So the debate about same-sex “marriage” rages on–both in the church and in the larger society. Should same-sex marriage be legal, or illegal? (Vermont vs. North Carolina?) The battle lines have drawn up around two basic positions that, ironically, are the same in the church and the state: 1) yes, it should be legal for anyone to marry, or 2) no, marriage should be restricted to one man and one woman.
Despite all the recent legal and political wrangling, I think there is room for some fresh thinking around this divisive debate. The question doesn’t have to be so binary, and in fact, this could be an opportunity for us Americans to rethink what marriage is and what role it plays in society and in the church. Because so far, the arguments about marriage are strangely conflated: church = state; all or nothing. And maybe that reflects our entangled model of church-state cooperation in marriage (that goes back way before the United States was formed!) which is headed for a train wreck (See Rod Dreher’s article about military chaplains!).
When I do a wedding for a couple, I not only celebrate the Christian ritual with them, but I also serve as a representative of my state in certifying that they have formed a legal marriage contract. And frankly, I’ve never been terribly comfortable with that arrangement; I work for Jesus and not for the state.
So why not untangle the church and state on the issue of marriage? Let the state do its thing, and allow churches to do their thing, irrespective of each other.
Caveat: Granted, the state has a vested interest in promoting intact families–ideally with a mom and a dad–where children are nurtured and stability is achieved. Unstable families create lots of headaches for society and government, so our political leaders need to do their part to champion optimal families where virtue is encouraged and vice is suppressed.
But beyond that ideal, the state has no real stake in the religious definition of “marriage.”
Caveat: On the other hand, it is a slam dunk when the church examines the issue of marriage: there is absolutely nothing in Scripture or tradition that would endorse same-sex relationships (nor anything else but one-man-one-woman marriage, for that matter) in the church. Period. And those in the church who are pushing for a redefinition of marriage are free to start their own religion, separate from creedal Christianity.
So here’s a radical idea. Let’s unsnarl the whole notion of civil-religious marriage and make two separate estates. 1) Legal Unions. Allow people to form a legal contract with whomever they wish with a simple visit to the courthouse. No religious overtones; just a contract. 2) Christian Marriage. Allow churches to continue celebrating their sacrament/rites of marriage without outside interference. Simple, right?
The fear for lots of Christians is that if we give up fighting for social righteousness (preserving the current model of marriage) then the church will eventually run afoul of the state–which will come to believe differently–and then be persecuted for its exclusivity. And that’s probably true. Sadly. (See also Chad Hall’s thoughtful suggestion about marriage.) But we must remember that the church of Jesus Christ and the United States are two different things. And there may come a point when churches will have to cut themselves loose from the symbiotic relationship with the state and face the persecution that is already creeping around us.
God help us.
(Also check out Bethany Blankley’s interesting historical analysis.)