Should Adventists Speak Up on Marriage?

The images have been splashed across the news in recent months—same-sex partners beaming at the altar with hundreds more lined up, ready and waiting to become legally joined in marriage.

When the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court allowed the issuance of marriage licenses to gay partners in November 2003, an already thorny issue blossomed into national prominence. Now, as the nation heads toward November elections, the legal battle has spread. By the end of this year, an estimated 30 states will have considered constitutional prohibitions to gay marriage. At least seven of those states, including Oregon, may include a vote on same-sex marriage on their November ballots.

While Adventist members may understandably have differing views on this topic, many are asking where the Adventist Church stands on this increasingly divisive national issue. Is there a church-wide action plan? Or is this another one of those issues where we do a bit of ambivalent hand-wringing, express a modicum of concern to make ourselves feel a little better, and then simply continue to discuss the matter among ourselves in a spirit of stoic indifference? After all, why take a public stand if this is all prophetically inevitable anyway?

Our church has officially proclaimed a statement that affirms a heterosexual union as the only biblically approved model for marriage (go to www.adventist.org/beliefs/statements/main_stat53.html for the official Adventist statement on same-sex unions). But is that enough? In this politically charged year, is there something more that concerned Adventists ought to be doing?

Certainly Ellen White was proactive in her lifetime, participating in various political matters such as prohibition and abolition. She encouraged church members in Battle Creek, Michigan, to vote out of office a drunken and immoral town mayor and actively counseled Alonzo T. Jones in the effort to defeat the national Sunday-law bill. Her example makes a strong case for Adventists to avoid passive neutrality on this contemporary issue.

From a strictly theological perspective, same-sex marriage is a frontal assault on both the law and the grace of God. It is based on the premise that gays are born that way and should have full social and legal acceptance and that society should make no moral judgments about their sexual conduct. On the other hand, God’s law teaches us to express our sexuality in the context of heterosexual marriage. Furthermore, His grace offers us the ability to live beyond mere physical and emotional instincts with the freedom to make moral choices about our conduct.

Some have argued that theological issues or religious values inserted into the debate violate the separation of church and state. But Adventists have a uniquely balanced perspective that follows Ellen White’s own example. Historically, Adventists have distinguished between the first and second tables of the Ten Commandments. The first four commandments contain a person’s religious obligations. These are duties owed to God alone, not to the state, and over these the state has no legitimate authority. The state should not dictate the content or practice of our faith. But the last six commandments address a person’s moral duties to other people. Because these pertain to human relations, they can and should be enforced by government and law. And that includes such diverse areas as murder, theft, fraud, perjury, child abuse, and, yes, marriage and divorce.

Today, morality is often considered to be a matter of subjective opinion. Within our relativistic society, Adventists can reaffirm the eternal and objective nature of the law of God. Where some would attempt to exclude religious values from the debate, we can affirm that religious values can legitimately inform public policy, but only in the social/moral sphere. Where others would encourage the state to directly sponsor public acts of worship and devotion, we can reaffirm the separation of church and state, a balance easily lost in the passion of a national issue like gay marriage.

Is this the next great civil rights test, as some would suggest? Should all lifestyles be protected by the U.S. Constitution and the various state constitutions under the constitutional rationale of equal protection? In regard to equal protection, William E. Nelson, New York University law and history professor, observes that “a theory that the state should treat all people equally cannot mean that the state may never treat two people differently [or in the case of same-sex marriage versus heterosexual marriage, two sets of people differently] for such a theory would mean the end of all law.”1

Nelson writes, “In order to sustain a principle of equality under law it is necessary to have some theory about when discrimination is appropriate and when it is not.” Indeed, moral and social definitions do affect legal decisions, just as they did when the United States Supreme Court turned down free exercise claims in outlawing polygamy in Reynolds v. United States (1878).

By framing the issue as one of civil rights, homosexuals are attempting to gain sympathy for their claimed status as an oppressed minority. But this sidesteps fundamental legal questions. For example, while the law refuses to answer whether or not gays are “born that way,” it does legitimately address the legal limits of claims for equal protection and how people should act in reference to each other. So it’s appropriate for a state or civil government to be discriminating in its decisions on what is an acceptable practice.

Those who equate gay marriage with the civil rights movement inappropriately ignore the important issues of moral limitation. For example, a small child may be born selfish, but if, when an adult, he is caught stealing, he will be punished according to the law. That is a moral judgment well within the right of the state—and based on a very old religious foundation within scripture. We would consider it ludicrous for that individual to protest the judgment by claiming that they had the right to steal because they were naturally selfish. The judge would say, “The law cannot answer whether or not you were born selfish, but it does say clearly that you do not have protection under the law to act on those impulses.”

Regardless of how the issue is eventually decided in the courts and voter initiatives, Adventist voices should be heard in a positive way. Gay activists like to point out traditional marriages and families in crisis. Isn’t it better, they ask, to have a committed same-sex couple with children than a heterosexual marriage and traditional family broken apart by strife? Yet replacing a broken relationship with a lifestyle out of harmony with scripture is not the answer. And neither is campaigning against gay marriage while avoiding the dysfunction at the core of many “straight” families.

Adventists should be known more for their tireless work in strengthening biblically based marriages than they are for a stand against gay marriage. And, if Adventists join with other church or community groups to inform and educate the public, that advocacy should never slip into the vernacular of bigotry and hate. Our world needs less darkness and more light.

So, what if after the elections are over, gay marriage becomes a legally approved way of life for America? Will it be time for Adventists and other Christians to fold their tents and go home? Not at all. A darkening world will need the light more than ever. And while our voices should be heard in legislative halls, Adventists must recognize what Ellen White understood—that legislation will never change hearts. We should continue to lift Jesus up as the ultimate hope of our world and His Spirit as the power in each changed life.

(1) Nelson, William E. The Fourteenth Amendment: From Political Principle to Judicial Doctrine, p. 138. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995.

September 01, 2004 / Feature