Monday, June 13, 2005

Homosexuality Part III - Gay Marriage and Civil Unity

This is really two issues: internally in the Christian Church; and externally in a puralistic, democratic society.

On the Christian church side of the issue: I could not support, based on scripture, sanctifying gay marriage (or civil unions) within my church - or even saying that gay permanent relationships are equal in God's eyes. As Richard Hayes said (quoted by Walter Taylor):

"Likewise, those who decide that the authority of Paul's judgment against homosexuality is finally outweighed by other considerations ought to do so with a due sense of the gravity of their choice. The theological structure in which Paul places his indictment of relations 'contrary to nature' is a weighty one indeed, and it is not explicitly counterbalanced by anything in Scripture or in Christian tradition."
On the overall societal issue: I do not believe it helps the Christian Church's mission to save the lost to publicly oppose at least gay civil unions. This is really a civil rights issue: there are lifetime gay couples, with children - and these couples need the civil rights and protections granted by marriage. Of course, there are civil contract methods to achieve all of these rights (except joint tax filings, and the few state benefits offered the legally married); but why should they have to jump through these hoops? Because God doesn't believe in this relationship? Because allowing gay civil unions will "destroy" God's institution of marriage? These are really awful reasons.
"The Christian conception of marriage is one: the other is the quite different question-how far Christians, if they are voters or Members of Parliament, ought to try to force their views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them in the divorce laws. A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for every one . . . the Churches should frankly recognise that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not. " -- CS Lewis, Mere Christianity
This was about divorce, but its application to gay civil unions is obvious. The lesson of the Old Testament is that the law can not make people righteous; and that is why the New Testament covenant, and Jesus's atoning sacrifice, were necessary. Do we believe we can legislate morality more effectively now?

J. Budziszewski, in The Problem With Conservatism, points out some errors Christians must avoid while carrying out secular political ideology. The applicable mistake in this discussion:
moralism: "According to this notion God's grace needs the help of the state; Christianity merely asks the state to get out of the way . . . Now I am not going to complain that moralism "imposes" a faith on people who do not share it. In the sense at issue, even secularists impose a faith on others - they merely impose a different faith. Every law reflects some moral idea, every moral idea reflects some fundamental commitment, and every fundamental commitment is religious - it proposes a god . . . the important distinction is not between religion and secularism, but between faiths that do and faiths that do not demand the civil enforcement of all their moral precepts . . . To the question "Should the civil law enforce the precepts of the faith?" the biblical answer is, "Some yes, but some no; which ones do you mean?" . . . Christianity is not a legislative religion. While the Bible recognizes the Torah as a divinely revealed code for the ruling of Israel before the coming of Messiah, it does not include a divinely revealed code for the ruling of the gentiles afterward. To be sure, the Bible limits the kinds of laws that Christians can accept from their governments, for "we must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). However, it does not prescribe specific laws that they must demand from them. "

It is not even true that all of God's commands limit the kinds of laws that Christians can accept. To see this, contrast two such precepts: (1) I am prohibited from deliberately shedding innocent blood; (2) I am prohibited from divorcing a faithful spouse. Both precepts are absolute in their application to me, but that is not the issue. If we are speaking of governmental enforcement, then we are speaking of their application to others. The former precept should require very little watering down in the public square, for even nonbelievers are expected to understand the wrong of murder . . . But the latter precept requires a good deal of watering down in the public square, for before the coming of Christ not even believers were expected to understand the true nature of marriage . . . No doubt the Pharisees to whom He was speaking were scandalized by the idea that their civil law did not reflect God's standards fully. They must have been even more offended by the suggestion that it was not intended to. Among religious conservatives this suggestion is still a scandal, but it does not come from liberals; it comes from the Master.

Christians, then, may certainly commend a law as good or condemn it as evil. They may declare it consistent or inconsistent with the faith. But not even a good law may be simply identified with the faith; Christians must not speak of a tax code, marriage ordinance, or welfare policy as Christian no matter how much, or even how rightly, they desire its enactment or preservation. That predicate has been preempted by the law of God. The civil law will be Christian-if it still exists at all- only when Christ himself has returned to rule: not when a coalition of religious conservatives has got itself elected."

This points out the error in thinking we must protect "God's institution of marriage" from "the world, the flesh, and the Devil". Of course, we must defend our own marriages from these forces; but God can defend His own institution by His own Grace. Is our God so weak we must come to His primary social institution's defense? Hardly.

I think the idea of covenant marriages within the church is a strong one. We could have the couple sign a pre-nuptial agreement outlining additional steps both agree to in case of conflict in the marriage. They could spell out in better detail how they view their individual responsibilities and rights within the context of being part of a one-flesh relationship in front of God; and the responsibility their relationship has to glorify God - and the steps they agree to to do that.

I think this kind of two-tiered structure can also be played out with marriage held to be between a man and a women; and civil unions used to impart civil rights to permanent gay relationships.

Again, I must ask if it helps the Church's mission to be seen as the hateful representatives of a hateful God when it comes to civil rights for permanent gay couples and their families?

(The comment line is open)


  1. I appreciate your support for civil unions for queer couples, but I'm not sure why you can't take it a step further. If you support covenant marriages in your church, which shouldn't, you believe, bless queer unions, why should the government confer marriages on straight couples and only "unions," civil marriages without the same name, on queer ones? That sounds like "seperate but equal" to me, and I hope I don't have to point out that "seperate but equal" is never really going to be equal.

  2. Civil unions may pass; marriages will not - especially in Oregon. I am enough of a pragmatist to argue what is possible; not what is ideal.

    I knew I was going to email my position and a link to this thread to my state representative; and the speaker of the Oregon House. Gay marriages are a dead and buried body in Oregon (assuming the US Supreme Court doesn't resurrect them). The Oregon Legislature is considering civil unions right now. The Senate passed a law that was too broad (it included a couple of other "orientations" - that may be its undoing. Why don't liberals know how to narrow and focus?); but the Speaker of the House - a conservative Christian Republican is implying it will never even reach debate if she can help it.

    Further, I do not believe gay relationships are equal to straight ones in an absolute sense - just in a puralistic, democratic one. That is my problem with the analogy to "separate but equal" - people of color and whites are equal before God; gay permanent relationships and straight ones are not.

    My goal is to give all the civil rights given by marriage to straights to gay permanent couples. Frankly, I would support a law that gave all those rights without any blessing on any relationship at all - but do not even begin to see how that would happen even on a technical level.

    It is going to be up to the interaction of those gay civil unions with the culture to move the culture to the point where Oregon might repeal its constitutional amendment. I do not really think gay couples want to wait THAT LONG.

  3. Great posts, John. I agree with you on civil unions--if civil and political equality is at issue, much better to have 99% of the loaf and leave the word "marriage" out of it. When I've had discussions with social conservatives on this issue, I've been amazed at how many people are hostile to "gay marriage" but quite accepting of "civil unions." The semantics really matters here (I still harbor the suspicion that the 2004 election was decided by the MA Supreme Court's marriage decision, which eschewed the less explosive Vermont method.)

    Maybe this relates to the particularly strange status church marriage has in America (and in Great Britain)--a status that necessitated Lewis's point. Here, churches of almost any kind (including ones on the internet) can perform legally binding marriages. Almost everywhere in Europe, you need to go to a magistrate to be married and then to the priest/pastor/rabbi if you want to be married religiously. This separates the two functions rather nicely, and I wish we did that here.

    We don't, however, and I can't shake the feeling that a lot of people are worried that "gay marriage" means their priest, pastor, etc. will be legally forced to marry single-sex couples in their churches. This isn't true, of course, but I wonder if that isn't part of the resonance of the term.

    Also, John, your point about logs in our eyes is critical. And Jesus's strictures on adultery are nothing compared to his condemnations of much else outside of sex.

  4. Ben,

    Thank you. I feel bad now (I did then too) for going off on you over at the Watchpost.

  5. No offense was taken. I've been studying Martin Luther this year, and I can tell you, none of us knows anything about religious rhetoric next to those Reformation guys.

  6. So, John, you personally would support civil marriage for queer couples, but are only politically advocating for civil unions because it is politically distasteful?

  7. Actually, if I lived in a state where this mattered anymore: I think Ben in the comment above is the most eloquent on this.

    The semantics matter. I am obviously not going to fight over gay permanent couple's status on any other grounds than a civil rights one. If I am going to fight for civil rights for gay relationships - I am going to do so in a way that brings the rights the fastest.

    I think that is a two-tiered structure separating marriage between men and women; and civil unions between gays. If someone asked my opinion about how the movement should proceed - I would tell advocates for state recognition of gay relationships to drop the word "Marriage" from their vocabulary; and campaign for civil unions.

    The experience in Oregon, a liberal state with a strong gay population, is telling. Lane County and Multnomah County illegally allow gay marriage. That is overruled by the state supreme court (a liberal court that probably gagged on that opinion). The initiative campaign starts and passes the Oregon Marriage Amendment. The Govenor immediately writes and introduces a civil unions bill. It now faces an organized and sensitive population due to the acrimony of the marriage campaign.

    That and they just couldn't narrow the issue to homosexuals and had to throw a couple of more "orientations" into the bill - which of course in Oregon House debate has led to the "what is going to be included in the future" argument.

    This bill may die as a result. You will probably scratch that up to a homophobic population etc. That may be true - but it has been handled so ineptly by the proponents of state recognition of gay relationships.

  8. Tyler, I can't help but think you're missing the big point here. If this is about legal protections--equality in the civil sense--then it makes no sense to pursue anything other than civil unions. If we're aiming at semantic equality--the kind of empty liberal point-making you usually sniff out pretty well--then we'll be stuck with a lot of potentially very nasty constitutional ammendments, some of which have already taken civil unions off the table for decades to come.

    On some issues, it's better to be right than successful. This most certainly isn't one of them. I'll take 99% of the goal and a semantic quibble over losing everything in a noble defeat.

  9. Hey, I support civil unions and queer marriage. I support civil unions because there are important civil rights issues that are totally obvious. If Steve can visit his dying partner, Steve, in the hospital, this is obviously something that needs to be corrected immediately.

    My church, once it sorts out its crap with some of the other members of the Anglican Union, is going to start marrying same-sex couples. There're already Episcopal priests marrying queer couples in Massachusetts. The whole "blessing of same-sex unions" lingo is just as stupid as a civil law stating that marriage is between a man and a woman. That's a problem I have with my church, not with the state.

    I don't want to force any pastor who doesn't want to do so to perform the same rites, (who the hell would want to get married in a church that doesn't want to marry them?) but I don't think it should be illegal for Episcopal priests to marry same-sex couples, either. If a church is forbidden by law from extending its sacraments to those it chooses to, this seems like more than empty liberal hand-wringing to me. On the other hand, if civil unions are allowed in all 50 states, and the UCC, Episcopalians, ELCA, etc. start performing marriage rites for queer couples, then those couples are married. They can tell this to the world. They don't need the government to decide that marriage isn't necessarily between a man and a woman.

    When civil unions are available to all couples, and good churches are marrying both straight and queer couples (as long as the police don't try to intercede because queer marriage is illegal -- which would obviously run counter to the disestablishment clause) any legal separation between marriage and civil unions will be totally irrelevant -- the equivalent of the Chicago aldermen passing a resolution opposing the war in Iraq. I think that such empty political moves are pretty stupid, you're right, Ben. If there is a state concept of marriage, it is stupid and descriminatory. It is a semantic claim that queer people are second class citizens, kinda like passing a resolution that says "Black people may have all the same rights as white people, but they shouldn't take this to mean that they're as good as white people."

    Thanks guys, you've helped me clarify this. I'll advocate for civil unions in civil politics and queer marriage in ekklesiastical politics.

    Can either of you come up with a reason why, if civil unions are available to all, there should be a state definition of marriage at all? (Besides, of course, attempts to get elected in Ohio and Florida?)

    Ben, I'd be more willing to concede that the Massachusetts supreme court lost the Democrats the national election if John Kerry didn't have a big wooden pole up his ass, and had spoken from his heart instead of relying on focus groups and a huge network of advisors. If Edwards or Lieberman had been the Democratic nominees, I'd be slightly more inclined to agree with you.

  10. John, I guess that your pastor and Joe Carter didn't want to touch this one with a ten-foot pole, at least in a forum where I might be inclined to swear at them. You can let them know that I'll try really hard to keep it clean over here at your blog. I don't think I've cussed once in this thread, have I? If you were using haloscan for your comments, you'd have my permission to edit it out, if I did.

  11. In case you missed this:

    Can either of you come up with a reason why, if civil unions are available to all, there should be a state definition of marriage at all?

  12. Actually, other than the political difficulty in removing it - NO.

    There may be a stealth manner of getting to one class of state recognized union in this - but I doubt its worth the political craziness

    Now if I were you, I might urge my congregation (in solidarity with their gay brothers and sisters) to file for civil unions instead of marriage in a state that recognized both.

    If I were you.

  13. If a church is forbidden by law from extending its sacraments to those it chooses to, this seems like more than empty liberal hand-wringing to me.

    We've discussed this before at the Watchpost. The law cannot forbid the church to this. That's what the 1st Amendment is for. No ballot initiative, no constitutional amendment, no federal law can change this. If the Episcopal Church or the UCC wants to bless same sex unions or marry gay couples or whatever, it can do that and always will be able to (so long as the 1st Amendment is in force). But those ceremonies will have no legal force. So what I said before is more complicated--clergy can perform legally valid marriages, but they can't define them. Churches have "married" couples in which the woman is underage, or married polygamists. The UCC and the EC have married gay couples, but (outside of MA) those blessings have no legal force. While legal and church marriage in America are hopelessly entwined, they aren't identical.

    So the upshot is that I agree with you on the distinction: civil unions in politics, marriage in the church. And I agree with both you and JCH that the state has no real reason to mix itself up in the definition of marriage, save that it's impossible to do anything else now.

    I phrased my 2004 election analysis poorly. A number of factors contributed to Kerry's narrow defeat, any one of which might have made a difference. The presence of "gay marriage" (as opposed to civil unions) as a major public issue was certainly one of them, although there were others.

  14. Here's my issue with all of this. As a Christian (and I'm a serious, born-again one), it sounds wrong to me that God would deprive mature, committed gay people of the sacrament of marriage. It just seems clear to me that Paul was not talking about committed gay couples. So if I'm right (indulge me here), there is no endorsement of committed gay relationships in scripture, but there is no condemnation either. So then that leaves it an issue that every Christian may decide according to his own conscience. But it is not something that we can insist on legislating. And since marriage is a civil right and a foundational unit in our society, it must be as open to gay people as it is to straight people.

    Another reason I think this has to do with some reading and thinking I've been doing about suffering. You know, suffering is one of the objections that people raise against Christianity or against the existence of God. "How can a loving God cause suffering?" etc. You hear that a lot. And all of the explanations that made any sense to me were founded on the idea that God does not "cause" suffering. He might permit it to proceed, but he never, ever causes it.

    Okay, now lets think about a whole class of people who, because of a supposed caprice of God's, are excluded from the foundational, loving, stable relationship that grounds our entire society. Because we know this is not a "choice" that people make; it is just how they are. So are we saying God is just making them suffer -- torn between celibacy or damnation? And believe me, the foreclosure of marriage causes suffering. It blights the lives of Gay people. At the end of the day, I just don't believe God causes it. So I have to conclude that Paul was not talking about gay people as we know them. Which means that marriage is not out of the question.

  15. This is a rational argument. I think Romans 1 implies that the "naturalness" of homosexuality is in the same class as people experiencing "rebellion against parents" or "arrogance". All of these are things that someone could view as natural in their nature since the earliest of ages.

    The reason Paul gives is that this is capriciousness but punishment for humankinds rebellion and idolatry. Essentially Paul is saying that God gives us all one or some of that laundry list between Romans 1:28 and 2:1

    I think we suffer because we have not separated the secular and religious aspects of marriage as they have in Europe. There you go to the courthouse for your secular marriage AND then go through the church service if you want the religious sacrament.

    This would give us Lewis's two tiered system. The state could marry whoever they want; and Christians could marry whoever they wanted

  16. I think that is valid too . . .
    Although personally, I would not equate homosexuality with rebellion against parents or other kinds of impulses that we all agree are natural but which ought to be suppressed. It seems to me that Paul is talking about a kind of omnivorous lust that exploits people (maybe young boys?) -- which I believe was commonly practiced in his time and in ours as well. I do not think he is talking about people whose deepest emotional companionship needs and "soulmate" and family longings can be met only by members of their own gender in a stable, committed relationship. For that reason, I remain unconvinced that scripture condemns these relationships. I believe it is essentially silent on them.

    Doesn't mean the Church has to turn around and grant the sacrament of marriage . . .

  17. You know, after reading your comments and the posts from above, the question begins to ring in my ears that Jesus asked, when He returns will he find faith on the earth? I don't know how long the Lord will tarry, but my heart's cry is that He will open your eyes to the truth of God's Word before that time. The Bible does say that when the last times comes, men shall not endure sound doctrine. Homosexuality is an abomination in the eyes of God!! Does that mean that we hate them for the sin they commit, by no means. All sin is equal as far as the penalty being hell, but Paul is talking about the degregation of mankind and at the bottom of the list is homosexuality. My heart breaks at the lack of the knowledge (or even the desire of knowledge) of God's Word. I'm no Bible scholar, but the Bible says if any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God who giveth to all men liberally and upraideth not(James 1:5). Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed for sin and one of the examples of the sins they were committing was homosexuality. The Bible is clear, black and white, no gray areas. The Holy Ghost didn't inspire scripture to have many interpretations, only one. Jesus didn't mean to have his church divided into many denominations, there should be only one church. And in fact there is only one true church, and that is all who are bought by the blood of the lamb, who are holy, sanctified and righteous. Those that are filled with the Holy Ghost and going about doing the work of God. God help us in this time we live in!! The rest of the churches that water down Scripture, or deny the truth are only a counterfeit church, believing in a counterfeit gospel who are need of the truth.

  18. Preacherboy21

    I too hope Christ finds me as one with faith when He returns. Your prayers for my holding to Godly, and not worldly, wisdom are welcome.

    I will assume in posting this you read the whole series. If not, and if you come back to see this note, please do - it will help refine and focus your prayer for me.


How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly