The Washington State legislature is likely to pass a gay marriage bill by early next week. It’s generated quite a few letters to the editor in our local paper, each of which has been apoplectic about this moral outrage that flies in the face of what God, through the bible, has ordained marriage to be.
I don’t imagine there would be much to be gained by pointing out that civil marriage has nothing to do with either God or the bible, but is an institution established by the state and defined by law. Every society has something that is recognized as marriage, and every society defines it by law, whether written or oral.
Christian marriage is another matter. The history of marriage, both civil and religious, in the Mediterranean world of the centuries around Christ, is both complex and fascinating. It is in that environment where many of our ideas about what marriage is have their origin, and it is worthy of some study. Within that context, the church, writ large and over time, developed a doctrine of marriage as having been established by God, adorned by Christ, and involving a relationship between husband and wife in which God plays an active role. Denominations flesh out the doctrine each in their own way. In some it’s hard to tell the difference between the officiating minister and a justice of the peace – including the words “…by the authority invested in me by the State of…” Those are words one would never hear in an Episcopalian service where the couple are the ministers of the sacrament, and marriage is a sacrament in our tradition. A tarnished one to be sure, but a sacrament just the same.
Other religions also recognize marriage as something special to be celebrated before God or the gods. I don’t know much about them, but imagine that they are as devoted to what they think marriage is as Christians are to their ideal. It’s an ideal, by the way, that has been “more honour’d in the breach than the observance,” and, sadly, some Churches have used the bible to accommodate horrific abuses and betrayals in marriage.
In any case, Christian Churches are free to recognize, or not, whatever form of marriage is consistent with their several understandings of God’s intentions as discerned in scripture. They are not free to impose that understanding on society as a whole, nor on those outside their particular denomination. On the other hand, they are free to do what they can to influence public opinion and legislators that their particular view of marriage is the one that should be reflected in civil law. As it turns out, that’s, more or less, been the case for the last two hundred years or so with civil marriage defined in terms roughly consistent with generic Protestantism to the extent that it could be synchronized with the practical aspects of contract law.
As for me, I strongly endorse the legitimization of gay marriage in the State of Washington, look forward to the same in all states, and to the day when the church understands the depth and breadth of God’s will as revealed in scripture to include it within the sacramental blessing of marriage. I do understand the thinking of those who are certain that God never intended such a thing. I understand it, but do not agree with it.