Everybody’s Marriage Impacts Everybody Else’s. That’s How Social Institutions Work.

By his own admission, David French has “flip flop flip[ped]” on gay civil marriage (of the secular legal, not his moral religious view). First, he was for it, then he was against it, and now he’s for it again. He’s writing because of his, surprising to some, seeming change of heart and open support of the recently passed Respect for Marriage Act that enshrines gay marriage into law.

In explaining his back and forth on this, he originally was for it as a civil libertarian, because, as he argued then:

For those who believe gay marriage is morally wrong for Biblical or other religious reasons, this decision changes nothing. Churches can still speak out against sexual immorality and can still choose not to perform gay weddings. The gay couple down the street in no way makes our own straight marriage more difficult or challenging, nor can any decision of any court of law change the definition of marriage in the eyes of God.

The negative sort of “legislate not unto others as you would have them not legislate unto you” logic of libertarianism seems to be the main driver of the position he held for many years. Then, like many others, he reasonably got spooked about religious liberty around Obergefell, so he was against it. But now that so many religious liberty cases have gone well, and we’ve got more ground constitutionally and legally, it appears he’s sort of back to his civil libertarian posture. He’s added other reasons, such as the concern for families that have formed since the Obergefell decision, but it does appear that once his concerns about religious liberty were answered, he defaulted to his prior position with an extra dose of reinforcement due to the nature of pluralism and so forth.

I’ll leave aside the question of whether or not the religious liberty situation is as rosy as French says it is, as I am not a legal scholar, nor will I mount a full case for natural or traditional marriage as a whole. (Though, for the record, I hold a traditional view for both church and society as a whole.) I do want to note one thing that is inadequate about his basically civil libertarian claim about the way “the gay couple down the street in no way makes our own marriage more difficult or challenging, nor can any decision of any court of law change the definition of marriage in the eyes of God.” I’ve seen the claim so often and in so many forms that it merits comment.

To be clear, nobody’s concerned that the definition of marriage is being altered in the eyes of God. Many are concerned that the legal redefinition away from marriage as it is defined by God to some other understanding will be detrimental to the institution within our society as a whole, for several reasons.

A number of Christians, possibly the majority, possibly not, are at least partially concerned with the common good. Whether due to natural law arguments, or convinced by revelation that running against the grain of God’s created order is bad for society, they legitimately think that ensconcing a modern, sexless definition of marriage into law will have far-reaching negative political, social, moral, and spiritual repercussions for all involved. And this is so for two reasons.

First, many will point out that the relationship between law and society is not a one-way street: the law instructs and shapes the way society thinks about reality.

Second, and this is perhaps bigger, this view works with a naively individualistic understanding of marriage as a shared social institution. The reality is that my neighbor’s marriage can and does have an impact on mine in several ways. That’s how social institutions work and part of why the State has had an interest in recognizing and building legal frameworks around them.

Take an example French himself mentions: the institution of no-fault divorce represented and instituted a shift in our understanding of marriage bringing about long-term consequences still with us, many conservatives see the legalization of same-sex marriage playing out in the same way. For your neighbor to be able to get a no-fault divorce, the law had to be altered such that you can now get a no-fault divorce. That means your own divorce is that much easier to acquire and thereby your marriage is potentially weaker in a moment or season of doubt and frustration. Indeed, the meaning of the vows you took and the devotion and resolution are socially retconned into something far less substantial than they were when you took them. The social and moral currency of marital vows was diluted once no-fault divorce was instituted.

Beyond that, however, while your neighbor’s divorce doesn’t effect your own divorce, or force you to get a divorce, it does make your own divorce more thinkable and possible. Every couple who has been married long enough and sees the first, second, third, etc. divorce hit their friend circle knows this, as does every 90s kid who got scared every time one of their friend’s parents got divorced. It made your own sense of your parents’ marriage that much weaker, that much less safe. Divinely instituted and grounded firmly in the nature of things though it may be, marriage is also an inescapably social institution. This is why we can coherently speak of marriage cultures and so forth.

In which case, it is very plausible that the legal redefinition of marriage away from a union between a man and a woman with procreation at least theoretically possible, or in view, towards a sexless union that is ontologically incapable of procreation (without massively expensive, ethically-questionable technological intervention), does have broad, society-wide, knock-on effects on our marriages as well as our children’s and our children’s children’s marriages. This is not insignificant given that historically (and currently) one of the main reasons the State has any vested interest in legally codifying marriage is precisely to support and structure a stable familial environment for the propagation and nurture of children–the future of society. Legally redefining marriage shifts our conception of what a marriage is and therefore its proper practice. Whether explicitly and consciously or subtly and unconsciously it inevitably shifts away from these ends and the practices that are conducive toward them.

Now, by introducing the issue of no-fault divorce someone may want to point out that even if it’s true that our neighbor’s marriage does impact ours, the cost of a society without no-fault divorce is worse than that of a society with them. Go aheaf and have at it. Make the broad argument. And, similarly to that of gay marriage, I suppose. Note, I’m not actually disputing that there are places where there is a proper distinction between acts that are proscribed for believers, but should not be by the State. Debates must be had about principles, their prudent application, and so forth. But as you do, especially around marriage, I’d just like to make the minimal point that you have to do better than this highly individualistic and libertarian understanding of things.

A Note on “Strategy” and the Three Worlds

Alan Jacobs was unconvinced at my argument that, even putting aside the individual merits of Renn’s Three World’s Thesis, that sort of heuristic or analysis, or asking the question “is there a coherent sense in which one could say the Roman world shifted to a “neutral” or “positive” stance with respect to Christian practice and confession before or after Constantine’s Edict of Milan?” is relevant to Christian political witness and pastoral practice.

He writes:

No. I’m gonna say that the question is indeed irrelevant, and for several reasons. First, because within the Empire conditions for Christians varied from time to time and place to place. Even at the height of Christian power there were pockets of pagan dominance; and let’s not forget that the reign of Julian the Apostate came after Constantine. Historians may be able to look back and see clear patterns, but no one at the time could have had that kind of assurance. No one knew that Constantine’s support for Christianity would succeed, or that Julian’s opposition to it would fail. Christians then had to face whatever reality confronted them in any given place, at any given moment — as do Christians today. And sometimes adherence to an abstract account of the-situation-in-general can obscure what’s right in front of your face.

I’m emphasizing how contextually variable the circumstances of Christians always are because simplistic accounts lead to strategies. The most profound problem with the three-worlds account is not that it’s wrong, though it is wrong, but that it’s supposed to yield a strategy. And let me be blunt about this: Whenever Christians decide that they need a strategy, they’re writing a recipe for disobedience to the Lord Jesus. As Stanley Hauerwas has always said in response to people who say that the Church needs a social strategy, “the Church is a social strategy.” And here’s Lesslie Newbigin:

When our Lord stretched forth His hand to heal a leper, there was no evangelistic strategy attached to the act. It was a pure outflow of the divine love into the world, and needed no further justification. Such should be the Church’s deeds of service.

The Church’s job is to be the Church, and the Christian’s task is to be like Christ, and strategies invariably get in the way of both. In fact, I believe that, generally speaking, though the people who hold them typically don’t realize this, that’s just what they’re designed to do.

So I spot three problems at least: (1) Not only are these heuristics reductionistic the even more incredibly contextual situations that Christians find themselves in, (2) they are inevitably blinkered given how opaque historical trends are, which can blind you to the clear obligations you have, and (3) they inevitably do that because they’re designed to produce “strategies”, which are always bad, because they’re unwittingly, “a recipe for disobedience to Jesus.” The Church should do what the Church should do because the Lord Jesus commands it, not because it’s part of some timely social strategy.

I know Dr. Jacobs is smarter and wiser than me, but I don’t think this rejoinder gets at my question, or is adequate at least, so I wanted to throw out one more note by way of response. Let me explain.

First, I think it’s possible to both account for broad and local contexts in someone’s analysis. I work as a campus minister and one of the big principles we constantly think through is local, university student context. A UCI student is not a Baylor student is not an NYU student. And yet, they’re all Gen Z, so it’s very likely there are some generational-contextual traits and challenges to faithfulness that most campus ministers should be accounting for, along with everyone’s personal, individual narrative. I often roll my eyes at generational analysis and the programs that are rolled out as absolutes, precisely because of the issue of context. Still, again, it’s not absolutely without value for the pastor to consider, preach on, or counsel on its basis.

Second, it is entirely possible and likely that such heuristics are intended to be more than merely descriptive, but generate prescriptive strategies, but it is not necessarily the case. Nor does it guarantee the shape of the strategy to follow, which is evident in how different the proposals we’ve seen appended to the model actually are. Still, I appreciate and entirely sympathize with the logic of “the church is a strategy whose life of Christlikeness is in need of no justification”, a la Newbigin and Hauerwas. (This is why I’ve long said all of these “return to liturgy as Millennial bait” justifications are silly. Take the Lord’s Supper because it is the Lord’s Supper and it’s right.) But here’s where I will suggest there has been a communication breakdown.

The question I’ve been asking is that as the Church tries to follow Christ and do those acts which need no strategic justification, should she be aware of the context in which she is ministering? Does it matter for offering a healing hand to the leper whether the leper knows his need for healing or not? Does it matter if one lives in a nation that increasingly sees leprosy not as a disease, but a normal part of the human condition to be left alone? If so, is it helpful, is it wise to be aware, warn, and instruct God’s people should be emotionally and intellectually prepared to engage with that understanding as a part of that call that we always have as the Church to love the leper or not?

Often doing so is precisely part of what gives people the requisite moral and emotional resilience to keep engaging in the acts of persuasion, the acts of love, the acts of fidelity required by Jesus in the face of negativity. Or again, in the positive world, it may lead to warning against presumption that your neighbor’s easy acceptance of your confession, shared morals or ways of living are necessary signs that you are definitely engaged in clear gospel ministry, fidelity, and so forth. The heuristic doesn’t change what you do but may give wisdom and situate your approach as you do it.

If suggesting we prepare people for this is a strategy and strategic thinking, I suppose I am guilty of thinking it is not inherently wrong, sinful, or a recipe for disobedience to do so. Warning a student about the potential situation they’ll face in the HR departments at major corporations they’re headed off to is not a strategy to disobey, but an invitation to count the cost of obedience. Recognizing that the non-Christian student who heads threw the doors cannot be assumed to recognize and share the basic values and goods promoted by the gospel is not an excuse to avoid persuading them, but a potential aid in the attempt.

Anyway, I’m still mulling the actual thesis, but for now, this is my explanation for why I don’t think it’s total a waste of our time.

Sure it’s All Negative World, But What Kind of Negative World?

Everybody’s been talking about Aaron Renn’s “Three Worlds of Evangelicalism” thesis as well as the various uses to which it’s been put by folks like James Wood and others. The nutshell is that in pre-1994 U.S. we lived in a “positive world” where being a Christian was a net social positive, post-94-2015ish it was “neutral world” where, it was, well, a social status neutral, and now, post 2015, we live in “negative world”, where, again, obviously, it’s a social negative. I won’t rehash everything, because if you’re reading this I’m going to assume you’re up on things.

In perhaps predictable “third way” fashion I’ve been of a both/and, or “this side has a point, but also so do they over here” mindset about it. For someone who has had the opportunity to revisit his own progressive university 16 years after having left it as a student in order to minister to its students as a pastor, it’s very obvious to me that something has changed. Whether that is simply the furtherance of a trajectory that was long set before I left, or something qualitative has shifted is something I haven’t quite decided. Consider what follows a bit of thinking out loud, then, to clear my own mind and perhaps help clarify things for others.

I was pointed to a recent, Alan Jacobs piece by a friend with whom I’ve been discussing such matters. Jacobs is forceful in his opposition to Renn’s thesis. Given his study of history, the US’s waning and waxing levels of church membership,“for much of America’s history, and in most of America’s places, whether someone was demonstrably a Christian or not really didn’t matter all that much.” The 1950s to the 1990s were sort of a goldilocks zone of public, Christian profession, which he takes to have cast a distorting lens upon the whole.

The problem for Jacobs goes deeper, though, for taken in a properly theological sense, being a Christian who attempts to obey all of Christ’s commands has always landed you in a negative world in some way. The 1950s South might have publicly respected Christina profession, its norms surrounding God’s creation of male and female, the nature of marriage, and so forth but giving a fully Christian affirmation of the full dignity of all of his image-bearers, especially the black ones, would have cost you dearly.

Jacobs is helpfully highlighting the difference between professing Christianity and publicly being a Christian in word and deed in a fully consistent fashion. On Jacob’s theological reading of history, the reality will be that no matter the context you live in, you will always live in a “negative world.” Actually practicing Christianity will cost you in every time and place, and so there is a sense in which the question doesn’t even matter. “Whether it’s a positive world or a neutral world or a negative world or a multiverse or just a crazy old world, my job is the same: to strive for faithfulness to the Lord Jesus.”

There’s something that strikes me as obviously right and obviously wrong at the same time and it makes me wonder if there isn’t some confusion as to the level and types of claims being made and their political and pastoral significance.

It seems that it is fully possible to acknowledge that in some deep, eternal, existential sense, Christians must own that they are never fully at home in this world, that they must strive for faithfulness and resist the devil as well as the passions of the flesh which make war against their souls just as much in 40 AD as in 1940 AD. As Kierkegaard pressed the question, there is a contemporaneity of Christ such that the call to take up one’s cross and follow him is ever new in a world with devils filled. We should never imagine the 1800 years (from his time) that had passed since Christ had walked the earth did not erase the difficulty of that call. There is an absolute, spiritual and theological level at which, yes, one might say, “it’s negative world all the way down.”

Nevertheless, it does not seem inane, politically, or pastorally irrelevant to ask the question: is there a coherent sense in which one could say the Roman world shifted to a “neutral” or “positive” stance with respect to Christian practice and confession before or after Constantine’s Edict of Milan? Is that a question that is relevant to Christian political witness and pastoral practice? Or, again, is there a relevant sense in which we could speak of a more negative stance of society and the state to Christian practice in China before or after the rise of the Communists? Or again, in Soviet Russia, or in post-Soviet Russia (I say that well aware of the state of the RO church and state persecution of non-Orthodox denominations.)

Again, the question is not whether in absolute terms, the potential cost of discipleship is different. The question is whether or not there is a politically and pastorally relevant shift that has occurred in the social conditions, social imaginary, state policy, or what-have-you, that makes the distinction of before and after, this time v. that time, worth noting and flagging in those types of terms (negative, positive, neutral)? Surely the prophets called Israel to fidelity and to keep from the idols which at all times were a threat to the people God, but is it entirely and utterly irrelevant whether it occurs in Israel or in Babylon? Do we think that pastoring our people towards the one, all-important, perennial goal of faithfulness to the Lord Jesus requires us to read the signs of the (admittedly non-eschatological) times, or not?

We might think of it as trying to think through what kind of negative world we live in: positive-negative, neutral-negative, and negative-negative? Does clocking those distinctions matter?

Let me put it another way: a while back I heard a talk by Tim Keller on evangelism in a postmodern age that profoundly impacted my way of thinking through the ministry task. He noted the way that evangelism changed back from the old revival model. Back in the revival days, you could basically go out and preach the gospel to people who basically “already believed it” in a sense—there was a “come home” or “come to your senses” element where you didn’t have to unpack and unbundle a whole bunch of baggage against the Church, or Christianity, and you could assume a fair bit of a baseline Christian ethic and metaphysic in your presentation. But now–after the postmodern turn, or the 90s, or whenever it was that Keller saw the change happen–you couldn’t do that anymore. You had to do full worldview evangelism, engage presuppositions, break down negative stereotypes, and come to understand the very different world your hearers inhabited intellectually, morally, and spiritually.

I think many folks didn’t like that idea because it seemed to give the impression that “people are more sinful now, evangelism is harder now” in some type of uniquely eschatological sense that empties the gospel of its power and accounted for things too much in terms of purely human energy, effort, etc. There is a simplicity to just saying, “people have been sinners for 2000 years and the gospel has been good news for 2000 years, so I’m just going to keep preaching it faithfully and not worry about all of that.”

But I don’t think Keller was saying that “evangelism is harder” in the absolute sense that the Holy Spirit had more work to do or something like that. It wasn’t an absolute qualitative change, but perhaps more of a relative qualitative, or even a quantitative shift that pastors needed to be aware of if they were going to be more effective in reaching postmodern individuals. You might say that Keller was trying to warn us of the negative world that had hit New York 15-20 years earlier than everywhere else. I think much of his success had to do with his ability to recognize something like that.   

None of this settles the question as to whether Renn is right in the main or in the particulars, or whether Wood is right about the way to deal with life in negative world if Renn is right. Obviously, Dr. Jacobs is also free to no longer waste his time on it and I’m sure whatever he does turn his attention to will be to our benefit. But I do think it’s worth recognizing that the question is not incoherent, irrelevant, or not worth exploring for those concerned with that very same aim of holding on in fidelity to our Lord Jesus.