I started writing this about two weeks ago as author and pastor, Rob Bell, came out in support of homosexual marriage. (Read about it here.) Then this week the US Supreme Court considered the same issue – and boy, oh boy, did social media ever blow up. Pink equal signs popped up all over Facebook and Twitter, posted by supporters of marriage equality. These were swiftly followed by Christians posting red crosses in retaliation. Debates ensued, and to be honest, I was appalled by much of the derogatory and stereotype driven attacks launched by some of my fellow believers. That is a whole ‘notha post…
I know what you may be thinking – but this post is not about homosexuality. I plan on writing about this in the coming days, but still have to get my ducks in a row on that one. Instead, this dust-up over marriage equality has me thinking about the very institute of marriage. I have been asking myself some questions as I try to come to grips with what it is that I actually believe.
This is a post about process – how I am struggling to come to a decision myself. It is not meant to sway your opinion to mine, nor to give you answers. It is solely intended to show you how I process information in light of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. In light of my last post (Room To Wrestle) my hope is to show people that Christians can think, and reason, and struggle – that we aren’t all closed minded, brainwashed fundamentalists. So – deep breath – here goes… (this could be loooong)
What does the Bible say about marriage?
As it should be for Christians struggling with any issue like this, the Bible is the first and primary source we go to. If you are not a Christian, I don’t expect you to agree with this – but those who follow Christ submit themselves to the authority of scripture first and foremost. The Bible does give some directives on marriage. As I consider those directives, I am always thinking about context of the passages, intended audience, and (this is the big one) how equally we apply those scriptures today.
To be fair, the Bible never gives a direct command that marriage is a male/female union – but it is STRONGLY inferred. When the Bible speaks of marriage it is always in the male/female context, but not always equivalent to marriage as we view it today. Culturally, Old Testament marriages were arranged by parents and the marriage was done without the participation, sanctioning, or approval of religious leaders. Marriage was neither a civil nor religious union – they were private affairs. Once married however, a couple had numerous religious directives to follow.
Old Testament laws and examples often treat marriage like an exchange of property, and in some instances, a result of the conquests of war. There are plenty of examples of men of God having concubines, and multiple examples of polygamy. In Deuteronomy 22 a command is even given that a virgin who is raped must marry her rapist (after he pays her father 50 sheckels). In Exodus 21 a slave owner can force male and female slave into marital relationships.
Needless to say – those concepts of marriage would not fly with the masses today.
The New Testament also talks about marriage. Jesus spoke out against divorce except in cases of marital infidelity and said that to remarry after a divorce is to commit adultery. His directions on divorce are some of the most clear-cut, strongly stated directives on marriage in the whole of scripture. He also stated that, for those who could do it, it was better to remain unmarried. This is a sentiment echoed by Paul in his letters. Paul writes about marriage roles with the man being the head of the household and the woman being submissive to the man, and that believers should not marry unbelievers.
Just like the Old Testament, these are not marriage directives that we fully apply even within the church today. Also, there are many Old and New Testament directives that we write off due to cultural relevancy and intended audience. To think that there is not room for interpretation is a pretty prideful statement and would call into question the places where we do use these interpretive tools. It at least deserves our consideration.
So where does that leave me? Well, it leaves me wondering. I wonder how we (Christians) can be so outspoken about defending the sanctity and Biblical standard of marriage on this singular issue of homosexuality – and yet ignore just about every example and directive given by the Bible in regards to marriage. Pastors regularly marry believers to unbelievers. Divorce rates in the church mirror those outside of the church, many of those being for reasons other than infidelity. We regularly allow and actually officiate marriage ceremonies for divorcees. So I ask myself, how sacred do we really hold marriage? How diligently do we apply scriptural guidance and follow scriptural examples on marriage?
Fortunately, in my heritage at least, after we approach scripture, we turn to tradition, reason, and experience.
What does history/tradition say about marriage?
The institution of marriage predates recorded history and is evident in cultures all around the world – with each culture holding its own traditions and definitions. The first recorded marriage contracts date to nearly 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Needless to say, marriage in its varied forms has existed outside of Judeo-Christian cultures for thousands of years.
The Roman empire’s views and traditions of marriage dominated much of Western Civilization until the rise of Christianity. In pre-Christian Rome, marriages were personal agreements that did not need the approval of either government or religion. Marriage ceremonies took many forms – from informal unions involving no ceremony, to more elaborate affairs, thrown by those who could afford it, complete with witnesses and priests .
The rise of Christianity in the Roman empire brought with it changes to the Roman views of marriage with scripture becoming the defining ethic. In 1143 AD a Benedictine monk named Gratian formalized marriage for the church in his law textbook, Decretum Gratiani. This work formed the foundation for the Christian view of marriage throughout the 12th century. In 1215 the Catholic church declared marriage to be one of its seven sacraments (an outward and visible sign of divine grace), but it wasn’t until the 16th century that they declared that weddings should be performed in public, by a priest, and in front of a witness. At this period in history the Roman Catholic church was both the predominant religious and governing body in the world. Because of this, marriage was legislated by both the church and the government because for all intents and purposes – they were one and the same. Marriage as a sacrament was rejected by the protestant church (sadly in my opinion) – but the tradition of the church marriage was upheld through the split.
In modern church culture we recognize the marriages of people of our own faith as well as the marriages of people of different faiths and people of no faiths. We recognize marriages that are performed by an ordained member of the clergy, a justice of the peace, the captain of a ship, or any other licensed secular official. We recognize marriages that have nothing to do with a commitment made before God.
So here is where I am with this – Marriage is historically and traditionally a very diverse thing. It has existed and still exists outsides of the confines and definitions of the Christian church. We recognize those non-church defined marriages as legitimate marriages. That leads me to two deeper questions:
Who owns marriage?
Obviously, as Christians, we believe that ultimately God is sovereign over marriage. He “owns” it. The problem is that not everyone recognizes the same god as we do. There are even those who recognize no god at all. As Christians, we should be diligent in being obedient to God in all things, including marriage. The question though is do we have the right to force obedience on those who share different beliefs than us?
The fact that government is involved in marriages at all is a HUGE part of the problem. The government has asserted authority (ownership) over defining and legislating marriage. In essence, this seizure of marriage by the government removes any sacredness from marriage and makes it totally about a legal contact – a right that is given and withheld based on the government definition. Our government in the US was designed and purposed for protecting the rights of the people.
I’ve never understood how people can fight so vigorously to defend personal rights that affect them, and fight with the same vigor to have the government withhold rights from those they disagree with. A government that withholds rights is a scary thing and the practice of denying rights a very slippery slope.
So if not government, then what about the church? If marriages are taking place all over the world with different definitions and by different means, and they have been for thousands and thousands of years, does the church really “own” the right to now impose its definition on everyone, regardless of what they believe personally?
Let’s be clear, declaring what we believe and forcing people to live by our beliefs are different things.
I would argue that church “owns” the right to define marriage by Biblical standards in as much as we are talking about marriage between those who submit to the authority of God and his Word. This “ownership” does not extend to defining marriage for the entirety of the world’s population. We are called to be influencers of culture, but not to be slave-masters of it.
The reality is that modern marriage has become a three-fold thing (at least in modern western culture). There is the element of marriage as a legal contract legislated by a government. There is the element of marriage as a binding and uniting oath before God. There is the element of a personal contract between two individuals. Each of these elements are influenced by different motivations and purposes and submit to different authorities. They each are really completely different things.
If I can accept that, practically speaking, marriage has both secular and sacred elements then I have to ask…
Can the church practice what it believes to be true/right while also allowing freedom to those who disagree?
The question all this leads to for me is this – “Is it possible for the church to operate within its own definitions of marriage – to apply its marital standards to people who adhere to its teaching – while also allowing others freedom to operate according to their beliefs?”.
Don’t we already do this is many other areas? Doesn’t God operate this way with humanity?
The Bible lays out guidelines that followers of God should adhere to in marriage – and thus the Christian church should follow those guidelines. Other faiths have different guidelines and standards that they apply to their marriages – and we accept that people of those faiths operate within those guidelines even if/when they differ from our Christian traditions. If a church or religion does not want to extend the “sacrament” of marriage to someone who cannot or will not adhere to those standards, then they should have the right to do that in adherence to their guiding statutes.
If we believe that last statement to be true, then shouldn’t we also believe that our standards shouldn’t apply to everyone else? A church/religion can take a stand for what it believes in while also allowing others to exercise freedoms – God exemplifies this in how he acts/interacts with mankind throughout all of history.
I am in no way saying that the church shouldn’t stand up for what it believes in – but as I see it, what we talk about when we talk about marriage and what the government talks about when it talks about marriage, are not the same thing. We may be using the same word to describe it – but they are separate concepts.
Finally – this leads me to wonder – how in the world can we argue when we aren’t even talking about the same thing? No wonder we get nowhere in the argument. Christians are arguing to defend their faith from a perceived attack (yup, whole ‘notha post needed for that one), while those supporting gay marriage are arguing against a government that withholds a freedom from millions of people. Totally different debates there…
For me, this issue isn’t as simple as “The Bible said it, I believe it, end of story.” There’s too much room for interpretation of scripture in this; and too much diversity in belief and practice throughout our history and tradition to write it off that easily. It is something that we all need to research and struggle with. I just wonder if there isn’t a common ground that can be reached – a place where the church says, “This is what we believe and why we believe it. We hope you believe it too, but if not, well then, we love you anyway.” And somewhere in that statement is a freedom for people to decide how they want to live, not have it mandated or shoved down their throat by a church or government action.
I wouldn’t respond well to that if I were on the receiving end. I would wager that you wouldn’t either.
No matter where your wrestling leads you, I hope you will always operate out of love, seek first to understand rather than to be understood, pursue peace, be kind, and always give grace.
That was heavy – so I leave you with this…