In light of the news that New York is joining the small group of states that allow same-sex marriages, and in response to the fear-addled tweets of Al Mohler upon hearing the news, I wanted to repost this column I wrote for Patheos back in February. No matter your take on whether or not same sex marriage should be legal, this ruling is about equal rights, not the sacrament of Christian marriage. No government can legislate a sacred covenant; let’s celebrate equal rights. Here’s the column:
Almost six years ago, in June, my wife and I, with the help of some very loyal friends, were preparing for our wedding. We are the “do-it-yourself” type and that was reflected in our plans for the big day. This was a wonderful thing because, as our guest would agree, the day definitely felt like it reflected our personalities; but it was also difficult because where some couples enjoy the serenity of knowing all the particulars are attended to, we were running around like crazy people trying to attend to every minute detail. In the midst of this running around, however, we forgot to notice one important detail: the state of Massachusetts, like most states with some notable exceptions like Nevada, requires a three-day waiting period before a couple can obtain a marriage license. That is, you have to apply for the license and then, if you’re still serious about getting married, retrieve the license three days later. We didn’t know this.
So, on the Friday before our Saturday wedding we showed up at the county clerk’s office in Salem, Massachusetts, and requested our marriage certificate. This, we were told, was impossible. We pleaded with the clerk, noting somewhat sarcastically (on my part) that this was our first time. Finally, she told us sternly, like a high school teacher bending to pressure to change a grade, that there was a loophole. In order for us to obtain the license on that day we would have to stand before a judge and plead our case—that is, convince him we truly loved each other—and pay a fee.
We were desperate. We went to the courthouse, wrangled an appointment with a judge and stood before him, assuring him with everything we could muster that we were in love, and, with his permission, that we would really like to get married the next day. Fortunately for us, he was extremely friendly, and far more interested in our menu for the reception (being that our wedding was happening in a picturesque seaside town north of Boston, we were having a clambake). He granted us the necessary waiver and we invited him to the reception. And we paid the fee.
At the end of a long day of running around, we returned to my soon-to-be-wife’s parents’ house and told them our story. Then, my wife’s father, a seminary graduate, former pastor, and elder at our church, asked something I’ll never forget, “Why’d you bother with all that?”
What? Why’d we bother! Well, if we didn’t, we explained to him, we couldn’t get married. Calmly—as is his way—he told us that what we wanted was a Christian marriage, a commitment between ourselves, God, and our community, and that, quite frankly, God’s not all that interested in local government bureaucracy. The way my father-in-law is right so often has the tendency to infuriate, and never more than in this instance.
I thought of this story recently as I was writing a kind of cheeky post for Patrol, the blog I co-edit. Last Friday I came across a call to action piece by Focus on the Family’s Citizen Link, which detailed a recent interview that Rolling Stone magazine conducted with Justin Bieber. In it, they tried to get the self-professed evangelical Christian to comment on sex before marriage. As much as they tried, however, all they could get from him was variations on, “I don’t think you should have sex with anyone unless you love them.”
In my post I controversially quipped that when it came down to it Justin Bieber understood biblical marriage better than did Focus on the Family. I knew my argument was half-baked, and the piece was mostly meant to be a bit of Friday afternoon fun, but toward the end I did arrive at the lesson I learned that day from my father-in-law. That is, really—biblically—there is no such thing as premarital sex.
The logic goes thusly: if sex is the sacramental act that binds the covenant between a couple and God, then when a person has sex they are marrying their partner. I acknowledge that this idea bodes better for people who have married their only sexual partner, but it is like my father-in-law said, God doesn’t care much for government forms and the like. In light of this, I thought as I read Bieber’s quote, he’s actually spot on, even if he hasn’t completely thought through the ramifications of what he is saying.
One thing I love about writing and editing Patrol is that the commenters we attract are, for the most part, adept at picking out holes in writers’ reasoning and, rather than viciously exploiting them (with some exceptions), helpfully filling them in. This is certainly the case for at least one commenter there who pointed out that my assertion rightly carried marriage out of the domain of the government, but a bit too far into the domain of the personal. That is, he reminded me that marriage involves Christian community as well.
The implications of this understanding of Christian marriage are far reaching. Not long ago I found myself in a meeting with some top ranking members of a prominent conservative evangelical organization. In this meeting we discussed many things, in hopes of taking the ideological temperature of young Christians. Much to my surprise, and simultaneously not all that surprisingly, one of the representatives of that organization admitted that evangelicals seemed to be winning on abortion, but may have lost on marriage. That is, many polls show that young people are less likely to support abortion rights than previous generations, but are much more likely to advocate for gay marriage than their antecedents.
Though I took some exception with the way this assertion was framed—in terms of wins and losses—I acknowledge the truth that it captures. But, I wouldn’t call the fact that young Christians believe in equal marriage rights a loss. Rather, if we want to talk about marriage in terms of wins and losses, it seems it has been a losing race for as long as any young Christian can remember. Marriage in the United States is a sham. It is literally the prize one receives at the end of a game show. It is so far from Christian marriage as to be completely unrecognizable and yet, in the realm of gay marriage in particular, Christians fight for it like it’s the Holy Grail. It isn’t.
I recently surveyed the periodicals I most often read for evidence of what marriage looks like in America today. I found stories about applying economic theories to marital relationships, advice on filing taxes separately if you worry your spouse may be involved in some shady dealings, a story about Playboy’s Hugh Hefner’s marriage to one of his models a quarter of his age, and a rather moving story about a lesbian couple who decided to share a donor’s sperm in order to start a family (much like the plot of the filmThe Kids Are Alright, which I loved, by the way). And none of this even mentioned the divorce rate.
Marriage in America is a secular institution; it has taken a shape of its own and has been a separate thing from Christian marriage for a long time. Let’s stop fighting to save what hasn’t been for a long time, and what ultimately, doesn’t need to be. It is and has been a lost cause. I support any and all people who want to engage in government marriage and pray for God’s blessing on their lives. I’ll offer advice and recommend that they file at least three days in advance for a marriage license. But mine is a Christian marriage, bound not by the paper I paid extra for, but by the covenant my wife and I made privately before God, and publicly before our community. In that, no one else’s marriage, or divorce, or affairs, or “it’s complicated,” or any other relational situation has any effect on my promise.
Christian marriage, however, is worth defending. We believe it is an institution set in place by God. Government marriage is necessary too, but is free of the sacramental weight that Christian marriage carries. There are plenty of good reasons to be married in the government’s eyes, rights that should be shared by all, and tax breaks that, as the article I mentioned above points out, only apply to married couples filing jointly. In a country such as ours that promises equal freedoms to all its citizens, the benefits of government marriage must be available to all. But government marriages are easily broken, like any non-religious contract. Rather than lament this, or fight over who should have access to these opportunities, Christians should thank God that his covenants are far more lasting, and, ultimately far less expensive.
Originally published on February 23, 2011 at Patheos.com.
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