I recently came across the Twitter feed of Dan Haseltine, front-man of the Christian band Jars of Clay (one of my favorites in high school). Over the past few days, he has been tweeting a lot on the subject of same-sex marriage. He raises some thought-provoking questions, and also voices skepticism over the validity of some conservative/biblical arguments against it. His tweets generated a lot of negative feedback from evangelicals, and he has since posted an apology/clarification on his blog. I applaud him for taking the time to work through the arguments on both sides, and I hope that he continues to do so.
In an effort to help fellow believers (and also nonbelievers) reach clarity on this admittedly difficult issue, I’d like to humbly offer my own thoughts. My concern here is mainly to address the underlying presuppositions that give rise to the debate over gay marriage. In particular, I would like to explore the proper relationship between faith and politics by proposing the following points:
- There is no such thing as a secular ethic. Another way of stating this is that every ethic is in some sense “religious.” This is not the same as saying that secularists are unethical, or that they have no knowledge of right and wrong. Rather, it is to say that all valid ethical judgments ultimately derive from the character and will of God, whether or not one acknowledges it. To claim anything as a moral absolute is to appeal to an authority higher than any individual, culture, or nation. Therefore, we should not suppose that the realm of civil government is an ethical “neutral ground.”
- Every law is a moral law. Related to the first point, it needs to be acknowledged that no laws are morally neutral. For example, laws against murder or manslaughter are intended to uphold the value of human life. And laws against stealing or copyright infringement are intended to uphold the right to personal property. Therefore we should dispense with the argument that it isn’t the job of the civil government to “legislate morality.” Nor is it helpful to appeal to the libertarian principle of a supposed “right to self-harm,” as I have discussed here. Choices that harm ourselves will inevitably cause harm to those around us (just ask any family member of an addict).
- Bringing faith into a political discussion is not the same as wedding the institutional church to the state. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” This clause has set the foundation for our separation of church and state. And rightly so. It shouldn’t be the job of any church or denomination to run the state, or vice versa. But it is one thing to respect the distinction between these two institutions, and another to press that distinction into the realm of one’s convictions about ultimate reality and justice. On a practical level, no one can do this. And on a theoretical level, no one should have to. Many secularists talk as if we must assume the role of an atheist before entering the political sphere. But I fail to see how this is not a double standard.
- There is no such thing as a “right to love.” Love (as well as sex and marriage) is a gift, not a right. As a matter of fact, I think we should impose a moratorium on such emotive buzzwords as “love,” “bigotry,” etc. in this debate. When we use these terms without first defining them, we commit the logical fallacy of poisoning the well, which has the effect of prejudicing the whole discussion.
I offer these thoughts as the beginning of the discussion, not the end. I am still working through them myself, and I would welcome any feedback.
According to the Bible, Jesus was born of a young Jewish virgin named Mary, who was told by the angel Gabriel that she would become pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit. But the Virgin Birth isn’t mentioned very often in Scripture. We find it recorded just once in the Gospel of Matthew (1:18-23; quoting Isaiah 7:14) and once in the Gospel of Luke (1:34-35). By comparison, Scripture gives a lot more attention to Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. With so few biblical references to the Virgin Birth, one might be tempted to conclude that it’s just not that important for Christians to believe in it. But there are several reasons why Christians should confess this truth. In fact, while Christians may have disagreements on some peripheral issues of doctrine, a proper understanding of the Virgin Birth should lead us to see the central, nonnegotiable place that it should have in our theology.
The first reason why the Virgin Birth matters is because it is tied directly to the authority of Scripture. The Bible may not mention the Virgin Birth very often, but 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that all Scripture is inspired by God, while Proverbs 30:5 says that every word of God proves true. Some portions of Scripture might be more confusing or open to interpretation than others, but no one doubts that Matthew and Luke intended for us to believe that Mary was truly a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus. If we deny the truth of the Virgin Birth, then we undermine the reliability of Scripture as a whole, and cast a shadow of doubt on everything else that it teaches.
Another reason why the Virgin Birth matters is because it shows us how the entire Trinity was involved in the Incarnation of Christ. It demonstrates Jesus’ unique origin from God the Father, for Jesus says, “As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me” (John 6:57). It also points to the Holy Spirit as the means of Jesus’ Incarnation. This is explicit in both Matthew and Luke—Mary was said to be “with child from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18) and that the Holy Spirit “came upon” her and “overshadowed” her (Luke 1:35). Without a Virgin Birth, we have a separation of the Father and Holy Spirit from the saving work of Jesus in the Incarnation.
The Virgin Birth also safeguards the preexistence of Jesus. Scripture tells us that Jesus was “with God in the beginning” (John 1:1-2) and then took on “the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” when he came into the world (Philippians 2:6-7). But if Jesus was born by purely natural processes, how could he have existed before his birth? Some sort of supernatural intervention is necessary to affirm Jesus’ divine origins, or we are left with nothing but a human Jesus who at most was somehow “adopted” as God’s Son during his life.
A Virgin Birth also protects Jesus from the effects of original sin. This Christian doctrine teaches that all humans have inherited the guilt and moral corruption of our first parent Adam. The apostle Paul writes that sin and death came into the world through “one man” (Romans 5:12), and that his “one trespass led to condemnation for all men” (Romans 5:18). For this reason, we are all “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). But if our descent from Adam is the cause of our sin and guilt, how can Jesus be said to have been “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15)? Some kind of divine intervention was necessary to interrupt the ordinary transmission of sin from parent to child if Jesus was to be born into this world uncorrupted.
All of these reasons taken together should lead us to the conclusion that the doctrine of the Virgin Birth of Jesus is a vital, nonnegotiable truth of the Christian faith. Without it, Jesus could not possibly have been the eternally preexistent Word who came in the flesh without sin, and whose saving work was intimately connected to the work of the Father and Holy Spirit from beginning to end.
But while we confess the truth of the Virgin Birth, we must be careful not to jump to the wrong conclusions from it. For one, the Virgin Birth does not imply that sex in itself is somehow sinful. The Bible clearly describes sex as a gift of God and part of his good creation (Genesis 2:24-25; 1 Timothy 4:1-4). For another, the Virgin Birth does not imply that Mary was herself sinless or remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus. While these teachings are found in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, evangelical Protestants generally agree that Mary was a sinner saved by grace, just like the rest of us who confess Christ as our Savior.
Machen, J. Gresham. The Virgin Birth of Christ. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1930.
Rayburn, Robert G. Is the Virgin Birth Essential? Wheaton, IL: College Church of Christ, c. 1960.
Witherington, Ben. “The Birth of Jesus.” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel Green and Scot McKnight, 60-74. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992.