I don’t expect to contribute anything substantial to this issue. Haven’t we already seen this thing from every possible angle? I am not saying that people need to silence themselves, sit back, and let the chips fall where they may. I am saying it is hard to imagine that someone is going to bring some new powerhouse argument which changes the tide. I don’t expect this to be any different. But I do expect it to get me in trouble with both sides.

Let me be clear: I do not recognize gay marriage. Whether the government does or does not, does not affect me.

I will attempt to defend the thesis that the government should NOT make homosexual marriage illegal (not that this is precisely the issue). Actually, I am convinced that the government should stay out of the marriage business altogether.

(As I delve into this issue, please understand that what I propose is not necessarily a possibility. We are likely way past this point. Therefore, I am not suggesting any action steps at this juncture.)

Government is Not Involved in What Defines a Church

When we started “Reclaiming the Mind Ministries” (the parent ministry of Credo House Ministries), we had to go through a rigorous process of getting approved for our 501(c)(3) tax-deductible status (translation: where people can get a tax writeoff for money or items they donate to us). I think we had to wait a full year until our government-certified approval letter came. Our attorney who filed all the paperwork informed me (in jest) that if we just became a church, we would not have to worry about this. Why? Because churches are automatically approved for tax exemption. Why? Because what hath Jerusalem to do with Washington? In other words (and listen carefully), the government cannot define what a church is. So if you say you are a church, then you’re a church! (at least from the government’s standpoint). The government is not in the church-defining business, and am I glad about that!

This should be easy for any American to understand (should being the key word). This is especially the case when we talk about American Protestants. We don’t like people in our business. We take a lot of chances in the name of freedom. We know the risks, but they are worth it to us. As Protestants, we have a long tradition of independence from any sort of institutionalized governing authority. We don’t trust them. We tried that and it did not work. In fact, it suppressed a lot of stuff that was pretty important. Therefore, we don’t want any religious institution or governmental authority telling us what a church is.

Too early in my argument? Okay, then join me on an imaginary journey:

Imagine that for the past two hundred years of American history, the government has had a slight hand in defining a church. Let’s say that for all of US history, the government said that in order to be recognized as a church (and get the tax benefits) the church must 1) hold to the doctrine of the Trinity, 2) believe in the inspiration of Scripture, and 3) baptize people.

Imagine that Evangelicals, such as myself, have grown accustomed to the government defining this particular issue. After all, we have never known any different. We evangelicals agree with the three establishment doctrines. . .so no harm, no foul.

Now, let’s say that in 2013 there was an increasing number of people who wanted to start churches and get the tax benefits, but did not hold to the doctrine of the Trinity. The government understands their plea and begins to legislate more broadly. They pass a bill in Congress that churches can now be recognized as churches, even if they do not hold to the doctrine of the Trinity.

What would Evangelicals do? They would cry foul. They would say that from the beginning of Christianity the church has always held to the doctrine of the Trinity. One cannot be a Christian without it. Therefore, we would fight within the system of government. We would cry for the government to pass a “Defense of Church Act.” This Act would contain the provision that the government must establish a definition of “a church” which includes the doctrine of the Trinity.

Yes, we would have all kinds of arguments. But the best arguments would necessarily be the ol’ “slippery slope” ones. You know, the ones that say, “Where does this stop?” After all, if you open the door to a denial of the doctrine of the Trinity, it won’t be long until we will have churches that don’t believe the Bible is inspired, don’t baptize, and a dozen other things.

These protests would sound reasonable to many of us, because we are accustomed to governmental intervention. More importantly, these protests would reveal an important concession that we have unwittingly accepted: that government is the ultimate definer of a church.

The Risk Involved by Getting the Government Out

Do you see the problem? The government should not be in the church defining business. And they are not. And I am ecstatic about this. Mind your own business, government. We did not put you in place for such things.

Yes, there is risk. Yes, there are people all over starting churches and calling them “churches” who don’t believe in the Trinity and a storehouse of other foundational Christian doctrines. Do they have the right to call themselves churches? No, that’s the wrong question. Should the government (or any institutional authority) step in and say they cannot be churches? No. Why? Because it is worth the risk. We don’t want anyone creating enforceable laws that define a church, require certain doctrines, or tell us how the Bible must be interpreted. We have been there, done that. Society, history, and individual conscience will be our guides, not institutions which quickly corrupt, can get things dreadfully wrong, and force us to follow.

Are you making the connection? It is different with the issue of marriage due to the fact that marriage is seen as a religious and civil right. Since it is a civil right, the government believes they play a role in defining marriage (as minimal as they have tried to keep it). And part of this role has been to not recognize the legitimacy of a union between two people of the same sex. Now that they are starting to change their definition of marriage, we get upset. It all really comes down to the tax issues (can same-sex couples have the benefits that are privileged to married people and therefore be “defined” as “married,” according to the government?). In the meantime, what are evangelicals doing? They are pulling their hair out, of course. Legislating. Proposing new laws. Sending money to fight this. In short, we are pleading with the government to define marriage.

Our extremely intense struggle in this issue reveals the bad hand we are carrying. We have conceded that the government has the authority to define marriage. But what hath the government to do with marriage? They don’t. They are not in the marriage-defining business. Why would they be? Give tax breaks to whomever you want. But don’t think that you have the power to define marriage.

Is the Government Involved in What Defines Fatherhood?

It is quite the same thing as a commercial I saw last night. In the commercial a man was hiding in various places in his house. He was first in the cabinet, then under the bed, then under a blanket. What was he doing? Playing hide-and-seek with his kids. The moral of the commercial was for fathers to spend more time with their kids. Then, it asks the viewer to visit to find out more how to be a good dad. What? .gov? The government wants to tell me how to be a good father? Don’t get me wrong. Being a good father is extremely important. Furthermore, men often need help to discover how to be better fathers. But not from the government. What do they know about fatherhood? I don’t pay the government to either define fatherhood or create “ministries” about being a daddy. Leave it alone! The government has no business in this area. We can take care of it ourselves, thank you very much.

If the government eventually “legalizes” all gay marriage, so what? The truth is, they should not have any say in this issue at all. I don’t want them telling me that marriage is only between a man and a woman or that it can be between couples of the same sex. I don’t want them in the marriage defining business at all.

But what about the risks? What if someone wants to marry more than one woman (or man)? What if a brother and sister want to get married? What if someone wants to marry their dog? Let them! Religious society, culture, and individual conscience will handle this. But by no means should one turn to a governmental authority to create rules where there (out of necessity) needs to be freedom that includes significant risk.

Marriage is Self-Regulating

Marriage is a self-regulating establishment. It is a gift given by God. To the gay couple who comes to me and claims to be married, has tax benefits from the government, has a government-issued certificate, and has had a ceremony in a church, please forgive me, but I do not recognize your marriage. My individual conscience is dictated by many authorities which have already determined that marriage is only between a man and woman. Being backed by the government is meaningless and impotent from my perspective. I am sorry, but I will never see you as husband and husband or wife and wife, no matter what the government says.

In conclusion, I am not necessarily saying the government should legalize same-sex marriage. I am telling evangelicals that we need to gain some perspective and begin to argue in a completely different direction. Let the government recognize same-sex marriage if it wants, but we should never recognize the government as the definer of marriage.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    79 replies to "Changing Our Thinking About Same-Sex Marriage"

    • Jay Altieri

      Is Margaret still out there? A day or 2 ago she posted wayback in #4 that it would be unjust for God to create somebody with a fault and them destroy them for that fault. Francis found that disturbing.

      Although a lot of conservative evangelicals try to say that nobody is born gay, nobody is programmed genetically like that. Instead they say that being gay is a choice, a sinful choice. But due to the fall of Adam, I agree with Margaret’s supposition. People are born with many and varied defects. Some are born liars, some haters, we are all born with a propensity toward sin. So I have no objection to the idea they gays may have been born that way.

      We are all dealt a hand of cards. For most people the hands stinks, no fullhouse, not even a pair of 2’s. It is what we DO with the hand that we had been dealt that matters. If you are born gay, then your need is to call out to God ask for His guidance and purity to conquer and overcome the hurdles of life. Conquering through Jesus is key (Rev 2:7).

      The punishment of God doesnot destroy those who were born with lots of problems, or else we would all die. It destroys those who refuse to seek after Him. Homosexuality is a minor problem when we consider all of the sins that grieve God’s heart. Heterosexual lust and fornication is by far a bigger problem in our society. The Prophets overwhelmingly come down hardest on pride, idolatry, stiffneckedness, stubborn, and refusal to obey.

      So Margaret, if your still out there, it is not unjust for God to destroy those who flaunt and relish a losing card hand, all the while stubbornly refusing to listen to the tug of the Spirit. This is not a matter of gays being destroyed, it is a matter of the non-receptive being destroyed. For those of us out there who arrogantly flaunt +deny our own problems, we’re in the same boat. All people must humbly seek after God for His strength to overcome.

    • St. Paul does not define the many sexual sins, but he does say to flee any and all sexual immorality! (1 Cor. 6: 18) For to be sure, sexual sin can be the cause of the loss of God and His kingdom (1 Cor. 6: 9, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, passive homosexual partners [effeminate gay men, also transsexual men], practicing homosexuals.” – Net Bible). And Paul does not leave out the so-called gay women, (Rom. 1:26). And then of course the great Johannine Text: Rev. 22: 15. Wow!

    • And btw, we all have a sexual desire and identity! But for the Christian, that must be put within the context of being ‘In Christ’! If one is straight or thinks their gay, one must place that desire & identity before HIM! But note 1 Cor. 6: 11, “Some of you were these. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” This is regeneration, life and change itself. But, it must be followed on and brought into discipline and discipleship, noting Romans 7: 13-25, with Romans chapter 8. But there is no complete perfection in this life!

    • @CMP, you might want to check-out how the Anglican or CoE is defined with respect to Her so-called Majesty, the Queen. The CoE sees herself as part of the State, i.e. Church and State, and surely in a so-called Christian manner. Historically the “English”/ CoE so-called became “Christian” in the 7th century. And during the Middle Ages it was impossible to draw a clear line of demarcation between church and state, and the great upheaval of the 16th century Reformation sprang as much from the desire for political independence from continental Europe as it did from disagreement with the doctrines of the Church of Rome.

    • I know some of my American Christian friends think that the Church and State, i.e. separation.. is drawn from the American Constitution, and this might be somewhat biblical, but of course Christianity in both continental Europe and England and the British, has been around too! 😉 And lets not forget the Genevan Reformation Churches, with Calvin and company. Their church and state is quite interesting to say the least!

    • Chancellor Roberts

      Fr. Robert, the idea of the “separation of church and state” comes, as you are probably well aware, from Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. In that letter, he said that the First Amendment placed a wall of separation between church and state to protect the church from the government. Unlike in some of the states (like Massachusetts), the founders specifically wanted to avoid having a national church (like the Church of England).

      I’m familiar with the notion of national Protestant churches during the Reformation and that is one area where I disagree with the Reformers. History has shown that whenever Church and State have gotten into bed with each other, it’s the Church that has suffered. The corruption in the Roman Catholic Church is a prime example. Should pastors preach regarding the issues of the day from their pulpits? Absolutely! Should governments be sticking their noses into Church affairs? Absolutely not! Should Christians participate in the political process in those countries where citizens are expected to do so (like in the American republic)? Absolutely – it’s part of rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. However, let’s keep in mind that none of the Apostles ever called the Church to try to change Roman laws or institutions (such as slavery).

      I live in a country where churches are required to register with the government (though it’s a process the government intentionally makes difficult in order to discourage the proliferation of religious groups). A church (or mosque or synagogue or temple, etc.) has to have 50 members in order to register, but if a group has less than 50 members then anything it does is considered “unregistered religious activity” and is illegal. It doesn’t make sense, and it violates the country’s Constitution, but that’s the reality here.

    • Chancellor Roberts

      C. Michael Patton, you wrote: “If you keep posting one after the other, we will not define you as a commenter and we will enforce a penalty.” To whom were you referring?

    • Chancellor Roberts

      Clint Roberts, my father’s side of my family is from the southwest coal fields of West Virginia. Where are yours from?

    • […] Seminary, founder of Redemptive Heart Ministries, and author of Redemptive Divorce wrote to my post on Homosexual Marriage. It is very well thought out and provides a helpful perspective that, while we may disagree, is […]

    • Kullervo

      What exactly is the definition of a church mandated by the government?

      Michael, there is no one blanket definition of “church” for all legal purposes (you rarely if ever see any kind of broad all-purpose definition like that in law), but various courts and regulatory agencies have defined what is or is not a “church” in specific contexts, tax and otherwise. My point is that, contra to what you said in the 5th paragraph of the OP, the government can and does define “church” when it needs to, it just has not done so for 501(c) purposes.

    • @Chancellor: I am basically closer to Calvin on the Church and State. As this piece…

      ‘Law and liberty. Church and state. These are the things held in a constant balancing act in John Calvin’s Geneva, said John Witte, Jr. …
      Calvin, defined the relationship between law and liberty and church and state in his many writings. Though his ideas later influenced the founding fathers as they wrote the Constitution of the United States, Calvin’s vision for the separation of church and state as seen in sixteenth-century Geneva was different from how we conceive the separation in the United States today, said Witte.
      Witte dug underneath modern notions of disestablishmentarianism to uncover a vision in which church and state hold different roles in society, but are ultimately interdependent, “fruitfully joined,” in fact, to cooperate for the common good. The church is established to speak the word, deliver the sacraments and give counsel in matters related to family and morality, but has no power to convict criminals or collect taxes. The state, conversely, has laws to establish order in civil society and processes to convict those who disrupt that order, but has no right to exercise power in spiritual matters.
      The separation between church and state in John Calvin’s thought, Witte said, is rooted in Calvin’s esteem of human liberty—or rights—that allow each person the freedom to love, worship and obey God first and to live, marry and own property. Calvin was reacting to abuses by the church that long ruled Europe and caused Christians worshiping in Geneva to be overwhelmed by fear. People created in the image of God, Calvin said, ought not to be coerced to serve God or others, but given the freedom to do so at will.
      In Geneva, church and state became separate not because they have nothing to do with each other, but to buffer the tendency for those in power to use coercion to enforce morality.’

    • Leo Chappelle

      Mr. Patton’s “solution” ignores the conjugal nature of marriage and the formal and final ordering of heterosexual marriage partners toward reproduction, an end integral to the moral and civic purposes for marriage. It is not an answer just to say we do not want anyone to give us an answer. Marriage has a definite form for a purpose and other arrangements may be made for other types of relationships. But those relationships and arrangements must not be confused with marriage.

    • Though strictly speaking Marriage, and especially Christian Marriage is not A sacrament in itself, it does have some sacramental aspects. And it does seem that many of todays “Evangelicals” (so-called) don’t have a clue to the essence of Christian Marriage! For that we must have Christ in the theological centre of His Creation itself. Note, 1 Timothy 2: 13 here. Indeed we must have a Biblical Theology, and that the so-called “evangelical” church/churches appears to have lost!

    • Gary Plavidal

      The marital relationship between a man and a woman is not defined or subject to redefinition–by neither the government nor private citizens. It is a relationship that is what it is regardless of the term assigned to it.

      What the government can do is recognize the relationship for what it is–and that it is superior (not equal) to all other relationships–for promoting stable society, and especially for producing and raising future generations.

      We the people have a vested interest in encouraging (via incentives if deemed beneficial) citizens to partake in marriage. What the government has no business doing is to allow the lie to flourish that other formations of relationships are equal to traditional marriage when they are demonstrably not.

      It’s even worse for government to actively promote the lie and marginalize those of us who are proclaiming the truth. If we allow the continued march toward institutionalizing the absurdity of “gay” marriage, then our children (and children’s children) will pay the price.

    • Clint Roberts

      Very interesting view and a legitimate one that other thoughtful Christians share. But there is nevertheless a contingent of equally thoughtful Christians who argue that the State may have a concern in certain specific areas where the overall well being of the populace is concerned. The fatherhood commercial is a prime example. From a bare results-based utilitarian perspective, I can see where government leaders would think it in the national interest (esp. for the future) to promote fatherhood, since that area of abysmal weakness and dysfunction has so much to do with so many social problems.

      I have little confidence they can accomplish much with their ads, but I see the sensibility in the motives. Most states sponsor marriage programs as well. They do a poor job of it compared with what a healthy church can accomplish, but I can see why they do it. The state will be so much healthier if the divorce and dysfunction of her collective families are curbed dramatically.

      So those who see things this way, then, likewise point to marriage (in the age old sense) as a keystone of the society and something that needs to remain as healthy and stable as possible to ward off slow decay and implosion. Other varieties of it (polygamy, same-sex, group-marriage or whatever) are thought to be incapable of sustaining the overall health of the population in its rearing of the next generation. I’m sure same-sex enthusiasts will cry foul and say that endorsing their version will contribute nothing negative in this regard. That is a separate debate. I’m only pointing to the reasoning of some Christians who believe that the State still has legitimate concerns for having a hand in marriage (at least in incentivizing healthy ones). I don’t think they would see any such similar benefit or interest in promoting and enforced kind of doctrinal conformity (which is technically not even possible but also – as you say – detrimental and frightening in the long run).

    • Avery

      Good post but I think it misses the point. The government IS defining marriage. Now the culture wants to use the government to Re-define it.

      The government IS involved. The culture IS involved. The real problem is the Church isn’t.

      I don’t mean religious activism, but being a real change agent.

      Twelve men “turned the world upside down”. Men became faithful to their wives, stopped drinking, and started laying their life down for their neighbor from the message of 12 men. They were change agents in the culture so much so that governments and Kings and people changed their entire way of thinking.

      I think there is a problem not with the culture or the government , but the Church.

      Doesn’t matter whether it is the marriage issue, abortion etc. the culture is winning.

      I am more worried about the values of the church than that of the culture or government.

      I think the bigger, or biggest question is:

      With more people than ever attending “church” why is the culture doing more to change the “church” than the Church is doing to change the culture? What is different about today’s “church” than yesterday’s Church?

      I think that is the more relevant issue than the gay marriage issue etc.

    • Debbie Licona

      Hi Michael,
      Love your blog! I am a clergy and non-profit tax consultant. The IRS does actually define “church.” You can find their definition in the Instructions for Form 990 (p. 53) and Publication 1828 (p.27).

    • David D. Dockery

      I saw this on your Twitter feed, and I am of two minds on it. Yes, you have a point. The government is not the definer of marriage or morality. We don’t recognize it as such. However, I am strongly opposed to institutionalizing any form of sin. Where would we be if Saint Telemachus decided that it was okay for the state to define murder and that Christians should stay out of it? I don’t think it is right for Christians to surrender their political voice altogether, though we should rely less on it.

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