Week #12—What Christians Should Ask of Government: To Affirm and Protect the Family
Editor’s note: This is a manuscript from Jonathan Leeman’s class “Christians and Government,” which he is currently teaching through at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. There will be 13 weeks in the class. Here is the course schedule, to be published as it’s taught.
What Christians Should Do For Government
Week 1: Love Your Nation, People, or Tribe
Week 2: Obey Scripture, Get Wisdom
Week 3: Be the Church Together
Week 4: Be the Church Apart
Week 5: Engage with “Convictional Kindness”
What Christians Should Ask of Government
Week 6: To Not Play God
Week 7: To Establish Peace
Week 8: To Do Justice
Week 9: To Punish Crime, Tax, and Defend the Nation
Week 10: To Treat People Equally (Justice and Identity Politics)
Week 11: To Tolerate True and False Religion
Week 12: To Affirm and Protect the Family (manuscript below)
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If I were to ask for a show of hands, how many people in this room do you think would affirm the separation of church and state? I suspect most. But if I asked you, who should have the authority to marry people, the church or the state, what would you say? It’s an interesting question, because so many of us are accustomed to both church and state possessing the authority to marry. You can go to the minister or the judge.
As the state in recent years has turned to redefining marriage to include the possibility of same-sex marriage, however, more and more ministers have been thinking about this question. In November 2014, in fact, several hundred ministers signed the “Marriage Pledge,” which said they would pledge to no longer perform marriages on behalf of the state. To quote:
To continue with church practices that intertwine government marriage with Christian marriage will implicate the Church in a false definition of marriage. Therefore, in our roles as Christian ministers, we, the undersigned, commit ourselves to disengaging civil and Christian marriage in the performance of our pastoral duties. We will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage. We will no longer sign government-provided marriage certificates. We will ask couples to seek civil marriage separately from their church-related vows and blessings. We will preside only at those weddings that seek to establish a Christian marriage in accord with the principles articulated and lived out from the beginning of the Church’s life.
It’s an interesting idea. And certainly the authors are right that Christians should look for ways to bear witness against false ideas of marriage. Whether refusing to lend ministerial authority to civil marriages any longer is the best tack strategically, I don’t know.
But I start with this illustration because it demonstrates the challenge of thinking about the topics of family and marriage with respect to government.
Some Christians, particularly those of a libertarian bent, believe that government has no business being involved in marriage in the first place. But I think that, even if you “strike the word ‘marriage’ from the law,” as several political scientists have put it, those laws concerning marriage “will only be replaced by messier, retroactive regulation—of disputes over property, custody, visitation, and child support.” In other words, the topics of marriage and family necessarily involve society in matters which the state will need to regulate.
From the perspective of this class, then, how should we think about government and the family unit. Let’s start with four biblical statements regarding the family and government.
GOD ESTABLISHED MARRIAGE
1. We have no authority except where God gives it.
If you were here last week, you may recall my argument that human beings have no authority except where God gives it. I want to reassert that basic point.
2. The authority to marry and have children comes from God, not the church or state.
In Genesis 1, we read, “So God created man in his own image . . . male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (vv. 27–28).
Then in Genesis 2, we read,
And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (vv. 22–24)
The language “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” as well as the language of “one flesh,” language which is sealed and symbolized in the act of physical intimacy, indicates that the union between the man and the woman creates a new family. The former phrase is a Hebrew idiom for blood-related. In fact, it’s as if this is his biology: bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.
Jesus quotes this passage and concludes, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mark 10:6–9). For those who are married: You and your spouse said the vows. You consummated the marriage through sexual union. Your families and friends and church gave their assent. The government legally affirmed it. But Jesus says that God unites you.
Friends, marriage and the family is the first institution on earth. It precedes the state. It precedes the church. Church and state might have fallen into a custody battle over marriage and the family. But neither of them birthed the family. It comes directly from God.
For the church or the state to redefine marriage, therefore, is to play God. We have no authority to redefine marriage.
3. The church has authority to teach and bear witness to God’s Word concerning marriage and family.
Insofar as marriage and family are a biblical institution, churches and Christians are certainly responsible to teach and model what God’s Word says about marriage and family from the pulpit and in one-on-one discipleship.
Insofar as Christians are called to seek justice and love their neighbors, Christians should work to see that the state upholds a biblical understanding of marriage.
In short, both individual Christians and local churches should play an affirming and supporting role for marriage and the family.
4. The state has the authority to render judgment against injustice, establish peace, and promote the general well-being of its citizens, which means it possesses jurisdiction over marriage and families insofar as matters of justice and well-being are in play.
Nowhere does Scripture give government authority over marriage or the family, per se. But stop and consider: a couple has children—who now is responsible to provide for those children, and what if the parents are negligent?
Or a couple is living together, and together they have acquired property over the years. Who owns it? Or suppose one member of the couple dies. Who receives what they have acquired together?
What I’m trying to illustrate here is that the state has a defensible interest in regulating marriage and family not so much for its own sake, but because, for the state to fulfill its biblical charge, it must take an interest in matters of custody, welfare, and property rights.
A very simple biblical illustration of their point is one we’ve used in this class already: the scene of two prostitutes before Solomon the king, each claiming that the baby is hers. The power of the state is needed to resolve and enforce this custody dispute.
In their book What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert George especially emphasize government’s concern for the welfare of children as “the hook that pulls the law into regulating marriage in the first place” (11). Listen to this useful explanation:
Unless children do mature, they will never become healthy, upright, productive members of society; and that state of economic and society development we call ‘civilization’ depends on healthy, upright, and productive citizens. But regularly producing such citizens is nearly impossible unless men and women commit their lives to each other and any children they might have. So it is a summary, but hardly an exaggeration, to say that civilization depends on strong marriages. (38)
Wayne Grudem likewise helps us to see that the state’s interest in marriage goes beyond just children. He argues that governments exist to restrain evil, to bring good to society, and to establish order. Then he explains how marriage and family impact all three of these things:
First marriage restrains evil by prompting sexual faithfulness between a man and a women, by establishing a legally binding commitment for parents to care for their children, by establishing a legally binding commitment for spouses to be financially responsible for and to care for one another, and by providing a legal protection to keep women from being exploited by men who might otherwise enjoy a sexual relationship for a time and then abandon a woman and any children she may have borne from that union.
Second, marriage brings good to society in multiple ways—in promoting social stability, economic well being, educational and economic benefits for children, the transmission of moral and cultural values to the next generation, and a stable social unit for interactions within society…
Third, the establishment of marriage brings order to society so that the general public will know who is married and who is not. Marital status can be established as a matter of public record, so that in various ways the society as a whole can honor and protect individual marriages and can know who is responsible for the care and protection and training of children, and for the care of spouses who have medical or financial or other needs. In this way, defining and regulating marriage gives stability and order to society.
So, just as the church should use its institutional authority to play an affirming and supporting with marriages and the family, so should the government.
It’s not for no reason that even a non-Christian philosopher like Aristotle would begin his work Politics with the family, and when you have several families, you have a village, and when you have several villages, you have need for the state.
IMPLICATION 1: BIBLICAL MARRIAGE AND CHILDREARING FOR ALL PEOPLE
The first implication of the fact that God has established the family means it is for all people. This is not something Christians impose on people. God does, and Scripture does.
- In Genesis 12, several non-Abrahamic kings realize that God will punish them if they take another man’s wife (e.g. Gen. 12:17–20).
- In Genesis 19, God brings judgment against Sodom and Gomorroh because homosexuality is widespread (see Gen. 19:5, Jude 7).
- In Leviticus 18, God refers to the abominations of the Canaanites in the land. The book of Proverbs warns against adultery.
- John the Baptist rebukes Herod Antipas (an Idumean and not part of Israel) for incest with his brother’s wife.
- Paul in Romans 1 accuses all humanity of violating God’s moral standards by giving up natural relations between men and women for unnatural one with people of the same gender.
- And in Revelation the great city of “Babylon,” which is the center of human rebellion against God, will be judged, among other things, for its “sexual immorality” (18:3,9).
Example after example in Scripture indicates that the family is a creation institution, not an institution merely for God’s special people. And God promises to judge any departures from his own design pattern.
In the 1930s, British anthropologist J. D. Unwin wanted to study the consequences of Sigmund Freud’s call for sexual liberation. So he studied eighty-six different cultures and determined that “strict marital monogamy” played a crucial role in social energy and growth and that no society flourished for more than three generations without it (Grudem, 216).
IMPLICATION 2: THE STATE HAS NO AUTHORITY TO ESTABLISH SAME-SEX MARRIAGE
A second implication of the fact that God established marriage is that there is no such thing as same-sex marriage, and that no state and no church has the authority to say it exists.
To argue for same-sex marriage is to usurp the rights of the Creator. Remember, marriage and the family precede the state and church. They’re established at the very beginning of creation.
Romans 1:32, speaking about humanity’s rebellion against God, including in the area of homosexuality, observes, “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”
Friends, to support homosexual activity or same-sex marriage, whether informally over casual banter at the water cooler or formally in your job or your political efforts, is to give approval to what God has condemned. I am not saying that Christians must criminalize and prosecute all sin, as with sodomy laws. I am saying they must not do anything to sponsor or support homosexual activity, which the Bible calls sin.
Now a growing contingent of Christians, some even purporting to be evangelical, are working hard to find biblical defenses of homosexual activity or marriage. They will argue that the Bible only had a specific kind of homosexual activity in mind, such as conduct between men and underage boys, or homosexual prostitution, or heterosexuals acting like homosexuals. Or they will argue that Paul didn’t have a concept of homosexual orientation in mind; instead he was opposing people giving themselves over to sexual excess and idolatry of any kind. But one way or another, the argument always comes down to some justification for why the Bible doesn’t actually mean what it sounds like it means on the matter of homosexuality.
The trouble with all of these rationalizations, of course, is that the Bible never actually makes any of these distinctions between one kind of homosexuality or another. It simply condemns the activity wholesale. And any orientation to same-sex attraction or activity, whether biologically rooted or not, is a product of the fall, like any number of temptations which are common to humanity. I once asked a self-professing evangelical who had written a book defending homosexuality what more the Bible could possibly say against homosexuality to convince him he was wrong. Ultimately, he couldn’t be convinced because his desires were so strong. So who was playing God here?
To deny homosexual marriage, furthermore, is not to deprive anyone of their rights. Every man should possess the right to marry a woman, and every woman the right to marry a man. And just because someone desires something does not create a legal or moral right to that thing. In fact, laws are instituted precisely because our desires are so often wayward.
What’s remarkable in the history of recent American jurisprudence, however, is that this right to marry whomever we please is increasingly recognized by American courts.
Leigh Ann Wheeler chronicles this story in her Oxford University Press book How Sex Became a Civil Liberty. She writes,
How did we get from there, a time when sexual behavior and expression seemed irrelevant to the U.S. Constitution—to here, an era in which most people assume that the Constitution protects a wide range of sexual expression and behavior? This is my big idea in How Sex Became a Civil Liberty: We made it up. And by rooting sexual rights in a particular understanding of civil liberties, we have privileged the right to sexual expression over freedom from it.
Let me offer a pastoral word. Christians and churches must be clear on the topic of homosexuality for love’s sake. Sexual sin of every kind hurts people in the present and kills people in eternity. At the same time, we should recognize the power of same-sex attraction, especially in a society that teaches us to define our identities by our desires. This should evoke the profoundest sympathy and compassion and love toward those who struggle with this particular temptation. Among those who have chosen this lifestyle, we should fully embrace them as fellow humans made in the image of God and worthy of the love and honor that we give to anyone else. If you’re in the business of providing food or shelter, you should provide that food or shelter as you would anyone else.
Within the church itself, we should fully embrace as Christians those who are repenting of this particular temptation, and agonize with them in the battle against it, even as you need people to persevere and agonize with you, whatever your temptations and sin patterns happen to be.
PARENTS POSSESS PRIMARY RESPONSIBILITY FOR CHILDREN
A third implication of the fact that God has established marriage and the family is that parents possess the primary responsibility for their children and for raising their children, which in turn means that governments should encourage both child-rearing and the parents’ work of training and educating their children.
Governmental policies that positively work against this, such as China’s former one-child policy, are sinfully unjust. And governmental policies that subtly work against marriage and child rearing, such as any tax policy that incentivize singleness, are at least unwise if not unjust.
Also, the government should help parents in the process of educating their children. They can undertake this responsibility when parents completely fail to do so, or in the absence of parents. But they shouldn’t, in general, try to replace or overtake parents in this matter. Consider Deuteronomy’s instructions about diligently teaching your children (Deut. 6:4–7). Or consider the many passages in Proverbs about heeding the instructions of one’s father and mother for the sake of wisdom.
Admittedly, here’s where we find “jurisdictional conflict,” you might call it, between the authority God has given to the state and the authority he has given to parents, which we see particularly in the areas of education and discipline.
On the one hand, I think Christians should be fully opposed to the September 2006 decision by the European Court of Human Rights to outlaw homeschooling in Germany. Sure enough, in 2008, Juergen and Rosemarie Dudek were sentenced to three months imprisonment for homeschooling their children. The lawyer acting as general counsel for the German state, Wolfgang Drautz, argued that the government “has a legitimate interest in countering the rise of parallel societies that are based on religion” (Grudem, 249).
It’s not just Europe. A New Hampshire judge in July 2009 ordered a ten-year-old home-schooled girl to attend public school because the girl “appeared to reflect her mother’s rigidity on matters of faith” (in Grudem, 249).
This kind of usurpation occurs in discipline as well. Corporal punishment (spanking) is now illegal in Australia, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Austria, Cyprus, Denmakr, Latvia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Germany, Israel, Iceland, Romania, Ukraine, and Hungary.
In my mind, these kind of incursions into the family both in education and discipline are usurpations of the authority God has given to parents.
On the other hand, how should Christians respond to child abuse? They should abhor it. And they should be some of the biggest advocates of the Child Protective Services, and their work of preventing child abuse. When you consider that many government officials in some nations, like Thailand or Malaysia, participate in facilitating evil practices like child-sex trafficking, we should be amazed and grateful that we live in a nation that actually defends some of the most defenseless by fighting child abuse. In some respects, the people who work at CPS should think of Christians as the most helpful people out there for their ability to get their jobs done.
And what about the state’s usurpations in the area of education? Well, I’m against it. I’m against the German government lawyer who said that the government “has a legitimate interest in countering the rise of parallel societies that are based on religion.” But let’s change the details of the religion. A little while ago the British Home Office temporarily removed two young children from their “jihadi” mother based on the Home Office’s concern that they were being brainwashed into Islamic terrorism. Go on the web and you can see photos of these children holding AK-47 rifles. The children have been returned to the mother, but now the state is monitoring their education through nurses and teachers.
It’s not the first time. In December (2014), a British judge sentenced mother of six Runa Kahn to five years in prison for encouraging her children to fight in jihad. Does the state have an interest in preventing the nurturing of jihadists? Certainly it does.
What’s the moral of the story here? Whether or not something is “religious” is not a useful category for determining government policy in marriage and family. The question that believers stepping into the public square need to ask is, what has God authorized government to do? Within that domain or jurisdiction, it has the defensible right to act, even against parents and churches. That said, it certainly doesn’t have the right to act in anyway that contravenes Scripture.
ARGUMENTS FROM REASON AND EXPERIENCE
How do we make arguments for a biblical understanding of the family in the public square, particularly among a public that rejects the Bible? I’m not opposed to quoting Scripture. There may be a place for it. At the same time, there is a wealth of social science literature that confirms marriage is good for individuals physically, emotionally, economically, and our society at large. And these studies and this literature confirms that growing up in the home of both biological parents clearly remains the gold standard for helping children to become mature and responsible citizens.
For instance, purchase a copy of the booklet Why Marriage Matters, Third Edition: Thirty Conclusions from the Social Sciences, published in 2011 by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, and led by Bradley Wilcox. You’ll find a list of 30 statistically verified conclusions drawn by present research.
THE GOAL OF GOOD GOVERNMENT
What should be clear in all of this is that good government will establish laws that protect and support marriage and the family. This might include everything from working against pornography, to tax advantages for marriage, to overturning no-fault divorce laws, to overturning “second-earner tax credits” for families in which both parents work.
And this is where Christians with firm convictions and understanding of the family can play such a salubrious role in government. Friends, it’s the biblical convictions of people like you that, as you advise your congressman or clerk for your judge or teach the children in your classroom, will help to bear witness to that which is truly good for them and for society.
Pray for our government that the many good things it presently upholds and supports with respect to marriage and the family would remain, and that those laws and precedents which positively work against God’s law would be overturned. Pray for ourselves as a church that we would contribute to this end.
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- Wayne Grudem, Politics According to the Bible, chapters 7 and 8.
- Girgis, Anderson, and George, What Is Marriage? A Man and Woman: A Defense
- Wilcox et al, Why Marriage Matters, 3rd: Thirty Conclusions from the Social Sciences
 Girgis, Anderson, George, What Is Marriage: Male and Female: A Defense, 40.
 Wayne Grudem, Politics According to the Bible, 221.