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 www.fatherhood.gov 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.