March 5, 2004 - Should Adventists Speak Up on Marriage?
The battle over gay marriage has become hotter than a sizzling summer heat wave. The Adventist Church has not issued any formal statements, although it has previously issued statements addressing both marriage and homosexuality. These can be read on the church's website: www.adventist.org. There is a strong case to be made for the Adventist voice to be heard on this issue.
As Adventists seek to faithfully witness to both the grace and law of God, it is important to recognize the hazards inherent in today's highly polarized cultural climate surrounding gay marriage. Some dismiss religious talk about morality and homosexuality as hatred of gays. Our public witness should always affirm what the General Conference statement on homosexuality says at the beginning: "The Seventh-day Adventist Church recognizes that every human being is valuable in the sight of God, and we seek to minister to all men and women in the spirit of Jesus."
Gay marriage constitutes an assault on both the grace and law of God. It is premised on the notion that gays are born that way; that the gay lifestyle should gain full social and legal acceptance; and that society should make no moral judgments about their sexual conduct. The grace of God provides the power to overcome all inherited and cultivated tendencies to sin. Because of Christ, everyone has the freedom to make moral choices about their conduct.
The law of God teaches us to express our sexuality in the context of heterosexual marriage. The Adventist witness to both the grace and law of God can make an important contribution in the current climate.
Some have argued that religious values are an unwelcome intrusion into this debate, and violate the separation of church and state. Here again, Adventists have a unique and balanced perspective that deserves to be heard. Historically, Adventists have distinguished between the first and second tables of the Ten Commandments. The first four commandments contain a person's religious obligations. These are duties owed to God alone, not to the state, and over these the state has no legitimate authority. The state should not dictate the content or practice of our faith.
The last six commandments address a person's moral duties to other people. Because these pertain to human relations, they can also be civil obligations enforced by government and law. It is wrong to say the state cannot restrict the definition of marriage to a man and a woman because this imposes a religious value. If that were true, then it would be equally wrong to criminalize murder, theft, fraud and perjury, because these are also religious values contained in the Ten Commandments.
Some are confused about the legitimacy of laws to enforce the last six commandments, because law can never perfectly enforce them. The point is not whether law should seek to enforce these six commandments in every particular law cannot do this. Rather, these commandments contain the essential principles that form the foundation of society. A healthy legal system will be guided by these principles.
Today, morality is all too commonly considered a matter of subjective opinion. The Adventist voice needs to be heard affirming the eternal and objective nature of the law of God. This is, after all, one of our central issues. We have always claimed that we offer unique insight into the eternally binding nature of God's law, including the Sabbath. There are real consequences for violating the moral law, whether or not we fully grasp what those consequences are. A final or distant divine judgment is only one consequence. We really do reap what we sow. Even, the "new age" movement has embraced this principle, under the guise of "karma," which teaches that we get exactly what we deserve. The gospel, of course, teaches that by the grace of God, we may actually receive far better than we deserve.
When marriage is undermined, everyone suffers. Children are more likely to be raised in homes without both parents. Adult relationships are rendered more unstable and insecure. Gay marriage cannot properly be said to be an exclusive cause of undermining marriages, but it is both a symptom and a cause--part of a culture that places primary value on personal sexual fulfillment. Ironically, instead of fostering commitment as supporters of gay marriage contend, the evidence from Scandinavia suggests that gay marriage undermines commitment in all intimate relationships, as personal fulfillment becomes more important than the many other reasons for sustained commitment.
Supporters of gay marriage present their case as a civil rights issue, similar to the struggle of black Americans to gain equal rights. But at least some African-American Adventists disagree. Wayne Sheppard, Vice President of the Pacific Union Conference, comments: "Being black, or of any other ethnicity, is not a moral issue. Gay marriage is. African-Americans asked for and received nothing more than the right to be treated like all other Americans. Gay leaders are asking for the government to officially endorse their lifestyle. This is quite different from civil rights." Sheppard is right. The fundamental issue is not about rights, but what is right.
The Adventist voice needs to be heard on many key issues in the marriage debate. Where the left would exclude religious values from the debate, we can affirm that religious values can legitimately inform public policy, but only in the social moral sphere. Where the right would tend to apply religious values not only to social moral issues like marriage, but to religion directly, Adventists need to reaffirm the separation of church and state. For better or worse, Adventists occupy an increasingly lonely, middle between the political poles of left and right in our country. Such temperate and reasoned voices are often excluded, in favor of more provocative ones--all the more reason why our voice needs to be heard.
Church State Newsflashes, E.lerts, and Legislative E.lerts are published by the Pacific Union Conference Department of Public Affairs & Religious Liberty.