Many conservative Christian leader warn the faithful that the extension of marriage equality to same-sex couple inherently will threaten religious liberties or force such pastors to perform same-sex weddings.
Marriage equality is not an affront or threat to the religious liberties of Christians
Pastors can choose to marry, or not to marry, anyone based on any criteria they or their church set; this has always been true. Every state that has passed laws allowing same-sex marriage has also spelled out clergy’s freedom of choice to perform, or not perform, marriage ceremonies.
The right of clergy to speak in condemnation of same-sex marriages is likewise protected. Most Christians could not imagine speaking as offensively as the members of the Westboro Baptist Church have been known to do; however, even their rights to free speech are protected.
Forty years ago, when Bob Jones University was stripped of its tax-exempt status as a result of its racial-segregation policies, conservative Christians and politicians attempted to deflect attention from what the administration viewed as their “right to discriminate.” They claimed that their religious liberties had been violated.
Today, conservative Christians and politicians are doing the same thing: attempting to deflect attention from their discriminatory views, whether anti–gay marriage stances or anti-transgender policies, by repositioning the issue as a matter of religious liberty being threatened.
There are Christian denominations which have affirmed same-sex marriage
It is important to note that not every Christian denomination holds the same views as do most evangelicals and other conservative Christians. The members of denominations that support marriage equality want their religious liberty to perform marriages for same-sex couples as part of what they believe God calls them to do.
Even recognizing that marriage is a civil right may be challenging for some Christians as they seek to balance what they believe the Bible says about marriage with their understanding of the civic responsibility to not withhold rights from a minority group.
As a concession, some feel more open to civil unions in lieu of marriage. The problem lies in the fact that civil unions are not equal to marriage; they extend fewer than two hundred benefits, protections, and responsibilities to couples, while civil marriage offers over one thousand legal benefits, protections, and responsibilities.
Not all Christian denominations oppose marriage equality; in some states, the pressure to strike down same-sex marriage bans is coming from denominations themselves. Some denominations support marriage equality as part of their doctrine or policies. These include the Presbyterian Church USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church USA, the Metropolitan Community Church, the Society of Friends (Quakers), and the United Church of Christ.
Gay members of these denominations are gaining access to both legal marriage and the chance to celebrate their wedding in their church. For instance, the United Church of Christ (UCC), a progressive Christian denomination with over a million members and 5,100 local churches, has officially blessed the unions of same-sex couples since 1993. In April 2014, UCC leaders filed a court case in North Carolina, claiming that the religious liberties of the UCC were being infringed upon because they were not allowed to wed same-sex couples there.
The United Methodist Church, more welcoming than many denominations, is wrestling with the issue by regions and by countries. Many Independent Baptists also affirm the rights and inclusion of gays and lesbians. Though in a handful of mainline denominations, pastors who affirm or perform same-sex marriages are still being defrocked, some are being reinstated as the issues come to be understood more clearly.
What is Christian marriage?
Most conservative Christians look to Genesis 2, as well as the words of Jesus and Paul, as the standard to which they adhere for Christian marriage. The first biblical account of marriage is the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis. Eve was created as a “helper suitable for” Adam. Genesis 2:18 states clearly why Eve was created—to fill Adam’s loneliness: “It is not good for the man to be alone” (NIV). When God brought Eve to Adam, Adam said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man” (Genesis 2:23, NIV).
“One flesh” is repeated several times in the Old Testament. When Laban greeted his nephew, Jacob, Laban said, “Surely you are my own bone and my flesh” (Genesis 29:14, ESV). David’s messengers were instructed in 2 Samuel 19:12-13 to remind the elders of Judah of the “flesh and blood” connection he had with them. “One flesh” is also used in Judges 9:2, 2 Samuel 5:1, and 1 Chronicles 11:1. In all cases, the commonality is covenant relationship.
In the Genesis creation story, Adam and Eve join in a covenant relationship unique from their relationships with any of the other creatures on earth; it is one of primacy and intimacy. Genesis 2:24 (NIV) says, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will be one flesh.” The leaving indicated here is not a physical leaving. In the ancient world it was the wife who left her family, not the husband. What the man leaves behind is the primary bond he has had with his family to create a new primary covenant with his wife.
In Matthew 19:1-12, Jesus spoke about marriage in response to a question the Pharisees posed about divorce: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason?” (v. 3, NIV). Jesus calls to his listeners’ minds the covenantal one-flesh relationship between Adam and Eve and says that the marriage covenant is not to be broken.
Paul, too, spoke strongly against divorce. In Ephesians 5:21-33 we discover the purpose of Christian marriage, which helps us understand the strong admonitions against divorce.
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. (NIV 2011)
Paul tells us that marriage, though a “profound mystery,” is the picture of Jesus’ sacrificial death for the Bride. Jesus, in His death, gave everything for the Bride. The one-flesh covenant between Christ and the church is both unconditional and sealed with the blood and death of Jesus. “One flesh” echoes the covenant relationship seen first in Genesis 2:18, 22-24. Sacrificial love, modeled by Christ’s giving everything for His Bride, is retold in the witness of Christian marriage. “Just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up” is the high standard of selfless giving two Christians joined in marriage are to follow.
Through His death and perfect sacrifice, the eternal covenant between Christ and His Bride, the church, is unbreakable. This is why God says He hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). When Christians divorce, the beautiful image that bears witness to God’s unconditional covenant with His people and to Christ’s sacrificial love is damaged.
Before we move on and consider other regularly cited “conditions” of Christian marriage (procreation, gender differences and anatomical differences), we need to challenge ourselves on an important point: Can two people of the same sex join together in a covenantal, sacrificial, one-flesh, unbreakable bond reflecting the selflessness of Christ and the eternal promises of God to His people?
If you cannot already answer this question, I encourage you to get into relationship with same-sex couples. If you are a Christian and cannot imagine same-sex Christian couples, here is a link where you may find an affirming congregation near to your home.
Next, we can look at other “conditions” of Christian marriage: Procreation and Complementarity.
Other posts in the series on Marriage Equality:
 In 2007, a New Jersey judge ruled against a Christian retreat house that refused to allow a lesbian couple to have their civil union ceremony performed on the premises at a beachfront pavilion. The property owner, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association (OGCMA), is affiliated with the Methodist Church but is not a church. The organization applied for a “Green Acres” tax exemption from the State of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. The tax exemption required that Ocean Grove be used as a facility open to the public on an equal basis. In exchange for the tax break, the OGCMA agreed. This case was presented by Alliance Defense Fund (now, Alliance Defending Freedom) as a religious liberties issue. It never was such; it was a tax status issue, just as the Bob Jones University case was in 1970. Source: Deacon Greg Kandra, “Will Churches Be Sued Over Gay Marriage?” Patheos, June 27, 2013, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/deaconsbench/2013/06/will-churches-be-sued-over-gay-marriage-its-already-happened-and-a-judge-ruled-church-teaching-irrelevant/.
 Kate Tracy, “Gordon College Loses City Contract, Gets Accreditation Scrutiny,” Christianity Today, July, 14, 2014, http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2014/july/gordoncollegelosescitycontractgetsaccreditationscrut.html/?paging=off.
 “Overview of Federal Benefits Granted to Married Couples,” Human Rights Campaign, http://www.hrc.org/resources/entry/an-overview-of-federal-rights-and-protections-granted-to-married-couples.
(4) David Masci, “Where Christian Churches, Other Religions Stand on Gay Marriage,” Pew Research, June 18, 2014, http://www.pewresearch.org/facttank/2014/06/18/ wherechristianchurchesstandongaymarriage/.
(5) Kathy L. Gilbert, “Update: Frank Schaefer Reinstated as United Methodist Pastor,” United Methodist Church, June 24, 2014, http://www.umc.org/newsandmedia/panel- ordersschaeferscredentialsrestored. Accessed June 30, 2014.
(6) Dr. James Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2013), 88.
(7) Rev. 21:910.