Romans 11:33-36

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Law, Marriage and Morality

Can the law promote morality? In light of conversations concerning the need for a state marriage amendment to the West Virginia state constitution that is one of the questions I am wrestling with.

Theologically, I know the answer—laws don’t cause righteousness. Otherwise, the most perfect legal system ever created would have produced generations of righteous people. In other words, if better laws were the answer to society’s root problems, we would look to Mount Sinai for our salvation. But we don’t seek salvation in legislation because theologically, the law can only do two things. First, the law shows us our sin and removes our excuses for sin. Because human beings are created in the image of God, we have an inherent sense of right and wrong. When someone else (preferably someone we have no emotional connection to) violates that sense of right and wrong, we demand justice. When we demand justice, we implement laws. When we implement laws, we expose the hypocrisy and injustice in our own lives because we violate the very root causes of the sins we rail against. That should show us our sin and remove any excuses and justifications we can come up with before God. But, as we know, the law rarely does that—as a matter of fact, it never does, apart from a work of God’s grace. So that reveals the second function of law. Since we are depraved and incapable of righteousness, law acts as a God-given tool for man to use to restrain evil in the world. So, theologically, apart from a work of grace from God, legislation cannot produce righteousness in people. It can only restrain evil.

Theology isn’t theory. Orthodoxy is worthless unless it manifests itself in orthopraxy. So, how should this theological understanding of legislation play out in practice? This is a broad, ethereal question, so let me be more specific. How does this theological understanding shape the Church’s involvement in state marriage amendment legislation?

Two specific cases show striking similarities and stark contrasts between how this issue was treated and viewed in the early 18th century and now. First, the case of Ichabod Austine and Sarah More, as reported by Marvin Olasky in the book, Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America:

On April 1, 1712, a grand jury that included Mathew Austine charged Mathew’s son Ichabod with being “the reputed father of a bastard child begotten on the body of Sarah More.” The jury acted after Miss More testified that Ichabod was the father; he was sent to jail until he posted bond, and was told that he had better be “of the good behavior towards her Majesty and her Liege people & Especially toward the sd Sarah More.” On July 1 the case was continued, for Sarah More was not yet “Delivered of sd child,” and it may have been hoped that marriage would ensue. By October 7, however, she had given birth, and Ichabod had not come through; he was ordered to pay child support.
In this case, the penalty of law was brought to bear on Ichabod because he was clearly in violation of God’s (and society’s) familial standards. Since he refused to marry the mother of his child, as morality and society demanded, he was forced to pay the penalty—providing financial support of the child. Compare and contrast with the following excerpts taken from this past Sunday’s article in the Flint (Michigan) News:

Gary Johnson owes taxpayers nearly $3,800 for the birth of his daughter. The state will let him off the hook but there’s a catch—he has to marry the mom. But the mother doesn’t believe her wedding should be any of the state’s business.

“I don’t think anybody should tell me when to get married,” said Rebecca Witt. “I would like to have a nice wedding and I can wait for it.”

Five years ago, state lawmakers amended the state’s paternity act to waive birthing
costs for a father—if he married the child’s mother….

Because [the unmarried mother] was on Medicaid at the time [of now 2 year-old JaeLyn’s birth]… [the father] has to pay the hospital costs….

Johnson said he understands the state wants to promote marriage for parents but respects Witt’s stance on the issue. “It’s a woman’s dream to have the best wedding she can have,” said Johnson.
In each case, the law demanded that fathers of illegitimate children take financial responsibility for their irresponsible and immoral actions. But notice how the responses were completely different. In the 18th century case, the state was simply restraining what was understood by society as evil. In the modern case, the state is attempting to impose a righteousness that is rejected by society. There is a huge difference. The first case is theologically correct and was as successful as it was intended to be. It was not intended to bring righteousness—it was intended to restrain (not stop) evil. That it did. The second case is theologically incorrect and will never be successful. The Michigan law is not intended to restrain evil, but rather to “promote marriage” and “encourage marriage.” In the words of a spokesman for the American Family Association who was interviewed for the Flint News article: “Government has the authority to encourage marriage and should use that power for the overall good and stability of society.” The law will never do that, because it is not capable of doing that.

So, how does this apply to my personal wrestling with the concept of state constitutional marriage amendments? Do societies need biblically based laws concerning marriage? Yes—and because of that, we as individual Christian citizens should pray for and encourage our legislators to restrain sin by enacting and enforcing biblically based laws. This is perfectly consistent with Paul’s charge to Timothy in 1 Timothy 2:1-3. But our individual encouragement to enact those laws must be couched in the understanding that the law never changes people—God’s grace changes people. We don’t promote legislation in order to save society. Society certainly needs saving, but legislation isn’t going to do it—the gospel will. It is that understanding that should guide our churches in our level of governmental involvement. Local churches are not called to be an instrument of law. We are called to be an evidence of, and testimony to, grace.

Galatians 2:20-21


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