Marriage as biblically defined—one woman married to one man—is the centerpiece of the American church. Even with the growing number of singles in our congregations, the institution of marriage provides the most visible social context for most church ministries.
My church is like every other one I know of. We celebrate marriage through recognized ceremony. We teach the dynamics of successful marriages. We seek constantly to improve the quality of our peoples’ marriages through classes and conferences. We offer counseling to those who struggle with their marriages. We see reflections of theological truths in marriage. We embrace it as a living experience of grace. We understand it to be a platform for spiritual growth. Indeed, since the Bible itself holds marriage in such high regard, we’re bound to see it that way, too.
Last week, President Obama threw the future of marriage into confusion. His announcement that he supports same-sex marriage—an announcement that led Newsweek magazine to label him “the first gay President”—while on one level a cynical political act was on a deeper level a direct threat to the American church.
The late Father Richard John Neuhaus anticipated this moment years ago with what he called Neuhaus’ Law: Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy sooner or later will be proscribed. In other words, when truth is made optional it will one day be forbidden. We see his insight playing out already as those supporting biblical marriage are being ridiculed as bigots and fools. Despite the President’s assurances to the contrary, in the not too distant future churches and ministers who refuse to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies will almost certainly face legal consequences.
Churches and other religious organizations of all faith traditions are mobilizing against the legalization of same-sex marriages. How can we do otherwise? And I hope and pray our efforts will succeed. But we're fighting an uphill battle. I’m not being defeatist in saying this but simply recognizing two facts:
One, when any issue in our American legal/political system is framed in terms of civil rights, it will almost certainly come to pass. Once marriage was defined not as a divinely ordained institution or even as a cultural tradition based on religious convictions and was conceived instead as a “right” of individuals, to be defined however each individual desired then it fell into the sphere of the individual rights our Constitution defends. Once marriage’s roots in religion were cut it became nothing more than a withering cultural plant. As a social contract marriage now can be defined and manipulated in whatever way any group so desires.
Second, national demographic trends clearly favor the legalization of same-sex marriage. I don’t mean the various surveys that claim to show the majority of Americans favoring the idea—I don’t put much stock in those. No, what I mean is that younger adults really don’t care too much about the matter. The philosophy of most younger Americans is that people should make their own life choices—why should anyone care who someone else marries?
Even though thirty-one states have added amendments to their constitutions prohibiting same-sex marriage, the long term outlook on the federal level seems pretty clear: depending on who’s in political office and when they get elected, same-sex marriage will likely be the law of the land within the next few decades.
So the question to ask ourselves in the church at this point is as clear as it is threatening: How does the church respond?
This is such uncharted territory that most of us at this point just don’t know. But maybe we better begin asking ourselves some pointed questions. Here are a few:
Where and how is the gospel best served in this conflict?
How does the church reach out to homosexuals with love and grace while maintaining our commitment to biblical morality?
How should the church balance biblical fidelity to the institution of marriage with the reality of changing cultural practices?
How do we balance political action (which believes governments change through power), with prayer (which believes governments change through divine intervention)?
Should we in the church hunker down into isolated communities or step out and actively engage the great issues of our time?
How far are we in the church willing to go in protesting the direction of our government?
How do we balance involvement in present-day cultural, legal and political issues while keeping faith with the ultimate triumph of God’s Kingdom?
And maybe the most important question of all: How do we in the church best position ourselves to help salvage human lives as our surrounding culture continues to deteriorate?