What’s your church’s stance on marriage?” the young pastor from New Jersey asked me. It was a few weeks before the US Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision; he and I had been talking enthusiastically for the past hour as we shared a ride back to a hotel. By this point, we had covered radical discipleship, the Sermon on the Mount, and his efforts to make the undocumented immigrants in his congregation feel at home. We’d compared notes on the joys of fatherhood and had brainstormed about a joint service project for our church youth groups.
“Traditional,” I answered him, sensing immediately that it would be more diplomatic to leave it at that. I asked him the question back anyway.
“Progressive,” he said. Realizing how ridiculous these labels were, we took turns defending our convictions. As often in such exchanges, neither of us said anything that the other hadn’t heard before. The conversation remained civil, but – despite what had seemed possible thirty seconds earlier – it was no longer the conversation of soon-to-be-friends. Certainly not that of brothers. When, after a pause, we moved on to other topics, it was over a tacit divide.
That divide has become wearyingly familiar to most Western Christians as the split in the church over sexuality and marriage grows ever more contentious. Watching congregations fracture and friendships dissolve, most of us have probably wished that we could just move on. Along the same lines, several Plough readers have written that they’d prefer for this magazine to stop addressing this subject. All perfectly understandable.
But if (in the words of Plough’s mission statement) we are people “eager to put our faith into practice” through living out the Sermon on the Mount, then we don’t get to sit this one out. After all, Jesus addressed the topic of marriage just a few verses into the Sermon – and did so in terms so demanding that they’ve shocked Christians for two thousand years (Matt. 5:27–32).
As N. T. Wright points out, this teaching was just as hard to accept in the first century as in the twenty-first. Yet it’s of a piece with Jesus’ other reputedly impossible commands: to renounce all violence, to forgive unconditionally, to live free from wealth, and to love even our enemies. The gospel is not a list of options, but one single whole; we can accept all of it, or none.
On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his first major address opposing the Vietnam War, beginning with the declaration: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” The speech was greeted with dismay by the great and good of the time; the New York Times called it “wasteful,” “self-defeating,” and “disastrous.” Today once again, Christians are feeling intense pressure to conform to majority opinion on an issue that is emotionally and morally fraught. The dangers, and opportunities, of this cultural moment are the focus of John Huleatt’s article “After Obergefell.”
For Plough, as a Christian magazine with Anabaptist roots, the US government’s definition of civil marriage isn’t the decisive concern (though it remains important, not least for the children involved). What is crucial, by contrast, is the integrity of the church’s witness. We see a swelling procession of Christian denominations, colleges, and academics who are abandoning their commitment to the New Testament vision of marriage as the union of one man and one woman for life. In this context, silence is itself a statement, a “yes” to betrayal. It’s time to bear witness in word and deed to the fullness of the gospel.
If we’re convinced that the gospel is good news for all people in all aspects of life, including sexuality, then now is no time to dilute Jesus’ call to obey him in everything. Do we believe his good news? Are we willing, each of us as we are, to take up our cross and follow?
Here at Plough, our inbox reminds us daily that many of our readers see these questions differently than we do. (See “Readers Respond.”) It’s all too easy to talk past each other, as the young New Jersey pastor and I did. Polemics rarely help. Instead, then, we invite our readers to consider the reflection “Marriage Under Christ,” which gives our editorial position. As an excerpt from a statement of faith by the community that publishes Plough, this reading is not intended as an argument to persuade, but rather as a simple reminder of what Scripture teaches.
No number of magazine articles can heal the mess that Christianity is in. But Jesus can. We have every reason for confidence that, despite our sins and hardness of heart, he will.
1. For those seeking answers to recent claims that the Bible should now be read in a way contrary to two millennia of lived Christian discipleship, a good place to start remains Richard Hays’s The Moral Vision of the New Testament (HarperOne, 1996).