Why are there two distinct teachings about marriage in the New Testament?

 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” (Matthew 19:10-12)

These two passages are the classic texts used to support the idea that the (unmarried) Jesus commended celibacy for at least his closest followers. The (unmarried) Paul also wrote clearly in his early letters that celibacy was to be preferred. In 1 Cor. 7 he clearly states that marriage, while permissible, is a poor second to remaining celibate.

So there is good Biblical support for the idea that Christians should favour celibacy over marriage, even if not all of them are capable of it.

On the other hand, though, there are also New Testament passages that support an idea of marriage as divinely ordained. In Matthew 19:4-6 we find ““Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”

The later Pauline letters have a very different take on marriage from 1 Corinthians. In Ephesians we read: “ Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” The married state is held up almost as a sacrament of the relation of Christ to the church. The “household code” of obedience is also found in Colossians 3-4 .

The “pastoral epistles” (1 Tim, 2 Tim, Titus) similarly include strong statements of the qualifications required of church leaders that specify that they should be patriarchal heads of households. They must be married and rule their families.

These two teachings are difficult to reconcile. Why does the New Testament seem to teach in some places (Matthew, 1 Cor, Luke) that marriage is a poor second best for those incapable of the higher state of celibacy while in others (the later Pauline letters) it is held up as a required ideal?

One possible line of response is to question the status of the late Pauline literature. The current scholarly consensus is that Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians and the pastorals were not, in fact, written by the apostle Paul but by followers of his in the years after his death, On this argument their rather different tone and substance reflect the increasing stability of the Christian communities and their inability to maintain the kind of immediate expectation of Christ’s return that characterises the early letters. One could go on to say, as some do, that these more “conservative” writings can be downgraded or ignored if they aren’t “authentic”.

I am inclined to accept the word of the experts that differences in thought and especially of style indicate that Paul didn’t write these later letters. What I don’t accept is the theological conclusion that this means they have less authority that 1 Corinthians or Romans, for example. They are part of the Biblical canon and therefore form part of the witness that, interpreted in the Holy Spirit, is the highest authority for our life.

My position must thus be that both the teachings, that marriage will pass away in the resurrection life (Matt 22:30 “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”) and is therefore not part of God’s ultimate plan for us; and that marriage is commended and even required are authoritative. So how can this be?

It seems to me that the key to this is the long Augustinian/Lutheran tradition of the “two cities” (Augustine) or “two kingdoms” (Luther) which distinguishes the order of God’s rule (kingdom) from the (relatively legitimate) order of the kingdoms of the secular. This is an essentially eschatological teaching, depending on the idea that the present age is a passing one, between the fall and the return of Christ to inaugurate God’s undivided and absolute rule.

The kingdom announced, represented, and enacted by Jesus is not yet completely established. His rule will not, in the end, be shared with earthly princes and powers. God’s love, peace and justice will have undivided and undisputed sway. In the meantime, though, Christ’s rule (within us) is shared with that of the powers of this world. Those powers have their (partial) authorisation by God but this is temporary.

Marriage, like secular law, belongs to this temporary, passing, order of being.

The problem of the two teachings on marriage is thus an exemplar (one of the most important exemplars) of the problem of the already and the not-yet of the kingdom and of the relationship between our lives in this world and in the world to come.

There are two ways of resolving this tension that have been important in the history of the Church and which continue to tempt us today. We can regard salvation as something only partly concerned with the world we inhabit today. We can see heaven as an alternate reality to which we go after death and this vale of tears as a burden we will shed. This is the “gone to a better place”, “pie in the sky when you die” version of soteriology that expresses itself so powerfully in much of the hymnody of the evangelical revival.

Alternatively we can see salvation as a this-worldly realisation of social progress essentially in continuity with secular history. This is the “building the kingdom”, “social gospel” version of soteriology that has been popular on the “liberal” left of Christianity for a long time and has recently been attracting people from (especially American) evangelical backgrounds like Brian McLaren and Shane Claiborne.

One of these options follows the pastoral epistles in urging conformity to the (God-given) structures of this world while expecting salvation in another world. The other expects these structures to be changed so as to inaugurate God’s kingdom.

Neither is wholly satisfactory, to my mind. One fails to take seriously enough that the incarnation shows that this world is the site of salvation, that resurrection is to a new life in the created order not to some escape from it. It leads to too much compromise with the fallen order in the name of an individual salvation beyond death.

The other, though, fails to take seriously enough the break between the fallen order and that of the new creation. It believes that the new earth and the new heaven can come through human efforts in this age. It doesn’t understand how badly we are disabled by the fall and how fundamental the change promised is and thus doesn’t see that only God’s intervention can complete that transformation.

These two partial and in isolation misleading conceptions lead to the two most common positions in our contemporary debates on marriage. On the one hand conservatives defend marriage as we know it as part of the eternal order, forgetting that this age will pass. On the other hand progressives seek to extend the given into the future, redefining marriage to become part of their new creation. Both fail to grasp that marriage itself, whether traditional or redefined, is not part of resurrection life.

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