The debate over homosexual marriage, and the homosexual lifestyle in general, has sharply accelerated in the United States in the wake of the U.S, Supreme Court decision of June 26, 2013, which struck down portions of the Defense of Marriage Act and refused to hear an appeal against California’s Proposition 8, passed by the voters of that state during the 2008 elections.
How should Seventh-day Adventists respond?
Holding as we do to the supreme authority of God’s Word, we maintain that heterosexual monogamy is the sole construct for marriage in God’s plan. As many SDA ministers remind audiences at wedding services, marriage is one of two institutions—the other being the Sabbath—handed down to us from a sinless world. Not only do the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy define marriage as occurring exclusively between one man and one woman; they also specify other conditions by which marriage must abide. Union with unbelievers, for example, is forbidden (Deut. 7:3; Neh. 10:30; II Cor. 6:14-17), as is union between partners divorced on grounds other than those outlined in Scripture (Matt. 5:32).
But each of the above principles, we must acknowledge, is based on the teachings and presuppositions of Biblical religion. And in free America, where the Constitution forbids the state to establish religion or to enforce religious tests on political candidates, no essentially religious principle or system can rightly be enforced through civil law. Those in the faith community who deny one or more features of Bible truth must indeed be separated from its fellowship, after being lovingly visited and labored with (Matt. 18:15-17; II Thess. 3:14-15). But unlike the church, America is for everyone, those of all religious faiths and of none. The mission of the church must never be confused with that of the state.
No Bible-believing minister, in Adventism or elsewhere, can in conscience perform a homosexual marriage. But neither could I, as a Seventh-day Adventist minister, perform a wedding for someone divorced on other than Bible grounds. Ellen White is clear, as is Jesus (Matt. 5:32), that such marriages are not recognized in heaven: “A woman may be legally divorced from her husband by the laws of the land and yet not divorced in the sight of God” (1). According to the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, such marriages are not acknowledged by the church either (2). But Seventh-day Adventists have no divine command, nor have we ever tried, to force civil government not to recognize such relationships.
The same religious liberty which permits me, as a Bible-believing pastor, to refuse to perform a gay wedding, is the same liberty which should rightly permit the Unitarian pastor down the street to say Yes to such a couple. Under no circumstances should the state ever interfere with the right of religious communities to bless or refrain from blessing whatever relationships their teachings endorse or refuse to endorse, provided we are talking about consenting adults only. But no religious community or coalition can fairly, in a free society, use civil means to compel obedience to its convictions about marriage from those freely choosing to order their lives in harmony with contrary convictions.
In short, if the state offers to consenting adults the option of a social construct in which tax exemptions, inheritance rights, and hospital visitation privileges are granted, it cannot—in a non-theocratic society—restrict this option only to those whose idea of such a construct is shaped by conservative social mores, religious or otherwise. Whether such a construct is called a marriage is the business of the church and of individuals, not the government.
Indeed, some have rightly raised the question of whether the issue of who can and cannot get married is any business of civil government to start with—assuming once again that we are talking about consenting adults and not underage children. After all, during the years of papal supremacy in medieval and early modern Europe, most Christians couldn’t get married except by the local Catholic priest. There were no justices of the peace in those days. Where, for example, during the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, would a Waldensian couple have gone to get married? A compelling case can be made that this is very much an issue best left to individuals, their religious communities, and their private convictions. The state really has no business here.
How, then, should Seventh-day Adventists defend the Biblical institution of marriage, so clearly under attack in present cultural trends? The same way we defend the other great Edenic institution under attack—through the witness and persuasion of our words and deeds. It is no more right for Christians to compel the state to define marriage in accord with Bible principles than it would be right for Adventists to use civil power to enforce observance of the Bible Sabbath.
More than this, we must uphold before society and Christendom the Biblical promise so ignored and denied in many conservative Christian circles—that of God’s power to give men and women total victory over sin (Psalm 119:1-3,11; Zeph. 3:13; Rom. 8:4; I Cor. 15:34; II Cor. 7:1; 10:4-5; Eph. 5:27; I Thess. 5:23; I Peter 2:21-22; 4:1; II Peter 3:10-14; I John 1:7,9; 3:2-3,7; Jude 24; Rev. 14:5). Here we find the ultimate and only lasting solution to the problem of deviance from the divine plan, be it homosexual practice or any other. And such power is the sole province of the individual surrendered by choice to God’s transformative grace. Here is unveiled the secret of true Christianity, so eclipsed in the present political furor. In the words of the apostle Paul:
For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds.
Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ (II Cor. 10:4-5).
Here is power against sin which no act of Congress, no bill passed by a state legislature or approved in a referendum, no executive order signed by the President, no decision handed down by the Supreme Court, can ever possess. It is this power, not the impotent and carnal power of statecraft, which deserves the focus and proclamation of the Christian world.
1. Ellen G. White, The Adventist Home, p. 344.
2. Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual (2010 edition), pp. 145-155.