I already wrote about the biggest news to come from General Conference (GC) session, now almost two months ago. Even at this late date, the impact of the vote against union independence on the issue of women’s ordination continues to reverberate and influence people’s perspective on the church as a whole. However, on the final day of business at GC the church addressed several elements of the church manual where they wanted to update the language and the definitions. The one definition that caught my attention was the redefinition of marriage. Prior to the session, the church’s definition stated in part, “Marriage is a lifelong commitment of husband and wife to each other and between the couple and God.” The church changed the first part of the definition to “As such, marriage is a public, lawfully binding lifelong commitment of a man and a woman…” While this is a seemingly minor and innocuous change, I think it is emblematic not only of a religious liberty concern, but also a problem with the way we view marriage as a religious and social construct.
Here’s the question that I think demands a response – Why does the church now care that its definition of marriage be one that is “lawfully binding?” I could only come up with three possible reasons, none of which satisfy. First, it is possible that the church believes that not mentioning the secular element of marriage might encourage people to not solemnize their marriages properly. For example, a couple could say that they have made a lifelong commitment between themselves and God and the church could end up playing no role at all in the declaration of that commitment. While that is a (somewhat) understandable concern, if this is the church’s concern than inserting “lawfully binding” into the definition of marriage is a poorly constructed solution. Instead of asserting the role of the spiritual community in solemnizing the union that God has brought together, the church has said that the imprimatur of the state is crucial to our understanding of this spiritual covenant.
Second, it could be that the church is simply making a statement about what is the case – that the marriages that are solemnized by the church are also “lawfully binding.” I don’t know why the church would seek to do that, and I guess there isn’t too much wrong with making this general statement. But this rationale does not address in any way why the church would want to make such a statement. Why does the church care whether its marriages are “lawfully binding?” Even if the church blessed unions that were not lawfully binding, I would assume that the church would not necessarily care about that. After all, the church does not bow to the state on matters of doctrine, or on what spiritual actions the church might take. As such it is of no effect, at least from a spiritual perspective, whether any marriage is “lawfully binding” in the eyes of the state.
The third option seems to be the most likely option to me. In light of not only the recent Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage but also the push for more rights for the LGBT community around the world, it seems to me that the church added this language in order to reinforce its idea to its members and those outside the church of what it deems “lawfully binding.” In essence, this redefinition of marriage is the Adventist Church’s reaction to the advent of same-sex unions. It is unfortunate that people continue to treat marriage as if it is one thing, despite all the evidence to the contrary. The church’s statement here reinforces that logical fallacy by implying that it can (or should) have a say in what is lawfully binding. It is a dangerous line of thought to begin to believe that the church’s definition of marriage has any bearing on what is (or can be) lawfully binding. If that were true, it would open a Pandora’s Box of religious liberty concerns, none of which would work in the favor of a church that is unique in its theological perspective. I think it almost goes without saying that if religions can have an influence on what should be lawfully binding, then that influence is warranted, even when it comes back to work against you. For a faith that believes in the freedom of conscience and the ability of each human being to make decisions about their morality without the influence and imprimatur of any entity, I am always shocked when we are so willing to use the arm of the state to have society live by our precepts. There is no good or sufficient reason for the Adventist Church to be bothered by what the state considers lawfully binding.
The story is told in Acts chapter 5 of the apostles preaching about Jesus after His resurrection. When they were brought before the Jewish Council to answer for preaching in Jesus’ name they responded, “We must obey God rather than men.” The beauty of this simple phrase is that succinctly states the loyalty of every Christian. We have never been called to reorder anyone else’s priorities. It is our job to show and tell others about this loving God who we obey even above what society deems acceptable. I wonder what it says about the God we serve when what we show others is our demand for societal validation of what God already established.
 There is a fourth reason, which is that the law being referred to here is God’s law. However that seems redundant as one can assume that everything that the church is defining is based on God’s law. Right?
Jason Hines is an attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at Adventist University of Health Sciences. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at www.TheHinesight.Blogspot.com.
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