What’s In a Name?: Evangelicals and Marriage

Editor’s Note: This post is the second installment of a multi-part series reflecting on my recent radio discussion with Brandan Robertson, spokesperson for Evangelicals for Marriage Equality. The audio of that radio “debate” can be found here. The first post can be found here.

In Shakespeare’s classic play, Romeo and Juliet, the “star-cross’d lovers” are destined for a life apart from each other because of a long-standing feud between their families. In act 2, scene 2, Juliet proclaims these famous words to Romeo:

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

Is Juliet really right? Just by changing his name, can Romeo escape the wrath of the Capulet family for loving Juliet? Would they not still know exactly who he is?

As part of my ongoing interaction with Evangelicals for Marriage Equality (EME), I have become intrigued with their use of the term “Evangelicals” in their name. What makes an evangelical?

The term “evangelical” is admittedly hard to define. Many have taken up the task, and some have reached disparate conclusions. However, there are some common elements that seem to mark the use of the term evangelicalism.

First, evangelicals typically stress the authority of the Bible. They believe that it is the inspired Word of God and is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). The first half of the doctrinal statement of the Evangelical Theological Society reflects this emphasis as it states, “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.”

Second, evangelicals stress the atoning work of Christ in personal salvation. The term itself derives from the Greek word εὐανγγέλιον (evanggelion), which means “gospel” or “good news.” It should come as no surprise that a people who claim to be gospel-focused exhibit a concern for personal salvation.

Third, evangelicals tend to stress preaching and proclamation of the Word. This goes hand-in-hand with being gospel-focused people. Part of this preaching would involve calling people to live in accordance with the Scriptures.

In light of these basic characteristics of evangelicals, I find it difficult to reconcile the use of the term “evangelical” for a group of people who are promoting a lifestyle inconsistent with Scripture.

I have written in a number of places about the immorality of homosexuality, but I do not want to focus on that particular activity here. Instead, I want to focus on Jesus’ definition of marriage compared to the statement of belief from Evangelicals for Marriage Equality (EME).

The EME statement concludes, “You can be a faithful evangelical Christian and at the same time support civil marriage equality for same-sex couples.” They specifically avoid making a theological case for same-sex marriage and intentionally choose civil marriage as their battleground.

As we saw above, however, evangelicals stress the authority of God’s Word. If we go to Scripture, we find a very clear statement from Jesus on the nature of marriage. He says, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt 19:4–6). If Jesus declared that marriage is between male and female, just as God designed it from the beginning, I find it difficult to imagine how self-proclaimed evangelicals could promote something that Jesus expressly excluded from marriage.

The reason for EME’s promotion of same-sex marriage, in my opinion, comes not from their desire to adhere to the authority of God’s Word, but instead from a hermeneutical commitment to elevate experience over Scripture. In most of my conversations with Christian proponents of same-sex marriage, they make an appeal to the personal experience of a friend who was (or could be) hurt by the church’s opposition to his desire for same-sex marriage. While I do not doubt the other person’s experience, I do question the wisdom of allowing our experience to subvert the authority of the text. If we elevate experience over Scripture, then there is no limit to what behavior we can justify.

In addition, Brandan Robertson and others have appealed to a standard of love as the reason that evangelicals should support same-sex marriage. They believe that showing love will win over those who would not otherwise want anything to do with the church. However, I am drawn back to the definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13. In the midst of his extended treatise on love, Paul declares, “[Love] does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Cor 13:6). Since Jesus stated that marriage is between one man and one woman for a lifetime, then we know that to be truth, and in that we rejoice. Any departure from the pattern made clear in Jesus’ words is a departure from the truth resulting in unrighteousness. In this we cannot rejoice. So EME is left with a choice. They can either rejoice in the truth of what Jesus has said about marriage or rejoice in unrighteousness. To rejoice in unrighteousness, however, is not to express love in a biblical sense.

In many respects, this conversation about a name comes down to the authority of Scripture. If that is truly a mark of evangelicals, then we must abide by what Scripture says. EME cannot consistently use the term evangelical and also promote something that Scripture forbids. To do so is internally inconsistent, unless of course they mean something entirely different by “evangelical,” a term not defined in their statement of beliefs.

Perhaps Malcolm Yarnell has already provided us some insight into their use of the term. In his book, The Formation of Christian Doctrine, Yarnell traces the changes to the word “evangelical” and concludes that “the term has lost the substantive meaning it once possessed” (xvi). In fact, he cites Darryl Hart’s opinion that “‘evangelicalism’ is little more than a marketing construct demanding a minimalist understanding of the Christian faith” (xvi).

If that is how EME uses the term “evangelical,” then it is no different than their use of “marriage” that I discussed in the previous post. Thus, it is a term with no meaning. It is a name with no substance. It does not describe who they really are.

I, on the other hand, am happy to claim the characteristics of evangelicalism, not the least of which is to stand on the authority of God’s Word.

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For further discussion of the term evangelical, see Malcom B. Yarnell III, The Formation of Christian Doctrine (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), xiv–xvi; and James Leo Garrett, Jr., “Who Are the Evangelicals?” in Are Southern Baptists “Evangelicals”? eds. James Leo Garrett, Jr., E. Glenn Hinson, and James E. Tull (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1983), 33–63.

This article first appeared on the blog of Evan Lenow, assistant professor of ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Follow him on Twitter at @evanlenow.