About a month ago I lit a bunch of stuff on fire and then grabbed some popcorn and set up a lawn chair to watch what would happen. The next day, even as the embers were still glowing a little, I took some time to explain myself. I’m going to do that again, I think, after last week’s post, which lit a different pile of things on fire.

Primarily, I want to circle back around to a point that was alluded to in my argument but not made explicit. At one point in the essay I noted that an acceptance of same-sex marriage as a legitimate social institution necessarily commits one to a set of beliefs that necessarily redefines Christian faith in significant ways, such that it is no longer Christianity as understood by traditional believers. (In making this move, I’m simply using the same line of argumentation that the orthodox have used for a century in dealing with various species of theological liberalism. Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism is the most famous example.) None of that should be taken as a personal attack, of course. Rather, it’s simply an attempt to highlight what is actually at stake in this debate, a point that many seem slow to understand.

Of course, that can also seem a bold claim at first, perhaps much too bold, so I want to walk through the logic behind it.

In traditional Christian societies in the west, marriage is treated as a foundational social institution that precedes the authority of the magistrate. As a natural institution hard-wired into creation by God in Genesis, it is something that exists outside the authority of governments, magistrates, or local lords. All of those bodies might try to use marriage to advance their own agenda, of course. But they cannot really do anything to transform it into something other than itself for the simple reason that it is a natural institution and so is not subject to alteration by human parties.

You can also put this in more practical terms: How do we ensure that the children resulting from sexual relationships between men and women will be adequately cared for and raised up so that they will continue society as we age and die? Nature’s answer is “marriage.”

For this reason, marriage is the most fundamental of all social institutions, a fact that Christians have professed for ages and which is made explicit in much recent Christian social teaching. Marriage is not an institution created by man, but is instead something that arises out of nature, out of the way God has put reality together and caused it to work. Of course, implicit in the traditional understanding of marriage is the idea that reality works in a certain way. This, too, is a traditional Christian idea: There is this thing that exists called “nature” and it cannot be safely transgressed indefinitely. Eventually it snaps back on you. This is what Paul is describing in Romans 1 and 2.

In this understanding, marriage is not something that a powerful group of people dreamt up one day as a good idea; it is something hard-wired into the way that reality works which cannot be transformed or redefined for the same reason that gravity cannot be transformed. (“For now!” says the technocrat, no doubt.)

Now if we turn to the idea of same-sex marriage, we are talking about something quite different. Same-sex relationships by definition are not fruitful in the way that heterosexual relationships are. So there is no obvious need here for any sort of socially recognized institution to manage the consequences of couples engaging in same-sex acts. This is precisely why societies that may have allowed for same-sex acts in certain situations and circumstances nevertheless did not develop the idea of “same-sex marriage” existing alongside heterosexual marriage. Marriage is a very specific union meant to address a very specific problem arising from nature which same-sex couples by definition are not subject to.

Consequently, if we wish to have married same-sex couples that look and behave like heterosexual couples, we must necessarily introduce a third party to make that possible because that is the only way such a thing can be done. In fact, we must introduce multiple third parties. We must introduce a third party of the opposite sex of the couple that makes child-bearing possible, either via sperm donation or carrying a child to term and delivering the baby.

We must also introduce a third party that will regulate and control how the process of child-bearing will be done since such practices, which are necessary if same-sex marriage is going to exist as a real thing, are obviously open to massive abuses and create complicated legal situations. Bio-ethical questions must also be answered as scientists are now working on ways to create children who are related to both same-sex partners in the relationship. (In the time since I first drafted this essay, this happened in New York.)

How will adoptions be handled? What sort of surrogacy arrangements will be allowed? Who has custody rights to the child in the event of divorce or the death of a partner? For example, suppose a lesbian couple has a child through IVF and the woman who carried the child to term and birthed the child dies when the child is young. In that event, who is that child’s guardian? The woman’s partner who has no biological connections to the child whatsoever or the man who provided the sperm?

The state has to answer all these questions because there is literally no other mechanism for doing it. As a result, the state comes to precede the family in ways that fundamentally transform the Christian understanding of nature. Indeed, nature basically ceases to exist and is replaced by whatever the state says. This is the cost, then, of an entrenched individualism—it can only be sustained by a magisterial body which possesses a kind of absolute power over the individual. Strict individualism of the sort we have now embraced in the west necessarily requires some species of totalitarianism. (This is precisely the point Antonin Scalia spent so much time making.)

These are questions that must be answered when we are talking about same-sex families because they are questions that will arise at some point and to which there are no clear answers or even clear principles for arriving at answers.

But there’s more that needs to be said than simply that a strong magisterial body is necessary for same-sex marriage to exist. That is simply a political point. But there is an ontological aspect to the issue too. If a third party is essential for the institution to exist, that also means that some kind of other entity exists prior to that institution, which is how it derives the power to define the institution. If we need additional social bodies to provide for the existence of same-sex families through facilitating adoptions, regulating surrogacy, and so on, then the bodies that provide those services exist prior to the family and are defining what the family is or is not.

In this new understanding of marriage and family, the natural social relations established in classical reflection on the subject and that we see treated as normal and good in Genesis now become a social construction shaped and defined by the magistrate. The design of our bodies and the fact of our maternity or paternity is only as relevant as the magistrate allows it to be. This, necessarily, means that the magistrate has some sort of declarative power to define reality. To affirm same-sex marriage as a legitimate social institution is necessarily to affirm the magistrate as a social body that is given declarative power to define the most basic human institutions. This is why the question of same-sex marriage is so fundamental to how we understand all of reality, a point Dreher has been making for years.

The issues being raised in this debate cannot be limited to something like “should same-sex couples have access to legal benefits also enjoyed by heterosexual couples?” That is obviously an important question and taken by itself the answer might appear obvious. But it cannot be treated in isolation. What we’re actually asking is something more like “Are there natural norms that cannot be transgressed by the state or are moral norms simply defined and enforced via the magistrate or some other body of powerful people?” There is an inevitable power-play here being made on the part of those proponents of a more expansive idea of the state, a point made quite clearly by theologian John Milbank:

“(The creation of same-sex marriage) is a strategic move in the modern state’s drive to assume direct control over the reproduction of the population, bypassing our interpersonal encounters. This is not about natural justice, but the desire on the part of biopolitical tyranny to destroy marriage and the family as the most fundamental mediating social institution.

Heterosexual exchange and reproduction has always been the very “grammar” of social relating as such. The abandonment of this grammar would thus imply a society no longer primarily constituted by extended kinship, but rather by state control and merely monetary exchange and reproduction.”

If we grant the state the power to override nature in redefining fundamental social institutions and to insert itself into the most intimate human arenas, that necessarily implies a rejection of the idea that there are natural norms that are beyond the purview of the magistrate. Same-sex marriage assumes an expansion of state power that necessarily makes all of life subject to the state’s decree. If the state has power to define marriage, what power does it not possess?

Reality is thus not defined by religious dogma, but by state decree. Regarding Christianity, it shifts Christianity away from being a set of beliefs about reality and redefines it as a set of therapeutic principles and techniques that a person may or may not find useful to deal with their own private difficulties.

All the dogma is thus washed away or sanitized so that it no longer is concerned with describing reality and is instead simply a tool for assuaging a person’s guilt, angst, or trauma in the face of personal pain or difficulty. Thus Jesus ceases to be the God-man who takes on human flesh and is joined to us at the cross, paying the penalty for our sin, so that we can then be joined with him in his resurrection. Instead, he becomes a good (possibly even very good!) moral exemplar.

To be sure, there are no shortage of people who profess to be Christian and to believe in precisely that sort of Christianity. But again, let us be clear that that is what we are doing.

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy and author of "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World." He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.