Marriage and Natural Law

During its annual convention in June 2012, the ELS resolved that “our members be alerted to this recent challenge” to the Biblical teaching on marriage (the “preferential treatment given to those who live together outside of marriage due to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act”) and “be encouraged to remain steadfast in their commitment to the institution of marriage of one man and one woman as established by God in Holy Scripture and natural law” (Report of the 95th Convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, p. 88).

In basing the institution of marriage of one man and one woman on God’s establishment in Holy Scripture and natural law, the ELS was following the lead of the Lutheran Confessions. In response to God’s institution of marriage being challenged by the Roman Catholic ban on the marriage of priests, in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, Melanchthon first makes the Scriptural case for marriage based on Genesis 1:28 and then makes the following argument based on natural law:
Apology of the Augsburg confession, Article XXIII:9-12

Second, because this creation or divine ordinance in the human creature is a natural law, jurists have accordingly spoken wisely and rightly that the union of male and female is a matter of natural law. However, since natural law is immutable, the right to contract marriages must always remain. For where nature is not changed, it is necessary for that order with which God has endowed nature to remain; it cannot be removed by human laws. It is therefore ridiculous for our opponents to prate that marriage was commanded in the beginning, but that it is no longer. This is the same as if they were to say: “Formerly people were born with a sex; now they are not.” No artisan could fabricate anything more artful than these foolish, inept thoughts, devised to elude natural law. Therefore let this remain the case, both what Scripture teaches and what jurists wisely have said: the marriage of male and female is a matter of natural right. Moreover, a natural right is truly a divine right, because it is an order divinely stamped upon nature. However, because this right cannot be changed without an extraordinary act of God, the right to contract marriages must of necessity remain, for the natural desire of one sex for another sex is an ordinance of God in nature. For this reason it is right; otherwise why would both sexes have been created? (K/W 249)

Granted, the context of the marriage debate in the 1530s was different than the debate today about whether the definition of marriage should be altered to include unions between homosexual couples. Still, the argument used in the Apology has much for us to use in the current debate:

1) The appeal to natural law: According to natural law theory, “God created nature and especially human beings, with certain purposes that can be discerned through the exercise of human reason and the conscience” (Ryan MacPherson, “Teaching Objective Morality to a Mostmodern Audience,” Here We Stand: A Confessional Christian Study of Worldviews, Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Publishing House, 2010, p. 150).
This means that the inborn sense of right and wrong imbedded in all human beings and the ordering of things in nature are a way of discerning an objective standard of morality. In the public square such an appeal to an objective morality based on nature, reason, and conscience may gain greater traction when addressing those who go into shut-down mode when hearing, “The Bible says….”An appeal to natural law has a long history in the constitutional law of the United States, as the founders wrote of “inalienable rights” and “self-evident truths.”

2) Natural law is immutable and cannot be changed by human laws. Such a change would require a change in nature. So long as humans are born male and female, so long is marriage between male and female commanded and the contrary forbidden.

3) The desire of one sex for another is natural and right. “Otherwise why would both sexes have been created?” On the other hand, appealing to natural law in Romans 1:26-27. Paul calls homosexual relations and desires “contrary to nature.”

Marriage is not a human invention. It is not something for humans to redefine. It is an institution of God. Not only is this institution to be found in Scripture but it is also a matter of natural law. As Lutherans, the institution of marriage is part of our confession, to which we are to remain steadfast and to bear witness to in the public square.


Marriage and Natural Law — 32 Comments

  1. Yes, thank you, Shawn. Excellent article.

    We must keep in mind, however, that although an appeal to natural law has a long history in the constitutional law of the United States, it is not popular among the liberals in a post-modern era. You are probably too young to remember the confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas. His earlier writings had frequently referenced the legal theory of natural law. The libs hammered him on that during the hearings. During the confirmation hearings, Thomas limited himself to the statement that he regards natural law as a “philosophical background” to the Constitution. The libs still went nuts when he made such statements.

    So, I don’t know that appeals to the natural law will be much more popular than appeals to Scripture in the liberal parts of the public square, given their view of relative rather than self-evident truths.

  2. Don,
    I did follow the Clarence Thomas hearings. Unfortunately, the substance of his legal theory was drowned in the media by personal accusations.
    Your comments regarding whether appeals to natural law would gain much traction brings to mind the ads in MN right now urging folks to “vote no.” Those in the ads admit their innate sense of discomfort and disgust at gay marriage but then override it since ‘times have changed’. This innate sense is their conscience at work (natural law) which they have to go against to support gay marriage.
    The ad which most illustrates this is linked below:

  3. I agree with Pastor Kirchner. If we engage in this discussion with folks in the town square we better be ready to prove that natural law even exists and then go ahead and prove that homosexuality is a vioation of its unwritten precepts.

  4. @#4 Kitty #4
    If we engage in this discussion with folks in the town square we better be ready to prove that natural law even exists …

    Parallel: “If they will not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if one rose from the dead.”

    They weren’t and aren’t.

    At some point we have to realize that we are not going to save the world which does not believe it needs saving. We should rather pay more attention to instruction of the baptized, so that those who are in the ark of faith are not tempted to jump overboard.

    And what should we do about those “lufauxren” churches who are so eager to “save the lost” with gimmicks (not limited to labyrinths) that they give the faithful who object a push over the rail?

  5. @helen #5
    “At some point we have to realize that we are not going to save the world which does not believe it needs saving. We should rather pay more attention to instruction of the baptized, so that those who are in the ark of faith are not tempted to jump overboard.”

    A big AMEN to this, Helen! I wish my former congregation had done this. It seems to be turning “lufauxren” with a Protestant, rather than Lutheran, view of what church is for, and too many “Bible studies” using non-Lutheran materials. I gave up hope of it becoming confessional and transferred to a congregation that WANTS to be Lutheran.

  6. And yet, of course we are called upon to “Pray for the peace of the city” to which we are called. So-called “gay marriage” is bad for society, and bad for people. We should oppose it because it will of itself hurt children and people. And we should argue against it in that same vein.

  7. Thanks, Shawn. Yesterday I had a private conversation with President Moldstad who acknowledged to me that there is not universal acceptance of this sort of argument in the little Synod. He acknowledged to me that there is push back from those who think that the ELS Doctrinal pronouncements of late have been greatly influenced by politics. A member of the Doctrinal Committee, a current candidate for the 1st Minnesota Congressional seat, and his campaign finance chairman, have brought right wing politics into the Synod’s official pronouncements. The push back was present, President Moldstad told me, on the floor of the June convention.

    Norman Teigen, Layman
    Evangelical Lutheran Synod

  8. Mr. Teigen, would you please elaborate specifically where, and why, you object to the ELS’ statement on marriage?

    I’d like to hear your reasoning and thinking on this. Thanks.

  9. get off my case, McCain. I’ll not answer anything from you. You resemble the shark in the Jaws movie.

  10. If natural law is so wonderful, as indeed it is, why does the most recent CTCR statement (Response to Human Sexuality:Gift and Trust) patently avoid discussing it, even while quoting from a book dedicated to reappraising… wait… wait… natural law?

  11. Natural Law is a wonderful and good thing, as is the revealed Law. The failure of the Law, however, is that it depends upon human agency to uphold and enact it. While give immediately (that is, without means) in the conscience, it can only crate change mediately at the action of the individual responding to his/her conscience or through government enacting and enforcing laws in keeping with divine Law. Since humans are by nature sinful, Law alone, whether natural or revealed, will never be sufficient to enact change nor to ensure long-term stability of any society or nation. We also have to remember that even while the Law is doing its first use work of maintaining order in society, it is also doing its second use work of increasing sin to make it evident. Without the Gospel, the Law, therefore, can make no long term beneficial changes within either individuals or within the societies those individuals create by congregating together.

    I think we need to compare the failure and success of our approach to two different issues. The pro-abortion stance is steadily losing support among the youth of our nation while the pro-homosexual stance is gaining support among the same demographic.

    I believe the reason is that when it comes to abortion we have remained firm on the Law while also offering clear Gospel to those affected by the guilt of abortion and, in compassion, offering services such as assistance with adoptions and other alternatives to women impacted by unwanted pregnancies. We have demonstrated that we are not only against abortion but that we have real and active compassion for the mother and child.

    When it comes to homosexuality, however, we have failed to offer the Gospel and failed even more to demonstrate compassion. A same-sex attracted man who, out of gratitude for Christ, chooses celibacy enters a group with the highest suicidality rate of any demographic at almost 50%. Suicidality is measured by having envisioned suicide in the last 60 days and having experienced depression in the last two weeks. The next highest group for sucidality is celibate opposite-sex attracted men at 17%. The suicidality rate of those homosexual men in a same-gender relationship or active in the gay lifestyle falls below both of these, though, I believe it is higher than opposite sex attracted married men. There is obviously something seriously lacking in what we offer those who follow God’s will instead of indulging their desires. I firmly believe that it is this failure to offer compassion and respect even to those who are obedient to God which is primarily responsible for swinging the opinion of the voters toward the pro-gay stance and same-sex marriage.

    Until we learn to offer Gospel and compassion in the debate on homosexuality as we have in the debate on abortion, blogs and doctrinal proclamations which offer only Law are worse than useless.

  12. Pointing out error (sin) outside the 4 walls, of the ELS, WELS, and LCMS regarding marriage is easy. Christ already did it. However, we should take a peak at what we are doing & the woeful lacking, on what those 3 Synods are doing to encourage & in loving admonishment/encouragement with those within our Synods, regarding what we are supposed to uphold regarding marriage, first.
    We should be speaking about us firstly, we are to set the bar, we are to uphold marriage as Christ defined it, what errors are grievious, how they are dealt with, how they are encouraged/admonished in truthful & Scriptural love, and what we really do/not do to uphold and define lines regarding pre marital co-habitation, adultery, desertion, abuse, and the minor issues that can tear marriages and families apart, with…our…own…first. In the concrete Scripture and our own Doctrines, Constitutions, and By-Laws state. We don’t as Synods, even follow our own, folks.
    We do that, and then maybe the hetero, let alone the same sex world, will take notice.

  13. Norman Teigen :
    get off my case, McCain. I’ll not answer anything from you. You resemble the shark in the Jaws movie.

    Mr. Teigen, I’m disappointed you responded to my inquiry with a rude personal attack.

    I’m simply asking you to explain your discomfort with your church body’s public statements and action on this issue. I do not think it is inappropriate to ask you to comment further. I’m genuinely curious to understand what it is, precisely, and why, you are opposed to the ELS statement.

  14. To Rev. Baker’s point…

    We do not have to quote the Bible to see, and to have, an intelligent, helpful debate on the issue of gay marriage.

    Why is it, for example, that nearly universally through the history of human experience that the institution of a man and a woman’s marriage has been valued? Upheld? Guarded by public law and celebrated with various rituals, rites and ceremonies, regardless of any paritcular religious point of view?

    Is there something inherent in what it is to be human that drives us toward marriage and protecting that institution for the sake of society?

    It would seem there is “hard wired” into the very creatures called “human” a natural knowledge of these things and there is where, I believe, useful conversation can take place.

    Does it advance or harm the institution of a man and woman’s marriage to also open “marriage” to those who are homosexual? Whose union is not, in the nature of the case, productive in terms of children to be born to them and raised to be good citizens, etc.

    This is where I would begin the conversation with a non-Christian person.

    I’d be curious to hear what others would add.

  15. Pastor McCain,
    I’m looking at the CPH section regarding the search under just, “marriage”.
    There isn’t much there, if you want to learn about what LCMS teaches, let alone if ya have an issue, should a member have an “issue”.
    There are 6 listed for “adultery”, none for “desertion”, one for Domestic Violence, only abla Espanol, none for family violence/child abuse, unless it pertains to alcohol abuse.

    You bicker w/ Mr. Teigen & Rev. Baker, & ignore, as most Pastor’s do, the hard bits, looking at the lacking inside our Synods.

    Pastor McCain, where do you think we all look first, when a friend or family member have such an issue, and are filling & warming a pew, in a Synod regarding Marriage? To CPH & NPH.

    And neither provide anything. For members, let alone those whom we do, share the Hope of Christ, even in Marriage with. FYI, NPH has 11 just under “Marital Concerns”. NPH has nothing under any subject of abuse. Marriage, oh, NPH has 2 pages.
    We cannot throw rocks over the fence, if we can’t keep our/His Houses in order.
    Or do I need to be corrected?

  16. There is a concise, brief, easy to follow resource regarding God’s institution of marriage that has been produced by Christian Life Resources. It is in bulletin insert form, but even in its brevity covers the main Biblical passages and teachings regarding marriage and sexuality.

    A resource I have used many times for premarriage and marriage counseling is “Building the Christian Home” by Schuetze, published by NPH. This book has a great index and meditation section covering issues and troubles that may arise in marriages.

  17. And:

  18. Shawn, it was good to see you at the ELS Pastors Convention vespers in Apple Valley on Tuesday night. It was good to be able to worship with old friends using the liturgy and hymns from the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnbook.

    As we briefly discussed, there is disagreement in the ELS on some of these sensitive issues. President Moldstad acknowledges that there has been pushback. There is, for instance, some skepticism about the Christian Life Resources program and the validity of arguments. I would think twice before I recommended this source.

    One of the contentions of the conservative Lutheran synods, including the ELS, is that the health care act constituted an assault on religious freedom. See this link for a current discussion of the issue.

    Norman Teigen, Layman
    Evangelical Lutheran Synod.

  19. Mr. Teigen, would you care to explain why there is skepticism about materials from Christian Life Resources and why you would think twice before using these resources? I’m really interested in understanding what your concerns are with these statements opposing abortion and offering help to those considering an abortion.

  20. #18,
    I found more one my own at CPH.

    That’s it? That’s all there is? That is the best ya have? For an entire Denomination?!
    And that represents “our” marriage ideas? Please refer to post # 13.

    Really, surely we can do better than what ya linked.

  21. Dutch, I posted another long list of recommended resources, which was not approved by the moderator for posting, and that is just a beginning of all the resources we have.

    I encourage you to spend more “quality time” with our web site and the search function.

    Search under:

    Newlyweds, etc.

    etc. etc. etc.

    Probably also good to say that thinking there is some sort of “perfect” resource that will be the key to solving everyone’s family problems is wishful thinking, to say the least.

    The best and finest resource will always be the local congregation and the preaching, teaching and private confession/absolution ministry of the parish pastor.

  22. It seems that nature constitutes sexual differentiation, specifically male and female, and that that constitution is directed toward specific ends. In many cases, the sexual union of male and female results in the reproduction of children.

    Children are seen as a good both within families and society as a whole. Children bring joy (and challenges!) to parents, extended family, and friends. Further, society would not exist without children; if everyone were barren and there were no way to reproduce, society itself would cease to exist.

    That isn’t to say that merely having children is enough. There seems to be enough data to support the claim that children do best in loving families, families that are devoted to their care and education, and provide a warm, safe, and loving environment.

    There seems also to be enough data to suggest that children are best served in intact households, consisting in both a mother and a father. Of course, not all families have both mothers and fathers, but these exceptions should not be made the rule. We’re speaking about what’s best for children.

    Thus, it seems that marriage, traditionally understood, best serves these ends, the ends that seem to be directed by our sexual differentiation toward the production of children and the increase of society. Civil laws should recognize and support how human beings are constituted, including our sexual differentiation, because we find children and society good for us all.

    Notice, I didn’t use Scripture, nor did I feel constrained to provide a definition of natural law.

    Yet, this is a natural law argument for traditional marriage.

  23. Robert-
    Thanks for a good example of a natural law argument for traditional marriage. The point of my original post was that such an argument can and should be made by Lutherans and had been done so by the Lutheran Confessors.

  24. Rev. McCain and Norman T.-
    It seems to me that the concern among some pastors and laity in the ELS over recent synod pronouncements regarding marriage and religious freedom is that they were made in direct response to specific pieces of legislation. The “whereas” clauses in the various motions made mention of these pieces of legislation, such as the HHS ruling and Affordable Care Act. Just as many of us are alarmed when the government infringes upon rights and duties that belong to the church, others do not want to see even the appearance of the church stepping into roles that properly belong to the kingdom of the left (i.e., government).
    It has always been the position of the Christian church that abortion is murder (look at catechism explanations from even several decades ago) and that marriage is between a man and a woman. During election years, we hear these issues attached to platforms of political parties.
    Does this mean that we as the church should be silent about such issues during the election year, lest we appear too political? I for one would say “no.” At the root, these are issues of moral and natural law. When people are discussing such issues in the public arena, the church may offer guidance in thinking them through. When speaking of issues with moral implications or those that infringe upon religious freedom, we can address these issues using Scripture and natural law without endorsing party platforms or any particular candidate.

  25. Shawn, interesting summary.

    A number of years ago there were a number of Lutherans who were very, very timid about speaking up when they noticed the government committing acts of evil around them, condoning the murder of unborn children, the aged and even discriminating against people based on their ancestry.

    They remained silent for many years until it was too late and a horrible war broke out, along with the murder of countless millions in concentration camps near towns where these people who feared even giving the appearance of disagreeing with the government lived.

    That was was World War II.

    I would hope that by now Lutherans have learned that they are not to be timid little cowering rabbits, simply assenting by silence to whatever goes on.

    I’ve even read some Lutherans defending abortion rights and other such atrocities.

    Very shameful, in my opinion.

  26. As a member of the ELS Doctrine Committee, I take exception to Norman Teigen’s statement that we have allowed “politics” to be introduced into our committee’s work on behalf of the synod. The Doctrine Committee is specifically tasked to report to our synod on issues in society and government that have a bearing on the work and mission of the church and on the teachings of Scripture. In our most recent report, our committee refrained from proposing political remedies to the problems we identified in the “Obamacare” legislation and in the related Department of Health and Human Services mandates. Those who believe in the general principles of government that are reflected in the legislation and the mandates might be motivated by the information we reported to work for the repeal or overturning of those specific aspects of the legislation and mandates that conflict with their convictions. Those who reject the general principles of government that are embodied in the legislation and the mandates might be motivated to work for the overturn of the whole program. The ELS Doctrine Committee, and the synod we serve, took and take no position on such distinctly political questions.

    When politicians debate, and legislate on, matters that also happen to be matters of Christian conviction – and especially when they impose measures and mandates on the society in general, and on religious institutions in particular, that conflict with the dictates of Christian consciences and with the God-given mission of the church – this does not in itself turn these matters into “political” matters that the church may now no longer discuss. Mr. Teigen seems to want to replace Lutheranism’s “two kingdoms” approach toward church-state relations and the role of the Christian citizen in society with some kind of odd semi-Mennonite quietism. But our Doctrine Committee will continue to be governed in its work by our distinctly Lutheran principles of theology and social ethics.

  27. I appreciate Pastors Stafford, McCain and Webber for providing comments that clarify this topic and provide context to the unclear objection (IMHO) of Mr. Teigen. Our Thursday morning Bible study on “church and state” at our WELS congregation has been insightful as well with some of our political diverse folks. Thanks again.

  28. I can’t say, that Marriage & natural law, can be discussed w/o discussing adultery &/or desertion firstly.
    Both, I believe, the world, deems as okay. Even allowed, which sadly do some in all 3 Synods.

    Marriage is betwixt a man & woman, broken by death or desertion. Adultery, desertion, abuse, are kind of more important, than the world’s idea of marriage. When we uphold it, we should defend amongst us, firstly.

    However….none ever seem to address either of these issues, as they pertain to us, ourselves.

  29. Rev Stafford,

    Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you at the MN Lutheran Free Conference in St Cloud, MN, on Saturday.

    It was great to hear presentations that properly represented the issue in light of the two kingdoms. Aren’t the two kingdoms both kingdoms of God?

    God bless!


  30. Jack, it was good to see you again.
    Yes, both kingdoms are established by God, each for a specific purpose. God’s authority is exercised in the kingdom of the left (government), through law (civil use) to maintain order and restrain outbreaks of lawlessness. We know that God’s purposes will be accomplished even through and in spite of the efforts of unbelieving rulers. God’s authority is exercised in the kingdom of the right (the Church) through the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. By the Gospel, God forgives sin on the basis of Christ’s redeeming work, exercising His grace and mercy.
    The government has not been given entrusted with the task of proclaiming the Gospel nor has the church been given the authority to rule by law and force in the secular realm.
    The two kingdoms meet in the life of the individual believer, who is a citizen of both kingdoms.
    A chart is available illustrating this at the following address:

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