Perhaps the Church Should Surrender
As I have reflected on the current disagreement over the definition of marriage which exists between the evangelical church and secular polity in the U. S., I have found myself returning again and again to the example of Jesus. In describing the manner in which God chose to transform the world in Jesus, the Apostle Paul wrote the following in his epistle to the Christians in Philippi:
1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 
In theological circles, this section of Paul’s letter has often been called a kenosis hymn. The word kenosis is a Greek word, and in the original Greek of Philippians, the verbal form of the word occurs in verse 7. The NIV reads, “rather, he made himself nothing. . . .” This is the verbal form of kenosis, and the noun means ‘empty’. Kenosis is the self-emptying of God in Jesus. Kenosis is God taking on human flesh; it is God in the flesh taking the role of a servant and washing His disciples’ feet; it is God submitting Himself to a human death sentence; it is God redeeming humanity through incarnation, maturation, death and resurrection.
I am one who agrees that marriage for Christians cannot be disentangled from the narratives of creation and Eden. But, I am also one who recognizes that the persecution of those who choose to behave outside of the perceptions of God’s intentions delivered to us through the chosen people of Ancient Israel is not the way of the New Covenant—it has never been the way of Jesus.
And so, now the church finds itself in a moment for which we are as much responsible as those who are embracing a more secular perspective on marriage and family. I am convinced, as Mordecai’s refusal to show respect to Haman in the book of Esther set into motion the near genocide of the Jewish people in the ancient empire of Persia, so our abuse and persecution and disrespect of those of whom we have disapproved has in no small part precipitated the backlash we are now experiencing.
In some ways, we are reaping what we have sown—not all of us, of course, but enough of us that the current climate smells as much of justice as it does of rebellion. We need not repent of our submission to God’s elect spokespersons—the prophets and apostles of Israel. Even so, perhaps we must repent of our treatment of our adversaries when the church in the U. S. wielded cultural hegemony.
But, how might we repent? In my view, perhaps we might follow the self-emptying example of Jesus and surrender what remains of our cultural, political authority.
Perhaps evangelical Christianity might surrender the right of our clergy to officiate over legal marriage ceremonies in the United States.
The culture has redefined marriage for themselves. For those of us who continue to submit to the chosen prophets and apostles of Israel as God’s authorized theological interpreters for all nations for all time, the world cannot redefine marriage for us. But, partially as our repentance for the misuse of our influence when we had it and partially as a kenotic act of profession of faith, might we refuse to embrace the authority with which we were once entrusted, to marry under law.
Might evangelical clergy from here on out surrender our right to marry in the eyes of the state? Might Christians from here on out, submit to the governing authorities and seek legal marital status only from state-sanctioned officiators? Might the celebration of marriage in the evangelical church no longer have legal standing in secular polity, but only religious and moral standing before the God we believe became flesh in Jesus, our Messiah?
If this challenge were to be embraced throughout evangelical Christianity, I envision the following results.
- The church will have repented of our abuse of cultural influence which resulted in the persecution and marginalization of those with whom we disagreed by divesting ourselves of a significant portion of our legal authority.
- The church will have removed itself from the charge of discrimination by forsaking all legal authority in the practice of our religious beliefs.
- The church will protest a redefinition of marriage with which we amicably descent by playing no further legal role in marriage in the United States.
Pastors, of course, would still provide pre-marital counseling to our congregants, and the church would still sanctify and solemnize marriages before God. But, if we surrender our right to officiate in any legal capacity, and if we refuse to rent or to use our property for legally-officiated weddings, then we have professed our faith by divesting ourselves of authority and power. I find this to be uniquely Christological, profoundly kenotic, and secularly just.
Perhaps the evangelical church, rather than defending and fighting for our right in this respect, might find holiness by surrendering our authority out of faithfulness to the God of Israel who became flesh in the Person of Jesus, our Messiah. This is my challenge, but for it to be realized, the very polity and guiding documents of evangelical churches around our nation must be amended.
How shall we respond? If not this, then how, church? The question has been put to us. And we may have little time in which to make a proactive decision, as can be seen here, for instance.
J. Thomas Johnson
 The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), Php 2:1–11.