Governor Patterson recently threw his influence behind the movement to expand the definition of marriage in New York State to include same sex relationships.
I've had a number of conversations with Christians who are deeply committed to defending the doctrine of marriage within the church but who are hesitant to take a similar stands when it comes to secular legislation.
The reasons cited for this hesitancy range from worry about the social cost which inevitably results from such a stand—identification with the “religious right” and political conservatism—to fear that outspokenness about “gay marriage” legislation might make gay “seekers” less eager to “seek”.
One of the most common and curious reasons I've heard expressed centers on the perceived separation between church and state. The state is “secular”, meaning, it is assumed, that it is not subject to what are after-all, “religious,” principles. The church, on the other hand, is obliged to remain faithful to her own “religious” claims. To oppose gay marriage legislation is to cross the two streams, to muddy the clear distinction between religion and government, to expect the government—to expect the world to look like the Church. How can Christians expect people who do not believe in Jesus Christ to conform their laws and culture to him?
Some suggest that support for this passive position can be found in the writings of St. Paul who, in the context of church discipline, writes in 1st Corinthians 5:12-13
“ For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”Paul points to a distinction between the standards to which Christians must be held accountable and those we expect to find in the world. Because believers are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, Christians are to seek personal holiness and the holiness of the Church through the Spirit's sanctifying power. But those who do not believe in Jesus Christ, do not have the Holy Spirit, have not committed to follow and obey Jesus as Lord, and thus cannot and ought not be expected to live as if they have.
It's an important principle, guarding against hypocrisy. Its easy, and a lot more fun, to point out the evils of the world and a lot more difficult to identify our own personal sins and the sins of our congregations church.
And it is also true that the Church is charged with tasks that “secular” governments ought not to perform. The church makes disciples of all nations, teaches the bible, proclaims the gospel, celebrates the sacraments, provides conviction, comfort, and nourishment to believers in Jesus Christ. These are all tasks God has given uniquely to his Church.
But to agree that the church has been given a unique mission that cannot be co-opted by the state and to agree that those who are not “in Christ” are not subject to the discipline of the church or the moral standards expected of Christians is not to agree that the state is utterly godless—that it bears no responsibility under heaven...that there are no common, universal standards or principles which the government, by dint of being “created” and “instituted” is obligated to observe and protect.
The question here is not so much that of the distinction between “Church” and “State” but between God and his Creation. What responsibilities, if any, have human governments been given by the Creator?. Are there principles and practices that all human governments are called to establish, protect and observe?
In his Epistle to the Romans St. Paul writes that “government” is a gracious gift from God.
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:1-4)The divinely given purpose of government according to Paul is to reward and protect the good and punish evil—to be the vehicle of God's wrath against injustice. God graciously gives the “sword” to human governments and governors as a check on human sin, as a safeguard to keep humanity from Hobbs' nightmarish “nasty brutish and short” type of existence into which, given our nature, we would otherwise necessarily fall.
But what does it mean to “reward the good” and “punish evil”, how are good and evil defined?
The “good” is fully revealed and defined in Jesus Christ but this is not to say that those outside of Christ do not know, intellectually speaking, what is “good”. Paul's indictment of humanity in Romans 1:18-3:20 in fact assumes that everyone, Jew and Gentile, knows of God's existence and what is owed to him; that human beings universally grasp God's law—to the extent that there can be no pleading ignorance—because it is written on the tablet of every heart. The problem, according to Paul, is not that we do not know God or his law—God himself has set these things in our hearts and before our eyes—but that we willfully suppress and reject what know to be good.
And yet, despite humanity's failure to observe it, preserving and defending this generally revealed “good” is, according to St. Paul, the purpose for which God created and instituted human government, vesting it with the power of the sword.
The question then becomes, how do we know those universal principles governments are to protect and preserve? There are, as we all know, basic “goods” grasped and held universally—human life, property ownership, care for babies and the elderly, etc. But because the apprehension of these values and their application in various cultural contexts is varied and inconsistent, it's probably not a good idea to ground our understanding of the goods governments must protect in principles discovered through the study of laws and norms around the world.
There were, however, certain goods or ordinances established by God at creation that have been revealed to humanity in scripture—in particular those ordinances revealed in Genesis 1 and 2 that existed prior to the fall. Creation ordinances are not specific to Christians or limited to those who believe that the bible is authoritative—they are common goods all human beings, as created beings, are responsible to observe.
Among those creation ordinances we find the institution of marriage.
“The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”
24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:20-25)
God “brought the woman” to the man. God “joined” them together. Marriage is not an institution that grew out of civilization—it is not a social “development” or a “construct”. Marriage was instituted by God as the first human community and it subsequently became the ground and basis for all others. The first marriage was also, in some sense, the first human government with Adam serving as the federal head.
Given all of this, it is no small thing for a government to determine to “redefine” marriage. Such a redefinition is not simply an act of defiance against the Creator, it undermines the God-established heart and core of human community.
It is true that the Church cannot be the state and the state cannot be the Church but when a government turns against the principles of her own founding—when it quits its God-given responsibility to uphold and protect the good, then the Church, necessarily, must take up the office of prophet. Not to call the government to follow ecclesial rules or fill the ecclesial role but because the government has stopped being and doing what the government was established by God to be and do. The church does not expect the state to be the church but it must call the state to be the state.