What Does the SCOTUS Ruling Mean for Traditional Christian Marriage?
Today the Supreme Court announced its ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. The question concerning the legalization of same-sex marriage nationwide has been settled, but it leaves us with more questions than answers. Other countries that have legalized same-sex marriage have run into this same problem. In a consultation document concerning the legalization of same-sex marriage, the British government realized that if they redefine marriage they would also have to redefine consummation:
a marriage of an opposite sex couple is voidable on the ground that it has not been consummated; this is not the case for the civil partnerships or marriages of the same sex.1
Another question deals with the interplay between religious freedom and civil rights. Can priests refuse to marry same-sex marriage couples? According to religious freedom the answer, it seems, should be yes. Socially, the answer is certainly no. We have seen this acutely in the past few years with pastors being issued subpoenas and threatened to be arrested for refusing, and preaching against, same-sex marriage. What will happen to priests who refuse to marry same-sex couples? Will their ability to legally marry be revoked by the government? If so, what does the future hold for Christian marriage?
According to the Orthodox Church marriage is a sacrament—and the sacrament cannot be changed by governmental rulings. Orthodox priests do not need a marriage license in order to marry. A marriage license, issued by the government, only grants legal benefits to the couple, but it does not bestow upon them the sacrament. Two persons can be married in the church without a marriage license; the sacrament is not dependent on the legal license, it is dependent on Christ and the Church. This hearkens back to a great mystery. Marriage is the mystical uniting of two persons—a uniting that cannot be accomplished by a legal license.
My personal stance is that same-sex couples should be granted legal benefits, civil rights if you will, and I will support their right to these rights. But two members of the same-sex cannot be married—as I’ve written elsewhere, it’s an ontological impossibility:
Marriage is a great mystery. We must acknowledge before we begin speaking about same-sex marriage, however, that the linguistic signifier “marriage” has already been distanced from that which it has traditionally been understood to signify. The signified reality (the mystery) has been traditionally understood by the Church to be an ontological and mystical reality—not a legal contract—between one male and one female. Members of the same-sex were precluded from this mystery, not because of civil inequality but rather, because of the ontological impossibility; the heterosex of a couple was considered by the early Church to be an essential property of “marriage.” These epistemic claims about the essence of marriage were considered to be the revealed truth of Scripture as interpreted by the Church. When the authority to interpret Scripture, however, was stripped from the Church and her tradition and given to the individual it opened the door to an epidemic of redefinition. As a result, marriage was taken out of its natural context: its sacramental understanding, its connection with the Eucharist (and the reality of the Eucharist), and the Church. Over time this led to a collapse in mainstream Christendom’s understanding of marriage—this is evident by the rise of divorce among Christian couples. All of this laid the initial groundwork for the arena in which the same-sex marriage debate would take place. Today, marriage is primarily understood as a promise of fidelity centered around a legal contract and this, it seems to me, is where the debate is being hashed-out.
Christians should fight and defend the equal rights of all human beings. Same-sex couples should have the right to get married where ‘marriage’ is understood to mean a promise of fidelity and a legal contract. But same-sex couples do not have the right to the mystery of marriage as the Church understands it—as a sacrament—because rights are limited by what is possible. I cannot fight for equal rights with fish to extract oxygen directly from the water with my lungs. Even if I am legally granted a right to this it does not change the fact that it is impossible: the lungs do not work that way. The sacrament does not work that way. Regardless of what it is called or the ritual that is used two persons of the same-sex cannot be joined in the mystery of ‘marriage’—as the Church has traditionally understood it—not because they don’t have a ‘right’ to but rather because it is an impossibility. For me, the same-sex ‘marriage’ debate is not over equal rights; it is over the linguistic signifier, ‘marriage’. Traditionally this term has belonged to the Church but times have changed. So Is the term marriage worth fighting for? I would answer yes. Throughout history the Church Fathers fought to clarify, through terminology, the mysteries divinely communicated to the Church. In the legal sphere there is nothing wrong with ‘same-sex marriage.’ Same-sex couples should not be subjugated or marginalized. Could we compromise? Could we allow such legal benefits to same-sex couples but call it something else? I am not sure this would be considered a reasonable compromise—since the term itself, it seems to me, is that which brings the social recognition that is sought after. If, however, the church has any hope to clarify these things it has to get back to a traditional interpretation of Scripture—all of scripture—and marriage has to be returned to its natural context. Then, and only then, will we begin to have the ability to begin dialoguing about this issue.
You can have legal rights, civil rights, and equality, but neither a piece of paper, nor the government, will ever be able to “grant” the sacrament of marriage.
So what does SCOTUS ruling mean for Traditional Christian Marriage? Absolutely nothing. The sacrament is not dependent on the government, it is dependent on Christ. You can strip legal benefits from Christian marriages but you cannot, regardless of how many laws you pass, infringe on the sacrament. We can be certain, however, that being a Christian in 21st century America may very well involve persecution. The road is not getting any easier and I do not expect it will anytime soon.
1. Department for Culture, Media, and Sport. “Civil Partnership Review (England and Wales): a consultation”. Jan. 2014. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/274449/140122_CP_con_doc_pdf__docx.pdf
- Robin Phillips, “Apples, Oranges & Gay Marriage,” Salvo, Fall 2012, 14.
- Hopko, Thomas. Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction. Ben Lomond: Conciliar Press, 2006. 83-86. Print.