How should churches think about the definition of marriage in civil law?
The U.S. House of Representatives having already voted to repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, defining marriage as man and woman, the U.S. Senate is now poised for a vote. The vote is mostly symbolic, as the 2015 Obergefell ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court discovered a constitutional right to marriage between persons of the same gender. But proponents claim the court, having overturned its 1973 Roe v. Wade assertion of a constitutional right to abortion, could now do so on marriage.
There is a tendency for some traditional Christians not engage this issue because it is viewed as politically settled. But The Church has timeless and universal teachings that transcend political seasons. The definition of marriage both inside the church and in wider society is such an issue.
Politicians by vocation pursue what is politically practical. Senators typically aligned with traditional Christian preferences so far have largely avoided substantive comment on legislatively affirming same-sex marriage. Polls indicate that perhaps two thirds of Americans marriage affirm same sex marriage.
Of course, The Church’s teachings on core doctrine do not shift to conform with preferences of a particular society. Its core doctrines, if true, are universally true, regardless of any poll. Core Christian teachings are never determined by popularity, they are not sustained by popularity, they do not shift in response to popularity, and they do not command respect if they surrender to or accommodate popularity.
In all its historic branches, The Church affirms that God made male and female, and that marriage is their unique union. This understanding of marriage as male and female of course is not unique to Christianity or biblical tradition. It is rooted organically in nature and has been common to all cultures across millennia. But Christianity has specifically refined marriage as a monogamous lifelong faithful union, in which male and female are equal, and which mirrors the eternal, cosmic union between Christ and His Church.
The Church has never regarded monogamous male-female marriage as specifically for The Church, like baptism or the eucharist. Marriage, like the family and government, is created by God for all cultures and times. Government does not have the authority to redefine marriage, since marriage predates government in God’s order of creation. Marriage as male and female was created for the protection and prosperity of all humanity. The Church adheres to its marriage teaching from divine obligation and in service to the good of all humanity.
So The Church is not at liberty to abandon its marriage teaching in reaction to American public opinion in 2022 or at any other time and place. Doing so would betray its highest calling to reveal and mirror God’s love to the world. The U.S. Congress will do what it will according to its contemporary political calculations. These calculations play no role in The Church’s permanent treasury of teachings.
American Christians are tempted to surrender The Church’s permanent treasury of teachings when they are difficult, embarrassing or seem irrelevant. What if public opinion defies or mocks The Church’s teachings? No matter. Public opinion has often across millennia rejected The Church, but The Church and its teachings outlast passing public opinion.
What seems permanent in earthly politics or public opinion often is not. Very few in 1973 when the U.S. Supreme Court discovered a constitutional right to abortion expected that ruling to be overturned half a century later. The court was in sync with growing public opinion. America’s two largest states, with support from Republican governors (Reagan and Rockefeller), had already legalized abortion. Other states were following. Both political parties were largely pro-choice. The debate was ending.
In response, the Roman Catholic Church did not retreat from its teaching about abortion. Already declining Mainline Protestant denominations had adopted pro-abortion rights stances starting in the 1960s. Emerging and growing Evangelical churches eventually aligned with Catholics and the historic Christian stance. The pro-life movement began with unlikely prospects. Yet with support from The Church, it prevailed.
We do not know what will happen with American public opinion and the definition of marriage in the future. A new generation may emerge that reflects with sadness on the retreat of traditional marriage and accompanying family structure. Every generation reacts at least in part against the preferences of the earlier generation.
No matter what happens with marriage in U.S. civil law, Christian teaching, which reflects the eternal union of Christ and His Church, will not change.