A Response to the Same-Sex Marriage Ruling
Friday, June 26, 2015 the United States Supreme Court issued a 5-to-4 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in all fifty states. In today’s special edition of Renewing Your Mind, Dr. R.C. Sproul, Dr. R.C. Sproul Jr., and Chris Larson join Lee Webb to discuss what this ruling means for the church and Christian institutions, and to address how Christians should respond.
Listen to today’s broadcast at RenewingYourMind.org.
Lee Webb: It was 10 days ago that the United States Supreme Court issued a 5-to-4 ruling that legalizes same-sex marriage in all fifty states. It is a landmark ruling, to be sure, and one that some observers rank in historical significance with the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision which legalized abortion in this country. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion for this ruling, and he said that gay and lesbian couples, quote, “ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law,” and he said, “the Constitution grants them that right.” Justice Samuel Alito, however, in a dissenting opinion wrote that the Constitution says nothing about gay marriage, and Justice Antonin Scalia went even further in a blistering dissent, writing that the majority opinion lacks, quote, “even a thin veneer of law.”
During this next half hour we will analyze this ruling and we want to concern ourselves with what the Bible says about all this. Scripture, after all, is our only infallible rule for faith and practice. We will talk about what it means for the church and Christian institutions, and address the question, “How should we respond?” Joining me to do that is the Founder and Chairman of Ligonier Ministries, Dr. R.C. Sproul, Ligonier Ministries Teaching Fellow, Dr. R.C. Sproul, Jr., and the President and CEO of Ligonier, Chris Larson.
Dr. Sproul, you’ve had several days now to process the High Court’s decision. What is your reaction to it?
R.C. Sproul: Well, I have many reactions to it, Lee. I think that it is a historic moment for our nation, and I think that this decision ranks with one of the worst in America’s judicial history. You go back to the Dred Scott decision, which is infamous now, in 1857, where the court ruled that a black person, either enslaved or free, could not be a citizen of the United States of America. And that was a significant at that time because the whole purpose of the Constitution was to provide the founding structure of the nation as a Republic, rather than a democracy. The difference was this: that a Republic is defined by rule by law rather than rule by men. Alexis de Tocqueville had warned that the American experiment could result in what he called “the tyranny of the majority” if it were not protected by universal principles that would protect the rights of individuals, which we produced by virtue of the Bill of Rights. And so, one of the basic principles and responsibilities of the Supreme Court was to make sure that individual state laws, that is statutes, that would be in conformity to protect the rights of individuals guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, and so the Dred Scott decision was infamous because it actually removed that protection from black people because it declared that they could not be citizens and therefore did not have the protection of the Constitution and of the Bill of Rights.
Of course, in the decision of Roe v. Wade, I think we had the most horrific decision ever decreed by any court in America, where the fundamental principle of the raison d’être for the very existence of government, namely the protections and sustaining of human life, was basically discarded, where the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to our unborn children were completely abolished by Roe v. Wade, and a license was given for the legalization of murder. And at that case the government then ceased to protect the fundamental reason for its existence under God. Remember that God institutes not just the church, but government, and gives a particular responsibility to government. You go back to 1881 with the publication of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s Common Law, where he later became an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, and at the prefatory writings of that statement he said the time had passed when we could base law and establish law on some kind of metaphysical, or philosophical, or theological normative foundation, but rather, law would have to be revised and determined by human experience about what later was called “the contemporary community standards.” And so ever since then there’s been a gradual move away from the grammatical-historical principle of interpreting the Constitution as intended by the Founding Fathers, and now a reinterpretation or reconstructionist view by interpreting the law in terms of the norm of contemporary community standards. And if ever we saw that in its nadir in terms of legislating from the bench it was in this most recent decision where there was no serious attempt to connect it to the Constitution. Otherwise, we would grant that from the very founding of the nation, not just the nation as a Republic, but going back to the colonial period, that from 1607 till 2015 the people of America were tyrannizing a minority by prohibiting them to have the right of marrying a man with a man, or a woman with a woman, but again this whole issue of contemporary community standards is now problematic because obviously you ask, “What community standards are there?” You have the community standards in Texas that are radically different from the community standards in Massachusetts or New York State, but now the community has become so regionalized that every community and every part of America was to be dictated by the ability and necessity under law to grant the right of same-sex marriage from Texas to Massachusetts, and so on. So these are my initial reactions to the decision.
LW: Yeah, even Chief Justice John Roberts has said that who’s to say that this doesn’t open the door now for polygamous relationships.
R.C. Sproul, Jr.: It’s a common objection and it makes sense because it reflects what was just said in that if the standards are utterly flexible, if there is no transcendent standard, then not only can you have the federal government, the Supreme Court, telling us that polygamous marriage is okay, it can also tell us that cross-racial marriage is not okay. That is, if you live in a particular culture in a particular time and they have a particular error, then what the Supreme Court is now saying is that we all have to legally embrace that error whatever the error may be. Every time someone brings up this contemporary community standards, I’m very quick, I know it’s Godwin’s Law, but I’m very quick to say, “Okay, how about community standards in 1940 Germany?” Is that what justice is? I think it’s sort of the fruit of the denial of any transcendent source of right and wrong.
Chris Larson: I’ve learned so much from Ligonier Ministries over the years and one of the things that I’ve always enjoyed, Dr. Sproul, is your love for language, your love for words and the meaning of words and where words come from. And at the core of this decision is the word “marriage” and basically a wholesale redefinition. How is it that modern culture has the arrogance to just redefine a word?
RC: You know, it’s interesting to me, and tragic, Chris, in the Book of Common Prayer that has our traditional wedding ceremony, which allows also for civil ceremonies as well as ecclesiastical weddings, it states that marriage is instituted by God and regulated by His commandments. And again, marriage was not given simply to Christians or to Jews. It wasn’t simply a religious group that was singled out to participate in this, but it was given in creation as God’s law for man qua man, for all human beings at all time and defined by Him. And the state does not ever have the right to redefine a creation ordinance which has been in effect since the act, the very act of creation and the very establishing of this institution.
CL: There is a larger objection from secularists who would look at the way we read the Bible and say that we’re upholding an Old Testament sexual ethic. What do you say to that, R.C., when it comes to the New Testament? Is the sexual ethic in the Old Testament restated in the New Testament?
RC Jr.: Well, you know a lot of folks are quick to jump to the “shellfish and the mixed threads” argument and it’s the kind of argument that, ironically, is better than the majority opinion in this court decision. That is, at least they’re attempting to interact with the text in some way. It’s a horrible interaction; it’s a ridiculous interaction, and one of the ironies is, of course, is that while Leviticus 19, for instance, clearly and roundly condemns homosexual behavior, whether it was Old Testament or New Testament, if I wanted to find the clearest, most straightforward admonition about the heinousness of this sin, I wouldn’t go to Leviticus, I’d go to Romans chapter 1, which is in the New Testament for those who don’t know. But it reflects on, again, what was just said, that there is a sense in which when God comes and makes covenant with his covenant people and He delivers His law to them and it places obligation on them, whether it was the Jewish people in the Old Testament, whether it was the church in our day, that’s one kind of relationship, and people rebel against that; people inside the church rebel against that. But what we’re talking about here is not just a rejection of God as our Redeemer, or our potential Redeemer, but we’re talking about a rejection of God as our Maker. This, as Dr. Sproul said, it’s man as man rejecting what God has said. And in fact that’s at the very root of the sin, that’s the point of the sin. I think that’s part of what Paul is getting at in Romans 1. He’s trying to say, “This is how we shake our fist at God. You made all of us, redeemed or not, to be this way and we’re going to turn this on its head, we’re going to pervert as heinously as we can, and that’s what we’re going to do,” and now in our culture what we’re celebrating.
LW: “We know better than you, God,” in other words.
RC Jr.: Not just, “We know better than you.” It’s not, “Sorry God, you’re mistaken and we’re wiser than You.” It’s, “This will really tick you off because we hate You.”
RC: Well, you know, we saw a distinction historically between special revelation and natural law, which even those who were not advocates of Judeo-Christian religion acknowledged that there was a jus gentium, a “law of the nations,” that could be found this as the study of nature and reason and even in the Enlightenment, even that foundation for law has been basically annihilated. I can remember vividly when Clarence Thomas was submitted to his examination and interrogation under the permanent judicial committee, that Joe Biden became apoplectic when Clarence Thomas are made an affirmation of natural law, and he was mocked for that by Joe Biden, and Biden said, “Nobody teaches natural law anymore.” Well, that’s not true. They teach it in several law schools, but it’s certainly not the majority report. But again, we go back to this rejection not only of supernatural foundations for law, but even the foundations written in nature itself for law. And Paul in the New Testament appeals not only to the divine law given in special revelation, but even to the law of nature in his judgment of this particular sin.
LW: Well, we also want to talk about what this really means for the church and for Christian institutions. Rich Lowry writes in National Review, “The move against religious groups will surely start small with some isolated unsympathetic Christian institution and then grow until what once had been called ‘unimaginable’ becomes mandatory.” Dr. Sproul, Jr. what’s your reaction? Where you think this is headed as it relates to the church?
RC Jr.: I think he is absolutely right and the reality is that, you know, just because we’ve had a history of Chicken Littles doesn’t mean that the sky is not falling. There’s a very real sense in which this is a landmark decision and it is a sea change. One of the things, again broadly culturally that we tend to miss when we make the natural law argument, for instance, we will be told that homosexual behavior has been recorded and known for centuries and centuries and centuries and centuries, which is absolutely true; no one is disputing that. The difference to what we are seeing here between what was going on behind closed doors in other cultures and what is being celebrated—this is not just people giving themselves over to this particular sin—this is them parading this in the streets, this is them shouting that this is a positive good and now this is the state saying the same thing. Now those kinds of shifts, and I want to suggest that they are shifts; we can take some level of comfort in realizing that this is just nine men making a decision, but we also have to remember that when we look at your history in the Old Testament, as the leadership of the country went, so went the nation, and we’re already seeing professing evangelicals, leaders in the evangelical church falling like dominoes, falling all over themselves, at best, wanting to be silent on this issue, at worst coming out on the other side. So I want us to understand that this is a massive shift and a massive change, not only inside the world of people who practice this particular sin, because of the coming-out nature, because of the celebration, it’s a massive shift inside the broader culture, and a massive shift inside the church.
RC: Exhibit ‘A’ would be Hillary Clinton, who just who just a few years ago made her public statement that she believed that marriage was between a man and a woman, and now she’s celebrating this cultural shift, this new contemporary community standard. But one of the things that troubles me greatly is how Christians respond to this, and people, I keep reading that people are saying, “Well, after all we all sin and we commit adultery and we have bad decisions for divorce and all the rest of these things. What’s so heinous about this particular crime, or this particular sin that we set it apart?” Well, under God, adultery is not just a sin, it is a gross and heinous sin, and we can’t simply assume that all sin is equal. There is a love that covers a multitude of sins, and in the New Testament there is clearly a gradation and hierarchy set forth by Jesus about those particular sins that will exclude a person if they habitually practice them from the kingdom of God, and we’ve now just celebrated one of these sins, and not only legalized it, it is not so much the legalization, as it is the establishment that this is really not a sinful thing to do. And Christians are saying, “Well, we believe in grace, we believe in tolerance, and all that.” Let me just say this: When the church was established, it was established in a godless realm under the Roman Empire and the Roman Empire was debauched in so many moral ways, and at the same time there were benefits conferred upon the early Christian community by the very existence of the Roman Empire. I mean, there was law, there was a law code that was some kind of appeal to justice with Roman citizenship, and so on, that Paul himself even appealed for. There were benefits that were given to the Christian community, if nothing else than the Roman road system and postal system that made it possible for the epistles of the apostles to be spread throughout the Empire, and yet at the same time, the Christians understood that the Roman government, bottom line, was not their friend and that they had to live lives that were defined not by the legislation of Rome, but by the rule of God himself. And Christians need to understand that we’re not living in a Christian period in American history right now. Historians have been saying for decades that we are in a post-Christian era, or a neo-pagan worldview reigns, where even in some cases looking at Roe v. Wade, you can talk about neo-barbarianism. And so you have to understand that as a Christian, that the civil government does not define your ethic as a Christian. That’s critical that we understand that, and now maybe people will become more and more awakened to that.
CL: That biblical ethic screams from the pages of the New Testament where you don’t see the writers in a state of panic at the paganism that surrounds them. They are sober-minded, they are discerning, they are critical when they need to be, and they speak the truth, to be able to put that line in the sand. It reminds me of a quote from John Calvin’s associate there in Geneva, Theodore Beza, and he’s reflecting on church history and he says, “The church is an anvil which has worn down many hammers.” And so there’s some sense in which we should have courage for today and recognizing as you’ve taught us, Dr. Sproul, over the years, that God is a sovereign God and that he is orchestrating human history ultimately for his glory.
LW: Dr. Sproul, you have said as we look at this question, “How should we as Christians respond?” you have said that it’s not the role of the church to call the state to be the church. It is the role of the church to call the state to be the state. What does that look like?
RC: Well, we don’t expect the state to do our evangelism, we don’t expect the state to administer the sacraments, or preach the gospel, that sort of thing. That’s the responsibility of the church, not of the state. But we do expect the state, because it is also ordained by God, to be the state, to protect the rights of unborn children, to protect the sanctity of life, to protect the sanctity of marriage, because again those are not uniquely religious concepts. They are humanitarian and humane, built into the well-being of nature as God has created it. And so when we protest against same-sex marriage, we’re saying that the state has got it wrong, and that the state has now not simply declared a separation of church and state, but rather proclaimed a separation of the state from God. The Supreme Court has declared its independence from God, not just from England. And that’s the thing that we need to understand.
LW: And so would you encourage pastors who believe what you’ve just said to be proclaiming that from their pulpit on a particular Sunday or from the public square?
RC: I think one of the responsibilities that the church always has is to be engaged in what has been called “prophetic criticism.” When the state violates its mandate, namely, protecting the sanctity of life, of course the church should speak up about it. And when they violate the sanctity of marriage, of course the church and speak up against it. And again, we’re not asking the state to be the church. We’re not trying to shove our religion down their throats; we’re trying to affirm theism, not Christianity, or one variety of it, and not Judaism, but rather the idea that the state which claims to be under God, to be under God.
RC Jr.: Now I do think we do have that duty, Lee. I think we have a duty in principle, if only to warn our congregants against what I would argue is the most common form of idolatry, which is syncretism. It goes back to the sort of silver lining in all this, remembering that because God is sovereign, remembering that He is about the business, that Jesus is sanctifying his bride—that’s His job; He is washing us—one of the things that is happening here in our day is the smashing of the idol of civil religion. And you don’t have to be the worst kind of civil religion person to still be bowing down before the goddess of religion. That is, when we have this propensity to look at this nation and this government as this embodiment of Christian virtue, and then we’re shocked and surprised, we’re missing the point. We’re supposed to remember that we’re citizens of the kingdom of God. We’re supposed to remember that the blessings of liberty that we’ve enjoyed here, it’s not just rhetoric; they’re God-given blessings. They’re not Washington-given blessings and because of that our gratitude should be towards God, and when he pulls back, I think it’s always wise and appropriate for us to stop and examine ourselves and see and ask, “What is it that we’re doing wrong? How have we failed? How have we failed to be salt and light? How has our understanding of marriage contributed to this misunderstanding of what marriage is?” So I would love to see a great deal of repentance on the part of the church, and a great deal of prophetic criticism at the same time.
LW: One of the scenarios that is continually discussed in the public square by the media is what has already played out in some locales, and that’s the so-called Christian baker, or the Christian wedding photographer, and a lot of Christians are wrestling with that question, “How would I respond if I were a business person asked to do this, that, or the other?”
RC: Well, we’ve got to understand that people are saying repeatedly now that this is simply legalizing gay marriage only by necessity by the civil magistrate doesn’t require that clergy or the church performs these marriages. However, the mainline churches for the most part have already embraced it, and they will continue to embrace it, and many, many, many evangelical churches will also embrace it, and will perform these ceremonies. And already we’ve seen the rumblings that those who were standing in opposition to it and are saying that they are going to be involved in noncompliance like the Christian baker and the Christian candlestick maker and now the Christian clergyman who says, “I will not perform a same-sex marriage.” You know where this is going. You know this is already being called hate speech and already being called bigotry, intolerance, and I think you can expect again Chicken Little’s house to start to fall. I think we are looking at a very serious threat of intrusion by the government into the free exercise of religion where clergy will be called to perform these marriages or suffer prosecution. We’ve taken the position at St. Andrews, I’ve always taken it, and I won’t perform such a marriage. If I’m the last clergyman alive, I’m not going to do it. And even if the whole world succumbs to the pressure and as R.C. already intimated, there will be floods of evangelicals that will rush to show how tolerant and gracious they are, and who will succumb to the siren call of compliance. We just can’t do this. We may not do this. And so we have to take a stand against it.
RC Jr.: I’d like to suggest that one of the ways we know that statism has infiltrated the church is in the conversations that I’ve seen on the issue of the baker and the photographer. There are a lot of folks who argue this is something Christians should be doing. This is one way we can show grace. This is one way we have opportunity to speak into the lives of these people and to show the love of Christ, which argument I understand, and I think a reasonable person can take that position, but they jump from that to therefore it’s perfectly appropriate for the government to threaten with fines and imprisonment those who won’t do it. They have this perspective that if I think this is a sin, or if I think it’s good to do this, it’s perfectly okay for the government to make them do this. They have this view of the law of the state as this force for good making people be good.
LW: And both of you as pastors are prepared to go to jail if it should come to that?
RC: How could we not? I mean, again, this is what the Sanhedrin tried to impose upon the New Testament church and forbad them from preaching the gospel. They said, “Shall we obey God or man?” Obviously, you have to bend over backwards to be obedient civilly, but there’s a line in the sand. If God commands something that men refuse to allow, you have to obey God rather than man.
CL: So as a ministry, Ligonier is going to continue to uphold the biblical ethic and the authority of God’s Word, and yet what would you say to the person who has sought dignity, who has sought acceptance and they have pursued a homosexual lifestyle, and is there a sense in which, of course, we are going to speak the truth in love, but in what way does that truth get communicated with grace?
RC Jr.: Well, I think you’ve got to communicate it with grace to those who are looking for grace. There is a very real difference between the angry homosexual lobby demanding acceptance and a struggling person who’s looking for help, and I think you need to learn to discern between those two kinds of people. Both of them need to be called to repentance, but the one you call to repentance with gentleness and tenderness; with the other, you be John the Baptist. That’s why I think there’s no surprise on how that happens when the people are genuinely looking for help. We all have sins that we struggle with, and we all, let me say it this way: that’s the defining quality of the Christian. It’s not the sin or the lack of the sin; it’s the struggle against the sin. It’s when we give ourselves over to the sin that we lose that right to gentle treatment.
RC: Grace is not permission. That’s the thing we need to understand. I’ve heard one church say, “We’re not about judgment here.” You know? I say, “Does that mean you don’t have church discipline?” “Does that mean that if we’re caught up into serious public, scandalous sins like the church in Corinth that the apostle ordered them to be engaged in church discipline?” When a church stops engaging in discipline, it stops being a church. And so what we want is grace, and what we also want is justice, but we’ve also seen in the biblical times there were such things as unjust judges. And I think what you’ve just seen 10 days ago is a manifestation of an unjust court.
LW: It was interesting what Dr. Rosaria Butterfield said at our Ligonier Ministries national conference this year, that she began to realize that her lesbianism was not her biggest problem; it was her sin that was the biggest problem. Then Scripture began to resonate with her and then her heart began to change.
RC Jr.: And that’s the Holy Spirit at work, that’s conviction for sin, and what does that require, but again the grace that says we’re willing to call sin, sin. The irony is is that these folks that you were just talking about who were a grace church, what they really mean is, “We will not get angry at you, so that you do not get angry at us.” I’ve been arguing for a long time now that our calling is to love those outside the kingdom enough to be willing to have them hate us. If our love for them stops when I’m going to have to stop saying what upsets them, then I’m really serving myself, then.
CL: It is not loving to withhold the truth.
RC Jr.: Absolutely.