theologians have even suggested that marriage reflects the mutual love of the Trinity. Others have stressed the less-pleasant aspects of marriage. Perhaps marriage is meant to make us righteous by providing us with another Christian who is constantly there to correct us. Complementarians would stress that there are different roles in marriage and that these roles are based on sex – men lead, women follow, and that each of these roles helps each person specifically to grow. Moreover, Christians do not only hold specifically Christian ideas about marriage. The world at large presents ideas of marriage based on love (marriage as a pledge to lifelong, exclusive love) and marriage as something more like a business contract (common especially in the developing world where gender roles are often quite rigid and a household needs both halves to function). The business concept idea still exists where a strong emphasis is placed on the legal aspects of marriage. A strange Christian intersection with the world’s concepts of what relationships are about has produced a view that, while I have never heard it explicitly stated, seems pretty common in youth groups: marriage is about legitimate sexual relations.

I cannot settle this issue within the span of this article. It would require a book even to review the various ideas properly and many of these ideas can exist side-by-side. For instance, I know a number of people who believe that marriage is meant to produce children and that the love shown in marriage is a reflection of God’s love for us and God’s love within Himself, and that the harder aspects of marriage are also refining our characters and helping us grow in holiness. Despite the fact that I cannot attempt to settle on a definition within this article, it seems clear that the definition one has is important to the issue of whether or not same sex individuals can get married. If marriage is about producing children, then the idea of same-sex marriage is ridiculous. If marriage is about love then same-sex couples are already getting married and the question is only about legal recognition. If marriage is about sex then same-sex couples are also doing that and the question may hinge on legitimacy and who gives that status. (To some extent I think that a lot of American Christians have absorbed so much Americanism that many discussions about marriage are really discussions about sex and that discussions about same-sex marriage are then seen as discussions about homosexual sex. However, this is only a suspicion and I do not even suspect that it is universally true, just more true than it should be.) Other definitions of marriage that require specific gender roles are closed to same-sex couples but might also render illegitimate the marriages of many heterosexuals, as would definitions based around some specifically Christian activity. The idea of what marriage is in abstract is normally not discussed when homosexual marriage is discussed, being replaced by a discussion of whether or not same-sex couples should get married. However, it is obvious that under some definitions of marriage it is impossible for same-sex couples to be married and that under others they already are getting married and the question is only one of recognition. It is well worth the time to think carefully about what marriage is in the abstract before one can begin to handle the question of what it means for the government to recognize specific domestic legal unions or call them marriages.

Government

Once we decide what marriage is and what it means for a government to recognize one between two people of the same sex (even if one decides that such a thing cannot really exist), then we are on our second main idea: government. What is the Christian idea about the role of government? Does it allow Christians to legislate morality? Does it allow the government to sanction marriage or is that God’s prerogative? What is the government’s role vise-a-vie the larger idea of a social order or structure? Again, the issue is that there isn’t a single Christian idea about the role of government. There are a number of ideas about government that have existed throughout Christian history but we can probably restrict ourselves to the ones that play nicely with elected governments. (This leaves one of the major contests of Christian political history, the question of whether the church dictates rules to the king or if the king dictates rules to the church [the position that the divine right of kings was invented to support], out of my brief analysis.) These days, of course, many Christians pick up their ideas about government from their secular political allegiances and read them back into the Bible. However, there remain some specifically Christian ideas about the role of government.

On one end are the theonomists or dominionists who have proposed that the government should align itself as closely with Old Testament Law as possible. This view of government not only allows the government to get into the business of validating marriages but actually requires the government to outlaw religiously-invalid marriages. I’ll note that I happen to think that this interpretation of the Law is awful and that I intend someday to look at the Law in a manner that respects its place within the Biblical narrative but no matter how much I dislike theonomy it remains a distinct Christian perspective.

On the other end are various Christian groups that regard politics as deeply worldly and inherently evil. For these groups advocating for Christian morality to be politically enforced would be unthinkable, like asking that Christian morality be demonically enforced. I’m also not comfortable with this end of the spectrum although I find that its criticisms of the way politics has influenced American Christianity are often worth listening to. Instead, I fall within a larger category of Christians who believe that God’s design for government includes some basic mandates like protecting the weak and holding back the forces of chaos. However, this alone does not settle the issue of whether or not it is the government’s job to enforce particular sorts of moral behavior. Indeed, much of that may depend on the effects, both intended and unintended, of a specific proposed law. Who will legalizing or banning a specific sort of activity (like gay marriage or civil unions) affect? Will it only be the people who wish to engage directly in these acts or will it affect others, and how? Clearly same-sex marriage affects same sex-couples, but is the government allowed to enforce morality when the only people who are harmed by immorality adults who consent to the harm? What if religious groups are also affected? How much effect is needed? What about wider-reaching societal consequences? Does the government have the right to step in to protect a particular social structure? It is only in an idea of government where government is charged with enforcing all morality (perhaps limited by practicality) that one does not need to ask these questions. For Christians who believe that the government can be both friend and foe to Christ and who believe that its power is both necessary in a fallen world and that it cannot be trusted the question requires more thought.

Sin

Finally, there’s the issue of sin. This is tied to the issue of government in that most of us feel pretty good about allowing the government to protect us from the sins of others. Any Christian concept of government that does not completely reject the government as a scheme of the devil (and there are very few of those) would agree that the government should prevent the sin of a murderer from affecting you by causing you to be dead. However, when the government is called upon to enforce morality for the sake of the immoral subject we need to ask questions about the nature of sin. Specifically, we need to ask whether such restraint actually restrains sin at all. It is clear that if the government prevents George from killing Hazel that George’s sin has been in some sense restrained, but has its effect on George been lessened or has only the effect on Hazel been altered? This question actually seems rather straightforward. My favorite example of this is a man with a gun who intends to murder someone but misses or has the gun misfire. Is he less murderous because of his incompetence or his faulty equipment? I believe (and I believe that I am standing in a long line of Christian tradition when I say this) that he is not. The sin on his end was to make the decision to kill. His success or failure is immaterial. Similarly, if George decides not to kill Hazel only because he does not want to spend the rest of his life in prison and not because he regards killing Hazel as unacceptable and wrong it seems to me that George is no better off than if he had tried to kill Hazel but an outside force intervened and prevented him from doing so successfully. Clearly, then, there are questions about the nature of sin that are relevant to the very concept of government restraint of sin.

Conclusion

Most discussions of the issue of legalizing or banning same-sex marriage focus on a single issue; most of the time this issue is the moral status of homosexual activity. Now, I do believe that this is the first issue to consider and, obviously, if one decides that homosexual activity is moral then one can stop considering the issue at that point. However, it is not true that someone who decides that homosexual activity is immoral is also done thinking at this point. This person must ask themselves questions about what it means for two people to be married and then (if they come to the conclusion that same-sex couples cannot or should not receive this title) some questions about the role of government. If they come to the conclusion that the government should act to restrain sin in this case they must also think carefully about the practicality of this. Can the sin actually be restrained? At this point our hypothetical thinker will have a conclusion about whether a law banning same-sex marriage is a good thing.

However, our hypothetical thinker has only answered this question in regards to a hypothetical law without costs or other consequences. If this person were to consider a specific law they would have to ask what else the law might do and how this law might affect the relations between Christians and non-Christians and then weigh all of that as well. If they were to actively campaign for or write the law they would have to ask what the costs of doing so are and what else those resources could be used for. Only after considering all of these issues could someone act in an informed manner.

This all serves as evidence of my major thesis: the large ideas matter. To answer what sounds like a simple question – “Should Christians be for or against the legalization of same-sex marriage?” – we need to consult with between one and four major ideas, and no less than three major ideas for those who decide that Christians should not sanction same-sex marriages within our churches. To have a Christian answer, then, for a simple question, we need to have a Christian frame for the world. We need to have Christian ideas about what it means to be married, to be governed, to sin, and (for all those other issues out there) to love, to serve the poor, to serve at all, to raise children, to eat, to celebrate, to do science, to tell jokes, to fix cars, to buy and sell, and all the rest. If we fail to have a larger Christian frame for these ideas we will not make good Christian decisions. We will make predictably secular decisions with a thin Christian gloss. Perhaps worse yet, we will call these vaguely Christian-flavored decisions “Christian” and miss out on something that would be far more Christian than this.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 14, 2012 2:10 pm

    Great thoughts and I appreciate the organization of what we’re actually (or should be actually) considering with decisions like this. Here’s something I’ve been grappling with lately as it relates to your fourth sub-topic “Sin”: I had a few conversations that focused on this notion of the government being in the business of legislating against sin. In each conversation, the argument was raised to me that our government already legislates against sins like stealing and murder as you noted above. What I grapple with is whether the government in those cases has legislation against SIN or against CRIME or IMMORALITY and what separates those things (if anything). Generally (and I realize that’s a horrible word for argument), humanity agrees that murder shouldn’t happen and that we should do something to prevent it from a societal level (law, law enforcement, etc). Murder in that sense is illegal in all first-world countries that I’m aware of regardless of whether those countries are “founded on Christian ideals”. Certainly the source of our current laws is heavily Christian in influence, but given that our founding fathers chose to adopt those laws in a time when “freedom of religion” was of great importance, can we say that they were choosing to impose laws that prevented SIN or those which prevented CRIME. I get that murder is both a sin and a crime and in many cases immoral. Anti-gay marriage legislation is place for me where this notion of sin vs. crime vs. immoral behavior gets fuzzy. It seems proponents in our state would say then that our laws legislate against sin and since they’ve decided that gay marriage is a sin, the state can legislate against it. That, of course, draws us down into a mire of legislation against all measure of sin. However, if one agrees that what the state ought to legislate against is some more universally agreed upon set of bad behaviors that I’m calling “crime” then suddenly gay marriage doesn’t necessarily fit. And to take that thought a step further, I wonder (legitimately – you may have an answer) if there’s some scripture-based argument for sins which are the government’s business vs. those which are not.

    Anyway, my heart’s clearly most fixated on two of the points- what of sin was mitigated with the passage of this amendment and where the bounds on the government’s role exist with respect to sin. All of which led me to vote for what I consider the null (since gay marriage is already not legally recognized here). Thanks for feeding the thoughts – I’ll continue to mull them for a long time, I’m sure.

  2. Eric permalink
    May 14, 2012 6:55 pm

    I think most countries lack a single clear legislative ethic (democracies and republics make illegal what people want made illegal) but generally we see broad agreement that bad things one person does that harm another who did not agree to this are illegal. Murder is illegal because nobody agreed to be killed. Theft differs from a gift specifically in that the party who loses goods did not agree to lose them. Is punching yourself in the head illegal, though? What about eating lard by the pound? Those are behaviors that harm only the doer (theoretically) and are not illegal.

    Biblically, I think the picture is more complicated because the Bible doesn’t draw our neat lines between my actions aimed at myself and my actions aimed outwards. If a father kills himself through bad behavior doesn’t that affect his wife and children? However, this isn’t a simple Biblical case but, I think, an understanding of the nature of relationships in a Biblical manner.

    Anyway, one can be internally consistent and be against murder but not against same-sex marriage by invoking this idea of serious harm to non-consenting others. I’ve heard that case quite a lot from libertarians. One of these days maybe I’ll tackle the much more complex issue of the Bible and government.

  3. May 15, 2012 3:00 pm

    Another thought-provoking piece.

    Whenever I struggle with complex issues, I can only go back to the basics: Love God with all my heart, mind, strength, and soul; and love my neighbor as myself. There is no commandment, no instruction, no imperative more important than these, according to Jesus, anyway.

    God spoke at least as often, and maybe more, against violence or defrauding one’s neighbor as He did about same-sex issues. So I ask myself how I’D feel if I couldn’t marry the person I’m in love with—say, for example, someone who is violent or embezzles from his company.

    Is every sin acceptable for marriage except one? Does it matter whether I know of the sin or not? What about my own sins, and which ones? If I’m not following the two commands that matter most, am I disqualified from marriage? Of course not.

    So it seems to me that if we ban a marriage based solely on what God says about same-sex sin, then we’d have to ban all marriages based on what God says about all sin—especially willful neglect of the two greatest commands. And THAT is rampant in a Church that should really know better, but doesn’t.

    It’s not exactly an academic answer, and not articulated nearly as well as you’ve done here, but if I’m going to make a mistake, I’ll err on the side of agape and take my chances with God!

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