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Saturday, February 19, 2005

Threats to Marriage: Evangelicals Have Been Fighting Them For a Long Time

I don't run in Evangelical circles much these days. My faith walk has led me away from the Wheaton College, Christianity Today world of my youth. Oh, I’m still firmly committed to the faith traditions and history of Evangelicalism, but am not around Evangelicals much any more. It therefore came as quite a surprise to wake up from surgery last Friday night, and find my roommate to be a top executive in one of the major Evangelical publishing houses. (To say more would infringe on this person’s privacy.)

Initially, my roommate did the "background check" common in the Evangelical world; when did you accept Christ? What’s your background? Where are you spiritually right now? Being Episcopalian required some explanation, and confirmation that the church I belong to is a conservative, evangelical Episcopal Church.

The background check is not meant to be judgmental in any way. It’s a security clearance of sorts, confirmation that the person you are talking to will understand your world view, and share it. Having just awakened from 3 hours of surgery and still feeling the effects of the anesthetic made the task of "passing muster" doubly difficult, but I apparently passed with flying colors.

We settled into a discussion of books, culture, and the Faith in general, using phrases that would have seemed foreign to anyone not raised in the Evangelical mainstream. It made my hospital stay much more pleasant, and provided me with an inside look at the Christian publishing world I could not have received anywhere else.

Evangelicals never stopped believing in covenant marriage, and it one of those principles that have placed Christians at odds with the culture since the oxymoron “no fault divorce” became common decades ago. The concept of marriage being about covenant, rather than some goopy feeling of being “in love” was the topic of more sermons and youth meeting lessons than I can count while growing up. It was just as much a given as respecting my parents and knowing it was wrong to swear. I learned the Greek terms for love early on, and the differences between them.

The threat to marriage from gay unions is not from the idea of committed relationships. This commitment to the needs of someone completely different from your self has been one of the cores of the marriage covenant. Giving of our selves in every area of our lives is so completely alien to us that it needed to be set apart or “sanctified” as a different class of relationships from any other in which humans are involved. The Bible calls it becoming one.

It is the very fact that the sanctity of marriage means so much that motivates gay couples to want the validation so much. Marriage is more than just living with someone. And divorce is more than ending a friendship. Divorce means ripping what was one apart. This always involves pain, no matter what the reason.

But commitment is not covenant, just as eros and philos are not agape. There were reasons why contracts in the Old Testament were done in ink and stone, while covenants required the shedding of blood. Making synonyms of commitment and covenant requires redefining both words, and devalues one.

The threat to marriage, if there is one, lies in the concept of two very different humans becoming one. Can this be accomplished by two of the same sex, regardless of their level of commitment? Or does it devalue the covenant relationship to insist “two of the same” coming together are of the same kind as “two of the different.” Redefining the marriage covenant is not to be done lightly, in favor of commitment, no matter how strong or lasting that committment. This redefinition is at the heart of the controversy. Evangelicals understand this difference well, having been taught it from the cradle. The culture is just now coming to understand the importance of commitment again. The distinction between it and Covenant may still be part of the "foreign language" of the evangelical world.

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