As more courts overturn laws that define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, I have encountered many Christians who are genuinely confused about the issue. Because our culture has almost entirely capitulated to the notion of same-sex weddings, it is becoming common for believers to defend these unions as “marriage” because, after all, the government shouldn’t legislate morality (or “separation of church and state,” or some other line like that).
But in order to articulate the case against the judicial redefinition of marriage (which I will do next week–this isn’t that post), a person first must have a firm grasp on the answer to this foundational question: What is the role of government?
It was actually God who first established government.
Before the flood in Genesis 6, there were no governments. It was every man for himself, and the result was predictable anarchy and global destruction. After the deluge, God not only gave a covenant to Noah that he would not flood the earth again, but he also established governments when he said, “Whoever sheds a person’s blood, by people shall their blood be shed” (Gen 9:6). Within a few generations Babel fell, languages formed, the continents drifted, and the world became international. Nations rose, and with them came their governments.
With that background, it is obvious that government has one direct purpose and one indirect message. The purpose: government is given by God to suppress evil. The indirect message: God will give the world common grace (common grace refers to gifts that God gives people to make the world livable; government, marriage, rain, conscience, and soccer are all examples).
Because of common grace, government’s central purpose is to suppress evil (Gen 9:5-6, Judges 17:6, Rom 13:1-7, 1 Pet 2:13-14). That is not to say that government has only that purpose. There are others as well. For example, a good government should advance national interests, protect the weak, and promote the welfare of the people (Ps 82:2-4, Dan 4:7, Rom 13:3). And it does all of these while regulating the social structure of its society.
I can hear the objection: “But you are getting that from the Bible! Surely you don’t think that a secular government is getting its marching orders from scripture!”
But this is the nature of common grace. God has designed all governments globally to essentially strive to fulfill the same function. Even the most barbaric dictator (or Hamas or ISIS) strives to suppress moral evil in their reach. They may have a messed up understanding of what evil is, but by their very nature they are not anarchists. In other words, evil governments still check evil, even when they don’t understand what evil is.
As with all forms of common grace, you don’t have to be a Christian or even a deist to enjoy them. Clearly, those who maximize them are those who recognize their source. But nevertheless, even non-Christians get government. If the government’s main purpose is to suppress evil, a Machiavellian Prince can be as effective as a born-again believer. In fact, one could argue that non-Christians often make better government leaders than believers (Luther argued this—his main point being that Christians can be too queasy when it comes to bearing the sword).
Regardless of who is leading a government, every government in the world accomplishes their goals by regulating the affairs of their people.
I am quick to grant that this is a balancing act. Especially in a democracy, there is a tension between suppressing evil and allowing individual liberty. A good government allows her people the liberty to make choices, even if those choices ultimately are wicked. To give an obvious example, outside of Old Testament Israel, idolatry should not be illegal, because that would infringe on religious liberty. The gospel is supposed to go forward in the world, and the light of the truth is supposed to transform people in the midst of a crooked and depraved world. Worshiping Jesus should be compelled by the conscience and conviction, but not by the law.
Where liberty and evil intersect is always the most difficult area for government to discern what is best to do. In the case of marriage, the government in theory could say, “for the sake of liberty, we are going to redefine marriage, and break it away from the way other cultures have historically defined it.”
But that is not what is happening today. Instead, judges are invalidating duly passed laws around the nation, declaring them unconstitutional—as if defining marriage was something the government ought not do. The most egregious of all of these court decisions was of course the first: a US Judge struck down California’s Prop 8, nullifying the proposition because he surmised that it passed based largely on the basis of votes that were religiously motivated, and thus invalid.
Other states have seen their laws fall as well, and the logic has varied case-to-case. But what is missing from many of these cases is a basic and straightforward declaration that it does fall to government to regulate marriage in society.
As you think about the cultural change we are experiencing, remember that regulating marriage is a basic part of what a government should do. It suppresses evil (by banning adultery), fosters the well being of people (by protecting children, advancing economic stability, inheritances, taxes, etc.), and defends the oppressed (protecting women from being sexually exploited and children from being abandoned).
I understand why reasonable people who don’t have a biblical world view might not see the harm in gay marriage. But I can’t understand why some Christians (and judges!) want to act as if the government should have no role in regulating the central institution of society.
It is one thing to allow evil for the sake of liberty. It is quite another for the government to promote and celebrate it.