Theology and the Nature of Marriage
The following piece is an edited version of a paper written by Rev Michael Earl. Rev Earl intended for this piece to prepare his congregation for the discussion regarding the definition of marriage. It explains the current discussion surrounding Same Sex Marriage and provides some questions for further discussion. While a long read, the piece is helpful and accessible.
Author’s Rider and Apology: Right at the start I want to acknowledge that this is a sensitive area for many people on all sides of the debate, and while I have endeavoured in this paper to use appropriate language and tone, I apologise if anyone finds anything written here personally difficult or hurtful. I am always available should anyone wish to speak to me privately about any issues raised here, and I commit myself once again to the way of listening, humility, and grace, reflected in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to encourage thoughtful and respectful dialogue within the church around the contested issue of the nature of marriage. The paper is not designed to advocate one position or another, but to lay out the various arguments in a manner which allows for differences of opinion to exist without leading to divisiveness or rancour.
Preamble: In December, 2017, following a long debate and Government sponsored public survey, the definition of marriage was legally changed in Australia to allow for two people to be married regardless of gender or sexual orientation, where previously it had been restricted to a ‘man and a woman’. This change in the law has led the Uniting Church (UCA) to revisit its own understanding of marriage. As the national Assembly of the UCA is the determining council for the church’s doctrine, the issue will be considered at the forthcoming Assembly meeting in July. Thus congregations and Presbyteries everywhere are engaging in conversations around the relevant issues, pastoral, biblical, procedural, relational, and otherwise.
The UCA currently upholds the view of marriage that has predominated for most of the (catholic) church’s history; that is, marriage is: “The freely given consent and commitment in public and before God of a man and a woman to live together for life.” Presently, the United Church of Canada, the United Reformed Church (UK), and the Presbyterian Church (USA), are three comparable denominations around the world that have approved a change in their understanding of marriage to include couples who identify as L (lesbian), G (gay), B (bi-sexual), T (transgender), I (intersex), Q (queer). Other comparable denominations retain the traditional view.
What a Change Would Mean:
If the UCA Assembly determines to change the church’s understanding of marriage, it will likely mean that congregations can host weddings in their churches for LGBTIQ couples, and ministers will be permitted to marry LGBTIQ couples. Neither will be compelled to do so, meaning each congregation and minister will need to come to a decision themselves. Likely, the vehicle for the change would be a re-wording of the ‘Declaration of Purpose’ (or potentially a couple of options for the ‘Declaration of Purpose’) within the marriage rite which currently states:
Marriage is a gift of God and a means of grace. In the life-long union of marriage we can know the joy of God, in whose image we are made, male and female. Marriage is founded in God’s loving nature, and in the covenant of love made with us in Christ. Husband and wife, in giving themselves to each other in love, reflect the love of Christ for his Church. In Christian marriage, wife and husband are called to live together faithfully, and to love each other with respect, tenderness and delight. The companionship and comfort of marriage enables the full expression of intimacy between husband and wife. They share the life of a home and may be entrusted with the gift and care of children. They help to shape a society in which human dignity and happiness may flourish and abound. Marriage is a way of life that all people should honour; it is not to be entered into lightly or selfishly, but responsibly and in the love of God.
Revised versions would make room for marriage being between two people without specifying that it be (only) between a man and a woman. This change would mean the church reflected the change in Australian law. Uniting Church ministers must abide by the denomination’s understanding/doctrine of marriage (and use the formally approved marriage rite) to fulfil their requirements under Australian law to officiate at weddings. Hence, as things stand presently, UCA ministers can only conduct weddings between a man and a woman. This would remain the case until the Assembly changed the church’s understanding.
Christian Understandings of Sexuality/Marriage:
There are some people who dismiss altogether the idea that the Christian faith should have anything to say about these areas. It is sometimes argued that ‘what consenting adults do in the privacy of their own home should be wholly their own business’, or that ‘the church should have nothing to say about what is now a secular public institution like marriage’, we should simply stick to the law of the land. While these views are understandable, they are inadequate from a Christian point of view for a few reasons: 1) the Bible assumes all areas of human existence are informed by the reality of God (the creator) and God’s love for all the world, and so call for faithful expressions of living, 2) the potential for the brokenness as well as the beauty of human relating is especially present in such contexts making them important areas of reflection in this regard, 3) the witness of the church has always addressed such contexts, a trajectory reflective of the Bible’s own witness. 4) Christian faith is interested in the whole person, body, mind, soul, not some part of another, and so looks for healing, purpose, and holiness within all aspects of human relating. For these reasons and more, Christian theology and ethics incorporates views about sexuality and marriage.
Once it is agreed/accepted that it is right and proper for the church to address the context of sexuality/marriage, the picture then becomes more complex. For instance, we need to acknowledge that different communities and cultures bring different nuances to this conversation, different experiences, different understandings of family and community, of taboo, of the nature of sexuality itself, all of which make the need for listening, patience, and humility paramount within the conversation. As each of us have had our view formed out of our life experience with all its inter-related parts, and that our faith journey has been shaped through those experiences, we seek to extend the same respect for the journey of others as we would expect them to extend to us. We also need to confess up front that the church’s historical treatment of LGBTIQ people has been appalling, and that through all our discussions we should not lose sight of this truth, and come with contrite hearts at every point.
While it is impossible to succinctly summarise the related issues without reducing broad complexity to more generalist statements, still for ease of understanding, I will attempt to summarise the two basic positions which I will label the ‘traditional’ (T) position, (marriage is between a man and a woman only), and the ‘revised’ (R) position, (marriage is between any two people regardless of gender or sexual orientation). I am also, for the purposes of this paper, taking sexuality, gender and marriage together as interrelated areas that form some part of the issue with which the church is grappling. While they are certainly different phenomena, their interconnectedness in this area makes thinking about them together more helpful than not for the purposes of this conversation.
Things We Agree On:
While this debate is often framed as adversarial and partisan, in fact, there is much that those who hold the T and R perspectives agree upon. For instance:
- Marriage is between two people only, polygamy is not an acceptable form of marriage.
- Commitment, love, faithfulness, respect, dignity, grace offered and received, characterise the marriage relationship and are reflections of the love and faithfulness of God.
- Marriage is for the mutual building up of one another in love and the deepening of relationship over time.
- Marriage is a lifelong commitment.
- While in Protestant traditions marriage is not a formal sacrament, it carries sacramental meaning as an outward sign of the universal will and love of God.
- Any form of promiscuity, disrespect, abuse, unfaithfulness, coercion, or predatory behaviour, has no place in a Christian understanding of marriage/sexuality.
- Partners are of equal status within a marriage.
- Oftentimes, also, we agree on the sources inform how we come to our views, but perhaps through different emphases/lenses end up at different places.
These considerations are not insubstantial and hopefully can allow people of both perspectives to see how much our views have in common with one another before moving to the particular points of divergence.
Key Sources of the ‘Traditional’ Perspective:
The T perspective is grounded in a number of elements that are widely accepted by those who hold to this view. While there are undoubtedly more aspects than what I’m listing here, these are, I would say, the main ones.
The Biblical Witness: The teaching of the Bible has always been the fundamental shaping norm for the T perspective. Leaving aside the Old Testament for a moment, New Testament passages like Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:7-11 prohibit (or assume) that homosexual practice is wrong (though it’s worth noting that in the entire Bible there are perhaps six texts only that speak directly against homosexual practice). Couple these texts with other NT passages which reinforce the nature of marriage being between a husband and a wife (Cf. Mark 10:1-12, Matthew 19:1-12, 1 Corinthians 7:1-7, Ephesians 5:21-33), and those who hold the T perspective say the picture is clear, that marriage is between a man and a woman only, and provides the sole context for appropriate sexual union.
Arguments have also been made on wider theological grounds, like the trajectory of creation being framed by differentiated pairs (night/day, heaven/earth, male/female, see Genesis 1), and the Triune nature of God reflecting a partnership-in-difference after which human relating (especially marriage) is to be understood. The metaphor of marriage is also used to describe the relationship between Christ (bridegroom) and the Church (bride – Ephesians 5).
Complementarity: The complementarity of male/female bodies (and sometimes even the nature of masculinity/femininity, though this is highly contested) is generally seen to confirm what the Bible says about marriage/sexuality. The fact that male/female bodies are designed to fit together, and through coming together in sexual union can lead the way to procreation, underscores for the T perspective the rightness of the male/female dynamic.
Family and Raising of Children: Again, while the nature of a family is historically, culturally, and relationally vastly complex across time and place, the T perspective assumes that there is once more a correlation between the context of families (in whatever form), the raising of children, and the nature of marriage as involving (ideally) a mother and a father. T perspective would argue something is lost in the raising of children if a mother or father is intentionally excluded (accepting that many, many children are raised faithfully and lovingly, for various reasons (personal, cultural, practical), in different circumstances to the mother/father dynamic, and indeed studies suggest that the wellbeing of children is not affected in any deleterious way).
Historical and Ecclesial Witness: The T perspective also points to the fact that historically, and still for the most part today, the Church catholic has affirmed that marriage is between a husband and a wife only.
Key Sources for the ‘Revised’ Perspective:
The R perspective is likewise grounded in a number of elements that are widely accepted by those who hold to this view. As I will briefly seek to show, the R perspective often focuses on a re-interpretation of sources, as well as emphasising new ones. Again, this is not an exhaustive list, but an indicative one.
The Biblical Witness: For the R perspective, the Bible has nothing to say directly about the orientation of homosexuality which was not part of ancient understandings as it is today. This means that, at least, we can say the Bible is silent on the issue of LGBTIQ marriage/sexuality, or at best, looking through a different hermeneutical (that is interpretive) lens as, that the Bible can actually be read as affirming loving, monogamous, homosexual partnerships as faithful representations of Christian marriage/sexuality. As the Biblical writers assumed a hetero-normative world (that is, there was no understanding of ‘orientation’ being potentially anything other than heterosexual), any divergence from that pattern was regarded as perverted. So, the R perspective suggests, given that was the case, a reinterpretation of the texts which prohibit same sex relations, or assume marriage is a male/female institution, and a different hermeneutical approach is required.
What might this look like? The R perspective will often cite the themes of God’s faithfulness, self-sacrifice, humility, and love, as the controlling lenses through which we should develop our understanding of sexuality/marriage. These are, it is argued, the central attributes of God’s own act and being in Jesus, and so should underscore how we approach our understanding of relationships in the first place, rather than a range of passages which plainly assume a heterosexual norm. Thus a homosexual union or marriage which reflects those virtues is as faithful as a heterosexual one etc. R perspectives will often cite instances where the NT writers offer radical reinterpretations of cultural/religious norms as evidence that such revisions were centrally a part of the ministry of Jesus (these might include Jesus’ affirmation of women, his willingness to break religious law by healing on the Sabbath etc, even the injunctions about husbands and wives in Ephesians 5, while appearing on the surface to reinforce patriarchal norms, would have been regarded as radical in their day).
Situatedness: The R perspective also highlights how the Church has revised its views on a whole lot of ethical and social issues in light of advances in understanding (of say science, anthropology, pedagogy etc). The Biblical perspectives are regarded as reflecting their time and situation, rather than eternal truths in this sense. Such a process has seen the church change its views, for instance, on slavery and the place of women. And so, it is argued, it should in the area of sexuality, believing the Biblical perspectives to reflect their time and place only.
Experience: The R perspective also highlights the experience of gay and lesbian couples (particularly) who have found mutuality, intimacy, grace and love through long terms partnerships. Apart from the more abstract arguments about which sincere Christians have come down on either side of the debate, the personal witnesses of LGBTIQ people is important the R perspective argues. How can relationships made up of such godly virtues be sinful or wrong?
Predisposition: Modern scientific developments have meant we now know a lot more about the workings of our bodies, genes, and the complex interplay of different factors which come together to make us who we are. While the scientific evidence is not completely clear cut, predisposition makes up a part of the picture; that is, that homosexuality is an orientation innate to some people, not a choice of lifestyle. For the R perspective the implications of humanity being ‘made in the image of God’ (Genesis 1), lead to the understanding then that homosexual orientation is God ordained in some people.
What more might be said around this debate as we move forward?
An Issue Among Many?: Sometimes amid this debate it can feel like the Bible/Christian faith has an especially large focus on these issues, when in fact many other themes are given equal or greater prominence. As Paul lists the out-workings of idolatry in Romans 1, greed, gossip, envy, deceit and malice, are assumed to be as telling as anything else in this regard. Yet rarely are they given anything like the attention or analysis as homosexual practice/marriage. Likewise, in the teaching of Jesus, wealth/money is addressed many more times than marriage/sexuality, yet in our capitalist/consumer world it could be argued that we have allowed ourselves to become comfortable with a way of being that Jesus condemns over and over. This is not to make us feel guilty or negative, but to be reminded that the amount of focus we/the church currently gives to sexuality vis a vis other ethical concerns, is probably out of proportion in some respect, and we should not assume that the church rises or falls on the outcome of this decision.
Bearing With One Another in Love: It can be easy for such conversations as this to become bitter or even rancorous, and it is my sincere hope that we can conduct the discussions prayerfully, graciously, and generously, and, as St Paul exhorts us: ‘Be completely humble and gentle, be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.’ (Ephesians 4:2-3) We need to be mindful that the outcomes, and especially our ability to remain together as a family of faith in love amid differences, will depend almost entirely on how we approach each other in the conversations. Thus the onus is on us to live up to the calling we have received to love one another as Christ has loved us. Our attitudes in coming to the conversation will go a very long way to making it a fruitful and generous conversation, or a hostile and divisive one.
Some Helpful Questions to Reflect With:
1) Reflect briefly on something significant for you in your formation as a Christian which has brought you to your understanding of marriage (eg, someone you met, a book your read, a certain experience, Biblical reflection etc).
2) How are you feeling about the current conversations around the theology of marriage? What hopes/fears/challenges does it bring for you (could be personal, congregational, ministerial etc).
3) What would it look like for you to feel supported pastorally and spiritually through the time of the theme/issue being discussed?