(originally written May 10, 2012)
The voters of North Carolina passed a ban on homosexual marriage. The President made a speech in favor of the government recognizing homosexual marriage. And so, once again, it has become a hotly urgent issue in American politics, coincidentally occurring just in time to distract us from any number of other issues that affect us as individuals a great deal more.
As Christians we have to deal with this question very carefully: our stand for biblical morality must be unyielding and unrelenting. Indeed, our devotion to the God of the Bible must form the basis of all that we do – in every activity in which we participate, we must do everything for the glory of God. So we will not be intimidated or ashamed; we will boldly speak the truth of the Word. This necessarily includes the Bible’s teaching on sexual morality. But beyond what we say, beyond the position we personally adhere to, what sort of action ought Christians to take regarding homosexual marriage? With this question, we enter a new realm of conversation: the nature of interaction between the Christian Church and the unregenerate world. How ought Christians to relate to their surrounding culture? How about the civil government?
It is absolutely certain that our commitments regarding these more fundamental questions will determine which kinds of action we advocate taking with respect to the immediate issue. Those who believe that it is the duty of the civil government to uphold and enforce the whole moral law of God will undoubtedly argue that Christians must promote laws to punish not only homosexuality, but also prostitution, pornography, and drunkenness (they don’t often call for civil laws against sloth, envy, idolatry, Sabbath-breaking, gossip, or heresy, but we’ll assume for the sake of consistency that they’d like to see such laws eventually as well). Others argue that the proper role of civil government only extends to issues of justice among men, i.e. defending against acts of aggression, to maintain peace and order, while leaving other matters of personal morality to Him who judges justly. Still others believe the institution of the civil government itself, at least as presently conceived, is by definition aggressive and thus incapable of being an appropriate arbiter even on this more limited range of issues. And within each of these groups there are differing perspectives as to how Christians ought to inform, encourage, petition, or even force the civil government and the culture at large to conform to their proper roles. In short, if a Christian opposes homosexuality, it does not necessarily follow that he believes there ought to be a civil law banning homosexual activity; likewise, if a Christian opposes such a law, it is not necessarily the case that he is winking at immorality, or wavering in his commitment to the teachings of Scripture, or weary of the fight in the inevitable culture wars.
In a blog post this morning, Kevin DeYoung argues that Christians are tempted to “go silent and give up the marriage fight,” but instead “should continue to publicly and winsomely oppose bestowing the term and institution of marriage upon same-sex couples.” To briefly recap DeYoung’s reasoning:
1. Whenever “gay marriage has been put to a vote … the people have voted to uphold traditional marriage.”
2. “The promotion and legal recognition of homosexual unions is not in the interest of the common good.”
3. Marriage has a real, specific, biblical definition, and so “we should not concede that ‘gay marriage’ is really marriage.”
4. Legalization promotes cultural normalization of what was historically considered deviant behavior.
5. “The next step after giving up the marriage fight is not a happy millennium of everyone everywhere doing marriage in his own way. The step after surrender is conquest.”
A potentially serious problem with this reasoning appears in the light of the “prior questions” I mentioned above. DeYoung is clearly operating on the assumption that the Church’s fight with respect to this issue properly takes place in the realm of public politics. He might insist that, rather than an assumption, this is what he’s trying to prove, but that would only mean that his argument begs the question. He jumps right into questions of democratic process, legal recognition, cultural normalization, etc. Evidently, for DeYoung, the alternative to participation on these terms is surrender of the Biblical definition of marriage. DeYoung naturally has his own view of the nature of ecclesiastical interaction with the culture and the government, but by not making that view explicit, he leaves us with a very unclear picture of just what pertains to the Church, the culture, and the government, as specific entities with specific roles. In fact, he seems to have them all blended together in one giant struggle for control over the moral direction of the masses.
My question comes down to this: what battle are we really fighting? Take DeYoung’s first point, for example. “Every time the issue of gay marriage has been put to a vote by the people, the people have voted to uphold traditional marriage.” Does this mean that the majority of voters are upholding Christian morality? Is “traditional marriage” – namely, heterosexual monogamy – some sort of common ground between the biblical view of marriage as a picture of Christ and the Church, and the worldly view of marriage as practically advantageous, or “normal,” or whatever? Are unrepentant, unregenerate sinners “on our side” in a battle over cultural morality because they happen to vote our way? Also, what if this were not the case? What should Christians conclude if “the people” routinely and overwhelmingly voted in favor of homosexual marriage? Morality was never up for a vote to begin with, was it? If the Church would not be *losing* when the people vote against biblical morality, then it’s not really proper to say the Church is *winning* based on the people voting against a particular immorality either. What is really at stake?
In making his second point, DeYoung brings out a fairly collectivistic argument as to why this is such an important fight: “The society which says sex is up to your own definition and the family unit is utterly fungible is not a society that serves its children, its women, or its own long term well being.” Well, who specifically are we talking about? Are we talking about my son, baptized and raised in the Church by his father and mother? I suppose not, because whatever “society” does, it certainly does not raise children all by its fictitious self. Individuals “say sex is up to your own definition,” etc. Other individuals teach their children that God teaches us the non-negotiable truth in His Word. This is the case no matter how the vote goes, and no matter what the President says.
The central issue is that people’s hearts and souls are ultimately unaffected by the political process. The Church can waste its time trying to extract goodness and morality from the stony hearts of the unregenerate. We can fight one political and cultural battle after another, exhausting our resources until we finally discover that wicked people are going to do what they choose, all the way to their own destruction. We can plead with our rulers, begging evil men of power to command other evil men to do what is right. We can turn ourselves into despots, dictating the will of God upon those who lack the military might to resist us, never getting anywhere near their desperate need of the freedom that can only be found in Christ.
Christian morality is not a fight that belongs in public politics, at all. It comes right down to the fact that the gospel of grace is the only source of salvation, the only way to do anything pleasing to God, and the gospel is not spread by the sword, nor can it be. Civil laws against homosexual marriage do not serve as a proxy for biblical preaching about sexual morality. They aren’t intended to. Most of the people who voted aren’t even Christians to begin with. So rather than waste time trying to legally transform an unregenerate “society,” the Church can do what we are called to do, as the Church. We have the light of the gospel, and we are called to preach repentance and salvation to everyone. This is the only way we have any hope of doing any positive good – but indeed, we have the certainty of God’s blessing on our efforts, and the real transformation of people’s hearts and lives! When the State has become the arbiter of the definition of marriage, the Church is not in a good position. The appropriate response is not to get in there and make sure they define it right. The Church would be much better served by denying the State its illegitimate claim to jurisdiction over this institution of God’s.
Suppose the government declared that, for practical purposes – a census, perhaps – it was necessary for everyone to report whether they are members in a church. That would be the precise moment to resist! For what would inevitably follow? The government would demand proof of membership, based on its own, legal, definition of church membership. The very keys of the Kingdom would have been handed over to Caesar! At that point, Christians ought not to bother trying to persuade heathen state officials of a biblical definition of church membership. Whatever ills await the Church as a result of its illegitimate arbiter are already automatically on their way. It scarcely matters how they define it; if it’s theirs to define at all, then the battle is already lost.