Friday, July 6, 2012

What North Carolina Really Got Wrong

I recently read this article which features John Piper's decisive stance on the issue of homosexual marriage.  Despite my consistent disagreement with John Piper on most things theological, I can appreciate his black and white approach to those issues.  He doesn't leave people guessing what he believes and in this case who the word marriage belongs to.  I cite him because this is the problem in this debate.  No one is taking the time to talk about who gets to define what marriage is. 

Shortly after the recent vote in North Carolina on the amendment to ban homosexual marriage, my cousin, a woman who is apprehensive of church, but nonetheless a faithful Christian, sent me this message:

“In my normally not-overly-political church this morning, I was a little surprised by what struck me as political fear-mongering. The pastor said that if homosexual marriage becomes legal, then it is just a short step before all churches of all denominations will be required to marry homosexual couples, and that refusal would be discrimination. From there, the discrimination would result in churches losing their tax exempt status. And even mentioning God's condemnation of homosexual behavior would be considered discrimination and bullying, resulting in the incarceration of pastors who preach the Word.”

My cousin wanted to know if this assertion by her pastor was in fact true.  The preacher used 2 Timothy 4:1-6: “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” His main point was that homeliticians must preach the Word faithfully despite consequences.

I had a feeling that the heart of the issue, however, was not courage, but marriage, the word marriage. To whom does the word marriage belong and what does it mean?

In 1996 former President Bill Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Under the law, no U.S. state or political subdivision is required to recognize a same-sex marriage treated as a marriage in another state. Section 3 of DOMA codifies the non-recognition of same-sex marriage for all federal purposes, including insurance benefits for government employees, Social Security survivors' benefits, and the filing of joint tax returns.[1]

Americans often vote on the “definition of marriage.” Though I’m a free-church protestant I sometimes find myself envious of high church traditions that have taken the time to name important truths.  The Catholic Church, for example, counts marriage as one of its seven sacraments.  So when a marriage is performed by a priest, he is aiding God in a covenant forming ceremony in which an outward sign becomes an inward reality. 

The community I pastor would say something like: marriage happens when a Christian community witnesses two Christians exchange vows that reflect a Christological commitment of covenantal fidelity.  For the state, marriage happens when the license is signed and tax statuses are officially changed.  The state will never be able to do what the church does nor the church what the state does.

For this reason it’s intriguing that American Evangelicals get so feisty about the state’s definition of marriage. So who really marries the couple?  Who owns the word marriage?
This suggests that we’ve lost our gospel imagination and begun taking our cultural cues from the state.  The state issues decisions that don’t reflect Christian values all the time.  To be frank, that doesn’t bother me. I don’t expect the state to be Christian. 

In the Spring of 2004 I spent my last few weeks at Bethel University studying for finals and my last few weeks at Woodland Hills Church listening to Greg Boyd preach a six week sermon series entitled, “The Cross and The Sword.”  This series later became the book, The Myth of A Christian Nation.  In that six weeks I watched that church lose nearly a thousand of its regular attendees.  Boyd killed one of America’s most sacred cows.  He told the church to get out of the state’s bed.

As a pastor I’m often asked if I think homosexual marriage should be legalized.  I respond by asking someone if they think I should have been circumcised by a Jewish Mohel.  Obviously not, because we don’t believe the same thing about circumcision.  Obviously, the state and I don’t agree on what marriage is or rather when someone is married so I don’t really care how they define it.

It strikes me that what we really ought to vote on is whether or not “marriage” is a distinctively Christian word.  If so then one of two things should happen:

In communities of Christian faith that have decided marriage should be restricted to a man and a woman, and that community of faith existed in a state that passed a law similar to the one described by my cousin’s pastor, then the church’s job is to be defiantly faithful.  If they lose their tax status so be it.  This is a small price to pay when compared with the testimony of early Christian martyrs.  

On the other hand, if a Christian community or denomination decided that covenantal metaphors in scripture should be extended to same sex couples, and if that community of faith lived in a state that had passed laws prohibiting otherwise, then they should be defiantly faithful.  They should offer the marriage sacrament to those couples, invite them to marriage retreats, list them in the directory as married and anything else that would testify to the fact that the church lives by a different reality than the world.  Sure the church cannot change a homosexual couple’s tax status or legalize their adoptions, but they can bear witness to their convictions, which is rooted in the truer reality. 

What the church should not do, is let the state define who can participate in God’s activity of forming covenantal bonds or pay any attention to the state when it tries do so.  That is unless we have decided to let the state define “marriage” for us.