The cultural definition of marriage continues to evolve five years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide.
Almost five years to the day after the June 26, 2015, Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, the city council in midsize Somerville, Mass., passed a domestic partnership ordinance extending certain benefits to polyamorous relationships. City councilmembers described the ordinance as the first in the nation to recognize polyamory, incidentally in the same state that in 2004 was the first in the nation to allow gay marriage.
Everything is in place for the cultural definition of marriage to continue evolving to suit society’s personal desires and whims, Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore and theologian R. Albert Mohler told Baptist Press.
“I see Obergefell as more of a symptom than a cause of much of the cultural change happening in the world today,” said Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “The forces of cultural change as related to marriage and sexuality were already at work, and Obergefell reflected that, more than initiating it. Certainly since Obergefell that has been accelerated.”
A majority of states, 34, had already legalized gay marriage before the 2015 court ruling, when 57% of Americans approved of gay unions. Nationwide approval jumped 5 points within two years, but has remained relatively stable since then, the Pew Research Center found.
Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said that while society has been “subverting marriage for decades now,” the Obergefell decision was a capstone event.
“If we no longer know what marriage is, and marriage can be the union of two people of the same sex, then marriage as we have known it ceases to have the public significance it has had throughout human history,” Mohler said. “And it leads to a revolution in everything from hiring policies and admissions procedures in academic institutions, to questions of adoption and parenthood. The complications are endless, and they are still working their way through the society and ultimately through the courts.”
The 2020 U.S. Census, for the first time in the nation’s history, will ask same-sex couples to identify themselves, including those who are married and single homosexuals living together as partners. While precise numbers are not yet available, about 61% of homosexual couples living together in 2017 were married, according to Gallup surveys conducted that year, up from 38% before the Obergefell ruling.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans, 61%, approved of gay marriage as recently as 2019, the Pew Research Center reported, including a majority of Catholics and some Protestant groups, excepting evangelicals.
The last time a majority of Americans were opposed to gay marriage was in 2009, at 54%. Moore said that’s no reason for the Church to bend.
“There are always going to be ways in which the outside culture disagrees with the teaching of the Bible and church, and that’s been the case all the way back to the very beginning of the church,” Moore said. “As I mentioned many times in the lead up to Obergefell, the New Testament church did not emerge in Mayberry, but in a very sexually confused Roman culture, and the church was able to thrive by being a counter cultural community that saw marriage very differently than the outside society.”
Mohler termed the Somerville, Mass., recognition of polyamory “a natural implication of the Obergefell decision. The majority decision in that case threw the door wide open to virtually redefine marriage in any direction demanded.”
While some churches have changed their views of marriage to accommodate the LGBTQ community, such as the Presbyterian Church USA, the slope is not a given.
Both Moore and Mohler cited ways the Church can continue to defend biblical marriage.
Presenting the gospel that offers both truth and grace is paramount, said Moore, who also points to clarity from and consistency within the church regarding marriage.
“So we communicate what the Bible revealed and we understand that any sin can be forgiven and any person can be reconciled to God through the blood of Jesus Christ,” Moore said. Those who disagree are not enemies to be attacked but are potential future brothers and sisters in Christ.
The church must use scripture in teaching why it holds certain beliefs, “which means an understanding of Ephesians 5 [v. 21-22] as related to Genesis 2 [v. 18-25], and beyond, Moore said.
“The church must teach why marriage matters,” Moore said. “This isn’t merely a cultural issue for Christians. Marriage represents something beyond itself, which is the union of Christ and the church. That’s the reason why marriage is not infinitely malleable.”
The Church must not only communicate biblical marriage, but must embody a “gospel marriage culture within the church, which means healthy marriages within the church and consistency in standing against anything contrary to that, which would include adultery and pornography and all of the other pressures that are happening internally within the church.”
Mohler points to three issues. The Church must teach new generations what marriage is. “That’s going to require a lot of conviction and a lot of intentionality on the part of Christian parents and Christian churches.”
Churches must maintain the biblical definition of marriage, and be prepared to fight policy battles that are certain as marriage continues to evolve culturally.
“Five years is in the span of human history hardly a blink,” Mohler said. “The impact of the Obergefell decision will be revealed more and more over time.”
( EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ general assignment writer/editor.)