Marriage is, and has always been, a double-edged sword. It is heads and tails on a coin. It has been, from the beginning, church and state, but not where people keep them at arm’s length from each other. Marriage has been the one thing where people have tried to hold church and state together to the point where many people don’t understand the two edged nature of the institution. Allow me to explain.
I can only speak for the Christian tradition. Your religious understanding might differ, and even in the Christian tradition we can find variations on the theme. Roman Catholics see marriage as a sacrament – something sacred and not to be tampered with. Mormons might not see anything necessarily (theologically) wrong with having more than one wife. But even in the midst of these variations, the root essence of marriage for Christians (and I would say across all religious traditions) is clear. Marriage involves a man and a woman.
The Biblical witness of marriage is one man and one woman, and most of the passages are written in such plain language, it is impossible to get around that understanding, honestly. Any other interpretation would have to be so contorted – like a contortionist in the freak show at the circus – it would make no sense at all. This is why the determined have taken the position that Biblical references to marriage were written for that culture in those days and are no longer valid for our culture in our day.
This interpretation is found primarily in the Universities, Seminaries and upper reaches of what some call the “Mainstream” denominations. Millions of laypeople (billion plus) and ministers reject this distortion of the plain Biblical text as they reject the denial of two thousand years of Christian tradition and teaching on marriage. Some joke that these University and Seminary elites in the “Mainstream” have reduced the Bible from the ten commandments to the ten suggestions. But most Christians (by far) hold to the Biblical view of marriage between a man and a woman. This is true of Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches right through to the other end of the spectrum where there are Pentecostal, fundamental Baptist and the most non-conformist (such as the Amish) churches … and every church in between.
I understand how important it may be for gay couples to find one of those “Mainstream” churches to get married. It is important for some to have “God approval” of their union. But understand, the vast majority of Christians, even in the “Mainstream,” will never see such a union as “God approved.” And no amount of badgering, demanding, or political skill is going to change what the Bible plainly says or two thousand years of Christian history and tradition. Read the Barmen Declaration. Hitler (the government) has no right to tell the church what to preach (believe).
It is about here that people object and say surely God would not disapprove of two people who are in a loving, committed relationship. Well, certainly commitment in marriage is important after a fashion, and love is nice, but love in marriage is strictly a modern (20th century) idea which has nothing (necessarily) to do with marriage. Marriage, in its crudest, perhaps most sexist, perhaps most homophobic expression, is Adam and his rib being reunited as flesh of flesh and bone of bone. That is, a man and a woman being united as one being under God. And what God has joined together, let no one put asunder, separate or tear apart. Divorce is seen as ripping flesh from flesh and bone from bone to remake two persons out of one. Marriage is work, and it takes work, but we might understand why God only allows divorce because of the hardness of our hearts. Divorce is pain. It might be relief, but that might be like a scab being peeled off a wound.
Love, however nice, has nothing (necessarily) to do with marriage; and it never has. This is true of Christian marriage as well as state sanctioned marriage. But here we turn to the other edge of the sword; the other side of the marriage coin.
Did you ever wonder why, in these United States, marriage must obtain state sanctioned approval? The marriage license is not purchased from the church, and while ministers, rabbis, etc., have traditionally been “licensed” to legally perform the ceremony, in every state there are Justices of the Peace, for example, who have no necessary religious persuasion and who are equally “licensed” to perform weddings. Indeed, in California it is possible to purchase a one day license to legally perform the act.
State marriage, as opposed to Christian or religious marriage, has been part of the marriage understanding since the beginning – since before the Egyptians built the pyramids, since the Sumerians built their temples and ziggurats. Why should this be? Well, the primary reason is because marriage makes stable families and extended families, and it is the best, most obvious way society has ever found to promote stability and security among the people. Allowing for cultural variations, marriage and the family has been the bedrock of society from the smallest, most backwoods tribal group to the growing urban culture of the 18th to 20th centuries. Marriage, families and extended families create stability, especially in the exchange of sons and daughters.
The rich and powerful certainly took advantage of the exchange of children throughout history. They understood it was not just two children, but two families, two fortunes that became joined together, or in the case of Kings, two nations. As I said, love had nothing to do with it. But the truth is, it was not just the rich and powerful who exchanged children. I would bet every medieval village in Europe had a marriage broker of one kind or another. Joining families and property was a way to reach security and prosperity, and the state certainly supported that. One does not have to look far to see what the refusal of families can do to the neighborhood; as in Romeo and Juliet, or more recently, with the Hatfields and McCoys.
One thing about state marriage is it is far more flexible than religious marriage. There were cultures in the past where sex and marriage were not synonymous. Society had no trouble encouraging temple prostitutes, something like a sacred red light district. Some cultures encouraged multiple wives. Some cultures expected men to take a mistress, or a concubine to bear children. Sometimes girls (and occasionally boys as well) were married or pledged in marriage when they were mere children, even as babies. Society discouraged scandals, whatever the culture might consider a scandal, but for the most part marriage in whatever culture was the single most acceptable arrangement to promote social stability and security for women (often) and for children.
In our age, it may be that our society (our culture) can find any loving, committed relationship between two adults an acceptable combination for “marriage.” In that case, there is no reason the state should not find gay marriage perfectly acceptable. All of the legal benefits (if any) might be extended to gay couples as a matter of simply being fair and making things equal. It would be the same as heterosexual marriage as far as society is concerned. It would be called marriage, and words like spouse, husband and wife would be correct. And it could serve as a stable environment, in so far as the state agrees, for the raising of children.
The thing is, that would not make it a Christian marriage in the sense of “God approved.” Even if a couple found one of those “Mainstream” churches that was fully accepting of such a relationship, like a church that practiced “Christiantiy-lite” (Only 7 commandments required. Your choice.) that would not make it a “real” marriage to millions of Christians (billion plus). Of course, people might be arrested for “hate crimes” or other such nonsense if they claim said gays are not really married. They might face prison time or great fines, even (god forbid) “reeducation” requirements, even though they are not hating, but merely sticking to the Bible and two thousand years of tradition. But any attempt by the state, at that point, to force the church to accept such a marriage would meet with dire consequences. It would be Babylon, seeking to corrupt the Jewish community. It would be the Romans all over again, demanding that Christians denounce Christ and sacrifice to the Emperor, or be thrown to the lions.
Back in Nazi Germany, Hitler cowed many ministers into going along with the Nazi line. But as the Barmen Declaration showed, there were many more ministers and churches that refused. Some ministers went to jail. Bonhoffer, one of the co-writer’s of the declaration, died in prison. It was worth it to help bring down the Nazi regime. It was more than worth it to hold fast to the biblical witness and the teachings of the church that not Hitler, but Jesus Christ alone is the Lord of all life
Now, I am not equating gay marriage to the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany. By comparison, gay marriage is a trifle, and I suspect many Christians would prefer to simply look the other way and welcome gays in the faith with open arms, as long as the issue is not forced upon them. But you see, ultimately the state has neither the power nor the authority to tell Christians what they can and cannot believe. And frankly, I am sorry, perhaps very sorry, but the vast majority of Christian believers will never accept gay marriage as a real, God approved marriage, regardless of what the state says. The question is, can we live with that without causing rancor and discord and claims of hate where hate honestly does not exist? Or will Christians once again have to go to jail?