In a 5-4 decision the Supreme Court has struck down all state bans regarding same sex marriage. This makes same sex marriage the law of the land in all fifty states. Most of us were not surprised by the decision since the trajectory of this, as noted in Justice Kennedy’s decision, was driven by a substantial shift in public opinion over the last six years. It seems like a long time ago that Barack Obama stated as a Presidential candidate that he believed that marriage was between a man and a woman because he was a Christian and he “had to believe that God was in the mix.” In 2012 when the President changed his position, it seemed that it was only a matter of a few years before public sentiment had clearly shifted among most Americans.
From a Christian perspective, this ruling may be the clearest signal yet that we as a nation have finally passed into post-Christendom. We can no longer expect that our country will either embrace, or even comprehend, Christian values. For the Christian, morality can never be market driven and delivered through a majority vote decision of the Supreme Court, any more than it could be by a state legislature. As Christians, we draw our understanding of morality from the authority of God’s Word. Yet, increasingly, biblical revelation will sound foreign and insensible to many contemporary people. Scripture does not take as its starting point that marriage is a social arrangement which is culturally accommodated to provide personal fulfillment and sexual intimacy. Judge Kennedy, in his decision, clearly made that a centerpiece of his landmark ruling. In Scripture, marriage is an institution designed by God at creation because God created us “male and female.” Jesus echoes this when he says that a man shall leave his mother and father and be united to his wife and the two shall become one flesh. Marriage is designed to reflect the Trinity, share in God’s plan for reproducibility and, ultimately to reflect the relationship between Christ and His Church. It is a first and foremost a sacred sacrament, declaring a great mystery, not merely a social contract of convenience, tax benefits and social accommodations.
We would be mistaken if we thought that this ruling marks the ‘end of something.’ This is, in particular, what makes the capitulation of many mainline Protestants over this issue so baffling. The failure of many mainline churches to appreciate the larger theological context of this is troubling. This is actually just the front edge of something with has profound implications. A recent writer who is part of the LGBT “community” said it best when he said that those who speak of only “gay” and “lesbian” are living in the “dark ages.” His point was that the real issue today is not about sexual attraction between men and men, or women and women, but, more fundamentally, about the freedom for gender non-conformity and the full disassociation of gender with any physiological markers. In other words, theologically speaking, this movement is not merely about sex or marriage, it is a discussion about the elimination of all gender boundaries and assumptions about gender identity, even those markers physiologically given to us through creation. This is, therefore, fundamentally about the Christian view of the body. This will become even more evident with the next cultural wave which will focus on bi-sexuality and transgenderism (the B and T of LGBT). Once the gender line in marriage has been abandoned, then it is exceedingly difficult to establish a line of defense against other challenges which we will encounter over the next decade. There is probably no better example of this than Facebook which only a few years ago had two identity choices: male and female. Today, Facebook has 51. This is precisely why a rejection of homosexual practice and sexual misconduct occurs in a disproportionate number of the “sin lists” in the Scriptures. This is a clear defiance of the historic Christian teaching concerning the body. The reason the church so forcibly rejected the teachings of the early gnostics is because the gnostics did not believe the body could be trusted. The church regarded it as nothing less than a rejection or erosion of the doctrines of creation, the incarnation, the bodily resurrection and even our own bodily resurrections at the end of time.
I am thankful that the United Methodist church’s official position is that “homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching.” This resonates with historic Christian teaching and is held by Christians all over the world, whether Roman Catholic, evangelical or Pentecostal. When the UMC gathers in Portland in May of 2016, it would be powerful if the UMC were to continue to side with Christian doctrine on this issue and not capitulate to the surrounding culture. It would mark a powerful example of a mainline denomination’s willingness to accept its new status as occupying the prophetic margins, not the cultural center. It would be our own acknowledgement that we must learn (and teach our congregations) how to reorient ourselves as the people of God in a culture which is, and will be, increasingly hostile to Christian identity.
Moving forward from this decision, we, as the people of God, have to find our own voice again. We are currently failing the “cultural test” because we are only known for what we are against, rather than what we are for. We must learn to articulate the Christian vision for the mystery of marriage and joyfully embody it in our lives and homes. I am very hopeful about this period of history. The church has never really prospered under the Christendom arrangement because, even at its best, Christendom could only give us a civil religion highly domesticated from the actual teachings of the New Testament. This is our opportunity to more fully embrace and embody distinctive Christian identity. Our final authority is never any human court, however esteemed. The final authority for the Christian is always Christ himself. We are the church, and the true church of Jesus Christ is indestructible because Christ has promised to build it, and be the head of it. And we enjoy the wonderful promise that the “gates of hades shall not prevail against it.” Thanks be to God.