Saturday, March 23, 2013

Defense of Marriage

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments to decide if they should overturn California’s proposition 8 ban on homosexual marriage. This is just the latest in a long series of incidents that highlight the shift of the broader culture away from traditional Judeo-Christian moral standards. The “homosexual” issue is probably the most significant challenge that Christian churches will face in the coming years with regard to cultural engagement. Those defending traditional Christian values have been steadily losing ground as the cultural battles over the legitimacy of homosexual marriage continue.

Over recent years, the victories won by those pushing an agenda to normalize homosexuality have been met with a series of efforts both inside and outside the church to “defend traditional marriage”. I think that all believers would agree that traditional marriage is something worth defending but a careful examination of the literature and rhetoric reveals that usually the primary interest is an opposition to homosexual marriage in particular. This seems to be true of both the religious and political elements of the movement.

Before we go further, I want to be clear. According to the Bible, homosexuality is a sin. Exegetical arguments to the contrary are textbook cases of eisegesis and rationalization. There is no question that to elevate homosexual unions to the same status as marriage is a distortion of God’s intent and is an appropriate concern for the Church. The secular public policy issues are also crucial because of the centrality of marriage to the structure of our society. Reducing marriage to a mere confirmation of the emotional attachments between adults and ignoring the broader function of marriage for the family and culture will have disastrous results. I am not questioning the legitimacy of churches rallying around this issue. Rather, I am pointing out that gay marriage is only one of many issues that must be dealt with if the goal is to defend marriage as a broader institution.

Unfortunately, the American church has little cultural authority on the wider issue of biblical marriage. Decades ago, the church in America all but abdicated its position as the defender of marriage. There have always been faithful congregations and pastors that have stood upon the Word but in general, the voice of the church has been functionally silent as no-fault divorce, pornography, and cohabitation have been eating away at the foundation of marriage as a cultural institution. The institution now under attack has already been substantially weakened both in the broader culture and within the church.

I do not want to oversimplify the problem, the erosion of marriage in the general culture has many complex implications for the pastoral ministry of the Church. Biblical churches are in the difficult position of speaking clearly on a range of sins such as divorce while also effectively bringing a ministry of grace to those who are bearing burdens associated with them. I have heard preachers deliver thundering and scathing rebukes of divorce and premarital sex with all the passion that Amos could muster while offering no grace or hope to those who needed it. I have also heard preachers who have skillfully avoided the subject so as not to offend anyone. Both of these are unbalanced approaches that fail to provide the kind of leadership the church is called to provide.

If the Church is to take an effective stand on issues of marriage it needs to do so consistently and with appropriate balance of law and grace. Before we can engage in the overall cultural discussion, we must first address the issues within the fellowship of believers. Many local churches have, but the typical report is discouraging. We recognize that marriage certificates are issued by the State. The Church, however, has no obligation to sanction a union simply because it is acceptable to the state. If we are to defend marriage in the culture, we must begin by defending it within our own communion.

There was a time when the culture was so distinct from the Church that Christian morality was exceptional and unique. Eventually, so many elements of Judeo-Christian morality were imported into the social mores and laws of Western Civilization that the accepted standards of morality became those of the Bible. We are fast approaching another age where that is no longer the case. Will we have the same courage of our convictions that our early fathers in the faith had? If so, we need to begin talking about a broader biblical view of marriage that goes beyond singling out a particular sin.

Those who wish to make a defense of marriage a focus of their ministry do well to take a stand on homosexual marriage but that by itself is not enough. It is just as important that a biblical perspective is cultivated with regard to divorce, cohabitation, neglect, abuse, and the dangers of pornography. Too many Christians have no theological framework for their understanding of marriage. Too many cannot explain the biblical teaching concerning what marriage is, why it is important, and what it looks like when practically lived out. The statistics indicate that there is little distinction in most American churches between the attitudes of the members about these things and those of their unbelieving neighbors. If our goal is to offer a biblical defense of marriage we must model it and teach in our own fellowships (1 Peter 2:11-12). This involves a comprehensive and positive teaching about marriage rather than a narrow reaction to one particular challenge. By all means, let us meet the challenge, but let us do it by ensuring that the culture cannot redefine our teaching on marriage by forcing a distortion of our doctrine by pushing us to only teach about what we oppose. Let us bring the gospel to bear on the entirety of the institution.

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