Submitting and Constraining: the Believer’s Relationship to the State – part 2

“Proposition 8,” passed last year by California voters in a statewide referendum, added an amendment to the constitution of the state of California that reads, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California,” effectively forbidding same-sex marriages in the state.  Currently, Proposition 8 is on trial in a federal appeals court in San Francisco to determine the federal constitutionality of the amendment.  The court’s decision will have ramifications not only in California but throughout the country.  Twenty-seven states have constitutional bans on same-sex marriage (some others have legislative statutes prohibiting it), so this case in California will establish legal precedent for future cases in other states.  Regardless of the ruling, though, appeals will mostly likely land the case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The plaintiffs in the case will argue that Prop 8 violates the civil rights of same-sex couples and that same-sex marriage does not undermine traditional marriage or harm children or society in general.  Essentially, their strategy is to show that voters and the Prop 8 would motivated by discrimination and bigotry towards homosexuals, and therefore a violation of constitutional rights.  The defendants will argue that traditional marriage is best for children and the fundamental building block of social order, and show that banning same-sex marriage does not violate the Constitution.

The legal arguments in this case are heated and very complex.  The most compelling and important argument, though, may not make it into the courtroom – the argument from “sphere sovereignty.”

Seana Sugrue explains in The Meaning of Marriage (ed. Robert George and Jean Bethke Elshtain) that marriage is a pre-political institution, a form of social order independent of the state:  “The reality of sex differences between men and women, leading to the potential for offspring, is essential to the pre-political foundation of marriage.”  It is this place of marriage in the social order that same-sex marriage advocates seek to overhaul.  Sugure writes, “Marriage rooted in procreation and sexual differences is to be replaced by marriage for the gratification of two consenting adults.”  Her main concern is that by allowing the state the right to define marriage, “’same-sex ‘marriage’ requires a condition of soft despotism to exist” (italics mine).  She reasons that “In claiming for homosexuals the right to marry the state also claims for itself the ability to declare what constitutes marriage . . . It transforms marriage from a pre-political obligation into its own creation.”

Once marriage becomes subjugated to the state as an artificial institution of the state, Sugrue argues that it will become dependent on the state and will need to be “coddled.” The implication is that “the state will increasingly be called upon to create the social conditions to protect these unions,” thus enlarging its power into other spheres.

In the history of the human race as told in Scripture, the institution of marriage precedes the institution of the state.  God establishes marriage in Genesis 2:

“Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.23 The man said,
“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”

The beginning of the state can arguably be traced back to Genesis 9 (after the flood) where God establishes a principle of justice for punishing the crime of murder:  “whoever sheds the blood of man by man shall his blood be shed.”  Both institutions originate with God and derive authority from God, but God did not delegate to the state authority over marriage or to define marriage.

The reason I oppose same-sex marriage as a Christian is not because I fear a homosexual married couple living next store, nor because I think the children of such marriages will be damaged (though there is a growing body of evidence for this), nor because I think my or my friends’ marriages will be diminished by it.  The reason is the intrusion of the authority (“sphere”) of the state into the family and the Church.

If the state re-defines marriage to legitimize same-sex relationships, the state will use its power against the family and the church when these institutions oppose same-sex marriage.  Throughout the country, courts are already attacking churches and people who refuse to legitimize same-sex marriage. For instance, a court in New Jersey stripped a United Methodist congregation of their tax-exemption status because they refused to allow a same-sex union ceremony on church property.  Other law suits have been brought successfully against photography companies who refuse to do same-sex weddings. 

What is at stake here is not just traditional marriage, but religious freedom – the freedom to follow one’s conscience even if it is at odds with the state.

5 comments on “Submitting and Constraining: the Believer’s Relationship to the State – part 2

  1. Adam says:


    I appreciate your willingness to look into this issue specifically in regards to the relationships between spheres of sovereignty. I’ve indicated to you that this is a sticky subject, and that I’m unsatisfied with most applications of sphere sovereignty toward the issue.

    My sticking points with your post come from your insistence that we keep the spheres separate while claiming marriage as an institution of the church. I agree that marriage is pre-political. This does not mean it is (or necessarily ought to be) independent from the state.

    Your marriage is, for lawful intents and purposes, licensed by the state. This affords you a certain amount of benefits in the secular, state-oriented realm, from tax breaks to insurance coverage to hospital visitation rights, etc. The state (generally speaking) has, for thousands of years, claimed marriage and appropriated it according to its needs. To insist that this becomes the case only when homosexual couples are in question is to deny what is plain.

    Further, we see attested in Scripture the fluidity of pre-political concepts under varying political schemes. From Daniel’s workings with the pagan kings over him to Jesus recasting the concept of taxes for a people in political exile to Paul calling Nero a minister of God, we can see a nuanced, dual relationship in these themes: the actual and the functional.

    Actual righteousness is God-honoring. It is worship. Functional righteousness, clearly applied in Romans 13 to the secular (even pagan) state, is not necessarily God-honoring. Nor is it necessarily identified with actual righteousness.

    The state has a right to assert its use for marriage in its own terms. We attest to this with the signatures on our marriage licenses. When the church comes in and tells the state to reassess its policy given an institution that has long been administered and modified according to the state’s desires, we have a confusion of authority. Actual marriage (like actual righteousness) belongs to the heavenly city, to be sure. But functional marriage, as defined by the state, belongs to the state. If we do not believe this, we should not accept (let alone petition to withhold from homosexuals) the state’s benefits for marriage.

    As for your concerns about persecution–we’ve talked about this once or twice in the past. Let me be clear: I do not want to be persecuted for my beliefs. I do not want our churches to lose their state-given tax exempt status (much as I do not want my marriage license invalidated).

    However, I do not think we should trample over the nuanced difference between the actual and the functional to save our state-given benefits. Should I reserve the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality for the church, and should the state respond by withholding its blessing, what can I say? Surely the state would be, actually speaking, wrong about homosexuality and marriage. And, as is guaranteed me as a right by the state, I would protest the state’s recension of the church’s tax exempt status.

    But here is where sphere sovereignty is so helpful – though the functional application on the part of the state is flawed, there is coming a time when the functional and actual shall be reunited in the eschaton. We can long and pray for that day, of course, and we should. But to usurp the functional authority of the state in favor of the actual authority of the heavenly realm is over-realized eschatology. This usurping denies that the state has any authority on the matters it has been so clearly given to deal with, and it is no respecter of sphere sovereignty.

    As I mentioned to you this morning, I am still largely unsure about this issue. But I am convinced that should sphere sovereignty (or any of the related philosophies that emphasize the separation of church and state) be a biblical paradigm, we can not claim the future triumph of the heavenly city as grounds for denying the state in the present.

    • Weighty reply, Adam. It definitely puts forth some categories that are new to my political thinking and that I should consider. I’ll mull over what you wrote more and respond more fully soon. Thanks.

    • My understanding of the theory of sphere sovereignty is not that sophisticated and so is missing some of the nuances necessary to apply it correctly. I think there is an crucial distinction between spheres usurping one another’s authority and spheres having dependent, interacting relationships for the sake of social order. Historically, the state has supported marriage in the ways that you have cited. By making marriage a legally binding relationship, with legal benefits, the state strengthens the institution of marriage, which is in its interest to do so, since, in turn, marriage supports the state by being the cornerstone of the family which is the building block of social order (sorry for mixing too many building metaphors!). This type of relationship is different from the state subjugating another sphere to its authority, which would happen, for instance, if the state re-defines marriage in its own terms. You say that the state uses marriage for its needs, which is true, but has not attempted to change the essence of its meaning and force this change on other spheres (at least in U.S. history).

      The state is righteous functionally when it governs justly and in a way that supports social order and thus human flourishing. I agree with you that even when the state functions in this manner it is not the same as actual righteousness. However, when it does not, do believers, the Church, have the obligation to oppose it? Take, for instance, the civil rights movement (appropriate to refer to on this holiday). Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that the state was governing unjustly in its treatment of its minority citizens and he appealed to actual righteousness (moral law that transcends the state) to oppose and change it. Is Christian activism (the abolitionist movement, civil rights movement, woman’s suffrage) that seeks change in the political realm always an example of the Church “usurping the functional authority of the state in favor of the actual authority of the heavenly realm”?

      I share your wariness of equating Christianity with the Republican party and of using political machinery to establish the kingdom of God on earth. However, I’m much more convinced, I think, of the importance and legitimacy of political activism in the Church.

      Look forward to continuing the dialog.

      • Adam says:

        I’ve got some thoughts, and I appreciate yours. While it’ll be later today when I post mine, let me say now that I do think the Christian has a right to political activism. In fact, that’s where all this gets so messy.

  2. Adam says:

    I always appreciate your thoughts, Jeremy. Looking forward to working this out a little.

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