[This post is the fourth in a series of four offering this Christian’s heartfelt response to the debate over gay marriage. If you have not yet read the first post, I would encourage you to start there and read through this series with both humility and grace.]
When our country formed through the ruins of revolution, there was very little left to hold together the loose confederacy of states which made up the United States of America. The governing documents initially enacted by the states, the Articles of Confederation, proved to be nothing more than weak bonds more effective at binding the hands of the nation than at unifying the thirteen states. The newly formed nation was in shambles and was tottering tediously on the precipice of disaster.
So in the spring of 1787, fifty-five delegates from twelve of the thirteen states met in Philadelphia for the purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation into something strong enough to hold the country together. What they did instead was spent the next four months drafting a wholly new set of documents intended to serve as the governing laws of a much stronger nation than they had ever before conceived. Out of that convention was birthed the Constitution of the United States of America. The willingness of those men to put aside their differences in view of a solution that suited everyone allowed generations that followed them to enjoy the prosperity of the greatest nation in the modern world.
I believe we desperately need to come to an agreement in this battle over marriage. But it will only come if both sides of the argument are willing to set aside their emotions and ask themselves what is truly best for their side of the argument.This is not easy to do, because we hold our convictions very dearly.
As I stated in my previous posts, I have a tension inside of me that arises because of several seemingly contrary convictions:
1. I believe the concept of biblical, spiritual marriage is unquestionably worth fighting for.
2. I believe that lobbying to deny homosexual couples certain privileges of the state is certainly NOT the best way to go about defending the biblical concept of marriage.
3. I believe that it is unfair for Christians to expect the state to regulate specifically Christian morals to non-Christian citizens of the state.
So how do I reconcile these opposing values in my mind? Or is it even possible? I think so. But it’s going to require a radical shift in how both sides of the argument approach the issue. But before I can offer my proposed solution, it’s necessary to build a solid foundation upon which to base this solution. In order to fully understand my argument, you have to go all the way back to the first century and look at the words of Jesus to a group of religious leaders of the day.
In Matthew 22 and Mark 12, you find the story of a group of religious leaders trying to trap Jesus in a conundrum of His own. After sufficiently buttering Jesus up in front of the gathering crowd, the leaders asked him a question: Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? Jesus, being rather wise, answered them with a question of His own. Pointing to a coin, He asked the leaders whose image was on the coin. Clearly, it was Caesar on the coin. He then gave them an answer they were not expecting: Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.
I believe Jesus was speaking a deep truth through His answer to the religious leaders that day. Let Caesar be in charge of his kingdom, and God will be in charge of His Kingdom. Jesus drew a clear line of demarcation for the people gathered there that day. He made clear that there is a difference between an earthly kingdom where a man sits on the throne and a heavenly Kingdom where God alone reigns. But Jesus didn’t stop with His statement that day. He went on to bolster His point by living a life that clearly avoided political involvement in lieu of focusing on the spiritual nature of humanity.
This does not mean that there was no social aspect to the gospel Jesus preached. Jesus healed people that were physically sick, freed people that were physically captive, and raised people that were physically dead. He stood in between a group of men and the woman upon whom they were passing social judgment and condemnation. He spoke out against hypocrisy and injustice within the society in which He lived. There was, without question, a social aspect to the life that He lived.
But despite His willingness to engage in social issues of His day, Jesus never engaged them through politics. He avoided politics like the plague. Instead of attempting to legislate morality through the political system, He spoke directly to individual’s hearts. Through His life, Jesus exemplified the truth that the best way to change a nation, or the world for that matter, is by impacting individual lives. So He made a crystal clear distinction between what is political and what is spiritual.
I believe that if Christians truly want to protect the biblical concept of spiritual marriage, then it’s going to happen best by making the same clear distinction in today’s society that Jesus made almost two-thousand years ago. We need to delineate between the secular and the sacred. And that’s not going to happen by forcing a cheapened definition of the term ‘marriage’ through our secular political system. We have to stop fighting over semantics and start recognizing existing concepts for what they are.
You see, most people who are fighting about the definition of marriage and the semantic right to claim and define that term are arguing just that: semantics. They are arguing solely over a definition. Conservative Christians feel like their understanding of biblical Christian marriage is being hijacked by those outside of the faith. Homosexuals feel that they are being denied the right to call their union what they want and to regard it as equally valid to other state-recognized unions. But because we’re arguing over definitions instead of clarifying the concepts themselves, I believe we really can’t have a “winner” in this fight.
Here’s the somber truth: the concepts behind those differing definitions of marriage won’t change one bit regardless of who “wins” the fight. There will still be heterosexual Christians spiritually joining with other heterosexual Christians. And there will likewise still be homosexuals committing their lives to their partners whether they are allowed to call it marriage or not. One way or another, there is going to be a muddying of the waters around the term ‘marriage’ regardless of the outcome of this heated debate.
So here is my proposal: stop arguing so much over defining or redefining a specific term and start trying to clarify the concepts themselves.
I, for one, would love to come to some type of an agreement without feeling like I’ve compromised my biblical standards. I don’t like using the word ‘compromise,’ but I think this is one instance where a compromise could be made and everyone could be satisfied. So would you take a moment to humor me as I wander down into the realm of possibility and posit a scenario that is so crazy it just might work?
I believe both sides of this debate have already lost the term ‘marriage.’ So I say we abandon it in its ambiguity for something a little clearer. Let’s stop using the term altogether in view of a collection of terms that will better define the concepts behind this heated struggle. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.
Here’s what I mean by that. When I got married in July almost ten years ago, two very different things happened that day. Early in the day, Erin and I signed a piece of paper issued by the state that declared us to be joined in marital union in the eyes of the state. It was so romantic! [Please note the use of sarcasm somewhere in this paragraph.] According to the state, at that moment, we were officially married.
Later that day, Erin and I stood before a each other, a minister, a gathering of our friends and family, and (most importantly) our God and spoke our vows of commitment to the marriage covenant to each other. At that moment, we were declared married in the eyes of God. That was a very different (and slightly more special) moment than the one we shared earlier over the marriage license.
On that day, two different entities declared us to be married. So which is marriage? By our present definition, both. And herein lies the problem. According to our present system, there is no distinction (even in terminology) between the two very different institutions. One is a secular institution, granting you certain privileges offered by the state. The other is a spiritual union recognized by a religious group. Why could we not make everyone happy by clarifying the difference between the two?
Most of the argument for homosexual marriage or civil unions centers around the denial of civil privileges to that couple by the state. According to our present system, even though the state sees nothing wrong with a homosexual couple, there are no guarantees for the same civil privileges that a heterosexual couple with a marriage license would enjoy. So why don’t we, as Christians, stop fighting for a term that we ourselves have watered down and profaned? I believe its time for Christians to relinquish the right for the state to recognize that relationship.
So here’s my proposal: delineate between every spiritual union and every civil union. I propose that all state recognized unions, either heterosexual or homosexual, should be lumped into one category and given the same civil privileges. Call it whatever you want. Call it civil marriage. If you are hung up on the term marriage, call it a state recognized union. Call it civil union. But call it all the same thing, because in the eyes of the state, there really should be no difference.
Here’s what this would do: it would clearly delineate that which is recognized by the state and that which is recognized by the church. By relinquishing all hold on what the state recognizes as a couple, we would actually further the cause of protecting the biblical concept of a spiritual marriage. We would have to be more specific when talking about Christian marriage, but I have no problem with that. I already see my Christian commitment to Erin as something totally different than my commitment in the eyes of the state. Why not put forth the minuscule effort necessary to clarify that in my everyday speech?
To differentiate between state recognized marriage and Christian marriage would ease a lot of the tension felt inside me. It would allow me to be fair and yet stand by my belief that Christian marriage is a high concept worth differentiating from anything less.
I’ve heard a few arguments against allowing the state to recognize homosexual relationships that I feel are worth addressing:
1. This is not a civil rights issue.
I agree with the premise behind this statement but not to the extent that it implies. Yes, this debate over same-sex relationships recognized by the state is a far cry from being on the same level as the Civil Rights Movement of last century. But it is still very much a civil issue dealing with a denial of privileges to a certain group of people. That’s why I prefer now (and have taken painstaking effort throughout these posts) to refer to this as a debate over civil privileges instead of civil rights. The ‘rights’ that heterosexual marriages enjoy are not necessarily rights to which we are entitled. But they are privileges offered by the state of which we are good citizens. Therefore, I find it very difficult to suggest that the homosexual population is less entitled to those privileges than the heterosexual community when both have many good, tax-paying, law-abiding citizens in them.
2. Where in the Bible do you find the concept of civil equality?
Granted, you really don’t find civil equality promoted throughout the pages of Scripture. If anything, you find more often the concept of giving up your own rights for the sake of others. But this is a concept that applies specifically to Christians taking one for the team in order to show through their own suffering a picture of the suffering Christ who gave up His own rights for us. This concept of sacrificing our own civil liberties was never meant to be pushed onto or expected of anyone outside the faith. That is ludicrous. So where does this concept of equality come from? It comes from our own society. And I find it very un-Christian to expect other people to sacrifice certain privileges of the state while Christians enjoy them.
3. Doesn’t this set us up on a slippery slope to recognize polygamy, incest, bestiality, or any number of other relationships?
I must concede, this would be a step in that direction. But I don’t think it would be as big of a step as most people argue. The difference is that these types of relationships are all recognized as illegal by the state while a monogamous, homosexual relationship is not. This only goes so far as to allow those relationships already recognized by the state as legal to be officially sanctioned by the state and granted the privileges associated with such a recognition. So while it would open a small amount of leeway for other arguments to be made, the necessary fail-safes are already in place to avoid going too far down that road as a society.
So what then should you, a Christian, do about this? Let’s assume you agree with my conclusion that the best way to protect the biblical concept of marriage is to delineate between it and secular marriage (I know this isn’t a safe assumption, but we’ll run with it anyway). What do you do now? We have an election coming up soon in which one candidate is for gay marriage and the other is against all forms of homosexual civil unions. Who gets your vote? While I would hope that this issue wouldn’t be the only factor determining your vote for the Presidency, this is a legitimate question. What do you do when no politician seems to be arguing to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s?
This is exactly where we should be making our stand. Write your congressman. Write your local officials. Send an email to the White House even. Let them know that there is a better way. Let them know that there are more than just two black and white options. Show them that you value the biblical concept of spiritual marriage by setting it apart from anything the state has its hands on.
More importantly, let the battle for marriage be fought and won first in our own hearts. Cement that victory by clearly delineating between what is secular and what is sacred. Begin by truly keeping sacred what is sacred. Don’t cheapen your own view of this high institution. And don’t lessen the impact of your voice by fighting the wrong fight against the wrong people. Only then will we truly make any real headway in the battle for marriage.