Misplaced Acrimony

It’s been crazy this week watching the reactions to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn state bans on gay marriage. Here’s my primary observation – people don’t seem to be able to parse apart the two definitions of marriage, and the lack of clarity is causing confusion.

First, marriage is a legal contract, or as we sometimes say, a civil union. That is formed and acknowledged by the government. Second (or first, perhaps), it’s a spiritual covenant between a man, a woman, and God. That is formed and acknowledged by the Church, although we’ve blurred these things together in a single ceremony for a long time, and they were even more blurred this week. Consider as an example, the quote from presidential candidate Bobby Jindal when he said, “Marriage between a man and a woman was established by God, and no earthly court can alter that.”

The SCOTUS decision this week guarantees the ability for two men or two women to form a legal union. Personally, I celebrate the decision. I know gay couples that have been together for decades and I think they are entitled to legal equality with straight couples.  Why the government needs to be in the business of determining what is or isn’t marriage at all, for the purposes of tax breaks and beyond, is another story… but that ship sailed a long time ago. It should be noted that churches, as protected religious institutions, will not be required to marry homosexuals, although businesses such as bakeries and photographers, who are not religious institutions, will need to abide by anti-discrimination laws.

Now let me acknowledge that I’m a conservative, Christian guy. I’ve spent the last eleven years teaching Biblically-based marriage preparation classes and I’ve performed about a dozen Christian weddings. So… am I concerned with the state of Christian marriage – the covenant of marriage? You bet I am. I’m terribly concerned about it, but that has nothing to do with the gay community.

My concern is with the millions of couples that have chosen to have a Christian ceremony, often performed in a church by a Christian pastor, and have no interest in leading a Christ-centered marriage. I’m concerned with the number of Christian couples divorcing, and the number of Christian guys (including many I have known well) who simply give up on being husbands after years of sustained difficulties. The intent (that’s the part of the ceremony directed to God when the couple faces the pastor and ends in “I do”) and the vows (those are the couple’s pledges to each other just before the rings are exchanged) are lifelong commitments, but are too often viewed simply as words in a ceremony.

The covenant of marriage is a powerful commitment. It should be marked by a relationship that demonstrates mutual, sacrificial love… by a husband who is a committed, honorable and caring servant leader… by a wife who is cherished and deeply supportive and encouraging of her husband… by an authentic and sincere generosity that is demonstrated by time, energy and significant financial commitments to help others … ultimately, by a desire to show God’s love for us through their marriage. A Christian marriage requires Christ in the marriage. I am fortunate to see these types of marriages, but I see many more that are, at their foundation, no different than any other secular union. To the world, they are not often distinguishable.

So… if there’s any outrage or acrimony about marriage among conservatives this week, it should be that we’ve let the Christian covenant of marriage become so watered down that few people this week seemed to reference it as distinct from a basic civil union.