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FIRST-PERSON: Once a city upon a hill

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Many Christians in America have regarded California as the western front of the culture war in the United States. Evangelicals, firmly dug into their scriptural trenches, have been firing salvos against homosexual programming in Hollywood’s movies and television programs for years.

The Nov. 18 decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, however, should be a clarion reminder to Christians that smaller, covert actions by the enemies of the biblical family are resulting in tangible victories for the ghosts of Sodom and Gomorrah. The court of Massachusetts can now be added to the spineless courts of Vermont, Hawaii and Alaska, all of which have ruled that they cannot prohibit homosexual marriage.

As a historian, I often teach about the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. The Puritans desired to serve as a lighthouse to New England when they established the “city on a hill” envisioned by Governor John Winthrop.

While the colony was intended to show their wayward English brethren across the sea how a biblically based society worked, the leaders of the colony became what they detested in only five years. They were oppressive and intolerant of religious dissent and quick to exact punishment for crimes against the church.

As unsuccessful as the Puritan experiment in New England was where the governance of churches and religious freedom was concerned, Christians today can still learn from what the founders of the colony believed about the family and marriage. We might even learn where the church has erred and, by our own negligence, allowed the current situation on homosexual “marriage” to develop.

In his biography on Increase Mather, the “last American Puritan,” Michael Hall wrote that, “Puritan social norms held that men and women could lead an acceptable life only within a family.” The family, obviously, was the union of a husband and wife. Increase Mather and his wife, Maria, were married for half a century.

Samuel Willard published a work in Boston in 1726 in which he claimed that to speak of marriage reproachfully “do both impeach God’s wisdom and truth.” Benjamin Wadsworth dealt with the structure of the family and the responsibilities of the husband and wife in his book, “Well Ordered Family.” The book was a solid, biblical exegesis on the family. John Hull recorded sermons given at espousal ceremonies and taught from them about the biblical responsibilities of husbands and wives.

Marriage was of supreme importance to all of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was the foundation of society, and to depart from it invited disaster. In fact, marriage was so important that the binding of a man and woman together was not at first a ceremony performed by clergy. That responsibility fell to a civil magistrate, indicating the government’s understanding that those who married were responsible not only to God, but to the commonwealth for upholding the marriage covenant.

Today the situation is dramatically different. The state no longer sees marriage as a covenant between a husband and wife and God, and a husband and wife and the state. Marriage is today — unfortunately — little more than a tax shelter, which requires no covenant promise between individuals.

Why so? It is because the church has failed to fulfill its duties of celebrating biblical, covenant marriages and teaching by example.

In 1711, Increase Mather’s son, Cotton, wrote that as a minister he was concerned that even he didn’t enthusiastically rejoice over marriage. He wondered if he prayed the right words and exhorted the congregation properly on the subject. “Among the exercises of my ministry among my people, I am afraid, whether I am so edifying as I should be, in celebrating marriages, for which I am applied unto,” he wrote.

If the church doesn’t celebrate marriage as a God-given gift between a man and a woman, who will? Certainly not the homosexual rights movement.

The whole issue of the biblical prescription for marriage need not be discussed here. It is plain to see in Scripture that there is no place in God’s good order for homosexual marriage. While I am not a theocrat — that is, I do not favor a return to the days of Puritan Massachusetts — the Puritans were on solid biblical ground concerning marriage.

Four centuries of mealy-mouthed Christianity, a faith that has been willing to subordinate doctrine to the dictates of culture, has taken its toll on their vision for the family. The Puritans themselves may not have always succeeded in promoting biblical family values, but at least they tried.

The church of Jesus Christ can still be that city upon a hill. If we as a church, however, are unwilling to try to correct the course of our country, change the direction of the courts and bolster the family, we shouldn’t be outraged that the homosexuality agenda finds nothing but a smoldering wick where the candle of Christianity used to be.
Gregory Tomlin is director of communications at Southwestern Seminary.

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  • Gregory Tomlin