Sunday, July 5, 2015

Marriage and Membership in Modern America

I quit blogging for my own reasons, but recently I've had a couple of friends ask me to write up this blog.  The Supreme Court of the United States has determined that the right for homosexuals to marry is a fundamental right.  In fact, as others have noted, this right of homosexual marriage actually places such marriages in an even higher standing that heterosexual marriages.  Whereas a state can refuse to recognize a heterosexual marriage that occurs between partners who would not be allowed to marry if they had applied for a marriage license in that state, (for instance, if first cousins marry in a state that allows for such, that marriage is not recognized in other states where such marriages are not allowed) states are not allowed to refuse to recognize homosexual marriages, even if such a marriage would not normally be allowed under their laws.  But, recent court decisions have gone even further than this, requiring individuals who object to homosexual marriage on religious grounds to participate in those marriages if asked to do so by the couple getting married, or face the penalty of anti-discrimination laws if they refuse to participate.

 One of the concerns of many pastors in America is that this same legal pressure will be used on churches to force them to participate in homosexual marriages, despite their objections.  Before we brush this concern aside as mere foolishness, it should be noted that even 5 years ago, we would have laughed at the idea that homosexual marriage could be called a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution.  The fact is that there are churches who offer some of the most beautiful wedding scenery available, and there are couples who would love to have access to that scenery.  Additionally, there are those in the militant activist wing of the homosexual community who will not stop until homosexuality is not only normalized, but celebrated in every aspect of our culture.

Yet, despite the fact that churches face this potential future challenge, the obvious answer to the cultural conflict we find ourselves in doesn't seem to be widely discussed.  The simple answer to address this conflict is for churches to allow their facilities to be used for marriages only by members.  This would be a major policy change for some churches, but it would bring these churches in line with biblical principles.  After all, why should churches participate in joining individuals in marriage when they have no ability to foster the development of the image of Christ in those marriages?  Enforcing a "members only" policy of marriage would require individuals who want to use the facilities of the church to also submit themselves to the teaching of the church in regards to marriage.

As important as this is for churches, it is even more important for pastors.  Ephesians specifically teaches that the true purpose behind marriage is not the happiness of the man and woman, per se.  The real meaning behind marriage is that it is to represent Christ and the church.  Yes, this results in happiness and blessing for the couple, but the goal of the marriage is to image Christ, not to make a couple happy that they can be together.  For a pastor, joining people together in marriage is a serious act, it is saying that here are two people who are committed to Christ and who will image Christ to the world.  Why would any pastor want to participate in joining together two people whom he does not know, or whom he does not have the ability to teach and correct so as to lead them into a greater image of Christ?

But, marrying only members is only the first step in churches addressing the challenge facing them.  The fact is that a homosexual couple can be members of a church.  The way most churches (at least in the Baptist world) are set up today, an individual can join the church very easily upon profession of faith.  Once that person has joined the church, what prevents them from then seeking to use the facilities of the church as a member?

Membership in the early church meant that the church recognized you as a Christian.  What I mean by "the early church" is the church up to about A.D. 1950.  Yes, less than 75 years ago, being a member of a church was not simply a social matter, it was also a declaration by both the member and the church that the person in consideration is a Christian, at least to the best knowledge of all involved.  What that meant was that when a person behaved in such a way that their profession of faith was called into question (drug abuse, alcoholism, spousal abuse, etc.) that person was subsequently called before the church to determine whether or not they really were a Christian.

For membership to have meaning today, churches need to get back to requiring Christian behavior from members.  But, the only way to do that is to have covenant membership.  It isn't sufficient for churches to have membership, without a covenant that membership is simply a voluntary act of the individual, which the church itself has no way of enforcing.  How many churches today have hundreds of individuals on their roles who have not entered the church in months, if not years?  How many churches today have members living in open sin, in defiance of what Scripture teaches, but do not hold their members to account for this?  Such a thing ought not be!

A covenant membership would require the members of the church to actually sign the covenant, acknowledging that they will adhere to the teaching of the church.  This then allows the church to include in their documents a statement of marriage and sexuality, a statement on church discipline, and whatever other statements are seen as necessary for the health of the church.  These statements then become part of the teaching of the church, and thus part of the covenant to which a person is committed.  Ultimately this allows the church to remain healthy by setting standards for what it means to be a Christian, and then encouraging and helping members to live by these standards.

So, how does this finally address the problem of homosexual marriage in America today, and the fear that churches will eventually be forced to participate in such marriages, regardless of their teachings?  If covenant membership is utilized, then that means a church can remove practicing homosexuals from membership, not because of hatred, but out of a love for the person and a desire to make clear that continuous sin of any kind demonstrates that a person does not have a relationship with Jesus Christ.  When combined with limiting marriage only to members, this means that the church would not be in danger of being found in violation of the Constitution by refusing to marry a person due to their sexuality, but that the person is not a member of the church, and thus does not have the right to use the facilities of the church for marriage.  Likewise for pastors, by allowing that they will only marry members of their congregation, they can avoid any accusations of discrimination.

Along with addressing the legal situation of pastors and churches today, there is an even more important reason to return to covenant membership.  The best reason for returning to a covenant membership for churches is because it is the biblical thing to do.  The church, throughout history, was the arbiter in determining who is and who is not a Christian.  We do not begrudge any other group the right to determine who is and who is not a member; likewise how can we complain when the body of Christ says that this person is not a part of that body?  Our own bodies reject when alien materials are introduced to them, so too should the body of Christ reject the entrance of alien DNA that seeks to redefine what it means to be a Christian.