June 30, 2013

Same-sex marriage and the church

One of the fundamental themes in the apologetics of Francis A. Schaeffer is the way that radical new ideas influence society. In his earliest books, such as Escape from Reason, he argues that as a general rule, ideas begin in the academy (particularly in the humanities, such as philosophy), then work their way out into the arts and music, and spread into the general public. Finally, they come into the church.

This is the stage that has now been reached on the gay-rights front, particularly on the issue of same-sex marriage and benefits. Even 20 years ago, the idea of two men or two women actually marrying would have been practically unthinkable. Now, it is generally accepted by nearly everyone that same-sex marriage is a Good Thing, while opposing it is "homophobic." Last week's U.S. Supreme Court decisions concerning the Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8 essentially repudiated the traditional view of marriage as backwards and bigoted. By contrast, the time between the Emancipation Proclamation and the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which prohibited discrimination based upon skin colour) was just over a century. And that is for a cause that virtually all rational people today accept as a great good! The rapidity with which same-sex rights have been accepted is almost preternatural. (In my opinion, this is primarily due to a full-court press by the primary agenda-setters in the public mind—the media and the entertainment industry, who speak with a nearly unanimous voice in favour of gay rights, something that would not necessarily have been true for previous generations.)

Now, advocacy for same-sex marriages is finding its way into the churches. I don't mean merely the liberal churches, such as the United Church of Canada or the Episcopal Church, where no leftist cause célèbre ever went uncelebrated. We would expect that kind of thing from institutions who abandoned the faith for social activism ages ago. I mean evangelical churches, where the authority of God's word is still supposedly held in high regard. The official position of my own church, for example, is that marriage is an exclusive covenant relationship between one man and one woman. It is enshrined in the statement of faith. Nonetheless, I know of a handful of people within the church who are no longer convinced that the bible teaches this. Maybe some of them never were truly convinced.

For anyone who claims to believe in the authority of Scripture, this is simply untenable.

Same-sex-marriage advocates have persuasively, and largely successfully, cast their campaign in terms of equal rights. We've all seen those red-and-pink avatars on Facebook or Twitter that stand for support for "marriage equality," as it's called. The flaw in this view is that all relationships are not equal. Male and female are not fungible—that is, you can't pull a woman out of a relationship, drop a man in her place, and claim that the result is exactly the same in kind as the original. It simply isn't true.

In Christian theology, marriage takes on far more significance than simply a legal sexual relationship between two persons:

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Ephesians 5:22-33)

Here is a passage that we have heard many times. It gets read frequently at weddings. It is a somewhat controversial passage, because of what it says about sex roles within marriage. I'm not going to argue for any particular position there; I could, but right now that's not my point.

Paul is making a practical point here about how, in Christ, a husband and wife should relate to one another. But this practical instruction is based upon a deeper spiritual reality: a marriage covenant symbolizes the covenant between Christ and the church. He is the head of the church, just as the husband is the head of his wife. The church is subject to Christ, just as the wife is subject to her husband. Just as Christ loves the church, husbands are instructed to love their wives. And so forth. More, this symbolism goes right back to creation and is somehow related to God's original design for our first parents.

Throughout this passage, Paul never confuses his categories. Christ is the husband, and the church is the wife. This is a motif that is carried throughout the Bible.1 It was designed into marriage from the beginning (Eph. 5:31; cf. Gen. 2:24). Moses, Paul, and Jesus (cf. Matt. 15:4-5) all appeal back to the creation of Adam and Eve to affirm that God created "male and female" (Gen. 1:27), intending them to marry, join together, and produce offspring.

But, like male and female, Christ and the church are not interchangeable. Christ does not love Christ and give himself up for him. The church is not the head of the church. Christ and the church are not fungible—that is, you can't pull one out of the relationship, drop the other in its place, and claim that the result is exactly the same in kind as the original. It simply isn't true. Worse, it turns Paul's teaching into incomprehensible gibberish.

Christ and the church are two fundamentally different things. So are the men and women that symbolize them when they enter into a marriage. To argue otherwise is to abandon faithfulness to the authority of Scripture. It is to deny the Lord Jesus his rightful place at the head of the church by saying that he, or his bride, can be substituted. It is to surrender to the irrational Zeitgeist of an increasingly godless society. It is to say that, rather than sanctifying his church and cleansing her from sins, so that he can present her to himself holy and blameless, Christ is content to allow her to sit in her sins and remain filthy.

It is, in a word, unacceptable.

Footnote

1 See, for example, God's "divorce" of unfaithful Israel and Judah (Jer. 3:8); God's faithless bride (Ezek. 16); Hosea's marriage to a prostitute paralleling the spiritual whoredom of Israel (Hos. 1); Jesus' parable of the wedding feast (Matt. 22:1-14); or the marriage of the Lamb (Rev. 19 6-22).