Words Have Meaning: Defining Marriage in the Marriage Debate

same sex marriage graphcThis post is the first installment of what will be a multi-part series reflecting on my recent radio discussion with Brandan Robertson, spokesperson for Evangelicals for Marriage Equality. The audio of that radio “debate” can be found here.

Words have meaning. In order to have a conversation with another human, there must be some sort of shared language by which ideas can be communicated. This language can include everything from words to sounds to non-verbal expressions. The key, however, is that it has to be a shared language. If it is not, then communication will be misunderstood or not received at all.

In my discussion with Brandan Robertson of Evangelicals for Marriage Equality (EME), our shared language was clearly the spoken English language. In that language we used terms that have easily recognized meaning. However, it became clear early on in the discussion that we were using one particular word in a different way. That word was “marriage.”

As part of the discussion, we were both asked to define marriage. On behalf of EME, Brandan said:

We do not take a single theological view on the sacrament of marriage. . . .

Civil marriage is a marriage solemnized with a civil contract by the government without a religious ceremony. It is a legal status afforded by the government to individuals who contract to live with one another and form a family unit with one another.

Let me offer a few observations about Brandan’s definition. First he used the word to define the word. He said that “civil marriage is a marriage. . . .” This is a subtle, but circular way to avoid defining a term. It exacerbates the mystery of the word because it never defines the word. If civil marriage is a marriage, then what is marriage?

Second, he inserts another similar term into the definition without offering an explanation of what he means. He says that marriage is “a legal status afforded by the government to individuals who . . . form a family unit with one another.” What is a family unit? Historically, a family unit is formed by marriage and expanded through procreation and the rearing of the next generation. In this instance, though, Brandan has excluded procreation from his definition of marriage because same-sex couples are biologically inhibited from procreation. The act of procreation requires a man and a woman. Thus, it is probably a safe assumption to say that Brandan does not believe procreation and the rearing of the next generation to be a public good of marriage. I could be wrong on this point, but it would require Brandan to offer a definition of the family unit to prove so.

Third, Brandan’s definition of marriage diminishes it to a legal status afforded by the government. Limiting marriage to a legal status actually diminishes the importance of marriage. If marriage is just a contract affording a legal status, why does the government make it so hard to get a divorce? If marriage is just a legal contract, then is it more significant than my cell phone contract? I have agreed to enter into a relationship with AT&T for cell phone service, but breaking that contract is relatively easy by comparison. Even if EME only want to talk about civil marriage, there should be recognition that marriage is much more than simply a contract that grants a legal status.

Fourth, even though Brandan and EME claim no single theological position on marriage, they are still making theological commitments. In their very name and the words of their statement of beliefs, they declare that Bible-believing Christians should support marriage for same-sex couples. This requires at least two theological commitments. First, it requires that one not view homosexual behavior as a sin. If it were a sin, like any other sin we read about in Scripture, Christians should not encourage and support others in the practice of that sin. Second, it requires a hermeneutical commitment to prioritizing experience over Scripture. EME constantly returns to the refrain of justice or fairness. However, such calls are based upon personal experience, not the Word of God. In a future post, I will work out a biblical understanding of justice that demonstrates that these current calls for justice come from a weak theological perspective of God’s attribute of justice.

In contrast to Brandan’s definition of marriage, when asked to give my own definition, I said:

Marriage is a comprehensive union of a man and a woman in an exclusive, monogamous, covenant relationship designed to endure for a lifetime and directed toward the rearing of the next generation.

As I mentioned on the radio, there is no fear on my part admitting that my definition of marriage flows from a theological context. I believe we can see all these elements of marriage in Genesis 2. I also believe my definition is consistent with Jesus’ teaching about marriage in Matthew 19 and Mark 10 and Paul’s teaching on marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 and Ephesians 5.

In addition, I also believe that my definition of marriage is consistent with the government’s civil understanding of marriage. Marriage laws in civil society have historically limited marriage to a relationship between one man and one woman. The relationship is considered to be on-going until death unless the individuals take legal action to end it. Marriage laws limit the age and consanguinity relationships of those who can get married in large part due to legal consent and procreation. All of these limitations are consistent with my definition of marriage. I believe my definition actually offers a more robust understanding of marriage even from a civil perspective.

Even civil marriage is much more than Brandan offered in his definition. But as an evangelical, I also declare from the rooftops that marriage is not simply a civil ordinance—it is a creation ordinance instituted by God. Since God is the one who created it, he is the one who has the right to set the parameters. I, for one, am not ashamed to admit that.

Baseball Theology from Peanuts

This classic Peanuts comic strip is evidence that baseball and theology are a match made in heaven. Thank you, Charles Schulz.

It also serves as an appropriate commentary on the Texas Rangers’ abysmal 2014 season. We can only hope for better next year. But in the words of former Rangers manager Ron Washington: “That’s the way baseball go.”

This comic strip is available at http://www.peanuts.com/comicstrips/3259443.

Biblically Sound Now on Kindle

For those of you interested in an electronic version of my new Bible study, Biblically Sound: Embracing Doctrine for Life, you can now get it on Kindle. The print version is currently selling for $13.59 (list price is $14.99) on Amazon, and the Kindle editions sells for $5.49.

Here is an excerpt from the introduction:

From the window of my office, I watched the construction of the MacGorman Chapel on the campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Each day I was able to see the progress on the project. After the first few weeks of demolition and clearing the land, there seemed to be little or no progress from day to day. In fact, this lack of progress went on for a couple of months. I saw plenty of activity from workers, trucks, earth-moving equipment, etc. However, there was no visible progress being made. These first few months of construction, nevertheless, were the most important part. The workers were building the foundation.

Studying doctrine for the Christian often feels like watching a construction crew build a foundation. There seems to be a great amount of activity, but the results don’t appear visible. Just like the foundation is essential for the stability of a building, studying theology is crucial to the long-term stability of the believer.

The goal of this study is to provide you with the basics of biblical doctrine to make sure your foundation is sound. At times this will feel like the difficult work of laying an unseen foundation for a building. At other times, however, it will feel like we are soaring to great heights as we explore the breadth and length and height and depth of our faith.

In order to accomplish our goal of being biblically sound in our doctrine, we will take a step-by-step journey through the key doctrines of the Christian faith. In many respects, these are the non-negotiables of the faith.

As with any of my Bible studies, if you are interested in ordering 10 or more copies for your church, class, or small group, feel free to contact me by clicking on my faculty profile and using the contact information found there.

New Bible Study Available: Biblically Sound

More than a year ago, I embarked on a journey of writing two Bible studies commissioned by Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, TN. At long last, the journey is complete. Biblically Sound: Embracing Doctrine for Life is the second study, and it is now available for purchase through the CreateSpace Store and on Amazon. Biblically Sound is a 10-week study of basic Christian doctrine from an admittedly Baptist perspective. This study is great for small or large group Bible study, Sunday school classes, or special doctrinal emphasis teaching as a congregation.

Don’t think of this study as a seminary-level systematic theology class. I have intentionally stayed away from much of the technical language found in formal, academic study of theology while still dealing with several nuanced views of theology. You will find that I direct you to the Scripture to answer questions because it is the Bible that forms the foundation of our theology.

If you want to see how one church used the study, you can watch the videos from Bellevue Baptist Church’s women’s ministry here. The large group time was co-taught by Donna Gaines (wife of Pastor Steve Gaines) and Jean Stockdale (longtime MOMS Bible study teacher at Bellevue).

You can always purchase copies of Biblically Sound and Biblically Correct through CreateSpace or Amazon. However, if you are interested in purchasing 10 or more copies for your church, please feel free to contact me by email or phone (you will find that information on my faculty profile), and I can work with you on pricing for large orders.

Biblically Correct Now Available for Kindle

My 10-week Bible study on ethics and engaging the culture is now available for Kindle. You can purchase Biblically Correct through the Kindle Store on Amazon. If you have already purchased a print copy, you will be able to purchase the Kindle version at a reduced price through the Kindle MatchBook program (it may take a few days before this is available).

If you are interested in purchasing the print version, you can find it here or on Amazon. You can also watch videos of Bellevue Baptist Church’s Women’s Ministry teaching through this study on Right Now Media or at Bellevue’s website.

My next study, Biblically Sound: Embracing Doctrine for Life, should be available in the next month or so.

If your church is interested in working through either of these 10-week studies, I can assist you in getting larger quantities of the books. Feel free to click on my faculty profile on the right side of the page to contact me.

Guest Post: The Heart of an Anxious Mom in the Hand of a Sovereign God

This is a guest post from my wife, Melanie. She originally wrote this post for Biblical Woman, the blog site for the Women’s Programs at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The post originally appeared here.

I was sitting on the conveyor belt in the baggage claim area of the Jackson International airport when the tornados came through Jackson, MS. The airport staff had directed us to take shelter there until the storms passed. I had already heard of the casualties in Arkansas, children who lost parents, parents who lost babies. My own mother was on the road somewhere in the storm trying to get home. As I sat there in the darkness, the familiar emotions of fear and worry consumed me.  Immediately, though, I also felt God’s presence and reassurance that, “I am with you and will never leave you. I love you and the people you love and I have a perfect plan for each of your lives.”

There is something you must understand, though. This is not the first time the emotions of anxiety and worry have swept over me almost causing me to lose my breath. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t even the thousandth time. God’s sweet voice of reassurance is a tune I have come to know and claim as truth in my life. I struggled with fear and worry some as a child, much like other kids my age. I was scared of the house catching fire or snakes being in my bed.

However, it was not until I became a mother myself that I sat down at the banquet of anxiety.

Once I saw the positive pregnancy test, I instantly felt responsible for a life other than my own. After our first daughter was born, fear would overwhelm me as I was giving her a bath or rocking her in my arms. Some days I would only nibble at the banquet, knowing that most of my fears were irrational. However, other days I allowed myself to fully take in the diet of worry. On those days, my joy was lost. My thoughts of what “could” happen tumbled out of control if I was not careful. The Lord blessed us with more children, and with each one, the feeling of fear and anxiety continued like old, worn jeans that you know you should throw out, but keep around for comfort sake.

“What if I wasn’t paying attention and something happened to them?”

“What if I didn’t feed them the right things?”

“What if I didn’t do the right things to protect them?”

“What if we didn’t have the right toys/equipment/safety devices for them?”

At some point in time, all of these questions haunted me. However, I began to realize that all of my concerns had one common focus. Me.

The more I focused on myself and my abilities, the more I saw my shortcomings and faults. However, when I took my eyes off of myself and placed them on an almighty, powerful God, I began to see how the God who tends to the lilies can be trusted with all of my concerns.  As my children grew, the Lord began to teach me magnificent truths that took me away from the banquet of anxiety and led me to the true Bread of Life where I can feast on His goodness.

God used 2 Timothy 1:7 many times to speak truth into my heart: “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” It is not God’s plan for us to consider ourselves crazy because we have irrational thoughts of worry. He has given us a sound mind. That means I can trust him as He leads me to make the right decisions throughout the day. If I am in a close walk with Him, He will guide my path and give me a sound mind.

In my life, the antidote to fear and worry has always been a deeper understanding and appreciation of the sovereignty of God.

For example, I cannot keep my children safe 100% of the time, but I know God loves them even more than I do and whatever He chooses to allow in their lives is for the purpose of His glory. In the same manner, I trust God for clarity of mind so that I can make the best decisions for my family that I can make. I forget things. I accidentally overlook things, but by the grace of God, His sovereignty more than makes up for my faults.

I praise God that he has taught me to recognize fear, worry, and anxiety in my life, not as mental issues, but as trust issues. The more I trust in the precious sovereignty of God, the more I am at peace with whatever He brings my way.

New Video Resource: Homosexuality and the Church

I have recently been a part of a number of conversations about why the church seems to focus so much on the sin of homosexuality right now. That is a very valid question in light of all the other sins we see listed in Scripture. However, I believe one of the main reasons this has become a focus of the church is due to the fact that the homosexual lifestyle has been promoted so strongly in the culture. In some respects, we are simply responding to the most evident pressure point in our culture. While homosexuality is certainly not the only–or greatest–sin addressed in the Bible, it seems to be the one that comes with the most cultural approval today.

For that reason, I am thankful to Dr. John Mark Caton and his staff at Cottonwood Creek Baptist Church in Allen, TX, for producing this video resource addressing homosexuality and the church. I had the privilege of sitting down with Dr. Caton and participating in this interview back in October, and it is now available on YouTube. I pray you find it useful.