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Two Kinds of Marriage

Last Friday's Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage across the United States has produced a lot of outrage from religious conservatives claiming the court has overstepped its boundaries. The decision is a central assault upon marriage, says Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Focus on the Family lists nine ways children and religious freedom will be harmed by the decision.

At the heart of conservatives' complaints is a concern that the court's ruling has redefined marriage, that it has gone against the one-man-one-woman definition they believe is endorsed by the Bible. The court, they say, has no right to define marriage in a way that is different from God's own definition.

But there's a problem with this line of reasoning—more than one problem, actually. First, the Bible never actually defines marriage, and it actually describes several different standards throughout its pages. In the days of the Partiarchs, Isaac's wife insisted that their son Jacob marry one of her brother's daughters—few Christians today argue in favor of cousin marriage—but in any case, Jacob ended up marrying both of his cousins, and that kind of undercuts the one-man-one-woman Biblical ideal. Further undercutting the one-to-one restriction, King David would later take at least seven wives, and King Solomon was said to have had 700.

But let's postpone a discussion about Biblical polygamy for now. The more immediate issue is that Biblical forms of marriage are simply not relevant to the U. S. Supreme Court's decision because the United States has always had its own, separate, legal definition of marriage and related benefits. Civil marriage and religious marriage have always been two different things. Granted, they often happen together in a single ceremony. A couple can be married in a church by their pastor, who also happens to be licensed by the state.

But civil marriage has its own set of benefits that are quite distinct from anything a religious marriage provides. For example, married couples are eligible for family insurance rates (health, auto, and home owners') and hospital visitation rights. They can contribute to each others retirement accounts, and a widowed spouse has full access to the deceased spouse's account. The lower-income spouse can collect a higher Social Security payment based on their spouse's income. This is particularly important if one spouse stays home to raise children.

These are the benefits addressed by the court's decision.

Some conservatives recognize this distinction and still think the court shouldn't be defining marriage. Senator Rand Paul argues that the government should just get out of the marriage business altogether. One conservative argument along these lines is that the state ceremony should be called a civil union, not a civil marriage, and leave the definition of marriage to the churches. A few conservative Christians have even said they would support civil unions for same-sex couples, as long as it wasn't called marriage.

But this argument is just a matter of semantics. There is no difference between a civil union and a civil marriage, but there is a difference between a civil marriage and a religious marriage. It's not the terms we use that make the difference, but the context. And the reality is, we already have a number of theological words that have a different meaning in a secular context, and we have no trouble discerning the difference between the two uses.

For example, the word "justification" can refer to our being made righteous before God, or it can refer to the alignment of text in a word processor. You're not going to confuse the two, even if that word processor is on a church computer and the document is a sermon about being made righteous before God. The word "redemption" can refer to being saved from sin, or it can refer to entering a gift card ID into a website to make an online purchase. You're not going to confuse the two even if you're redeeming a gift card to purchase a book about being saved from sin.

Similarly, if two guys walk into a church that opposes same-sex marriage, and tell church members they recently got married at the court house, it should be obvious they're talking about a civil marriage. It's really that simple.

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