Theses on marriage

rings and bible

We’re talking about marriage, or more particularly marriage between people of the same sex, again. The URC General Assembly met on the weekend just past and unsurprisingly found it was unable to agree by unanimous consent that permission to register for same sex marriage be given to those churches that wish so to do. As a result a process of consultation has begun to decide whether the denomination should take this step at some (as yet not fully defined) future date. Has I been at Assembly, and I’m by no means sorry I was not, I would have favoured the passing of the resolution, but I would have done so somewhat reluctantly. This is for reasons similar to the ones that would have made me unwilling to commend the reports of the Faith and Order committee.

I have no objection at all to churches conducting same sex marriages. If the churches in which I serve wished me to conduct such weddings I would do so. My reluctance arises from my strong feelings of unease about the arguments offered in favour of this step by those promoting it. That is to say that I agree with their conclusions but find their reasons deeply unsatisfying and even misleading. even more so than the arguments of their opponents. So I would have to support their resolutions while feeling that in doing so I was appearing to give support to a set of propositions with which I not only don’t fully agree but positively disagree.

For the purposes of clarifying my own mind and in hope of being able to enter into conversation with others who can enlighten and guide me to a clearer sense of what I believe on this matter I offer the following these:

  1. Marriage is a thoroughly historical and social institution and it makes no sense to try to construct from its history a single ahistorical essence, although study of the history will point one to certain transhistorical continuities that are useful in understanding it
  2. The Bible reflects this historical development, with a wide range of marital forms being described within it, from the polygamy and concubinage of the Genesis stories, through the patriarchal marriage forms of the historical books, to the harem arrangements of the kings of both Israel and other nations
  3. The New Testament assumes and accepts the (slightly different but in many ways similar) arrangements of the societies (Jewish, Greek and Roman) of its time as normative for most purposes (especially in the pastoral epistles)
  4. All of the forms of marriage described or assumed in the Old and New Testament rest on the subordination of women to men and focus strongly on provisions for the legitimacy of children, the inheritance of property rights and the cementing of kinship relationships which almost all historians of marriage agree have been its primary social functions through most of social-historical time
  5. For the early Church (up to the middle ages) marriage was primarily a legal arrangement defined by the civil power and recognised by the Church. Until the time of Constantine this recognition was of a legal relationship which was not defined first and foremost by the Church (hence the apparent lack of any wedding liturgies until the 4th Century
  6. The New Testament witness, while accepting the legitimacy and acceptability of marriage is suspicious and sometimes hostile to it, presenting celibacy as a real alternative, and I believe, mostly seeing celibacy as preferable but not possible for all
  7. The last 50 years have seen an unprecedented crisis of marriage as an institution, through which it is being redefined in a fundamental way. Legal marriage is now an optional part of a menu of quasi-marital elements including cohabitation, joint ownership of property and shared parenthood. The choice of whether to add the legal partnership to some combination of these elements is a matter of choice and in most social contexts makes little real difference. There are few remaining social sanctions against the legally unmarried who share some or all of the other elements of marriage, and all elements are known by all participants to be permanently voluntary and thus inherently temporary.
  8. This means that marriage is either a largely irrelevant appendix to the concrete social reality of sexual partnership (if one reserves “marriage” to mean the legal status) or else its legal aspect has become just one (relatively unimportant) part of it.
  9. It is this that makes same sex marriage possible for the state. All the other elements of marriage (cohabitation, shared property, common parenthood) are now possible and generally accepted for same sex couples (despite residual resistance in some quarters, especially in the case of parenthood) so that extending the legal status makes little or no difference to anything
  10. Some churches have a huge problem with this process since they hold marriage to be a sacrament (or in some cases an ordinance) eternally set (at some point) and unalterable, which means that the churches’ definition of marriage now has an increasingly tenuous connection to the actually existing social institution. This is something new, since previously the churches’ understanding of marriage largely aligned to that of society, indeed I would suggest it was largely based on that social understanding

My problem is that both sides of the current debate argue for ahistorical definitions of marriage, one that generalises that which existed before the crisis inaugurated in the 1960s, the other that generalises the idealised self-image of contemporary voluntary and thoroughly liberal arrangements. Neither, in my view, has a real claim to theological integrity, since neither is faithful to the Biblical witness that marriage as such is a passing institution that belongs to the current age and not to the Kingdom.

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12 comments
  1. Anne Shearer said:

    How then do you explain Genesis 2:24, Jesus’ confirmation of this in Mark 10: 1-10 and the consummation of marriage in Revelation? I have always understood marriage between a man and a woman to be a type of the ultimate marriage between the Lamb and his bride, That idea goes right through the Old Testament that God was the husband of his people. Jesus refers to himself as the Bridegroom.

  2. One of the things I want to say is that the liberal view of marriage takes too little account of the reality of sexual difference, of the existence of two sexes and the role of that difference in procreation, so I agree that these statements are important and should be taken note of.

    As I say in the main post until the very recent past (I’m suggesting the 1960s as the crucial period) marriage was more than anything else about children and property and the social management of sexual activity and the resultant pregnancies and child rearing.

    I also think that the particular forms this has taken (in Biblical and post-Biblical times and practices) have been very various and that the early Church made no attempt to define marriage in any way other than that of the surrounding society. There is no mandate in the Bible for the Church to marry people and no liturgies from the earliest Church that would enable it to. I do not conclude from this that we shouldn’t perform marriages (although Luther did) but that what marriage is is not primarily a matter for the Church, although we do have the responsibility to reflect theologically on what marriage is becoming and, perhaps, to try to influence it, at least for our own people.

    I think we should be very careful about reading the metaphors used for the relationships between Jesus and the Church too literally. While the Church is occasionally described as Christ’s bride it is also described as his body, as a building and as the Temple. If we take these literally and try to construct our view of how to order our lives accordingly we will get into a state of great confusion. We should accept them as what they are, attempts in particular contexts to illuminate aspects of a relationship too difficult fully to understand using more familiar earthly points of reference.

    • S said:

      But but but, does the Mark passage not specifically have Jesus comparing the contemporary social mores surrounding marriage against a universal ideal (which we might call ‘marriage as intended by God’) and finding it wanting?

      Is this not a very specific example of Jesus defining marriage in a way other than that of the surrounding society?

      Specifically as I understand it Jesus in this case was being asked to take sides in a then-current dispute about the nature of marriage: that is, whether it was permissible for a man to divorce his wife for any reason, or only for adultery. And in his answer Jesus points out that both are failing to live up to the ‘true’ nature of marriage (and then, depending on which gospel you read, either leaves it there or comes down on the ‘divorce for adultery is okay’ side).

      But this does imply that Jesus thought there was a ‘true’ nature of marriage, independent of culture, to which we should aspire, even if we could not reach it?

      • As you say in this passage Jesus is identifying himself with one side in a contemporary argument rather than the other. It is, of course, arguable that in resisting same sex marriage those who do so resist are similarly locating themselves within the divisions of contemporary culture but my main point here is that in focusing so narrowly on same sex marriage we’re missing the real story, which is the more fundamental shift in the nature of marriage of which the extension of legal title to same sex couples is simply one, relatively marginal, symptom.

        On this contemporary culture (and in fact the Church) has already accepted the main points:
        – marriage as permanently voluntary and hence inherently temporary and not the subject of any meaningful social sanctions (recognised through divorce)
        – removal of all legal distinctions between the sexes (which were still reasonably strong into the middle of the 20th Century)
        – a shift towards a definition of parenthood that abandons the idea of “legitimacy” conferred legally through marriage

        We need to reflect on the huge shift in the meaning of sexual difference and on the making voluntary and temporary (contract-like) of the relationship of marriage before we can begin to know what the theological significance of same sex marriage is.

  3. Elliot said:

    Nick, as usual on this point, I agree with you.

    It is worth quoting the Westminster’s Assembly’s Directory for Public Worship (gotta get it in somewhere):

    ‘marriage be no sacrament, nor peculiar to the church of God, but common to mankind, and of publick interest in every commonwealth; yet, because such as marry are to marry in the Lord, and have special need of instruction . . . from the word of God, at their entering into such a new condition . . . we judge it expedient that marriage be solemnized by a lawful minister of the word, that he may accordingly counsel them, and pray for a blessing upon them’

    Obviously, very few in the seventeenth century, especially the learned divines in the Jerusalem chamber, would have even thought of homosexual marriage – marriage was to be between one man and one women (although that point was aimed at anabaptist polygamy). Indeed, according to the OED, the word ‘homosexual’ didn’t exist until the mid 1890s and didn’t make it out of medical textbooks until the 1910s, so they can’t have address in such terms. However, it is noticeable that the wording of the Directory concedes the fundamental socio-political basis of marriage. This would be made explicit under the Marriage Act of 1653 which removed the power of ministers to marry and gave such power to local justices of the peace. Obviously, this is the history of a lost revolution – but it is arguable that in the age that the ‘traditionalists’ in the Reformed world most look to, many godly types were of the opinion that the regulation of marriage was a thing of the state. The act of marriage was thus to be treated as a thing distinct from the pastoral duty of the Church to those of the community of the faithful who wished to wed.

    If that represents the ‘Reformed’ view at its purest (and will admit I am perhaps over-egging the pudding here) then I am all for it. But that two raises questions in my mind.

    The first is that if it is accepted that the power to marry is a power emanating from the state (which I take to be true, given that authorisation is needed from the local registrar for a church to maintain a marriage register), then there are issues of Christian obedience ‘to the powers that be’ (Romans 13, etc). If the state makes gay marriage a legal possibility, is it an abuse of the concept of Christian liberty for a church who takes the state’s power to conduct marriages to say ‘not here, though’? It is, I think, an open question – after all a church has the power to give up the right to conduct marriages altogether and, I think, some rights in law to refuse to conduct gay marriages. That takes us back to ‘what is a church and where does its power lay’ – presbyterianism vs congregationalism again.

    But more fundamentally, I think the question that needs to be addressed head on, rather than circuitously, is – is it possible for gay people in an active homosexual relationship to be members of the community of the faithful? Are they to take the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, be baptised if not already? Clearly the language in some parts of the NT, especially Romans and the books written in the name of Paul are equivocal. However, if gay people are given access to the actual sacraments instituted by Christ, then in my view, there can be no justification for denying them marriage, especially if the minister/congregational registrar is understood to be really an agent of the state in performing that action. It is perverse to me, especially in light of Galatians 3:28-29 that someone can be ‘in’ when it comes to actual the seals of the new covenant, but ‘out’ for something of lesser concern.

    Sorry, that was a much bigger rant than I expected.

  4. No need at all to apologise, Elliot, your contribution is clear and helpful as always. I will just note that elsewhere I was much taken aback by someone saying the disagreement over marriage is more fundamental than our differences over infant baptism,

  5. S said:

    On this contemporary culture (and in fact the Church) has already accepted the main points:
    – marriage as permanently voluntary and hence inherently temporary and not the subject of any meaningful social sanctions (recognised through divorce)
    – removal of all legal distinctions between the sexes (which were still reasonably strong into the middle of the 20th Century)
    – a shift towards a definition of parenthood that abandons the idea of “legitimacy” conferred legally through marriage

    Not everyone in the Church has accepted those points! Well, except the second, but I don’t think that’s relevant to a discussion of marriage. But there are a lot of us who strongly resist the idea of marriage as ‘marriage as permanently voluntary and hence inherently temporary’ and think that the Church as a whole was disastrously wrong in not standing up more strongly for a view of marriage once entered into as permanent and binding.

    We need to reflect on the huge shift in the meaning of sexual difference and on the making voluntary and temporary (contract-like) of the relationship of marriage before we can begin to know what the theological significance of same sex marriage is.

    No, first we need to decide whether the shift in meaning of marriage to contract-like model takes us towards, or farther away from, marriage as it should be. Not all movement is progress; and if you discover you have been travelling in the wrong direction, then ‘progress’ means going backwards.

    And before we can do that we need to establish whether there exists such a thing as ‘marriage as it should be’, or if marriage is simply a cultural convention of no more universal moral significance than whether we drive on the right-hand side of the road.

    Your thesis is that marriage is a mere cultural convention but you don’t address the argument that Jesus himself puts it pretty clearly that some ideas about marriage are closer to the ideal of how marriage should be than others. Specifically, eh judges between two cultural constructs of marriage.

    It is only possible to judge between two cultural constructs if there exists a universal against which they can be judged. Hence we can judge how well two different cultures respect justice, because there is a universal value of justice against which they can be judged; we cannot judge between two countries which drive on opposite sides of the road, because there is no universal rule of the road. Either is as good as the other.

    By judging between two cultural constructs of marriage (one as voluntary and temporary, at least on the man’s part, the other as permanent except in certain defined serious circumstances) and by doing so explicitly by comparing them to a universal standard (of completely permanent marriage) Jesus is asserting the existence of that universal and hence putting marriage into the same class of things as justice, ie, where there is an ideal model which cultural constructs are supposed to try to approximate, rather than the class of things as the rule of the road, where there is no such universal and cultural constructs simply exist within their own culture, unjudgable by objective and external standards.

    • Except that Jesus ALSO describes the institution of marriage itself as temporary “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matt 22:30). Of course the relevance of this will depend on how one thinks of the relationship between our present situation and that which comes after the resurrection but for me this indicates that the universal standard against which all marriage arrangements are to be judged is that of the unmarried angels in heaven.

      On the question of the intra-cultural judgement Jesus makes on divorce that seems to me inseparable from the radical asymmetry of the positions of men and women in his time. We are simply not in a position to agree with Jesus on the particular judgement he makes, since neither of the contending views are applicable to the different society we inhabit. We have to work to align ourselves with his will in the time we inhabit (bearing in mind his continuing presence with us in the Spirit). This means arriving at a deep connection with and understanding of our time and the possibilities (and limits) it offers to us.

      It is this task that I want us to undertake. In particular I do not think it is credible for us to try to rebuild (from the Church) the general social enforcement of permanency in marriage (although of course some parts of the Church can try to enforce it on some of their people, as the Baptists do on their ministers).

      Such a refusal to participate in the changes in the overall culture is possible, at least for a time, but runs the danger of withdrawal into the status of a sect. I would not, myself, favour this path, so the alternative is to find a way to live faithfully within the societies we actually inhabit, which will require serious theological reflection, from which I am afraid the war over same sex marriage is distracting us.

  6. S said:

    for me this indicates that the universal standard against which all marriage arrangements are to be judged is that of the unmarried angels in heaven

    That’s a good point, but in that case, why marry at all? If the angels in heaven are to be our model then should we not all live celibate lives?

    If we are to marry there must be some reason for it, presumably beyond simply continuation of the species. Otherwise marriage is a pointless endeavour.

    On the question of the intra-cultural judgement Jesus makes on divorce that seems to me inseparable from the radical asymmetry of the positions of men and women in his time

    I don’t see how you come to that conclusion. Jesus, in giving his reasoning, does not mention the asymmetry of the positions of men and women in his time; he specifically says that his reason for answering as he does it by reference to which model of marriage is closer to the ideal, an ideal which they fall short of because their ‘hearts are hard’.

    Why do you think that Jesus reasoning was to do with that asymmetry when it is not only not implied, but an alternative reasoning (which makes perfect logical sense) is explicitly given?

    In particular I do not think it is credible for us to try to rebuild (from the Church) the general social enforcement of permanency in marriage

    This is, sadly, true, but the question is not what society should do but what we as Christians should do. Is this not the point the writer of Daniel was making when he had Daniel refuse to eat the Babylonian food: it was nto credible for Israel to turn Babylon into Israel, but it was still their duty to remain faithful.

  7. The clearest answer to the question “why marry?” is given by Paul in 1 Corinthians; ” if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” This is also, I think, the reason implied by Jesus in the continuation of the passage on divorce: “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.”

    The divorce arrangements Jesus describes are ones where men can divorce women and women have no access to the resources that would allow them to live independently. He is advocating restricting the freedom of men to discard women and this was a key focus on the debates between Pharasaic schools in which he is taking sides and hence is implied in what he says.

    What is the most appropriate approach to the customs and mores of Babylon (or Persia or Greece) is a matter on which different Biblical books give different angles. I’ve just been looking at Esther in one of the Bible studies I lead and it can certainly be read as advocating adaptation to and use of these institutions, with Esther accepting a place in the King’s harem and putting her position as queen to use for God.

    • S said:

      The clearest answer to the question “why marry?” is given by Paul in 1 Corinthians; ” if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”

      Hardly a ringing endorsement, is it? And it rather suggests that marriages should not be (as they currently are) treated as occasions of celebration, but of disappointment: less, ‘It’s great you found each other!’ and more, ‘So you couldn’t control yourselves, then?’

      If you think marriages should be celebrated as good things (do you?) then presumably you must think they are more than just ways for the incontinent to indulge their weakness without actually sinning. What is your reason for thinking so?

      The divorce arrangements Jesus describes are ones where men can divorce women and women have no access to the resources that would allow them to live independently

      Yes, but again I return to the fact that that is not the reason he gives for his decision. If he had wanted to say, ‘He who wishes to divorce his wife can do so but must continue to support her until she finds a new husband,’ then He could have done. If He had wanted to say that once a man had taken responsibility for something he could not just dump it, then He could have done that do, quite possibly with a pithy parable about a tenant who goes to great lengths to rent a vineyard, gets good wine for it for a few years, but when the grapes turn bitter lets it grow to seed and then is punished by the vineyard’s owner for abandoning it.

      But He didn’t do either of those things. He said, ‘Marriage is intended to be for life,’ and he backed it up by appealing to the creation story, ie, explicitly putting it in the realm of the non-culturally-dependant (for the contemporary Jewish audience, explicitly putting it in opposition to the Mosaic Law, which pretty much defined culture).

      So while the immediate context may have been about ‘the freedom of men to discard women’, His response deliberately appeals beyond that context to an ahistorical ideal of marriage.

      I’m not sure about interpreting Esther as advice to ‘lie back and think of Yahweh’ but it’s a while since I read it. I may have to give it another look.

      • On your first question:any celebration of marriage derived from the New Testament will have to be found in the later Pauline epistles, especially in the Pastorals and this has to be read with the scepticism of the earlier Pauline writings and of the gospels in ones mind. One of my points is that the Church tradition on this matter is not scripturaL and we should be honest about this.

        You’re right that Jesus takes the line that God intends life long monogamy in marriage but with the distinctive twist (as compared for example with the Essenes) that this is a temporary measure until the full realisation of the kingdom of God when marriage itself will be abolished.

        Do read Esther again, but “lie back and think of Yahweh” isn’t quite right, since no mention of God under any name appears in that book. “Lie back and this of Israel (or Benjamin since tribal identity is important to the text) would be nearer the mark”.

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