Saturday, 22 November 2014

ON MARRIAGE. THE CHURCH & THE STATE

My self-imposed blogging purdah has not prevented my taking note of the fact that over in the US, Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) has been taking a degree of flak from certain quarters over his decision to attend the Vatican's "Colloquium on Marriage and the Family" earlier this month.

His own defence of his position is here

For myself, I have no problem with what Moore did in attending the Vatican. Marriage is a creation ordinance, and one of the bulwarks of every society on earth. It is necessary as Moore says, "for human flourishing and social good."



This means that everybody who has ever lived, Christian or pagan, married or unmarried, has a stake in the issue. There is no one who is not affected by the rapid disintegration of the institution in our own day nor by the determined attempts to redefine what even constitutes a marriage .

So I would maintain that Bible-believing Christians ought to be willing to cooperate with anybody who shares our concerns, be they Roman Catholics, Muslims, Jews or secularists.

We need to remember that whilst earthly marital union between a man and a woman is a picture of the Gospel it is not actually the Gospel.Whilst Evangelicals are in the best position to know the importance of marriage, that does not mean that we have, or ought to have, a monopoly on concern for the health of the institution.

Of course, in these situations we always have to be careful that one thing does not inadvertently lead to another. Just because Moore visited Rome with a specific stated objective will not have prevented others present seeking to enmesh him in wider dialogue whilst he was there.

His fellow attendee Rick Warren (whose commitment to family values by the way seemed less clear-cut than this during his Proposition 8 flip-flops of a few years ago) is testimony to just how far it is possible to wander off the reservation once you develop a taste for the inter-faith stuff.

However I still maintain that Moore's real faux pas of late was his assertion that whilst he would not, on principle, attend a same sex wedding ceremony; he would be prepared to attend the subsequent reception as a gesture of love towards the particular individuals.

To decline an invitation to a wedding ceremony but agree instead to attend the reception (which is an integral part of the overall celebration) seemed to many to be a distinction without a difference, and I share the bafflement at his position.

Russell Moore is a smart cookie, and he has done some very good work at the ERLC but he really does need to make sure his positions are properly thought-out before going public.

Which brings me to the second marriage-related issue in this post, and to this attempt by some doubtless well-meaning Church ministers to get the ball rolling on the disengagement of civil from Christian marriage.

The argument essentially is that the state is making such a hash of administering marriage in our day that it is for the best if the Church make its own arrangements for marital unions and leave the secularist state to its own devices. 

 The ministers pledge therefore to no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage and encourage others to join them in - ahem -divorcing civil from Christian marriage.

As society's view of marriage continues to diverge ever- more widely from our own, the temptation to "go-it-alone" in the Church will surely grow. So is this the right path?

This is a complex matter. 

God has ordained three institutions for the preservation and flourishing of human society: these are Marriage, the State and the Church.

I am certain however that the Lord never intended for these to function as stand-alone entities but rather that the three should co-operate together for the strengthening of society.

For example the Church, (Protestant settlement in the UK not withstanding), ought not to be a part of the state but rather is to pray and otherwise support the state in the fulfillment of that institution's own God-ordained purposes (Rom 13:1-4; 1 Tim 2:1-2). The Church is to be distinct from the State yet involved and concerned with its affairs.

But we see the closest synergistic operation of the three when it comes to the family.

When it comes to these matters, society can really only function properly where all three institutions combine their efforts for the public good.

If a Christian couple marry they ought ideally to look for the blessing of the Church (i.e. God) upon their union but they must also seek the recognition of the State. The sanction of both Church & State is necessary for the maintaining and strengthening of the marital bond.

For suppose five years after Bob & Sarah, who are both Church members, are joined together in holy matrimony, Bob suddenly decides that he is bored with Sarah and so kicks her out of the house along with their two young children. He then proceeds to install his new fancy in the marital home, and refuses to support his children, leaving mother and children homeless and penniless.

The aggrieved party, being a Christian, can certainly take her grievance to the local church of which they are both members. The pastor can and certainly ought to give the miscreant husband a good dressing-down and a stern instruction to mend his ways.

But what if this pastoral directive is laughed off by Bob?

Well then, the local church will (hopefully!) implement the discipline process devised by the Lord Himself which has as its ultimate sanction the excommunication of the unrepentant party. (Mt 18:15-17).

This is a recognition that Bob's sin and subequent refusal to repent have demonstrated to the assembly's satisfaction that he must not be truly regenerate for the new creation simply would not behave this way.

The gangrenous member is therefore to be amputated. The Body of Christ is protected from the influence of Bob's leaven, and he himself has been told in no uncertain terms that his spiritual condition is considered perilous.

So far, so good, but whilst the Church advising Bob that he is no longer considered to be on the narrow path is very important, it does not actually gain for Sarah either her share of their marital possessions nor a regular maintenance cheque for the children.

For those items a big stick is going to be required. A stick that the local church does not possess, but the state most certainly does. 

 The state cannot, and ought not, to tell Bob that he is heading for the fires of perdition, but it can certainly ensure that he meets his earthly responsibilities until he gets there.Thus, in this desirable harmonizing of Church & State we can see are met all the requisite needs of the situation, both spiritual and temporal.

But what if we live in a society where the state has given up on marriage? Or, indeed where the Church pre-empts the break-up by giving up on the state as First Things above advises that we do?

What if government, in its less-than-infinite wisdom, should ever determine that lifelong marital commitments are a thing of the past, a quaint hangover from more religious times which enlightened types have now outgrown; and that it will no longer longer respect or enforce such commitments?

Bob & Sarah, says the state, may still have their curious wedding ceremony in that odd place they call a church if they so choose, just so long as they understand that it is an entirely private arrangement between the two of them. If it all goes pear-shaped in a few years time then that is nothing to do with the rest of us who thought they were always on to a loser with that one-flesh business anyway.

In short, you Christian types may have your marriages if you wish, but don't expect us to come wading in with our big governmental stick when it all goes wrong and Sarah is on the street with the kids. Sort that out yourselves. 

We are not there yet.

At present the state is more concerned with extending categories of marriage than it is with dispensing with the institution completely.

But in time this seems likely to change. This is because society itself is slowly losing interest in marriage.

The statistics in the UK tell us that most people still get married (indeed often repeatedly), but what is masked by those figures is that those marrying for the first time are often only doing so after several years of co-habitation and even the births of one or two children.

Marriage is something that is being seen as something "further down the line" when finances are more secure and a colossal nuptial celebration can be afforded without causing too much material hardship.

This warns us that people today are less interested in marriage than they are in a wedding.

For this generation (a biblical expression that seems to be becoming more and more appropriate to us) the belief in that lifelong one-flesh relationship that God ordained in the Garden has long since given way to the desire for a wonderful day out: a big knees-up involving a horse and carriage and a subsequent Caribbean cruise.

The next generation may not even be bothered about that.

And when society loses interest in marriage, then government will also. That will leave the Church standing alone in support of an institution which it is not fully equipped to buttress.

It is right for us to think now and to think carefully about how we will handle that situation.

Certainly it seems to me that it will require the local church to be operating as a far more cohesive social entity than it does at present where, in Western society at least, believers are too often just like billiard balls bouncing off one another for a few hours each Sunday before going back to their own pockets and living as isolated social units for the rest of the week.

Our part-time attachment to one another's Christian company is not going to be a strong enough adhesive to hold us all together when we have the wreckage of Bob & Sarah's failed mariage to sort out and no government to look to for help.

But that is an argument for another day.

For the moment we need to see what is a looming problem and not be in such a hurry to remove the state from the business of marriage. The day of the state's abandonment of its duties may come soon enough. 

Be certain we will miss its involvement when it is gone.