By now, any number of people are familiar with Misty’s paper defending same-sex marriage. I think most people understand that she wasn’t seeking status for such marriages in the church. She was proposing a civil remedy. Then again, maybe I’m overly optimistic about what people do and don’t understand. In any event, the paper provoked an uproar in Reformed circles and gave rise to many responses, a lot of them quite vicious.

Why?

Many would say the answer is obvious. They don’t even understand why I’m asking why. They would say the Scriptures make it clear that gay marriage is wrong wrong wrongity wrong wrong wrong (and if I’ve misrepresented the position by not throwing enough “wrong”s in there, I apologize). Therefore, civil government cannot rightly allow it.

There’s a massive assumption in that “therefore”.

If the Bible defines something as sin, does that automatically mean the State cannot permit or regulate the activity? I trust everyone immediately sees the absurdity of such a position. But in case my optimism is once again clouding my view of reality, let’s take a look at the problem.

Specifically, let’s look at an example that may prove instructive in the same-sex marriage discussion–building permits. May the civil government issue a building permit for a mosque? A synagogue? A Roman Catholic church that will include a statue of Mary for people to bow down to? Scripture defines idolatry and false religion as serious sins. These sins get a lot more Biblical attention than same-sex couples. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say the civil government may rightly issue permits for such buildings. Christians ought to support and protect the civil rights of Muslims to build mosques, Jews synagogues, and Roman Catholics churches.

I’ll go further out on a limb and predict I’m not going to get a lot of hate mail for taking that stance. I probably won’t even get my husband kicked out of the church. (Um. If you don’t know the context to that joke, just move along.) Yet I just openly solicited Christian support for false religion and idolatry. Do Christians not worry about those sins as much as they do about homosexuality?

Seriously. Why am I allowed to support building permits for idolaters, but Misty isn’t allowed to support marriage licenses for gays?

Now some people will respond that the issues of same-sex marriage and idolatry are different. I’ll even grant that up to a point. But this still doesn’t explain the furor that erupted against Misty’s view.

I’ve heard some suggest that the State doesn’t regulate our duty to God, only our duty to our neighbor. Let’s concede that distinction at least for the sake of argument. And let’s further pretend that this theological distinction fully accounts for conservative Christian calmness at the thought of worshiping Jews versus their hysteria at the thought of married gays.

If we make this distinction, then marriage is within the State’s purview and worship isn’t. Civil government need not prohibit sins of worship and may cheerfully regulate false religion by granting building permits, providing roads that service idolatrous facilities, etc. etc. But the government under this theory may and must prohibit marital sins and issue permits for right marriages only. It’s simple.

Or is it?

Let’s think a little further. At the very least, this means the state needs to outlaw adultery and prohibit divorce except in the case of sexual immorality. (Also, divorce where an unbeliever leaves a believer would not be contested. We won’t go down this rabbit trail, but it helps point out the absurdity of attempting to govern by “Biblical” law.) Now a lot of conservative Christians who read this will be unperturbed. “That’s fine,” they’ll say. “Outlaw adultery. Prohibit divorce except in the case of sexual immorality. We’re cool with that. Bring it on.”

Ok, let’s explore that.

First, why aren’t Reformed and evangelicals up in arms over these issues? Why aren’t they enraged to the point of hysteria that some of their elected representatives are divorced or have committed adultery or both? How can they practically canonize Ronald Reagan while refusing to vote for a gay candidate on “moral” grounds?

Why aren’t conservative Christians clamoring for anti-divorce laws and harsh sanctions against adultery? They may claim they’d like to see such laws, but look at their actions. The only thing that’s got them screaming is same-sex marriage. The only thing they really oppose is something that doesn’t even tempt them. How are gays supposed to take us seriously when we demonize them and give our own kind a free pass?

Second, consider this issue of divorce. Jesus said it’s not permissible to divorce except in the case of sexual immorality (Matthew 5:31,32). Should the state hold its citizens to that standard? Must it? What if I said no? What if I said people are inclined to divorce and laws against divorce won’t stop them? So the State may as well regulate the process. Would that suggestion unleash an avalanche of vicious emails? Would I get called a heretic? Maybe, though I doubt it. Most conservative Christians wouldn’t be incredibly upset by my attack on the institution of marriage (if I may borrow terms ironically from the other debate). Some wouldn’t be upset at all. They might even agree.

Not to drop names, but if I took such a position, I would only be advocating what God did under Moses. When God set up a government under Moses, He lowered his standards for marriage. That’s right. If you don’t believe me, listen to Jesus:

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

Matthew 19:3-9

The Pharisees are asking about the command of God in Deuteronomy allowing a man to to leave his wife by writing a certificate of divorce. Jesus replies by saying that this permission was given because of their hardness of heart. God knew they were a stiff-necked people and would be inclined to divorce. Rather than prohibit divorce outright, he regulated the process.

But as Jesus points out, this is not the creational norm for marriage. As God created marriage, he intended it to be a permanent bond between a man and a woman. How dare a civil magistrate lower that standard? Well, when the civil magistrate is God, I guess we have to let things slide. Not only did the sin of divorce go unpunished under his theocratic rule, the sin was permitted and regulated without comment.

Wow.

Even in the theocracy, God watered down the institution of marriage in the interests of civil order. We’re talking Israel, a holy people set apart to God. Even there God permitted and regulated divorce.

Do you see where this is going?

Is it perhaps possible that, given the current political and social situation in the US, it would be better to permit and regulate gay marriage than to ignore it?

Remember, you can’t make the argument that civil government can’t permit and regulate anything sinful. We’ve shown that to be false. And you can’t make the argument that with the institution of marriage, at least, civil government can’t permit any deviation from the creational norm. The institution of marriage is the one thing where we know definitively that God himself once lowered the standard when setting up a government. If that makes you uncomfortable, take it up with him. But I’d suggest you not try the old “holier than thou” stance when you do so.

So if you’re going to speak against State regulation of gay marriage, you’ll have to come up with a different argument. More important, can you see that it’s possible to support governmental regulation of gay marriage without being a heretic or compromising with sin? You don’t have to agree with Misty’s view to agree she’s not sinning or committing heresy by suggesting it.

Where do I stand? I don’t know. The older I get, the more I realize I’m a terrible political theorist. But I’m a good exegete and theologian. So I stick with those strengths. And speaking from those strengths, I’m saying that Scripture does not offer us much in the way of political theory. What it does offer does not prohibit a civil government from permitting and regulating gay marriage.

If the US legalized gay marriage tomorrow, it wouldn’t bother me at all. I might even breathe a sigh of relief. It would put the believers in “Christian America” one step farther from their terrifying goal. That’s got to be worth something.

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