I cannot compete with the vast onslaught of blog heavyweights who have all, it seems, trained their guns on last week’s SCOTUS decision. But I’d like to chip away at one question that seems to be less than fully addressed, viz., the precise nature of government’s role in this question and what our expectation of government should be as we pick up the pieces and move forward.
Most Christians recognize that the government is at times too heavy-handed and at times too laissez-faire in fulfilling their God-given role. But we don’t always draw our lines at the same place, because we don’t agree on a standard by which those judgments are made. Let’s look at the following scenario, involving two situations on which there is fairly broad agreement among believers:
|The Offense||Violation of the first and greatest command to love God exclusively||Violation of the sixth command to not murder|
|The Theocratically Mandated Response||Purge the offender from the land with up to and including capital authority (Exod 22:20; 34:10–16; Deut 6:14–15; 7:1–6; 13:6–11)||Purge the offender from the land with up to and including capital authority (Exod 21:12, etc.)|
|The Church’s Anticipated Response||Remove the offender from the Church but tolerate him in civil society (Matt 18:15–18), praying that the State will fulfill its mandate to…||Remove the offender from the Church but tolerate him in civil society to the degree required by the State, praying that the State will fulfill its mandate to…|
|Government’s Anticipated Response||Establish a society where those who embrace this command and those who reject this command can live together with mutual respect and toleration (1 Tim 2:2)||Punish the offender with up to and including capital authority (Gen 9:6; Rom 13:4)|
In the Mosaic economy, the first and sixth commands are treated more-or-less the same: the Jewish collective were to remove violators of both commands alike from society with expulsive or capital force. But with the dissolution of that economy and arrival of the New Testament arrangement and its separation of powers (Caesar and Church—Matt 22:21), surprising changes occur, especially when we get to the role of human government. The government is to take a rather ambivalent approach to violations of the “first and greatest commandment,” assuming at best the role of civil peacekeeper, but is to move swiftly and savagely to address violations of the sixth and not-the-greatest commandment. How do we explain this?
More than one answer emerges, but in the end, most Christians agree that the church deals with spiritual matters and the State with civil matters. Specifically, the church is to address ALL sins within its own membership/community, but has no jurisdiction beyond the removal of offenders from the spiritual community. The State, on the other hand, has no jurisdiction within the spiritual community, but has the power to crush all crime deleterious to the civic or common good, ensuring, in Calvin’s terms, that “humanity be maintained among men.” Their ethical fount is not so much the whole Christian paradosis (the error of theonomy) but the canon of natural law.
Following the preceding, it seems that the State can err in two primary ways: (1) it can fall short of its appointed role by disregarding natural law and thereby failing to maintain a stable and civil society marked by mutual toleration (the libertine error) and (2) it can exceed its appointed role by imposing some parochial ethic (whether Muslim, Christian, radical atheist, etc.) upon broad society and thereby expressing intolerance toward any who conscientiously object to that parochial ethic (the totalitarian error).
So what do we do with the hot question of homosexual marriage? Are we dealing here with a “first-and-greatest commandment” issue or with a “sixth commandment” issue? Is this a spiritual question to be addressed strictly within the ecclesiastical community or is it also a natural-law question that must be taken up by the civil community? What should our government be doing coram deo? And what should Christians do with these answers?
First, I believe that Scripture and nature itself identify the homosexual marriage question as a civil question. Homosexual marriage is not just a question of parochial codes and personal preferences/orientations, but also a question with civil import: the widespread promotion and even acceptance of this practice is unnatural, and will inevitably destabilize civil society (Rom 1:26–27). As such, it is inappropriate for the state to take a laissez-faire approach to homosexual marriage. To do so is to commit the first error detailed above. Marriage is a question of civil import and for the government to advocate for a libertine approach is for the government to be irresponsible and to act in a way contrary to the nation’s own best interests. As a response, all devotees of natural law, believers and unbelievers alike, and irrespective of ecclesiastical commitments, should work together as citizens and humans (1) for the reversal of this terrible error (however unlikely that may be) and, failing that, (2) for the stabilization of civil society generally.
Second, irrespective of our opinions on the previous question, we should all agree that the primary Christian hope for human government is “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim 2:2). We want a stable society in which opportunities for the Gospel abound. To this end, Christian churches should begin to pray earnestly for the triumph of religious tolerance. This is precisely what Paul tells us to do. We should pray for and petition our rulers to both tolerate us and command society to tolerate us. What Christians should not do is to demand that our government privilege our views on the ground that they are Christian views (error #2 above). Such an approach is not only demonstrably wrong, but, pragmatically speaking, will also hasten and intensify the persecution that is creeping toward us. This is my greatest fear at present in the political posturing that is ongoing.
Third, we should take the legal and practical steps appropriate and necessary to avoid civil conflict beyond what is unavoidable. However disparate our views may be on the co- part of “co-belligerence,” we all need to agree that belligerence is the wrong attitude for the church to adopt—both biblically and practically. Instead we need to adopt a gentle and deferential spirit in our appeals for tolerance and liberty. This has long been the way of God’s people and we need to return to it. This is not to say that we need to be approving of societal sin, but it will never do to be intolerant of people from whom we are begging tolerance for the sake of the Gospel.