Friday, May 11, 2012

Civil Unions or Marriage?

On Wednesday, May 9, President Barak Obama stated publicly that he is in favor of same-sex marriage. He said that his position had evolved over a period of time. He had supported civil unions for same-sex couples, but had come to realize that marriage should be open to both heterosexual and homosexual couples.

I believe that marriage is, for the majority of American, primarily a civil union. As I look back over the marriage ceremonies I have performed, the majority have been for couples who are non- or nominally-Christian. A "church wedding" or having a clergy person perform the ceremony in a garden, backyard, restaurant, etc. is what is expected, rather than a celebration of God in the midst of marriage.

Couples, for the most part, are not interested in spending time exploring their relationship to God through Jesus Christ or the role of spiritual practices in their marriage. They are more interested in the production of a wedding, the length of the aisle, the music for the bridal procession, the style of the cake and the color of the flowers.

This is not Christian marriage. When I perform these kinds of weddings, I am functionary for the state, witnessing a civil agreement between a man and a woman. Because of this civil agreement, tax status may change, the couple can share health insurance and represent each other legally in emergencies. They can speak for each other in medical decisions. My conviction that many "marriages" are civil unions is evident in the practice of divorce. In my experience, couples in the church finally come to the pastor when the legal preceding for divorce are underway. Divorce dissolves, in the state's eyes the civil union.

When I meet with couples before a wedding, I talk to them about what Christian marriage means. It put it simply. In the Bible, writings in both the Old and New Testaments refer to marriage as a metaphor for God's relationship with God's people (Old Testament) and Christ's relationship with the church (New Testament). This means that I should be able to look to any couple who has participates in Christian marriage and say, "So this is what my relationship with God should look like. This is how God loves me and I am to love God." Christian marriage is the ultimate metaphor for the human/divine relationship, mutually caring, self-sacrificing, hoping the best for each other, true to self and each other.

In the debate over marriage and civil unions for same-sex couples, I would offer these suggestions. We must first acknowledge that a "legal" marriage is in fact a civil union. The state has simply given permission for clergy to represent the government in witnessing this agreement. (Clergy, bride, groom and witnesses sign a legal document that must be returned to the state within 10 days.) So, the only thing that the government can authorize or legislate are matters concerning civil unions.

Marriage, on the other hand, is the work of religious institutions and spiritual communities. I would suggest that marriages are the result of careful spiritual exploration, mutual agreement and commitment to living in loving relationship that holds the couple up and enriches the community. For me, I see a true marriage when I see a metaphor of God's love lived out. Gay or straight, couples who are committed to living in this kind of relationship are ready for marriage.


  1. It is my understanding of scripture that man is not to lie with man and woman is not to lie with woman. This has been the church doctrine I grew up with. Now it seems many have adopted a new stance on this. Though I am tempted to simply adopt it as well, and my heart tells me I should, I am struggling with this.

    Scripture does not seem to support the current willingness, even eagerness to accept LGBT behavior. I don't feel we can simply adopt a new theology based on personal desire. Both scripture and the church tradition seemingly supporting the stance that being involved in a gay relationship is contrary to God’s will. I have no personal experience that I can draw on for this and though my reason tells me that a loving gay relationship would be God’s will it is not sufficient to overcome what I perceive that scripture and tradition support.

    Has the church tradition been misguided? It my interpretation and understanding of the scripture on this point incorrect? Or is the church’s eagerness to grow and fear of decline such that it will compromise on such a divisive issue?

    Hopefully you can shed some light on this.

    1. There are seven specific scriptures that are used to condemn same sex relationships. Most have nothing to do with relationships, but with sex acts that are committed as either a part of pagan worship (temple prostitution) or in a way that is harmful to the community. Scholars differ on how to definitively interpret these scriptures, and I am in no position to declare the "right" interpretation.

      I do, however, wonder why same sex relationships is the "sin" that has been singled out when there are so many other laws in Leviticus and directives from the Apostle Paul that could be upheld.

      What I know is that there are many, many more scripture texts that call believers to love and to refrain from judgment. I also know that Jesus had no word to say on same sex relationships. And, as I've written above, Jesus used his discussions of marriage as a metaphor.

      I believe that your question and your struggle are worthy of your time and effort. Get out the Bible and read the passages that are used to condemn the LGBT community. You'll find the references easy enough on line. Then expand your reading to include the chapters and the books that contain those verses. You'll find the context is often forgotten by those eager to condemn.

      Read articles, talk with friends and with people you consider spiritually wise. Listen for grace, listen for love.

      I am not claiming that this approach will help you to land on one side or the other, but you will be practicing careful discernment in a world noisy with those who would tell you how to think.