The Church, the State, and Gay Marriage

“Debate on “church and state” or “the church and secular vocations” has gone on for ages, as if the issue were the relationship between two administrative hierarchies or between two segments of a person’s life; yet under it all nothing had shaken the assumption that all of society could and should be spoken to in Christian terms, and that the Christian community can well afford to sacrifice its specific identity in the creation of a wider Judeo~Christian civilization

Most evidently, Christian discipleship is for a minority in that it presupposes the resources of faith: the assurance of forgiveness, the counseling and accepting fellowship of the Christian brotherhood, the presence of the Holy Spirit as source of insight and motivation, a changed attitude of the regenerate will. It is the puritan misunderstanding of Christian obedience to feel that there is any value in imposing on others who do not claim to dispose of these resources the kind of external behavior patterns which, for committed Christians, are the normal expression of an attitude of faith. A hypothetical world where it could be presupposed that everyone else would operate on the basis of Christian assumptions, where we could generalize our Christian standards, would be precisely a world in which Christian behavior would not be much needed.”  (John Howard Yoder, “The Radical Revolution in Theological Perspective” found in For the Nations: Essays Public and Evangelical, 103 and 112)

I want to tie these two quotes, from different parts of a rather rambling essay on the civil rights movement and the role the church was to play in it, together to make a broader point about gay marriage and the church. When certain strands of American Christianity attempt to legislate and dominate the legal landscape in relation to gay marriage they are implicitly capitulating to the government and sacrificing their own views of marriage in an attempt at “the creation of a wider Judeo-Christian civilization.”  By having so much vested interest in what the state defines to be marriage, the church is allowing their own definition of marriage as covenant to be subjugated to a thinner, legal definition of marriage. Those who oppose gay marriage are in fact saying that the state’s legal definition of marriage is more important than their own view of marriage as a covenant act before God and community. 

Why does this happen? Yoder would argue that it is because we have so watered down our idea of Christian discipleship that we expect everyone to be able to live it out; it is no longer a radical call to follow Jesus within a community of disciples, but is something that everyone and anyone can fulfill if only we get the right legislation pushed through into law. This is why Yoder’s point in the second part of the quote is vitally important: we can’t expect those who do not have the resources of faith to live the faith. Yet many American Christians do just this and at the expense of their own values and morals. The only way to expect others to follow Christian morals successfully, without the resources of faith, is to make them easier to follow and thus no longer truly Christian.

I would argue that many American evangelicals, in their minds, have “created” just such a “hypothetical world” as Yoder speaks of above and because of this true Christian morals and discipleship isn’t “much needed.” The attempted generalizing of Christian discipleship for the broader society has allowed the church to accept a least common denominator instead of the radical call to follow Jesus in community. Instead of really creating a Christian society the believing community itself becomes the one to be the most effected as they too live out this easier, more comfortable vision of Christianity that they have painted for the masses. This leaves us without a true Christian witness. Attempting to create a supposedly “Christian” United States of America has massively backfired.

What does all of this mean? That maybe we should stop trying to impose our moral values on everyone. That we should cease to lower our standards so that all can follow them once they are legislated. That we should instead focus on creating intimate communities that center their lives on following Jesus and who embody hope for the world.

In these communities it is my hope that instead of allowing the state to define marriage, we would live it out as a covenant before God and community and take that idea seriously. If Christians truly took their own idea of marriage as covenant as sacred and weighty (instead of the legal definition), maybe something would actually be different about our marriages. Instead of mirroring the divorce rates of society at large and damaging our witness, we would be a light shining on a hill and a sign of the Kingdom of God that is already breaking into our world.

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