Holy Matrimony: A Reconsideration
Pastor John Bombaro
You know this story. On 26 June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on gay marriage when it adjudicated as constitutional the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act or DOMA (which prohibits the federal government from recognizing any state’s gay marriages) and California’s Proposition 8 that banned gay marriage twice. Gay marriage has become the unstoppable force. In anticipation of the inevitable 2013 Supreme Court decision, nearly a dozen states offered ballot measures in the November 2012 elections that were enthusiastically endorsed by the populace, resulting in legislative proposals legitimizing and safeguarding homosexual marriage. In less than two years the Justices are poised to ratify society’s megashift with another landmark decision, this time declaring the constitutionality of homosexual marriage over–against any and all opposing states and their constituents.
…The future of marriage hasarrived and it is a purely statutory institution defined by non–discriminatory people, for non-discriminatory people. Perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps not. However it may be, the mutability of this legal– cum-constitutional institution leaves little roomfor mooring the contemporary barge of marriage only between a man and a woman. So says Supreme Court deciding vote on DOMA and Ronald Dworkin sympathizer, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who previously wrote that the 14th Amendment guarantees a person’s “most intimate and personal choices,” and that discriminatory laws cannot be based on “moral disapproval.”
…Confessional Lutherans, linking arms with Roman Catholics and non– denominational types of every stripe, along with Mormons and even Muslims, decry gay marriage in an already lost cultural battle largely fought on secularturf .3 And so, as pop media evidences, the Church is further alienated, caricatured and rendered subcultural in its association with issues of law as opposed to gospel or, put differently, in defending natural law issues from first article perspectives(i.e. the doctrine of creation from the Apostles’ Creed) instead of extolling holy matrimony (not marriage) as a second article reality (i.e. the second article of the Creed whereby Christ recreates the world in himself), resourced by the Holy Spirit as a third article institution (i.e. the third article of the Creed in which the Holy Spirit sanctifies believers within thecontext of the kingdom of God). Yes, there is a difference between legal marriage and holy matrimony. Let me restate the current situation: the Church looks like an out–of–touch, bigoted entity desperately fighting to preserve an archaic institution that already has been redefined, as a last gasp effort to rescue culture from ‘liberals’ and ’gays’ instead of presenting the sacrament of holy matrimony as God’s means for human flourishing in Christ.
…Truth be told, this is my plea: a reconsideration ofthe sacrament of holy matrimony. Without a clearly defined christocentric matrimonial alternative within American Protestantism the legal
redefinition of marriage will soon require homosexual weddings by any entity performing marriages of any kind. …Soon the legal redefinition of marriage will require homosexual weddings by any entity performing marriages, including the Church. A precident has already been set in other countries, looking no further than Canada. In fact, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark is required to allow same–sex couples to marryin Churches. Looking ahead to a possibleconstitutional right to same–sex marriagehere, two weeks ago Justice Samuel Alito asked Solicitor General Donald Verrilli a key question: “In the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax–exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same–sex marriage?” With disconcerting candor, Verrilli admitted, “It’s certainly going to be an issue. I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is — it is going to be an issue.” 4 Translation: In a foreseeable scenario, if an American Church (or religious group or school or non–profit organization) refuses to obey the law of equality on this legal matter, then it is conceivable the state in which it finds itself will not recognize its heterosexual marriage ceremonies, penalties may be incurred, and its tax–exempt status eliminated. Lawyers in this country are poised for such action and have already begun litigation inColorado, where 501c3 status is in play. Lawsuits will follow in other states for discrimination not based on legitimate (read: purely) religious grounds.
…I am asking our parish, given its unique setting anddivine gospel mandate, to contemplate the alteration of our bylaws so as to distinguish our belief and practice from those Churches andinstitutions who inimically operate within state–defined categories regarding marriage. There’s a time andplace for the Church to take its stand on cultural issues but this isn’t one of them. It is a legal issue for citizens to decide not an ecclesiological issue for Churches to battle. The collateral damage of this warfare has been the gospel. Marriage is about the law. Holy matrimony is about the gospel (more on that below). Sadly, two extremes have been pursued that have neither strengthened the Church nor promoted something holy nor left society and the Church’s members with something they desire and need from the Lord. One extreme has been wholesalecapitulation by segments of the Church, embracing gay marriage, gay pastors, gay “Christian” rites. At this end of the spectrum the world set the agenda and the Church follows to be relevant, accepted, tolerated. The other extreme has been a pugnacious posture to fight the culture war by “reclaiming ChristianAmerica” by slugging it out in the courts over the cultural definition of marriage, resulting in the alienation of gay or questioning people both inside and outside the Church. The Church at this end appears to be irrelevant, unaccepting, intolerant. Here the first faceof the Church is law not gospel. Is there no alternative to the extremes?
Yes. There is an alternative and it is one we have been practicing and positively promoting for years at Grace Lutheran Church. It is the Rite of Holy Matrimony.
Beginning with an exegetical reconsideration of Ephesians 5:21–33 in light of the second article eschatological implications of Christ’s union with his bride, the Church, I have come to reject the legitimacy of civil authority over holy matrimony when defined as a gospel institution, that is, as a sacrament and not merely (and ambiguously) sacramental. Assuch, holy matrimony stands beyond the purview of statutory (re)definitions. Legal counsel at the synodical level affirms the same. The state, of course, is welcome to view holy matrimony as synonymous with marriage (which it currently does); but if/when it does not, both definition and law will be on the side of the sacrament that defines the institution in legitimate (read: purely) religious categories that are as ancient as the oldest liturgies of the Christian Church.
This is no new position for the Church but we diminished it in the Reformation tradition. Holy matrimony is intended to take place under the auspices of the Church under Christ’s authority with sanctifying graces by theHoly Spirit. Meanwhile, legal status and juridical benefits for the couple could be procured at City Hall through a civil ceremony. It would be that civil ceremony that guarantees equal rights to gay marriages, too. In this way, Church and state would be altogether separate. Your pastor would no longer be an agent of the state that ratifies the couple marrying one another under the authority of the state. That is what legal marriage is today: the state authoritatively saying that individuals havethe authority toself–marry. It is all law. I say, let the nation have law while the Church has gospel.
The separation of the two spheres by way of definition and authority could bring manifold practical benefits. The Church would possess an institution, namely the sacrament of holy matrimony, desired by the baptized for their sanctification, edification and companionship understood in second article gospel categories of new creation and resourced by the power of the Holy Spirit, while the state would possess a law– oriented institution necessary to preserve the rights, privileges and protection of those who enter intostatutory domestic, socio–economic arrangements, sexual orientation notwithstanding. A parishioner may, then, at the same time reasonably affirm the constitutionality of homosexual marriage and the exclusively heterosexual institution of holy matrimony — even if the parishioner is gay. Likewise for those who oppose same–sex marriage: they can at the same time voice opposition towhat they perceive to be detrimental to society and promote what the Lord has institutionally transformed in Christ so that men and women can be conformed to the likeness ofChrist and His Bride. The Church possesses something for its conjugal unions that legal institutions donot — the grace of God present for themin this institution for their sanctification. But the Church would not offer state defined rights, privileges and protection under law. That, instead, would come from the County Seat.
Already I perform only the sacrament of holy matrimony. I have notified our bishop, given papers at our seminaries, submitted a journal article forpeer review, and spoken at the International Lutheran Conference on the need to abandon legal marriages and pastors serving as agents of the state andinstead recovering the sacrament of holy matrimony. Confessionally I am operating within the parameters of Lutheranism and taking a stand where fewothers have ventured. It is my pastoral prerogative and I have seen its effectiveness.
And so have others. There is a growing number of Lutheran priests embracing holy matrimony and it has been Grace Lutheran that provided the impetus forreconsideration. Currently, I serveon the Synod’s task force, “God’s Gift of Sexuality” (GGOS) for the purpose of changing Lutheran culture concerning this differentiation and educationally promoting the positive alternative—holy matrimony. Some have said that this could be a game-changer. Others have called it amegashift for Lutherans. I call it repentance and faithfulness to what has always been there but was surrendered to thestate at the time ofthe Reformation. Whatever it may be, it is not a retreat. Instead, it underscores the point that what the Lord has for human flourishing is categorically different than what is on offer with the law. It puts forth something that helps us in matrimony rather than legislating individual rights in the context of contract. We can catechize children based on the positive attributes of holy matrimony, offering something they’ll desire from the Lord — a true rite of passage rather than religious window-dressing for something actuated and authorized by the state.
To read Pastor Bombaro’s entire article, click: here