As a minister of the Word, I am not only authorized but commanded to speak in God’s name where he has clearly spoken. The authority of the church’s speech is undermined either by saying too little or by saying too much. Ironically, when we respect the limits that God has placed on our public speech in God’s name, we dig more deeply into our own scriptures and are better enabled to exhibit a different pattern of living that, for all of its inconsistencies and hypocrisy, points not just to a better argument that still trades on the assumptions of this fading age, but points to the new creation.
With that in mind, I’m following up my previous post (“Same-Sex Marriage Makes Sense”) with a few thoughts about how we as Christians should ground our corporate beliefs about marriage as a witness to the powers, rulers, and authorities of this age without becoming their servant.
In my last post I suggested that same-sex marriage makes sense within the moral framework of a universe in which I am the center, my individual choice is absolute even over nature and nature’s God, and whatever role God might have is defined by my story, not his. In that light, the same-sex marriage debate is just the tip of the iceberg. Our own traditional marriages-indeed, Christian ones-fall short of the glory of God. The issues cut deeper than the assault on marriage or crumbling marriages or even pornography and other perversions of God’s order. Yet even to fall short of something is to have something to fall short of. And if there are no longer any sins to confess, then there isn’t any guilt to be forgiven by a gracious and loving God “who is just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Christ” (Rom 3:26).
As I argue at length in The Christian Faith, our lives are shaped by the intersection of the specific drama, doctrine, doxology, and discipleship that unfolds in Scripture. First, the drama. We go back to this basic story to make sense of the events that otherwise would seem atomistic and meaningless. Second, this plot becomes meaningful to us through the doctrines and commands. So how should I respond to this story? The drama has to mean something first, before it “means something to me,” but the latter is the special concern of doctrine. Israel knows that God is faithful because he has proved it in the historical drama. The gospel story is that Jesus was crucified, buried, and raised, but a remote history becomes our story when we hear that “he was crucified for our sins and was raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25). If the doctrines arising from this drama lead us to faith in Christ, then the commands elicit our obedience. The doctrines and commands connect us here and now to the story then and there. Faith breaks out in thanksgiving and praise. Twice, right after teaching God’s unconditional grace in election and redemption (in Romans 8 and 11), Paul is led to outbursts: “What shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?”; “For from him and to him and through him are all things, to whom be the glory forever. Amen.” In this mode of praise and thanksgiving, faith bears the fruit of good works: “I urge you, therefore, in view of God’s mercies, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice…” (Rom 12:1).
Every worldview consists of a founding drama, a narrative plot, whether it’s creation-fall-redemption-consummation or the self-caused and self-sustaining evolution of energized matter, the unfolding of Absolute Spirit, the education of the human race from medieval superstition to modern (or postmodern) self-sufficiency, or class warfare, and on we could go. Each story yields distinctive doctrines. If our origin and death have no transcendent meaning or purpose, then our reasonable response is to have faith in ourselves and try to make something work here and now. If the “meaning of history” is the survival of the fittest, then my neighbor is a competitor and the weaker they are, the better. If it’s the worker’s victory over the bourgeoisie, then our daily actions will be oriented to that goal. Doxology follows. We’re wired for praise. In fact, we’re created as the being that leads the whole creation in a symphony of tribute to the Triune God. Even when we praise idols, including ourselves, we praise. It’s interesting that Paul identifies original sin with being “no longer thankful,” worshipping the creature rather than the Creator. Then there’s discipleship-living out the story that we have internalized as our own. Taken together, these are the coordinates of a worldview that animates us-and that often, quite literally, move armies.
The bedrock convictions of the Christian complex of drama-doctrine-doxology-discipleship are summarized in the ecumenical creeds. Triune God is the only God, the “Almighty God, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things, visible and invisible.” This God is revealed in the law and the prophets and supremely in the person of Christ, as he is disclosed in the apostolic writings. The God who created us also became flesh to redeem us, fulfilling the law in our place, bearing our curse, and being raised on the third day as the beginning of the new creation. The Spirit-“the Lord and Giver of Life”-is sent to baptize us into Christ, giving us faith to embrace the remission of sins. Though still sinful and full of error, we are gathered into Christ’s body: justified and being renewed day by day. At the end, the ascended Christ will return “the judge the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.”
Whether we’re thinking about issues like same-sex marriage or traditional marriage, we are called upon to repent of the nihilistic narrative of the autonomous self, the dogmas of self-founding and self-transformation, the worship of ourselves, the market, the state, the family, morality, happiness and security, political ideologies, and peace of mind. We burn the script we’ve written for our “show about nothing.” We stop singing Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” And a strange thing happens. As we turn our back on lords that cannot liberate but only tyrannize, we embrace in faith a Father who welcomes us in his Son and calls us by his Spirit to a feast. Once outcasts and strangers to God and his covenants, we become co-heirs with Christ, seated with companions-brothers and sisters-we did not choose for ourselves.
This biblical story opens and closes with the work and word of the Triune God. “For from him and to him and through him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” He made us in his image, establishing a relationship by way of covenant and related us to each other covenantally as well. Here, covenantal responsibilities come before abstract rights. Even my right to owning property is not grounded in autonomy, since “the earth is the LORD’s and everything in it” (Ps 24:1). In his providence, God has apportioned to me times and places, but they are ultimately his and I am accountable to him for how I steward them. So it’s not so much my right to private property, but my neighbor’s responsibility not to steal from me, that is basic to biblical ethics. It is not a universal principle that each sovereign self legislates for himself silently within, but a voice from the One who made us all, that summons, “Cain, where is your brother?” And I dare not use sophistry, replying with the rich young ruler, “Who is my neighbor?”
The most significant covenants between God and humanity are the covenant of creation and the covenant of grace. Under the first we are condemned “in Adam” yet still accountable to the law. It rings in the conscience of every person, coming from God, not from the individual or the state. Under the second, we are divorced from Adam’s cursed tree and grafted onto Christ, the Living Vine.
Among the most significant covenants that God established between human beings is marriage. Marriage is not a sacrament. Ordained in creation, before the fall, it is not a means of grace. Furthermore, not everyone receives it and yet God blesses their lives, too, in his common grace. Yet marriage is also not a contract. It is not simply an agreement between two autonomous selves to form a useful corporation for individual self-fulfillment. Though it isn’t sacred, it is solemn. And in a Christian marriage, the holy and the common intersect as the Lord maintains his covenant faithfulness from generation to generation. The children even of one believing parent are holy (1 Cor 7:14). The family, as God ordained it, is the building block of both cult and culture, the holy church and common society.
Marriage, then, is both a medium of the law and the gospel. Why should we be surprised at same-sex marriage when for generations now we have accepted the idea that unfettered choice brings happiness and law is the opposite of love? Not only in Israel, but especially in Israel, ancient political relationships between the ruler and the ruled were expressed not in contractual terms (a formal agreement to exchange certain goods and services), but in terms of loyalty and love. To love the king is to obey or “walk after” the king. The law merely stipulated what that love entailed. Moses summarized the law this way, as did Jesus when he said that the two tables of the law can be summarized as love of God and neighbor. Throughout the epistles, the call to love is not left suspended in mid-air as a romantic emotion that comes and goes, but as a commitment to love and serve each other according to the pattern of specific commands.
We are so used in our culture of entertainment to infidelity having a happy ending. We accustom ourselves to the idea that “I have to be happy and if I’m not happy with so-and-so, but with this other person, then I’m really not fulfilling my end of the bargain either to myself or to my wife-I just don’t love her anymore.” Even Pat Robertson suggested infamously that a husband should not have to stay by his wife with Alzheimers but should be free to flourish again with someone else. The portrait of a person hanging in there, not “till the money runs out” or “till neither of us is really happy anymore” or “till it just not working”-instead of “till death do us part”-may seem quaint to some, but even in this culture I wonder if it wouldn’t arouse a little tenderness, a different way of imagining life, where duty to nature and nature’s God were actually treated as the essence of love.
But finally, Christian marriage is uniquely an evangelical ordinance. It is not our faithfulness to God or to each other, but God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises, that keeps us going even through rough marriage-and-family experiences. It’s a wonderful thing when the Spirit draws those “far off” into Christ’s fold through the gospel. It is also a wonderful thing when the Spirit unites sinful children to Christ through the gospel as it is passed down from generation to generation. We dare not idealize the “Christian family.” We too are sinful, and our families are carriers of our universal contagion as well as its peculiar manifestations in our own lives. Nevertheless, it is not what we make of it, but what it makes of us-or rather, what God makes of us through it-that the covenant home becomes, despite its weeds and diseases, a garden blooming in the desert.
Despite whatever unfortunate quotes one can find from some church fathers too influenced by pagan notions, the biblical affirmation of sexual purity in the marriage of believing spouses has nothing to do with ascetic disdain for the body and sexual pleasure. On the contrary, it’s precisely because our bodies are too important to the biblical drama that they can’t be exempted from biblical discipleship. Here is an example of that point from the Apostle Paul:
The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’…Flee from sexual immorality…You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Cor 6:13-20).