Marriage is NOT something that should divide Christians

Moves by governments across the United Kingdom to change the law on marriage to enable partnerships between people of the same sex to be called marriages and to be enacted in religious ceremonies have caused disquiet and division in the churches. Many are campaigning against the proposed change in the name of “traditional” or “Christian” marriage while others counter-campaign for it in the name of justice or inclusion.

If and when the legal changes are made the denominations will need to decide how to react. Will they approve or encourage their churches and ministers in conducting same-sex marriages? At this point those who feel strongly about this issue, one way or the other, may find themselves in ecclesial structures that have adopted positions that conflict with their consciences. Some may feel themselves compelled to part company with these structures.

As someone who has been thinking seriously about how to think about sex, sexual difference. ethics and religion for 25 years  I find this deeply problematic. I think I understand some of why people feel so strongly and I don’t want to say that they are wrong to feel as they do (on either side of this argument). I do want to say, however, that anyone who thinks this is an issue on which to divide the Church IS wrong.

My reasoning is thus: there is an imperative to unity in the Christian gospel. When we hear Christ say “love one another” one implication of this is that we should worship and work together. This is not made impossible by being in different organisations but the bitterness and anger always occasioned by new divisions, with the inevitable arguments about who owns what and who can use what name, cannot fail to conflict with the command to love one another.

Divisions are sometimes justified, of course, where the essentials of the faith are compromised, where some body abandons something or adopts something that is simply irreconcilable with being a Christian. The question then becomes whether marriage could or should be such a crucial matter.

There are a number of places to start in explaining why I think the answer to this question is “no”. Here I want to begin with the proposition that “there is no such thing as Christian marriage”. In saying this I intend two things:

1) Marriage by and of Christians is not different in any important way from marriage by and of others. there is nothing specifically Christian about Christian marriage.

2) The specifically Christian message about marriage is, in fact, rather negative. Christianity (as I find it in our scriptures) tolerates but does not advocate marriage and announces its temporary nature, indicating that when God’s Kingdom is fully realised there will be no more marriage.

1) There would appear to have been no specifically Christian ceremony for marriage before sometime in the 9th or 10th century. I believe that the reason for this is that this ceremony evolved as a response to the collapse of the Imperial legal structures and consequent taking on by the Church of the role of regulating marriage as a legal relationship between people.

In the early Christian centuries, up to and after the conversion of the Empire to Christianity, marriage was a matter of Roman law, not of religious observance. The theologians of this period (the “Church fathers”) followed Paul in preferring celibacy . Marriage was better than fornication but worse than abstinence. It was a compromise position, acknowledging our weakness, and was not something sanctified by the Church.

The marriage thus acknowledged was not (except tentatively by, for example, Augustine) provided with a strong theological justification., nor was its definition noticeably different from that of the pagan Roman legal codes. Marriage was something shared between Christians and other fallen human beings.

The development from the Augustinian hints of a more complete theological celebration of the married state came later, I suggest, and owes much to the new infusion of Christianity with pagan philosophy in the high middle ages, represented by Aquinas, and in this, as in other, cases reflecting the rebuilding of the social order with the Church near its centre, in the creation of medieval Christendom.

“Christian” marriage is, I am saying, in large part the “baptism” of pre-existing marriage forms that makes little or no difference to their content.

2) A key Gospel text for me in this regard is Mark 12:25 (//Matt 22:30 //Luke 20:35) in which Jesus asserts that in the resurrection life there will be no marriage. The idea that our current sexual arrangements and relationships are inherently a feature of of current fallen condition is one that, for me, pervades the New Testament. Marriage is NOT, on this reading, a part or path to holiness. It is our best attempt (in whatever form that takes) to live gratefully into God’s redeeming love, as shown in Christ, while we await the fulfilment of the eschatological promise that all things will be made new.

The attempts (on both sides of our current arguments about sex and marriage) to make more of it than this strike me as a failure of nerve in face of God’s outrageous promise of the resurrection of the body and the redemption of all creation. Making the best of what we have can sometimes substitute for faithful expectation with the result that ethical matters of all kinds loom too large for us in comparison to our keeping faith with Christ.

It is not helpful either, in my view, to speculate too much about what that new life should be thought of as being like (this is one of my problems with Augustine’s approach to matters sexual). There will be no marriage, Jesus says, whether there will be sex and if so what it will be like does not seem to me to be a fruitful line of enquiry.

In the meantime we all have to respond to God promptings as best we can as we strive to live lives of discipleship and love.

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11 comments
  1. It seems the tone adopted by the biblically very poor new URC material is that it does (and should) divide the church. It seems designed, as I said before, to put the pain back in, and pretend that the possibility of a gay Christian marrying another is a remote theoretical possibility, rather than a spiritual reality: to force things to a head rather than find peaceful ways to coexist. On the other hand, coexistence appears to those against to be a victory for those for.
    The pastor, in the material, who would refuse a couple, somewhat ironically claims this is because he does not want to cause pain!!! The material is deficient in that it does not interview anyone who is in or has conducted a same-sex marriage. There are plenty of possibilities.

    We have already spent too much time (too many years) beating around the bush here. I found your gospel quotes useful in the past in asserting that God can cope with the complexities of families, even if we can’t or choose not to.

  2. Innes Chalmers said:

    Thanks for this Nick.

    The fact that Jesus’ four biographers didn’t record his views on homosexuality (although He most certainly did hold views on marital faithfulness) suggests that he was more concerned that we clothe the poor and feed the hungry (in short “Love one another”); His church should be so busy doing these, that the debate about marriage comes under AOB.

    • Pinksheep3108 said:

      I agree entirely…whilst we as Christians are debating what marriage should look like, who is being Jesus to our communities. Nick, as you said, this marriage issue shouldn’t divide us, and it shouldn’t stop us acting in love to the world around us! Here here Innes!

  3. Elliot Vernon said:

    I agree with much of what you say. The idea that marriage is a sacrament of the Church has died hard even amongst apparently Protestant Christians and I would prefer it if marriage was taken out of the gift of churches altogether. I should also say from the start, that like you, I have no problem with gay marriage or with practicing homosexual Christians.

    However, the issue isn’t that marriage is disrupting the unity of the church but about individual consciences and the requirement, on at least one reading of the Bible (and, it seems to me, a perfectly honest one), to follow what the Scriptures say. Christian ‘unity’ has become an idol of modern times, brought out (along with the ‘angels on a pin’ insult) to stamp on any uncomfortable biblicism or theological argument left (in particular) in the disunited and post-reformed church (judging from the Facebook discussion).

    But in certain cases the Apostle Paul actively commands disunity – e.g. Ephesians 5:11 – ‘have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness’. The steps to the matter of gay marriage being a matter of utmost conscience and not a thing indifferent are quite short:

    a) one holds to the classical view that Christian liberty is a liberty to obey God as He commands – i.e. the liberty of a Christian is about obedience to the revealed will of God.
    b) one accepts that the writings of the Apostle Paul are part of Holy Scripture, including the parts about particular types of sinners and the need for non-communion with such people (e.g. Romans 1:27, 1:31, Ephesians 5, I Cor 6:9-10. 1 Tim 1:10), and thus form part of the blueprint of Christian obedience.
    and
    c) one accepts that those scriptures include active homosexuals in that list.

    In that case, if those propositions are correct (I am not saying they are) the issue ceases to become a matter of indifference but a direct issue of Christian obedience and thus approaching a justification for separation and non-communion with a church that enforces them.

    It seems to me that the key to the argument is not the bludgeon of ‘unity’ for its own sake (after all, that argument, after a while, becomes the argument of popery) but theological and charitable ones – there is in modern scholarship (at least on my limited understanding) a wide margin of doubt about the context of Paul’s pronouncements and, as Innes Chambers said above, there is nothing from Jesus himself (although in his mission to the Jews he didn’t go into the non-Jewish world much – and, in light of that, the argument from silence should be very cautiously used to form a positive argument). If there is reasonable doubt then the church should proceed with charity and until better light comes ‘do all things decently and in order’.

    • I agree with all of what you say here, Eliot. I do think, as I said in one of the Facebook threads occasioned by this post, that the arguments from scriptural grounds are quite credible and to be handled seriously and with respect, even though I don’t accept them. Your summary would provide a good starting point for that.

      However I also think that in some contexts the imperative to unity (“love one another …”) also demands to be taken seriously and that the URC (UNITED Reformed Church) is such a context. We’re an ecumenical project or we have no justification for our existence.

      • Elliot Vernon said:

        Yeah Nick, that is my mistake – because growing up as I did, a relative liberal in a conservative former congregationalist church (given I was born in 1972) I always thought that ‘United’ was an adjective. Only later, in my 30s, did I realise that my grammar was wrong and that United was a noun describing a mission statement – mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa :~}

        Keep up the good work – SDG.

  4. I appreciate your historical work on marriage, however, there has been a near consensus on the marriage of males to females throughout history. There are marriage ceremonies throughout the scriptures.

    Biblical authors rail on homosexuality. It’s hard to get around this.

    Your hermeneutics on Mark 12:25 are questionable. Jesus is taking sadducees to task for their disbelief in the afterlife. It’s an obscure passage, not a building block for interpretation.Most Christians assume their relationships and love transcends death. Hopefully, our scope of relationships will expand as the quality of those relationships increases. In the scripture, the concept of ‘oneness’ and the design for human sexuality may be more pivotal to understanding God’s intended purpose for us then you give it credit. Scot McKnight’s book, The Blue Parakeet- Rethinking How You Read Your Bible, places it front and center as an interpretive theme for the entire Bible.

    The real question is, “Is there a design for human sexuality?” I would invite you to read/critique the following:
    http://conversationsinthepostmodernworld.wordpress.com/2012/05/21/why-christians-are-losing-the-debate-on-same-sex-marriage/

    Sincerely,

    Gary

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