The short answer to the question raised by the title is, "Yes."
Now, I know that answer is provocative. Bear with me in this rather long post. I want to explain to you why, as a biblically conservative Christian, I believe the answer yes to the question in the title is true. But, I also want to explain why this answer does not make gay-marriage morally acceptable. Finally, I want to offer a surprising appeal: the church should get out of the wedding business.
The early church never performed a wedding for a same-sex couple.
The early church never performed a wedding where one person is a Christian while the other is not.
While I'm at it, the early church also never performed an interracial marriage.
This is not conjecture. It is not just my opinion. It is an undeniable fact of history.
The simple truth is the early church never involved itself in weddings at all. Marriage is an arrangement rooted in civil government and not in the church. I am not saying it is a cultural invention. It is part of God's design for humanity. It is just like punishing criminals or levying taxes. It is done under civil, not religious, authority.
First, a brief explanation of terms. Marriage is much more than just the right to have sex.
Marriage is an arrangement that immediately obligates both parties to the unique rules and expectations of being married. A simple illustration would be: If John does not give food to his neighbor, Mary, John has not violated any law. As of the day that John accepts the legal state of marriage with Mary, the same refusal violates cultural, and usually legal, requirements. Marriage involves all kinds of actual legal implications regarding care, fidelity, children, property, and a host of other things. And yes, it also usually does involve sex. [Sexual activity is not essential to marriage, since a couple can be married even if injury or disease prevents them from engaging in normal sexual intimacy.]
A second, although somewhat distasteful illustration, would be that a couple living together in a home with two children from a previous partner and a third newly born infant may have the outward appearance of a family. But, as soon as they actually go and get married, a myriad of new legal factors about the children, the property, insurance, and many other things exists. While simply living together, the man could simply walk away and start living with someone else. Paternity laws might mean he has to provide some child support, but that's it. As soon as they are married, walking away involves filing legal papers, arrangements about property, rights of the step children and of the one fully biological child, child support and, in many cases, spousal support.
So, coming back to my opening statements in the post, the early church never imagined itself in the role of either pronouncing a couple married or, in the reverse, pronouncing a couple divorced. Marriage was a civil, not a religious, arrangement. Let me offer several evidences to support this. After that, I'd like to explore some ways this realization should impact the church today.
Marriage is Rooted in Eden
Not in Pentecost
The most compelling evidence is the simple fact that marriage did not begin with the New Testament church. In fact, the coming of the church did not change marriage. People who were married before the Day of Pentecost were still married afterward. What people did to get married before the Day of Pentecost was exactly the same things they did to get married after the Day of Pentecost.
Nowhere in the Old Testament is there a single shred of evidence that priests performed weddings. There is no example of a synagogue wedding and the temple did not have a place for weddings. Throughout the many centuries covered in the Tanak, the Jewish Scriptures, whatever things constitute making a couple married, these had nothing to do with priests or prophets or the temple.
So, there is nothing surprising in the fact that the earliest Christians simply continued the standard practice of marriage that the Jews had been using. This meant the center-point of arrangements for marriage involved negotiations between the bride's family (usually with the bride's consent) and the groom. Once these were satisfactory, a date was appointed for the wedding. This would involve the couple, and often the families, understanding and sometimes publicly affirming the changes and obligations marriage would bring about.
In more ancient times, since these things would have been known and understood by the village or clan, these things alone granted the couple the right to sexual intimacy and established in the mind of the society that this was now a married man and a married woman.
By the time of Jesus, particularly in areas under Roman administration, marriage would have included legal formalities and civil officials. Marriages were registered, as were divorces. These legal formalities being carried out, recorded, and acknowledged was what brought about the state of "being married."
In other words, to just say it briefly, the early Christians continued to use the Roman civil formalities of marriage to get married.
Church and State
The Emperor Constantine the Great (272-337) began a brief golden age for the church, In rapid order the church went from illegal to legal and then to legal and favored. Before the end of the fourth century, the church would become the only legal religion with the empire.
A part of this opening of doors for the church involved officially recognizing the leaders of the church and using government resources to assist them in things like the construction of buildings and the care of the poor. It is within these first centuries of the Christian Roman Empire that local leaders of the church began serving as officials of the Roman government. To this day, the Alb (linen gown worn by a priest in Mass) evolves from the Roman toga, the Stole evolves from the court attire of Roman judges, the Cope evolved from the common Roman outer cloak, and the Mitre (bishop's hat) is inherited from the Persian aristocracy. So, clergy began performing weddings in their role as part of the Roman civil government.
Once this alliance was forged, it was simply never undone. To this day, in the United States, when a minister performs a legally valid wedding, he or she is actually acting as a agent of the state. The license, the signing of names, the use of witnesses, and of all these then filed with some local office of records should make this entirely obvious. The traditional wording heard at the end of many weddings is remarkably accurate: And so, now, by the power vested in me by the state of [name of state here] I now pronounce that you are husband and wife. You may now kiss the bride.
Because marriage is so obviously important, and since the Bible uses marriage to illustrate principles of our relationship with Christ, it is probable that some kind of Christian observance of prayer and fasting and the seeking of God's blessings on the couple did arise in the centuries between Paul and Constantine. This cannot be proven, but most scholars believe the reasonableness of the assumption is too strong to seriously question.
Applications for Today
The first application would be to point out that having sex together or living together does not constitute a genuine marriage. I will address this whole topic in another blog post, at some point.
Another application is that when a marriage is recognized by the state, then a state of marriage does exist between those two people. This raises thorny questions in regard to same-sex couples.
Others have written at length demonstrating that homosexual acts are, as understood in the Bible, sins. As many on both sides point out, early Old Testament law designates these as a crime. In the New Testament, homosexual acts are always depicted as sins. Although it's not my intention to explain the full reasons here, a practicing homosexual cannot see themselves as living in God's will and cannot be accepted by the church as member in good standing.
Since all Christians sin, some might argue that they are a Christian in need of repentance. There are instances where I could accept that. But, if a person continues in willful sin and has no real intention of repenting of that sin or even considering their actions are sins, then they would hardly be a Christian in need of repentance, would they?
The arguments against allowing same-sex marriages far outweigh the arguments in favor of it. Even leaving Christian doctrine entirely out of the picture, the broad considerations of should society raise serious questions. The concept of human marriage is ubiquitous and amazingly similar across the planet. Cultures with no historic contact with the Graeco-Roman or European world still have surprisingly similar customs of marriage. The most notable variation is the possible practice of polygamy. Even this, however, is less common than uninformed people might imagine.
The other presumptions regarding the consent of the bride's family, the assuming of responsibilities, promises of fidelity, child-bearing and child-raising, the rights to inheritance, and so forth: these are remarkable in their widespread uniformity. When exceptions have been asserted, such as Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa, further studies have dismissed her depiction of a culture happily existing with open marriages and freedom of sexual pleasure as based on misinformation and deeply flawed research.
The End of Marriage
Beyond the fact that society is rushing headlong into redefining marriage in ways unprecedented in all human history, an equally disturbing reality is: There is absolutely no basis for allowing same-sex marriage and then denying legal standing to polygamy. In fact, polygamy, since it clearly has been a pattern of marriage in some historic cultures, and since some groups insist their desire for polygamy is rooted in religious dogma, the basis for legalizing polygamy is stronger than the case for same-sex marriage. Assuming guidelines to insure it is open only to consenting adults, there is simply no reasonable basis to deny polygamy as a legal marriage arrangement, as well.
When polygamy is made a legally valid marriage arrangement, our own culture's obsession with fairness would demand that polyandry must be equally valid. A single wife could have multiple husbands. Polygamy could not be recognized as legal and then turn around and deny the same right to a woman who wanted several (consenting adult) husbands.
Even before pushing for the legal recognition of fully Plural Marriage (multiple wives and multiple husbands), it is clear the implications for parenthood, child-raising, family insurance, and a host of other issues can mean only one thing: marriage as a standard accepted legal arrangement will simply no longer exist as a functional reality.
If a person being married to whomever they want to be married to is broadened beyond the traditional (and I do not limit this to Christian or European) one man and one woman, then there simply is no point at which our society will be able to say, "This far, but no farther."
The Road Less Traveled
The above serious concerns do not address the question of morality or sinfulness. Those are important. But, even setting those things aside, I am saying we are walking down a road (along with a few other first-world countries) that no culture in human history has ever taken. I am convinced there are unavoidable and catastrophic consequences that will be thrust upon society. The two undeniable facts - that this cultural road is unprecedented (and therefore its results are unknown) and we are turning down this road with such hurried eagerness - calls for caution, But, even caution is dismissed by many eager for this headlong rush as pigheaded bigotry.
The Church in a Nation with Same-sex Marriage
At this point, the progression toward fully recognized same-sex marriage seems inevitable. Should that prediction be accurate, what are its implications?
First, the church has historically reserved the right, echoing the condemnations of John the Baptist to Herod Antipas, to condemn some fully legal marriages as wholly immoral. Although this may be an unfamiliar stand for the contemporary church, it is certainly nothing new. John announced, "It is not lawful [that is, biblical, following the law of Moses] for you to be married [that is, Herod actually is legally married to this woman] to your brother's wife." (Mark 6:18) It is entirely possible for people to be in a legal marriage that the church condemns as immoral. There are numerous examples in church history.
I accept that a legal marriage is whatever the civil government says it is. That is, in the case just mentioned. Herod really was legally married to his brother's wife. John does not say there is no legal marriage. What he says is that this particular legal marriage is immoral. More than a century and a half ago, large segments of the church rose up to announce that slavery was both entirely legal and wholly immoral. Legal and moral are different categories based on different criteria.
So, should the state decide two men are married, then I would affirm that a state of marriage does exist between those two men. The caveat is that affirming that to be true does not require that the marriage is moral or that homosexual acts are not sinful. The marriage is legal. The marriage is also immoral. It is far from the first time in the modern world something is legal (such as abortion-on-demand or capital-punishment and still rejected by many Christians as immoral). This difference must be made clear.
Second, there are serious reasons why the church should consider simply removing itself from the entire process of joining with the state to solemnize legal marriages. Or, to say it simply, the church needs to get out of the business of performing weddings.
If same-gender marriage becomes legal, there will be ongoing and unrelenting pressure on churches to fully accept those unions as moral. With this will be the pressure, and eventually even legal pressure, for clergy to perform weddings without discrimination based on sexual orientation. After all, in performing a wedding the clergy are, indeed, acting as agents of civil government. Church facilities, to the degree they are the normal places for weddings, will be under pressure to open to facilities to all without regard to sexual orientation.
I realize the most likely response will be to continue performing weddings and to insist nothing will really change. Think long and hard about that assumption. If church people in 1960 had been asked if the time would come when a majority of Americans and a significant minority of church-going evangelicals would favor gay marriage, how many would have said yes? How confident would reasonable thinking adults of 1960 have been that endorsing gay-marriage had no chance of happening? Would they have foreseen that a steady pressure of culture, especially motion pictures and television, would be so powerful that the opinions of tens of millions would be dramatically changed in just fifty years?
Churches should begin educating Christians as to the real nature of marriage as a legal arrangement validated by civil law and draw a distinction between a legal marriage and a moral marriage. We should evolve away from the practice of doing weddings and replace them with Christian gatherings in which Christian couples come together to pray, to promise, and to seek the blessing of God and the church. But, no state papers are signed. As in a number of other countries in the world today, the legal marriage falls under the control of the state, but the ceremonial blessing of a moral marriage is the choice of a church.
A Restoration Movement Perspective
I am part of a religious tradition that looks to the Apostolic church as a model against which the modern church must constantly be measured. It is a very flexible model, proving to be a framework, and not a detailed blueprint, for the life of the church. But, out of that tradition, we must face the fact that the New Testament church simply did not do weddings. In fact, the Antenicene church (before Nicea or pre-325) did not do weddings. Nothing in the entire Bible ever suggests the priests of the temple or the teachers of the synagogue or the pastors of the church are supposed to do weddings.
We are coming to a moment in our nation's history when the man-made tradition of church weddings is going to provide Satan with a powerful wedge he will thrust into the life of the church. That our nation is going this direction may be beyond our ability to stop. It is entirely within our power, however, to determine just how vulnerable we want our churches to be to this seismic shift in cultural norms.
Obviously, changing the church's involvement in weddings need a good deal of time, education, and prayer. There should be a period of time before the transition to no weddings is fully implemented. The introduction of services of blessing entirely under the church's supervision need to be introduced. At some point, though, all couple would be legally married by a civil magistrate. Christian couples would then be able to ask for a ceremony of blessing. Another result of this change would be churches facing less pressure to appear to sanction marriages between people who are not Christians.
A Final Word on America's Cataclysmic Choices
In spite of my pessimism, I will certainly continue to exercise my rights as a member of a democratic republic to resist the movement to endorse gay-marriage. I am not suggesting Christians simply give up and go quietly into that dark night. But, the recognition that marriage throughout the Bible falls under the control of civil society/government and that the church has no biblical basis to involve itself in performing weddings are two facts that the circumstances of our times demand we face.