The Surest Way to Promote God's Good Plan for Marriage
With additional time to assess last week's Supreme Court decisions on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California's Proposition 8, we can see how both advance America's move toward accepting and affirming gay marriage. Analysts disagree about what comes next, but many believe the language in Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion will soon let the Supreme Court declare a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. Wherever we live, same-sex marriage is probably coming soon. Kennedy wrote that DOMA is unconstitutional because of its "interference with the equal dignity of same-sex marriages." DOMA's effect, Kennedy said, is "to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal." DOMA's "principal purpose is to impose inequality . . . to disparage and to injure" people who, Kennedy concludes, live in less respected forms of marriage.
Reacting to these decisions, many Christians are pleased by the way rights have been extended to an often oppressed group. Whatever our view of marriage may be, we must know that the law of Moses often insists on equal legal protection for all (e.g. Exod. 23:8, Deut. 16:19). On the other hand, Genesis states and Jesus reaffirms God's good plan for marriage: "From the beginning the Creator made them male and female. . . . For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh" (Matt. 19:4-5). Many of us are troubled by the Supreme Court's decisions because they show how our nation's allegiance to biblical norms is eroding. But the paramount question is this: How does this ruling change things for the church and the cause of Christ and the gospel?
In a vital way, nothing changes. Jesus is still our living Lord. As Russell Moore has said, the gospel doesn't need family values to flourish: "Real faith often thrives when it is in sharp contrast to the cultures around it. That's why the gospel rocketed out of the first-century from places such as Ephesus and Philippi and Corinth and Rome." None of these cities had moral systems that promoted healthy marriages. In fact, the very contrast between Christian marriages and the wreckage of pagan marriages extolled the virtue of Christianity. One respectable philosopher, writing in an era of moral chaos that included slave concubines and easy divorce, even said in a wedding speech that a husband's adultery should be viewed as a sign of respect for his wife: "It is respect for her which leads him to share his debauchery, licentiousness, and wantonness with another woman" (Plutarch, "Advice to Bride and Groom"). This sort of nonsense strengthened the appeal of Christianity.
Let's remember, too, that this is hardly the first time an America court or legislature has promoted or tolerated actions contrary to biblical morality. We think of abortion and Roe vs. Wade. Sadly, states don't just allow gambling—they actually promote it. The state cannot, however, force us to gamble. And while compulsory abortion is practiced in parts of China, our laws give us every freedom to promote life, which we do.
For those who are prone to despair, a word on abortion is apt. Through persistence and courage, abortion has been rolled back. In the 1980s, my state of Missouri had an abortion rate that exceeded 20 percent of pregnancies. Today it is 8 percent, and the rate is even lower in the upper Midwest. Since the abortion rate remains as high as ever in some states (near 40 percent in New York), it seems that gentle persuasion can create a moral consensus. Not long ago, this sort of progress in the protection of the unborn seemed impossible.
Adorn the Gospel
The recent decisions of the Supreme Court in no way restrict our freedom to marry, have children, and love each other. If anything, recent decisions should prompt us to rededicate ourselves to Christ-like love in marriage. The Christian marriage ideal attracted many pagans to Christ in the apostolic age. And when the Reformers restored the biblical teaching on marriage 500 years ago, it enhanced the call to the gospel of Christ. When Reformers like Martin Luther married and became faithful husbands and fathers, their conduct adorned the gospel. May our marriages become an ongoing testimony to God's purposes.
Jesus said, "From the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female.'" We use this statement to promote God's ideal and rightly so, but let's remember that Jesus made that statement in order to correct an error in his age and ours: rampant and arbitrary divorce.
Sadly, the rise in same-sex marriage is possible in part because our culture has strayed so far from God's plan for marriage. Casual cohabitation, promiscuity, and easy divorce all erode the appeal of God's ideal. Church conduct looks all too similar. What then?
First, we should tend our marriages, steadily regarding our spouse as God's great gift (Prov. 19:14). At its best, Paul says, the love of a Christian marriage reflects the love of Christ for the church. A strong marriage can adorn the gospel (Tit. 2:10). Waves of good marriages will make the case for God's plan more effectively than any state or federal law.
Not long ago I was seated at a wedding reception next to a Christian professor who did his doctoral work at one secular university and now teaches at another. He said that the great majority of his fellow professors are secular and non-Christian. Nonetheless, they love their Christian students. He explained why: On the whole, they are far more likely to come to class faithfully and well-prepared. They are willing to argue their convictions. They are active in campus life. They volunteer to do worthwhile things and they keep their commitments.
The Christian faith and Christian ethics have lost the home-field advantage in our culture. But we are still free to present our faith and the gospel. We can do that with words and with lives that show the beauty of the gospel. That is the surest way to promote God's good plan for marriage.