Someone once said that, if you want to be eternally relevant, you need to stop trying to say things that are relevant and focus on saying things that are eternal. Some ministers write their sermons according to what has featured in the news that week. When I was training for the ministry, a former Moderator of the General Assembly advised such a course. The difficulty with that approach is that the minister flits from one subject to the next, trying to scratch where it itches, as he, perhaps unwittingly, lets the world’s media set the agenda for the church’s services. Why should we allow our thoughts to follow the ‘hot topics’of the day according to the whims of newspaper editors and the 24-hour satellite news channels? God is the one who should be setting the church’s agenda. We want to submit our thinking to the full range of his truth as he has revealed it to us in the Scriptures. That explains the way we approach the Bible together. Sometimes we study its great themes, but most often we take a book of the Bible and work our way through it passage-by-passage. And as we consider the different types of literature found in this greatest of books, we receive a rich and comprehensive diet of God’s truth. In this way, we submit to what God thinks is important, and he sets our agenda. As we soak ourselves in God’s Word in this way, we are equipping ourselves to think ‘Christianly’ about the whole of life, from within a thoroughly biblical worldview and mindset.
However, just occasionally, something happens which is of such momentous significance that we need to stop and consider it directly. Today is one such occasion. On Wednesday, 25 July 2012, the Scottish Government announced its intention to introduce legislation to redefine the institution of marriage so as to include same-sex couples. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that such legislation represents the most profound and momentous act of social engineering which our nation has ever seen in its entire history. One of the pillars which has upheld every society that has ever existed is to be dismantled, re-assembled according to a different design, and then replaced. To say that the implications of such a step have not been fully considered would be a gross understatement.
And so, because of the sheer significance of the issue, I decided this week to break into our series on the Gospel of Luke in order to preach on the subject of marriage. In such a time as this, it is crucially important that Christians should think clearly about these issues, and be able to express a Christian perspective with clarity and with grace. I have to say it is also very important that we consider carefully some very practical questions about where the introduction of same-sex marriage will leave Christian believers in this society. Because our government is frankly not to be believed when it assures us of protections for conscience — it has not provided such protections in respect of civil partnerships, never mind marriage. The truth is that marriage is so interwoven into society that there is simply no way to separate out those who do and do not support same-sex marriage — it won’t work. This means that all Christians will be faced with hard questions. Some Christians will undoubtedly lose their jobs, and in the long run, I believe, some will be imprisoned.
There are many ways to approach this subject, but what I want to do is to set out three foundational facts about marriage which have been comprehensively forgotten by our society. We will do that, and then conclude by considering some practicalities.
Marriage belongs to God
We begin with the most basic fact of all, which is that marriage belongs to God. It is his by creation, and it is his by sovereign rule.
(a) His by creation. God made it, and so it belongs to him. Marriage actually plays a centrally important role in God’s purposes throughout history. The Bible begins with a marriage — of Adam and Eve; and it ends with a marriage — of Christ and his bride, the church. What is often not appreciated is that the first is actually designed to point to the second: all marriage, in which husband and wife are called to share a faithful covenant love, was always designed to point us to the faithful covenant love between Christ and his people. So marriage is central to God’s purpose throughout history. In the Reformed Book of Common Order, the marriage ceremony begins with a reading from Genesis 2, and continues with these words:
Dearly beloved, we are gathered together in the sight of God and before His congregation to join this man and woman in marriage.Marriage is a holy estate of life. It was instituted by God in the beginning when He created heaven and earth and all that is within them.
Consider the significance of that simple statement: it was instituted by God in the beginning. Marriage is part of what God created and declared to be ‘very good’. Genesis 1 records that, and Genesis 2 confirms it. In this divinely inspired record, God creates the first man; and then he creates the first woman, and he brings her to the man. And immediately we are told that this is the reason why the man leaves his father and mother, and joins with his wife, and they become one flesh. There it is, right there at the very beginning — marriage is created by God as a central part of his good design for humanity.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is asked a question about divorce. Now when the subject of marriage and divorce is raised with Jesus, the very first thing he says is:
Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother, and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? (19:4, 5)
So our Lord affirms that marriage is of God’s creation, and it was right there at the very beginning of the human race as an integral part of God’s design for his world. The implications of those words are important and far-reaching. In particular, we learn that marriage is not a human invention. It is a not a social construct. It is not simply a great idea that someone once had, which we can opt into and out of, or adapt as we please. No, it is one of God’s greatest gifts to us, but it does not belong to us. This has been comprehensively forgotten by our society, as we have turned away from God. But the fact of the matter is that God made marriage, and it therefore belongs to him.
There are reasons — I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about this — but there are deep reasons for the language we use. When we speak, as we sometimes do, of the ‘sacredness’ of marriage, that is not just a nice-sounding way of saying that it is very special. Yes, it is very special, but to say that it is ‘sacred’ is to say that it belongs to God. It is ‘holy’ in that sense — the word holy means belonging to God and set apart for him. Whenever we speak of marriage, we need to take off our shoes, in a sense, because we are standing on holy ground. We are handling something profoundly precious which belongs to God and not to us, and which therefore needs to be handled with the utmost care and respect and humility.
Marriage belongs to God by virtue of creation.
(b) By sovereign rule. It also belongs to him by virtue of his sovereign rule. That is to say, God owns marriage in the sense that God owns everything. There is nothing in this world that ‘belongs to us’ in the sense that we can do what we like with it, without reference to God. We are stewards over creation, not owners. And it’s helpful to note what Jesus did when he was asked that question about marriage. Note his words in verse 4: ‘Have you not read . . .?’ Do you see how, when he is asked about this aspect of human life and society, Jesus immediately and instinctively turns to the Scriptures as his authority for establishing the pattern of human life? His starting-point is not experience, or sociological theories, or human rights, or anything else — his starting-point and his authority is the written Word of God — the holy Scriptures of the Old Testament in this case. Why? Because God is the Sovereign Ruler of the universe, and he has the right to determine how life is to be lived in his world. That’s why whatever the Bible taught, Jesus consistently affirmed. And that’s why the great cry of the Christian, following in the footsteps of the Master, is ‘What does the Book say?’
You see, we are simply not entitled to say to God, ‘Well, you may have created marriage to be that, but now we’ve decided to make it into this.’ We have no right to tamper with the institution of marriage — because marriage belongs to God.
Marriage is defined by God
And just to make it explicit, the second principle, which follows on from the first, is that marriage is defined by God. When he created it, he did so with a particular design and definition — and this is marriage. Nothing else is — no matter what anyone says.
(a) The creation pattern of male-female complementarity. Marriage has its roots in a creation pattern which is almost too obvious to say out loud, but which needs to be affirmed loudly and clearly in our present day. The pattern of creation is that God made man and woman. There’s a statement that strikes us as more radical than it should do: God made man, and he made woman, and a distinction is to be drawn between them. That’s how the human race is composed, it’s the only reason it survived longer than one generation, and it remains the only way in which it can be perpetuated. There are of course physical differences between men and women, and differences in other ways too — for example, there are psychological and emotional differences. And yes, that is a vast generalisation — but it also happens to be true! Everyone knows that men are from Mars and women are from Venus.
The truth is that current debates over homosexuality are part of a much broader programme, which has also been going on for some time, to flatten out all distinctions between men and women. In the name of equality, what’s actually being promoted is identity. We are being asked to engage in a massive communal pretence that there are no differences, or that any differences are minor and inconsequential. That flies in the face of reality. It is an objective fact that every cell in your body is stamped XX or XY. Deny that, and you will never understand who you are. And yet, in our supposedly scientific era, with the triumph of reason and objectivity over all else, the notion that gender is a social construct has become the accepted wisdom of the age. How did that happen? I’ll tell you how. It happened because it suits our sinful demand for total self-rule. Gender limits us, and defines us; and we’re so thoroughly self-obsessed, and so thoroughly determined to be our own gods, that we won’t accept that limitation. The rejection of marriage as God has designed it is a part of that broader rebellion against God.
The tragedy is that, in throwing off this pattern which God has woven into nature, we are rejecting something glorious. Listen carefully to the way that Genesis 1 describes God’s creation of humanity.
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
Part of what is being said there, it seems to me, is that man and woman together reflect the image of God. That does not mean that a single or divorced or widowed person is incomplete, or cannot bear God’s image.But in some sense, the reflection of God in his world requires that we recognise the mutuality of male and female gender.
(b) The marriage pattern of male-female complementarity. In other words, there is what you might call a complementarity between man and woman. God built this into creation — and, from the beginning, he built it into marriage. According to Genesis 2:18, God saw that it was not good for one solitary man to exist in isolation, and so he decided to create what most of our Bibles translate as ‘a helper fit for him’ (or ‘suitable’ for him). That expression isn’t the easiest to translate, but let me make it clear that in no way does it imply any inferiority in status or function on the part of the woman — if anything, it serves to emphasise that they will stand together and face the world as one. But that will work in a very particular way; because the expression translated ‘fit’ or ‘suitable’ literally says, ‘like opposite to him’. Man and woman are like one another and yet opposite to one another. It’s a wonderful poetic description of the significance of gender. There is similarity, and there is distinctiveness; and not only is there distinctiveness, but the distinctive characteristics of men and women dovetail to create a new unity. Man and woman fit together — that’s what I mean when I refer to the complementarity between them.
And this is why Adam reacts with an outburst of sheer joy when he sees Eve: ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!’
Having seen and named all the animals, Adam recognises — ‘Here, finally, is someone who is like me, and corresponds to me: she is like/opposite to me.’ God’s design for marriage, then, is to take this man and this woman and to unite them in a breathtakingly wonderful and strong union. And again, Jesus himself affirmed that pattern in Matthew 19: ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’
That expression — ‘one flesh’ — summarises in two words what I have been describing here. Without wishing to become unnecessarily graphic, at a basic physical level, man and woman correspond to one another and fit with one another in a way that man and man do not, and woman and woman do not. But that physical fit is an expression of something deeper still: because the words ‘one flesh’ in Genesis 2 do not refer only to sex, but to much more. The way someone has put it is that ‘the “one flesh” relationship is the profound fusion of two lives into one shared life together, by the mutual consent and covenant of marriage. It is the complete and permanent giving over of oneself into a new circle of shared existence…’1 Jesus affirmed this pattern; and, if we claim to be his followers, it is not open to us to reject it.
So marriage, as designed by God and affirmed by Christ, is between a man and a woman: and that fact is not incidental, but fundamental. To acknowledge these things has nothing to do with prejudice and hatred — it is simply recognition of reality, of the nature of human life as God has designed it. This is how things were intended to be — which is why, when Paul turns to the subject of homosexual conduct in Romans 1, he describes it as ‘contrary to nature’. Whatever the meaning and origins of homosexual orientation — and the fact is that no-one knows — the Bible tells us that in nature as God created it and pronounced it good, his intention was that a man and a woman were to be united in marriage. We know that, when sin entered the world, it then distorted every aspect of our existence, including our sexuality: for most, that means that we have a distorted heterosexual desire; for some, it means the experience of homosexual desire. But we need to recognise that, as a result of the fall, we now experience sexuality differently from the way God created it. It is our calling and duty to submit those distorted desires to God’s original design.
In any event, all of that means that marriage has a definition given by God himself: one man, one woman, one flesh. I have to say in all honesty that, against that background, at one level the very notion of a Cabinet, or a Parliament, or even a nation debating and deciding what marriage means is actually quite ludicrous. Marriage is what it is, and it is literally not possible for us to make it otherwise. We can play with words — we can pretend — but marriage belongs to God, and is defined by God.
Marriage is performed by God
And then thirdly, and importantly, we have to remember that marriage is performed by God. Jesus turned to Genesis 1 for the pattern of man and woman in creation, and to Genesis 2 for the pattern of man and woman in marriage — and then he drew the conclusion in Matthew 19:6: ‘What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.’
How many times have you heard those words — and yet how many times have you truly heard them? Because how important it is that we should hear them today: ‘What God has joined together…’! We were thinking about this at a marriage just last week: what happens in marriage is not that two people marry one another; and it’s not that a minister marries them. God himself performs the marriage: the minister or registrar do not make them husband and wife, but simply pronounce them to be husband and wife. The miracle of marriage is that God himself reaches down and takes two separate lives and forges from them one flesh. Two people, like but opposite to one another, are brought together in an act of union that is sacred.
Marriage is performed by God, and he performs it always and only within his definition of what marriage is. The reality is that God will not marry two men, or two women; because whatever kind of relationship that is, it is not marriage. Whatever our political leaders decide to call it, it is not marriage. Whatever most people think, or come to think over time, it is not marriage.
So what am I saying? Am I suggesting that we should not recognise the legitimacy of same-sex marriages even once they are introduced by law? Yes — that’s exactly what I’m saying. ‘Same-sex marriage’ is a contradiction in terms, and Christians should never use the language of marriage to refer to two men, or to two women. To do so is to lend legitimacy to what is in reality rebellion. I’ve referred to this today as ‘same-sex marriage’ for ease of reference, but it’s an expression that believers should seek to avoid. The word ‘marriage’ does not belong to Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland, or to the government, or to the nation, to do with as they wish. What is being referred to as same-sex marriage is not, and never can be, marriage.
And this is why I want to mention a subject which may not have seemed overly relevant to believers in this country in recent times, but which now becomes increasingly so — and it is the subject of the Christian’s relationship to the state. The Bible is clear that Christians should be good citizens, and should respect the authority of the state. It is equally clear that submission to that authority is limited. Christians are to obey the state right up to the point where the state prohibits what Christ requires, or requires what Christ prohibits. At that point, our normal obedience to the state is over-ridden by our primary obligation to obey Christ. As Peter put it so starkly before the Jewish Council in Acts 5, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’ That means that, where obedience to the state would involve us in disobedience to God, Christians have a clear duty to defy and disobey the state.
Thousands of Christians, throughout the land, will soon be asked to do things which God prohibits. It is our duty to say No. We need to do so with wisdom, with care, and with grace — but we need to do so. And we need to be willing to pay the price.
Conclusion: some practicalities
So let me conclude with some practicalities which flow from what I have been saying. The Kirk Session has not yet had the opportunity to discuss these things; and so, strictly speaking, what I say this morning I say for myself. I think you will understand if I express some confidence that the Kirk Session will not take a different view. But what I can tell you, with absolute clarity, is that so-called ‘same-sex weddings’ will not take place in Larbert Old Church as long as I am minister here. We continue to affirm our welcome for all people, regardless of sexual orientation or practice. We continue to denounce homophobia as a horrible evil and a flat contradiction of the gospel. And we continue to holdout good news to all people — of forgiveness for all sin, and empowerment for all holiness, through Christ crucified and risen. That is where we stand.
But I am very conscious today that what happened this week will have implications for all Christians in our society. There will be ramifications in all walks of life, most of which have simply not been considered by the government:
- Some believers will have to consider whether it is possible to continue in their job at all. If you are a registrar, or if you work for a church which decides to support this, or if you are a civil servant who has to deal with it –will it be possible to continue to do your job while remaining faithful to the Lord?
- Others will have to consider on what basis they continue. Christian teachers will shortly be asked to promote sin to children. This legislation will put ordinary Christians who work in hotels and other venues — along with florists, caterers, musicians, and others — in a hideous position by requiring them, through anti-discrimination laws, to become complicit in something which God prohibits. In a sense I am not able to answer the questions that I am asking, and in the end everyone of us will have to wrestle with conscience and decide what God would have us do. But I am asking you to be thinking seriously, now, about how this legislation will impact your life and how you intend to respond.
- Another significant area is that parents will have to consider very seriously whether they are willing to have their children present in school classes which deal with issues of relationships and sexuality. I think many still have their eyes firmly closed to the realities of what will shortly be taking place in our classrooms; and to the ways in which, over time, the normalisation of same-sex relationships will be fully completed. Of course, at no time has any responsible Christian parent ever been able to leave their children’s education in respect of sex and relationship sin the hands of schoolteachers. But we are now in a situation where all parents will have to consider very carefully whether they will be able to undo the damage that will inevitably be done to their children by our school system; or whether they need to withdraw their children from all lessons which deal with such matters. Even that will become harder over time, as same-sex marriage makes its appearance not only in sex education, but in English classes, history classes, modern studies classes, and goodness knows where else.
This is not scare-mongering, but the advanced warning of a tidal wave which is bearing down upon us. We need to ready ourselves for the day when the questions start to be asked of us — so that we can respond, not in a panic, but in a measured and reasoned and, above all, godly way. To that end we all need to be on our knees. We need to be asking that God would have mercy upon our land and turn the government from its present course. Failing that, we need to be asking for great wisdom for ourselves. We need to be asking for courage, to hold fast to these truths — that marriage belongs to God, is defined by God, and is performed by God. We need to pray that the Lord would return soon; and until he does, that God would show mercy to our land.
Let me address one final question. We do not have time to do it justice, but it is crucially important and needs to be considered carefully. The question is this: Where does all of this leave you, if you find yourself attracted to someone of the same sex? What does God require of you?
Well firstly, I want to acknowledge quite openly and clearly that it leaves you in a very painful position. The Bible — which is the foundation of our faith — could not be clearer in what it says. God says No. Jesus, who loves you more deeply than you will ever comprehend this side of glory, repeats that No. Regardless of what has caused or influenced your orientation, God asks for obedience to him above all else. If this orientation remains with you for the rest of your life, then that will entail a celibate lifestyle for you. It will entail acceptance that sexual relations are not for you, and that marriage is not for you. God requires that of you.
I promise, for my part — and I trust that the whole congregation will join me in this promise — that we will stand with you and love you and support you as you wrestle with these issues. We will not mock or ostracise you, but will honour your dignity, and recognise the beauty of your commitment to follow Christ above all else. We will tell you often of God’s profound love for you. We will continue to tell you the truth, and in times when you are tempted we will remind you of God’s will and ways, even as we weep with you in the pain of your struggle. If you fall, we will be there for you. We will not condemn you or reject you, but will speak to you of God’s unfailing grace and forgiveness, and of his deep joy in the return of all who have wandered. And together, we and you will go about the glorious and heart-breaking business of pursuing the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.