A bill to legitimise same-sex marriage has passed a first vote in the New Zealand. The legal system already allows Civil Unions for same-sex couples.
Christians seem to be leading the opposition to same-sex marriage, just as they led the opposition to civil unions. However, Christians are only ten to twenty percent of the New Zealand population, so this is probably a lost cause. In a secular society with a democratic political system, Christians have only a very limited ability to influence the Parliament.
When Christians are a minority in their culture, they have to be careful to get their strategy. A few things can be done.
There is a place for being prophetic. Some Christians with a prophetic calling should get involved the public opposition in an effort to expose the risks and dangers that arise from the change I the law. However, they should be careful not to become too strident, because a public campaign to change a law can easily become a turn off for a gospel. They should understand that their efforts will almost certainly fail, and be willing to lose gracefully, if that is the outcome.
Those who oppose the law change should be careful about the way that they present their message. In the last twenty years, Christians have led a number of political campaigns opposing social change. In every case, they lost the battle. Worse still, the message heard by the people of the world is that Christians want to take away their freedom and impose Christian morality on them. They assume that Christians want to use political power to impose Christianity on people who do not like it. This is the message that is usually heard, when Christians get publicly involved social issues, but it is totally opposite to the gospel.
When Christians are a minority in a secular society, the best way to change the situation is to preach the gospel and change the numbers. As the number of Christians increases, the Kingdom of God should spread through society and slowly change it from within.
The most practical solution to this problem would be for Christians to reclaim marriage. We may have to re-package and re-brand it to achieve this result. The best way to take back marriage back would to be create an alternative for Christians that aligns with God's standards. We would probably need to give it a different name. For clarity, I will call it covenant marriage to distinguish it from legal marriage. However, it does not matter to much what the name is provided it is clear that we are speaking about something totally different from the legal marriage legislated by the state.
Marriage is a gift from God, so in the past, marriage was organised by the church. People went to the church to get married. All weddings were recorded in a marriage registers that were kept in every church. These registers were the only record of a marriage. A couple wanting a divorce had to get it approved by the church controlling the register in which their marriage was recorded.
The church began handing over this role over to the State a long time ago. The first step was letting the state take responsibility for the record keeping. Unfortunately, when the state gained control of marriage records, it also obtained the right to define marriage, and God was soon squeezed out. When no-fault divorce was introduced, Christians became uneasy. Now same-sex marriage is being proposed, they are getting upset. We should not be surprised, as this last change is just one more in a long series of changes that have been made since the church handed marriage over the state. If you give away something that you treasure, you should not be surprised when it gets wrecked.
When a society rejects Christian faith, a slide away from Christian marriage is inevitable because civil marriage is defined by government legislation and not by God's standards. In a secular society, the law often slips behind public opinion, but it eventually catches up. Christians failed to hold back the rapid change in sexual practices during the sixties and seventies, so we are unlikely to prevent the changes in legislation that make those change in behaviour legal.
The state has taken over marriage and turned it into a pale shadow of its former self. That is not a problem for Christians, because marriage is a covenant between two people based on the standards of God. It can function without government legislation, as marriage law has very little impact on the quality of a marriage. Most married people have never read the Marriage Act, but that does not matter, because marriage is a relationship and not a legal entity. The law is only becomes relevant when a marriage breaks down.
Christians should take marriage back and reshape it according to God's word. Instead of looking to the state to legislate marriage, Churches should develop marriage contracts or covenants that reflect the word of God. Christian lawyers could develop a standard marriage agreement to be used by churches to make marriages independent of the state. This contract should be given a different name so that everyone is clear that it is a Christian institution and not a creation of the state.
This new marriage covenant should clearly define the rights and responsibilities of husbands and wives according to God's word (1 Cor 7; Eph 5:22-33). It should also define the responsibilities of parents to children. The impact on property rights should also be specified. The new contract should also specify the conditions for divorce and provide a process for disputes to be resolved using Christian elders.
Christian marriage is a covenant relationship, not just a contract between two people. The vows declare to each other are also a vow to a God. They are not just committing each other, they are committing to God.
The covenant vows are also a declaration in front of the church that is recognising and recording the covenant marriage. The elders of the church are also committing to support the couple and help them growing a strong relationship, so that they can serve God in unity.
A marriage occurs when a man and a woman promise before God to love each other with an unconditional love. God responds to this commitment by making the two people one. Their sexual relationship is a consummation of God joining them together. This why the marriage service often speaks of a man and woman being "joined by God".
The couple making a marriage vow will be agreeing to live together, or recognising that they have been living together. They are committing to sacrificial love (agape), in which they put each other's needs before their own.. They are promising to submit to each other so they can become one (Eph 5:21). They are agreeing to give up their personal benefits for the sake of the unity as a couple.
Churches should develop a new method for recording covenant marriages. A few Christians with technical skills could serve the by the churches by setting up an electronic database for recording marriages. This would provide a record of all marriages between Christians. No one would have to use this of course. Christians would not need to make their marriage public information, if they do not want it in the public domain.
When a Christian couple commit to marriage, they are bringing together the inheritance that they have received from their own families and joining it together to establish a new in inheritance and heritage by establishing a family. This inheritance is not just material wealth. More important will be the inheritance of character, wisdom and calling.
The couple are not just starting a family, but establishing a new legacy that will be carried by their descendants. When Jacob passed on his blessing, he did not just giving a blessing to each son and daughter. He looked down through several generations to see the large family groups that we be part of his inheritance (Genesis 49). A Christian couple should look at their future descendants in the same way. They are creating a long-term family heritage that can be part of the Kingdom of God. They should train their children to protect and develop their calling.
My family used to be good at caring for sheep. This is why my family is no longer living in Scotland, as enclosure reduced the opportunities for caring for sheep. I do not know if my ancestors were good at teaching sheep, but current generations seem to be skilled at analysing information to see the big picture. As a family is a skill that we need to develop, with each generation being better at this role than the previous way.
The Christian couple may receive some financial support from their parents. The worldly approach is to enjoy the parent's wealth when they die. The Christian approach is to preserve and perpetuate the family inheritance and heritage. Parents may pass some of their capital to their children, while they are living and able, to encourage and train them in the family calling. A capital inheritance should not be seen as a boost of income to pay off debt. It should be used to advance the family calling and heritage, and advance the kingdom of God.
If Christians take back marriage, most of the paraphernalia of the modern marriage ceremony that make it so expensive will be redundant. There will be no need for cars, suits, wedding dresses, groomsmen, bridesmaids and wedding receptions. Wedding vows should be made in the presence of God during a meeting of the church that the couple will participate in.
Isaac and Rebekah are an example of how simple a wedding ceremony can be. Abraham had sent a servant to look for a wife for his son. The servant was led by God to Rebekah. She had demonstrated the character that a good wife would need. When the servant returned with Rebekah, Isaac accepted his commitment and took her into his family tent.
Rebekah also looked up and saw Isaac. She got down from her camel she took her veil and covered herself. Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her (Gen 24:64).
This was all it took for them to be married in the eyes of God.
The family existed before the state, so human governments did not establish marriage. God established marriage and gave it as a gift to the world. Since marriage is an institution established by him, it should be based on his word, not on government policy. God established marriage before the state existed, so he alone has authority to definite the way it should function.
Human governments do not have authority over marriage. They cannot change something that God has established, so Christians should not allow them to define marriage for them. God has already defined marriage and human governments cannot change God's word. Christian marriage should be based on God's word and not on legislation established by a human government. Christians do not the state to define marriage for them.
Only God can create a marriage. When two people commit to marriage, he makes them one. The state cannot marry people, because it does not have the ability to join people together and make them one.
In a world dominated by the state, we should not be surprised that people want their relationships "recognised" by the state. People who reject God usually choose to be slaves of another god, so we should not be surprised that secular people choose to be slaves of the state. If the people of the world want the secular state to bless their relationships, that is their business, but God's standard is not changed.
From the point of the state, a covenant marriage will appear to be a de facto relationship. Since the state has no control over it covenant marriage, it would not recognise its existence. That would not matter much, as modern governments have plenty of laws for dealing with de facto relationships.
Some Christians may want their marriage recognised by the legal system. There is no reason why they could have a second marriage within the civil system. This is what happens in some European countries. Church and civil weddings are distinct events. On the other hand, some Christians may prefer to remain separate from the world system. If the state refused to acknowledge their marriage and treats them as if they were in a de facto relationship, they would take it as a badge of honour.
The people of the world may want the state to bless their relationships, but we do not need to join them. Christians have the blessing of God on their marriage, so they have no need for the recognition of the state. Recognition by the state is nothing compared to the blessing of God.
A Christian marriage covenant could re-establish a biblical form of the bride gift. In most Asian cultures, a dowry is a payment that a father has to pay to get a man to take one his daughters as wife. This is a perversion of the biblical bride gift, because it devalues women and causes parents in these cultures to prefer sons, because daughters cost them in money.
The biblical model is different. The purpose of a dowry to provide security for the woman who leaves the protection and support of her family to marry into another family. In the scriptures, a man must provide a gift to the father of his prospective bride (Ex 22:16,17). His ability to give a gift proves that he is capable of providing for his wife. For example, Jacob worked seven years to establish that he was worthy to get Rachel as his wife (Gen 29:18). Abraham's servant gave costly gifts to Rebekah's brother and mother, before they agreed that she could marry Isaac (Gen 24:52-53).
The father of the bride decides the value of the gift required for the daughter.
Let me find favour in your eyes, and I will give you whatever you ask. Make the price for the bride and the gift I am to bring as great as you like, and I'll pay whatever you ask me. Only give me the girl as my wife (Gen 34:11,12).
Saul required David to kill one hundred Philistines, before he allowed his daughter Michal to become his wife. This demonstrated his ability as a soldier (1 Sam 18: 23-27).
The bride gift is a good test for potential husbands. A man who can give a good gift has proved that he can save money and build up his capital. The gift assures the bride's parents that he will provide for their daughter and that she will not become dependent on them.
In modern culture, casual attitudes to sex have allowed males to drink the milk without buying the cow, and females have been left holding the baby. A requirement for a bride gift would be a strong counter to these attitudes.
The father does not keep the bride gift for himself, but holds it in trust on behalf of his daughter. He might lend it to the couple to enable them to buy a home or start a business. This ensures that a bride bring some capital to her marriage, even if she and her father are poor. If the bride is widowed or her husband deserts her, the bride price belongs to her. This provides her with continuing economic security while she is caring for their children.
Rachel and Leah were frustrated by their father Laban, because he did not use the bride gift that Jacob had given him for their benefit. They considered that he had stolen their dowry (Gen 31:14-15).
Does he not regard us as foreigners? Not only has he sold us, but he has used up what was paid for us (Gen 31:15).
A Christian marriage covenant should also specify the conditions for divorce. These should not be decided by the civil government, but should come God's word He created marriage and he makes two people one, so he is the only one who can say when a marriage union has been dissolved.
The biblical teaching on divorce is quite straightforward. The starting point is that God hates divorce (Mal 2:16). Marriage is the foundation of godly society, so any attack on marriage is an attack on the foundation of society
So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate (Mk 10:8-9).
This is why God hates divorce. It is treason against the basic institution of society.
This does not mean that divorce is totally forbidden. Jesus explained that God understands human weakness, so he allows divorce in certain circumstances. Moses allowed divorce for hardness of heart.
Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning (Matt 19:8).
This was sensible. Moses was leading people who did not have benefits of the cross or gift of the spirit, so they could not live up to God's standards. They needed a way out of marriage when sin made a mess of their lives. When people's hearts are hard, divorce is sometimes necessary, even though it was not part of God's original plan. However, it should always be the last resort.
Jesus ministry on earth ushered in a new age. His death on the cross dealt with the problem of sin. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit opened up the way for a new standard of holiness. The fruit of the Spirit would soften hard hearts, reducing the need for divorce. That is why Jesus reminded his people of God's original intent. There should be no divorce, except in cases of adultery (Mark 10:11).
I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery (Matt 19:9).
God has made two people one. Adultery destroys the oneness that marriage establishes, so it destroys the marriage. God does not like things he has joined being broken apart, so divorce among Christians should be rare. However divorce will sometimes necessary, even with the Holy Spirit at work.
Grounds for Divorce
In the scriptures, there are two grounds for divorce.
- A person has grounds for divorce if their marriage partner commits
adultery or engages in other immoral sexual activity. Jesus said,
I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery (Matt 5:32).
Although this is a warning against divorce, the implication is that divorce is allowable in cases of adultery. The Greek word for marital unfaithfulness is "pornea", which covers a broad range of sexual sins, and not just adultery. All forms of sexual immorality are grounds for divorce, because they break the marriage union.
The second ground for divorce is wilful desertion by a non-Christian spouse. Paul addressed the problem that arises when one of a married couple becomes a Christian.
If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him (1 Cor 7:12,13).
Being married to an unbeliever is not grounds for divorce, because the unbelieving spouse is sanctified by the faith of the believing spouse (1 Cor 7:14). However, Paul goes on to say,
But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace (1 Cor 7:15).
Paul uses the same word "bound" in Romans 7:2-3 to explain that a widow is free to marry again. He explains to the Corinthians that a deserted spouse is "not bound", so they are free to marry another person.
When a person becomes a Christian and their spouse refuses to continue living with them, the Christian is able to seek a divorce. On the other hand, if the non-Christian is willing to stay, then the Christian cannot divorce. The expression "be willing stay" is quite strong. The Greek words mean "be glad to make a home with." This is not mere toleration. It means making a home together. If the unbelieving husband is willing to stay, but keeps on abusing his wife, she would be entitled to leave.
The marriage covenant should allow for temporary separation. The second ground for divorce is not available if both spouses are Christians. Paul does not condone divorce where both spouses are Christians.
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband (1 Cor 7:10-11).
A Christian married to a Christian does not have access to divorce, unless their spouse commits adultery. If they have to separate, they must seek to be reconciled or remain single.
Paul allows a Christian wife to have a spell apart from her husband, if things have turned sour. However, the separated wife must try to reconcile with her Christian husband. She must remain unmarried until they are reconciled. If the Christian husband committed adultery while they are apart, she would be free to remarry. Temporary separation provides an escape for a Christian wife who is being abused by their Christian husbands.
Paul does not seem to offer temporary separation as an option to husbands. In his letter, he is quite specific about what applies to men and what applies to women, so we cannot use an argument from silence. He offers women the option of temporary separation, because they are more vulnerable. Christian men do not get this option, because they often have economic and physical power. This continues the protections for woman provided in the Old Testament.
If the separated Christians cannot be reconciled, they should remain single. If they are walking in the Spirit, they are expected to resolve the issues that would drive them apart.
Divorce represents a failure of love. Christians are required to love each other, as Jesus loved us. That sort of love should be able to overcome most obstacles. The reasons commonly given for Christians divorcing are relatively lame:
- We have different interests;
- We are going in different directions;
- We have become different people to what we were when we married.
These are all things that agape love should be able to overcome. There will be failures of love among Christians, but this should not be taken lightly, as it represents our failure to live out the love of Jesus.
The implication of the letter to the Corinthians is that divorce is allowable for non-Christians, because the Holy Spirit has been shut out of their lives, but it is not an option for Christians. Nevertheless, a few Christians will need a divorce, when hardness of hearts prevents the Holy Spirit from changing their hearts.
Administered by Elders
As covenant marriage takes place before the church, the people of the church must be involved in the administration of divorce. A Christian seeking a divorce would apply to the elders of their Church. These elders would have the gift of discernment and would know the person's characters, so they would be in a good position to decide if divorce is justified. Their goal would be to restore the marriage, so they would only approve a divorce as a last resort. If they agreed to a divorce, they would also advise the elders in the church where the couple was married.
Failure of the Church
Given the current state of the church in the western world, it is not surprising that divorce and remarriage are almost as common in the church as it is in the world. When the church is ambivalent about the God's standards and lacking the fullness of the Spirit, we cannot expect Christians to be walking in his ways. When the spirit of the world is rampant in the church, divorce naturally follows.
This is not just an issue for those whose marriages have failed. The "hardness of heart" of the church is a greater problem for church leaders. The modern church provides inadequate discipleship, so it produces weak Christians, so it is not surprising that they fall into sin and want divorce. The modern church, does not understand spiritual protection (partly because it has bought into the "covering" lie) so the spiritual forces of evil are often free to tear couples apart. The increase in Christian divorce represents the failure of the church, not the failure of the people being divorced. If the church does not have the spiritual power to protect couples from attack, it does not have the right to prevent them from divorcing.
Widespread divorce amongst Christians is a serious problem for the church. It undermines our gospel witness, as it implies that the gospel and the Spirit are not very effective. Instead of accepting divorce as normal, Christians leaders should be seeking to understand why evil has gained such a strong hold on the church.
The church appears hypocritical when it is vehemently hostile towards homosexuals and intolerant of homosexual marriage, but accepts the widespread adultery and divorce among Christians.
Adultery is a more serious sin than divorce. When Christians separate or divorce, they are deciding to stop loving each other. That is not good, but it is a sin of omission rather than commission. Adultery is serious, because people committing it are uniting themselves with another person, when God has made them one with their spouse. Adultery divides something that God has created.
On the other hand, the Bible does not have a hierarchy of sins. Sin is sin. Divorce is no better or worse than other sins. The cross can deal with divorce, just as effectively as any other sin. There is no sin too tough for the cross.
The pastoral reality that we have to deal with is a world that is all messed up and many in the church are messed up too. So if divorced Christians are acknowledging their failures and wanting to make a new beginning, we should encourage them. If they are willing to commit to marriage, Christians elders and pastors should be willing to marry them. Churches should be willing to support them.
On the other hand, if they want to continue living a selfish lifestyle, we might need to challenge them. We should not encourage those who a stuck in selfishness to enter a new marriage, because they will probably just get more of the same.
This is not a drift in the biblical principles. It is a Christian response to the situation that has emerged in a sinful world. Our calling has always been to work with the cross and the Spirit to clean up the mess that evil has made in the world. Christians should be skilled in sorting this stuff.
Pauls describes the ideal in 1 Cor 7:10-11. If Christian separate from their spouse, they should ideally remain single, or be reconciled. However, this ideal includes a church that provides the same level of emotional, spiritual and monetary support, as it would provide to a widow of a martyr. The separated person should still have a fulfilled life supported by their Christian community. In our world, life often does not work out like that. The modern church is not capable of providing the level of support needed after the separation, or before it for that matter. People left on their own often get drawn to others of the opposite sex. We were created to relate to others, so it is natural for a person living in isolation to get entangled with another.
Once it has happened, Christians have to deal with the situation as it is. When a separated Christian comes and asks their pastor, if they can marry again, they are not usually asking a theoretical question. They already know who they want to marry. They have already committed adultery with them in their hearts by choosing to unite with another, so they are technical divorced in God's eyes and free to marry. So the pastor/elder does not need to feel guilty about marrying them.
Christian Marriage and the World
The institution of marriage legislated by modern governments is very different from Christian marriage. These differences affect
Who can get married. Many governments are moving towards allowing same sex marriage. Anyone can get married provided they are over the required certain age. Christian marriage is for couples who have reached a level of maturity.
The nature of the relationship. Marriage legislation does not care about how couples behave. It does not care how the couple treats each other, provided they do not engage in violence. Christian marriage requires mutual love and submission.
Who can get divorced. Most government allow no fault divorce and serial marriage. The splitting of income after divorce is proscribed. In Christian marriage, love should cover most differences, so divorce is limited to adultery and wilful desertion. Where divorce is the only course, wealth is not split equally, but the women gets back the Bride Gift and its increase, which means that she will often be better off than the man.
The differences between legal marriage and Christian marriage are already significant, and will become much starker in the future. This does not matter. It is just one more difference between the church and the world. If legislated marriage moves further way from Christian marriage, we should not fight it, because we cannot expect the people of the world to live by Christian standards.
The decision to enter a Christian marriage should always be a free choice. We should not force Christian marriage on those who are not Christians. Some may see God's blessing on Christian marriage and freely choose to live that way because they want the benefits. That is fine if their choice is free, but unwilling people should not be forced into Christian marriage, if they want a different type of relationship. God does not want us to force biblical marriage onto an unwilling world.
We cannot demand that non-Christians commit to the unconditional love that God requires of Christian couples. It is impossible to live that way without the forgiveness of the cross and the blessing of the Holy Spirit anyway, so we should not try to expect it of those who do not know him.
Likewise, the biblical conditions for divorce only apply to Christians. People who have chosen to ignore the Holy Spirit can do what they like. We should not expect them to live up to God's standards. Where sin abounds, divorce will be inevitable, for a huge variety of reasons. Moses principle of allowing divorce for hardness of heart will always apply in the world.
I am disappointed that same-sex marriage will become legal in this country, but fighting against it is not the most important challenge facing Christians at this time. It is far more important that we are demonstrating the love of Jesus, walking in the power of the Spirit, and presenting the good news in a way that the world can understand and receive it.