I have been asked on several occasions about my reaction regarding the Supreme Courts decision on DOMA and the same courts indecision on California’s Proposition 8, a proposition that I was able to vote on and had many conversations about during my time living in San Francisco. I have taken a great deal of time and have had many conversations with LGBT friends, LGBT advocates, pastors, clergy and others to think through the theological, cultural, and social implications. As a result, I have come to a fairly nuanced view of Gay Marriage, a position that I believe warrants further conversation and an open mind for consideration.
The Entanglement of the Church and the State
In the United States there has been a long history of separation between the institutions of Church and government in our country. The debate on ‘how’ and ‘where’ and ‘if’ they should intertwine will undoubtably rage on well into the future. However, the realm of marriage is the one place where, in practice, the line between Church and State are erased and both institutions are joined in tandem to accomplish a single goal: matrimony.
In every other area of life the Church (institutionally speaking) and the State (institutionally speaking) are separate. This was, in my opinion, a beautiful corrective to what the Founding Fathers experienced in England (see: The Church of England). This was meant to not only protect the institution of government, but also to protect the institution of the Church. Neither would intervene in the affairs of the other. Later on down the road this has played out in the non-profit status of the Church (there is a debate in some circles arguing that churches should pay taxes and donations should not be exempt. I would argue that to revoke this status from the Church would actually work to weaken the barrier that is in place that keep the two separate. But that’s another discussion for another time.)
In regards to marriage there is a blending, I believe, that is both unhealthy for the Church and for the State.
What is marriage? First and foremost, marriage is a sacrament. Meaning it is a religious institution. It derives its meaning, it’s purpose, its form, and its function directly from Scripture (specifically Judeo-Christian Scripture). However, in our USAmerican society this has been lost. Marriage is now understood as a right, and along with this right, it brings a bevy of benefits. However, nowhere in Scripture is marriage seen as a right. Marriage is a sacrament. This leaves a very blurred line in our society.
Let me give you an example: Every time I perform a marriage ceremony, I am required to play “agent of the State”. Meaning, my signature (in tandem with the County Clerk’s signature) is required on a legal document to “solemnize” the marriage. I step outside of my role as pastor and into the role of legal officiant for the State. As a result, my signature bestows the rights of marriage to a couple. Nowhere in our society is the separation of church and state more non-existent.
This is the reason why the debate surrounding Gay Marriage is so difficult. There is an entanglement in this realm that should have never come to fruition. Someone fell asleep at the wheel.
Let the State be the State
The issue for the State is one of rights. The Church should not be put into a position of granting civil rights to people. Should we be prophets who speak with prophetic voices into the government, as citizens, by all means! That is our governmentally granted right. But we should not grant rights. As such, we need to step back for a moment and recognize (specifically Christians) that the government is not the Church, the government is not a Christian/religious organization. (If you think otherwise, you might have some serious study ahead of you. This is a fundamental and foundational perspective for my argument.) As a result, we (the Church) should Let the State be the State.
This means, allowing the State to grant civil rights to whomever the State deems appropriate and for whatever purpose it so chooses, and we should recognize we may not always be comfortable with the governments choices/actions*. Government is a temporary reality. Unfortunately, many Christians do not see it this way (as evidenced by a great deal of the doom and gloom responses to the last two Presidential elections.) The Government is not the Church… and the Church is not the Government.
Now, does this mean that the Church should be silent? No. We should be active participants with our voice and our actions in our government. But hear this: The Church should use our voices and our actions for good, not evil. Meaning, we should actually stand up for and with those who are being treated as outcasts and as second-class citizens. This is the same sort of justice that drips from the pages of Scripture.**
Let the Church be the Church
The issue of Gay Marriage should actually be taken out of the realm of civil rights and placed squarely back into the quarters of theology. The entanglement of Church and State has done a great disservice to the Church in this realm. This has actually produced a great schism within the church regarding the question of gay marriage. A discussion of Civil Rights vs Theology has ensnared us and divided us. Neither is completely correct and neither is completely wrong.
We (society as a whole) need to let the Church be the Church. This means allowing every church to come to a position on where it stands theologically. Without the question of Civil Rights and justice, this should allow us the proper space and perspective to talk constructively. And without the question of Civil Rights looming large, society should then step up and respect each Church’s decision. This, however, will never happen as long as a pastor’s signature bestows rights on a couple whether gay or straight.
A Way Forward that Honors the Church + the State
The question then is how do we disentangle the mess we have inherited? I think there is a two-fold solution to this.
- Civil Unions for everyone. That’s right, I think whether you are Christian or not, religious or not, everyone should have to apply for a Civil Union license. This allows the government to give or rescind legal rights to couples however it chooses on the basis of equality. This puts everyone in the same boat. Now, to help untangle the mess, there should be an added step to this process: No one gets grandfathered in. Meaning, if you are currently married you need to go and apply for a Civil Union with everyone else. This allows for a clean slate approach. Everyone is on level, equal ground. The second thing this does is puts a bit of revenue into your local economy (a $20 filing fee with the County Clerk could do a lot for your city. Call it a Civil Unions tax if you will.)
- Marriages for the religious. To separate Civil Unions and Marriages allows for several beautiful things to happen for the Church. First, it can be treated once again (more so in the Protestant Church) as a sacrament, a special God-ordained moment in the life of the couple. Secondly, this gives the Church the opportunity to elevate the importance and meaning of marriage. It places choice and a stricter vetting process into the hands of the Church… if it so chooses. It is no secret that the divorce rate among those who call themselves Christians is higher than that of non-Christians. We have trounced the meaning of marriage in our own right. Perhaps its time for us to do our part to actually increase the meaning and value of marriage.
This solution is not perfect, I am well aware of that. However, I believe the benefits far outweigh the negatives. I believe it allows us (the Church) a good way forward in recapturing the word marriage from society as nothing more than a civil word and begin its reintroduction as sacrament. As it relates to the question of Gay Marriage, a solution like this allows each individual denomination or church community the opportunity to wrestle with what to do from a theological perspective if a gay couple asks to have their Civil Union solemnized in the eyes of God. It opens up opportunities for grace and love to abound and hard conversations to be had for all involved.
This is an entangled mess, but I do think this is a strong way forward. Simply put: in the question of Gay Marriage, we need to get the Church out of the business of granting rights to citizens of the State.
* I am always uncomfortable with the decisions of war that our government engages in.
** If you need a list of such Scriptures, just ask.