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In Defense of Marriage - Conclusion

August 18, 2008
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When I began this series, I said the battle to define marriage is not over—and I’m still convinced that is true. However, the issue in America has clearly passed the eleventh hour and I fear the clock has already begun to toll. The outcome of California’s Proposition 8 this November, which seeks to amend the state constitution in order to establish that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California”—thus reversing the state Supreme Court’s recognition of same-sex marriage in May—will figure prominently in the future of marriage in America. If the measure is defeated (and barring any intervention by God), I predict it will be nearly impossible to halt the homosexual movement and with it the radical redefinition of sexual morality.

This raises the important question of “What then?” How should the church respond in the wake of such profound moral and social revision? Should we continue to battle with homosexual activists? Will doing so distract us from our true calling and thus undermine the church’s mission and purpose? Should we persist in pressing the point even unto arrest and imprisonment? Is this how we are called to live in a pagan culture? These are the questions we must face. I wrestle with these, as I continue to address the church’s relationship to culture. I suggest that we all need to wrestle with these questions in an effort to find the most biblical answers, given our very real and possible future in America.

In his classic book Christ and Culture, Richard Niebuhr suggests that there are only a handful of postures the Christian can take toward culture. For example, we can emphasize the opposition between Christ and culture, what Niebuhr calls the Christ against culture position. This view sees the customs and advances of the day as inevitable affronts to Christ. Predictably, this position results in a withdrawal or separation from culture—a move that only renders Christianity less relevant and neglects to press Christ’s kingdom in the world. I certainly do not recommend this approach.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who feel there is a fundamental agreement between Christ and culture, in which Christ is equated with the apex of human achievement. Niebuhr labeled this the Christ of culture group. Far from simply identifying Christ with culture, it is more the alignment of certain aspects of culture with Christ—such as Western civilization or conservative politics. With this position, Christ is recast in the guise of that culture’s predominant values. Rather than Christ standing over and against culture as judge and challenge, Christ is absorbed into the culture and appropriated for its ends. So you end up less with Christ than you do with culture. This appears to have been a dominant trend within the American church over the last fifty years, to the point that Christianity has been narrowed to the political realm as best seen in the “culture wars.”

This position has tended to neglect the whole missio Dei, or mission of God, in that it seeks primarily to promote and preserve certain values through civil or political means. While these values may be consistent with Christianity and their advocates may be well-meaning, there is no eternal value in morality apart from faith in Jesus Christ. The values of the Christian faith flow from conversion; they do not convert the lost. Furthermore, this response tends toward an “us versus them” mentality that all too easily operates “out of a conquering spirit or urge to control, vestiges of a former Christendom that no longer lives anywhere but in the impulses of our minds,” according to George Hunsberger (Hunsberger and Van Gelder, eds., The Church Between Gospel & Culture, [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996] 290).

But there is a third stance that can be taken, one that is neither a Christ of culture nor a Christ against culture position. It is a “conversionist” (and, I believe, the biblical) response that sees Christ as the transformer of culture. Yes, human nature is fallen, and culture not only reflects this perversion but often transmits it. Thus the opposition between Christ and culture is real and must be recognized. Yet rather than separation from culture, or accommodation and reliance upon the institutions of culture (such as politics), Christ in this scenario becomes the converter of humanity. This is the role of the church as Christ’s body. This distinct and called community of God’s people therefore lives as God’s instrument and witness to the redemptive work of God—the kingdom. It is from here that we go forth to express the values of the kingdom of God, sometimes by proclamation and at all times by demonstration.

This is precisely what the apostle Peter urged the Christians who were living among non-Christians to do. “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:11–12, NIV). That last phrase, “on the day he visits us,” is not a reference to Christ’s return but to God’s intervention in the world through blessing or judgment. Peter follows this by saying “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution … For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people (1 Peter 2:13–15, ESV). Peter later equates this to a believing wife who wins her unbelieving husband over “without a word” by the way she lives (see 1 Peter 3:1). Matthew underscores this in 5:16: “In the same way, let your light shine before men people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven (NET).

I know this goes against our nature but that is precisely the point: kingdom living always goes against our nature, which is why we require God’s grace to persevere in the faith. The time may be soon approaching when we are forced to abandon our “conquering spirit” and submit to “human institutions” that, while they may suppress our proclamation of kingdom values (i.e., opposition to sexual immorality), can never stop the demonstration of these values (i.e., living sexually moral lives) within and among the faithful community of God’s people. Furthermore, the bearing of hardship because of conscience toward God is pleasing to the Lord (see 1 Peter 2:19–23).

America, under the sovereign hand of God, may be given over to sexual anarchy, immorality, and debauchery but the faithful church will endure in spite of the culture and may, by its life and witness, be the instrument God uses to bring a generation to repentance. This is the mission of God and therefore the mission of His people; I am concerned that our persistence in a moral battle lost may distract us from our true purpose—and this I personally do not want to do.

© 2008 by S. Michael Craven

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Response from : Wayne  

August 18, 2008 10:45 AM

Have read this series and really enjoyed it. I largely agree with your analysis, though I find some of your conclusions in this last part unsatisfying, so I will concentrate my comments on that rather than the 98% I agree with.

When I consider the founding, I see people who saw American citizens as the proverbial shining light, not as passive men who do little to fight evil in the political sphere. They had rejected European tyranny and claimed the rights granted to them by God, as preliminarily described in Magna Carta, and later expanded by British common law (Coke, Blackstone, etc). They also saw the need for fighting for and potentially giving their blood for the cause of freedom, and likewise saw it as their Christian duty-- correctly in my interpretation. And they didn’t see it as the kind of “God and country” jingoism which the British Empire used to forward colonial expansion; they believed that America was an experiment in ordered liberty. God was using them and this new world to expand liberty so that people could live as God intended, as a force for moral good in the world.

Given this, it seems to me that your conclusion disregards the noble history of our ideas and ideals (which I find eminently biblical), and is unwilling to fight the good fight in many ways-- almost a retreat if you will. This is NOT to say I don’t think our ultimate allegiance and energy is directed toward serving God first. The way you describe it seems limited to living as foreigners in our own nation and unwilling to make the tough sacrifices (perhaps our lives or liberty) needed in order for future generations to have the liberty for transforming the world.

Have you viewed The Truth Project curriculum? It seems to be reasonable example of how to help transform the world and being courageous in the public sphere. Would be interested in your take on it…

Response from : Greg Williams  

August 18, 2008 11:30 AM

Mr. Craven

Truly excellent series on marriage! Thanks. However, I have one question regarding your last article - It could certainly be implied that you are advocating for the abdication of responsibility by those with the gifting of preaching, teaching and prophesy to simply submit to the authorities and not teach against the sinful and perverted sexual lifestyle of the culture.

Based on everything else I've read of yours I don't think that's the case but for some, if not many, who would read this series, and in particular, the last article on the Church's response to a culture that has "endorsed" sexual sin, it would appear that you are saying that we should simply live pure, moral lifestyles (I certainly agree) and "go along with" or submit ourselves to the govt. and laws that directly contradict God's Truth, thus simply letting the culture see by our lives the difference between choosing God's law vs man's?!?

I think we absolutely must live out the lifestyle of sexual and relational purity according to God's Word but I also believe that not speaking out as the Church against the lies, deception and sin of the culture is exactly what has led us to this point in the first place as you allude to.

Could you give some clarification on that just to be sure and thanks again?

God bless in Christ!

In His service

Greg Williams

Response from : S. Michael Craven  

August 18, 2008 11:33 AM

Dear Wayne,

I appreciate your comments and I knew that some would likely assume that I was calling for cultural withdrawal. However, I am not. The issues you describe; liberty, governance, etc. are issues of justice and not morality. I was addressing the issue of homosexual marriage and the legitimizing of immoral behavior. Thus, the issue of homosexuality is an issue of morality and yes, it is my contention that the church’s primary mission is NOT to moralize society but rather to proclaim the good news of the kingdom and demonstrate life under the reign of God, which will inevitably produce a moral society. Believe me, this takes greater courage than the assumption of any political position.

For the church, it is a matter of priorities or perhaps better stated; the appropriate order of things. By trying to moralize society or emphasizing the moralization of society, I think there is a danger of venturing off mission. I think this is precisely what we have done. In addition, we come dangerously close to speaking of America in the spirit of Manifest Destiny when we synthesize the founding and existence of the United States with the Kingdom of God. These two are NOT the same. Has America benefitted from Christian ideological influence? Absolutely! But again our call is not the building of a political kingdom on earth but the spiritual [and present] kingdom of God. Clearly there are moral and political implications of the kingdom but again, they follow the conversion of lost souls. In short, I am saying the church must return to its first love and therefore its first duty is to serve the world, demonstrate, and proclaim the kingdom of God.

As a point of history. The Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence nor the American Revolution brought about spiritual transformation in America. The fact is, church attendance on the eve of the American Revolution was less than 10 percent, lower than it is today. Deism and Humanism were the growing ideologies of the day, Thomas Paine’s anti-Christian Common Sense was a best-selling book, etc. In short, there was far less that was “Christian” in the sense that we tend to perceive. What changed this nation was the providential outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the Second Great Awakening (ca. 1780s). This began in part with Timothy Dwight’s famous dissertation at Yale, when according to historians, there were “less than eight Christians on the entire campus.” This would explain the student body’s objections to Timothy Dwight’s appointment as the university president. The Great Awakening spread, by the hand of God, and transformed the people of this nation and this was the America that Alexis de Tocqueville encountered in 1830 prompting him to say:

I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers, and it was not there; in her fertile fields and boundless prairies, and it was not there; in her rich mines and her vast world commerce, and it was not there. Not until I went to the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power.

The story of America is not a linear progression toward greatness but rather cyclical patterns of faithfulness and rebellion in which God has repeatedly proven his mercy. (Sounds similar to another nation favored by God). I pray he will be merciful again.



Response from : S. Michael Craven  

August 18, 2008 11:54 AM

Dear Greg,

Thanks for your feedback. I realize there is a fine line here but I am trying to determine a response to our potential cultural condition that is faithful to Scripture and I cannot find anything that speaks of emphasizing the moralization of society. In every instance, the church is called to proclaim the kingdom, to demonstrate life under God’s loving rule and reign “always being to prepared to give and answer” for the hope we have. Included in this proposition is making disciples (teaching the truth about life) and loving our neighbors (and each other). The early church never organized to overthrow the Roman Empire or challenge any of its moral abuses, which were far greater than any we face today. Instead, they lived faithfully, trusting in God who in time converted the Empire to faith in Christ. It was only then that the ideas of Christianity began to formulate into a consciously Christian worldview that was then applied to public life. This time has passed because we were unfaithful in our service to God and the truth. So, believing that God is sovereign—and if persecution comes; it comes by the will of God—what should we do? Again, if we look to Scripture we see that judgment begins in the house of God. We repent and seek to be faithful. In other words, we concentrate on making God’s people holy and trust in him to use us to bear witness to an unbelieving world. So our priority becomes our own obedience and not trying to make pagans obey God’s law; besides they can’t apart from the Holy Spirit. I think we are trying to make pagans obey God’s law apart from introducing them to Jesus through the life and witness of his church.



Response from : Jody Wohlenhaus  

August 19, 2008 11:04 AM

So, that's it? We respond to this cultural terrorism by just continuing to live good lives? Is there no room for political action? I understand completely that political activity can usurp true worship and result in "de-throning" Christ, but I don't think abstention from political activity is the appropriate response either - CAREFUL activity is. Evangelism and living good lives among the pagans is the offense in this war, and preservation of our God-given institutions, often through political activity, is our defense. It's very difficult to win a war with just an offense or a defense. I'd be interested in Michael's opinion on what acceptable political activity via the Church would look like. I'm often inspired by the two pastors in Wichita, Kansas who came together to call attention to their state legislature which refused to allow the citizens the right to vote on a marriage amendment. When these two pastors were finished, they had created a grassroots coalition which gave pink slips to the anti-marriage incumbents, voted in new pro-family/marriage legislators, and easily won a state marriage amendment, as well as outlawing civil unions. THAT is leadership! THAT is playing a good defense - and defense is what gives the clock time to the offense. I agree that you can't win unless you score, but even the offensive team desperately needs a line to hold back the enemy.

Response from : Paul C Perry  

August 21, 2008 5:56 PM

I had been away from our church for about 15 years thinking that watching daystar shows shuch as Dr. Charles Stanley"s and praying along with him would be enough christianity for me. He would always say at the end of each program to get youself into a good bible based church to worship with other believiers. I went back [along with my wife]to our old Methodist church to see what if anything had changed, if we still knew any of the old parisheners and such. Within months I became involved in many church groups, My wife taught sunday school , i went to Lay leadership acadamies [ I even conducted several worship services ]. It was when I attended a Methodist charge conference that I learned we were actually sponsering an openly gay church in the vicinity. I then realized how far from Wesleyn principals the Methodists were drifting. It seems many other demoninations are becoming accepting of this abomination as well. I do not know what to do know as this goes against all biblical scripture. Even some of my fellow parishiners will say when I bring this up. That we should not judge, and love our neighbors as ourselves. What has happened to the modern church and how do we as laypeople respond?

Response from : S. Michael Craven  

August 22, 2008 4:13 PM

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your response. Let me respond by first asking you a couple of questions. Does your church deny the deity of Christ or his place in the divine Trinity? Does your church deny that reconciliation to God and man’s salvation rest on the atoning work of Jesus Christ alone? If they do not, then I would encourage you to stay in fellowship, as much as it depends on you, with the Body of Christ. This does not mean that you compromise the truth in matters of moral conduct. You continue to speak truth with love and grace to those in the faith who are in error. You appeal to your leaders to honor and affirm holiness and reject capitulation to cultural forces and support them when they do. You keep speaking, keep pleading, keep standing for truth with your brothers and sisters until they either throw you out of the church or the Lord brings them to correct understanding. This is difficult, I realize, however this is what the Lord requires of us. Jesus loves His church and sometimes His church falls into err as evidenced throughout the New Testament. The apostles were constantly correcting and rebuking for the purposes of reconciling the Body to God’s Word and each other. Schism and separation never reform and strengthen the church, they only further divide and weaken the church that Jesus desires to be united (see John 17). The sixteenth century reformers understood this; they never sought separation but rather correction and reform. They too were addressing egregious errors within the church; they were threatened with death and some even killed but they never stopped appealing to the truth. Our situation is little different. I would encourage you to remain in your Methodist church, fighting the good fight of faith in hopes that God will be merciful and pour out His spirit upon those who are deceived. The Body of Christ is our family and we do not leave our families when we disagree; we work toward reconciliation because ‘love endures all things and hopes all things’ (1 Cor 13); we submit to one another and trust in the Lord to purify and grow his people. In other words, we persevere in spite of interpersonal difficulties, seeking to preserve the unity we have in Christ Jesus. I really don’t see any other biblical option.


Response from : Jody  

August 25, 2008 12:34 PM

Dear Paul & Michael,

I have to respectfully disagree, Michael, with your advice to Paul to remain in his local congregation despite their departure from biblical truth. New Testament believers, yes, remained in their local fellowships to contend for the faith amidst pervasive immorality, but they didn't have the advantage of a church on every street corner either. Today, in the post-New Testament church age, we have the privilege of reading the doctrines and statements of faith of many different local congregations and choosing what we believe to be the closest fit with historic, orthodox, biblical Christianity. Also, we today live in a closed-canon era of the Church. We have the full written revelation of God. To disregard any portion of it is humanistic and heretical. The New Testament churches did not have this advantage, either - their wrangling with sin in the body, their contending for the faith were all a part of the writing of God's complete revelation to us. Today we know that God asks, "What fellowship can light have with darkness?" Paul, if you are tithing to your church, and your church is sponsoring an openly gay church, the dollars that the Lord has entrusted to you are being used to celebrate a perversion that God has condemned. How will you answer for that when you stand before Him someday? If you answer, "Well, I didn't want to leave my family.", won't He respond with, "But there was a gathering right next door who truly believed and followed my Word." You see, leaving a church is NOT the same as leaving the Body of Christ. If you seek out a Bible-believing, Bible-following church, you are still in the Body of Christ. It's as if you're saying, "I'm not going to sit in the family room and watch porn with my wayward brothers; I'm going to admonish them and leave the room." Biblically, you should confront your church's leadership about their sin. If they don't respond, take 2 or 3 others with you a second time. If they refuse to repent, then you are free to publicly expose their sin to the Body and remove yourself from that fellowship if necessary. If a local body is so deceived as to actually sponsor a homosexual church, they have been completely blinded to the truth, and I can't imagine there would be any truth in them. At the very least, you would have to wonder what deception they would buy into next. Because they have not "retained the knowledge of God", isn't it likely He has "given them over to a depraved mind" (Romans 1:28)? Yes, you must speak the truth in love, but if there is no repentance on their part, I would run from that congregation as fast as possible to find a God-honoring, Bible-believing church. As the culture has infected most mainline denominations, you may have to make a very careful search. Michael, I have to say that I look forward to your commentaries each Monday morning. Your wisdom and discernment are refreshing and encouraging, and I always feel challenged to examine my own biases and beliefs after reading your essays. I am concerned, however, at what I am perceiving these past few months to be small forays into liberalism. Our culture is full of people just waiting to pounce on any tidbit that provides the justification for compromising with the world, because it's just a whole lot easier to compromise than to confront and transform. Personal and corporate compromise are great factors in the cultural decay all around us, and Jesus will have none of it. Read Jesus' words to the 7 churches in the book of Revelation, you will have no question as to what He condemns and what He commends. The Church in Ephesus was commended for not tolerating wicked men and for testing false apostles. The Church in Pergamum is rebuked for holding to the false teachings of Balaam which enticed the Israelites into sexual immorality. The Church in Thyatira was rebuked for tolerating Jezebel's false teaching which misled Jesus' servants into sexual immorality. As for me, I want no fellowship with a church that Jesus would rebuke!


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