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Since I posted on the issue of Marriage for Everyone the subject has continued to be debated and the NAACP has formally adopted same-sex marriage as a key civil rights issue. The blogosphere has also lit up with both civil and uncivil discussions. I had a few comments on the subject both on this site and on other blogs where I commented. Some have assumed I am unreservedly in favor of same-sex marriages in the churches because of my remarks on the issue of the right of all persons to form legal relationships. My position is more nuanced than that if not just more confused. (In fact this post is too confused to sort out. I cannot seem to decide whether it is about the meaning of “marriage” or a solution to the same-sex marriage issue for Christians. Okay, it is about both and it is long. You can sort it out and read just half at a sitting or just read Part Two if that is what you care about.) Enjoy!
Part One: What is a Marriage?
As I wrote in the post here, I believe marriage has been defined by virtually all Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions, as a relationship of two (opposite sex) persons who enter into a life-long bond, by pledge and oath, as the lesser parties of a covenant. The two pledge fidelity secondarily to each other but primarily to the greater party of the covenant, the god who has required this pact, this treaty, of any two persons who desire to have their relationship recognized by their community.
In those times when everyone was nominally a member of the church (or synagogue or mosque) as well as of a town or village, there was no need to separate the state’s recognition of such a legal bond from that of the cultic institution. As societies have pluralized, however, it has become increasingly common for some people to desire the legal recognition of marriage without the blessing of a local congregation. Hence, today it is not unusual for a couple to “marry” with no “religious” connection at all.
And as I mentioned in the earlier post, some nations in Western culture solved this pluralist problem by creating a new category, that of “civil union.” In those nations everyone is “joined” without the services of a cleric and those who want a “religious” blessing may also enter into that ancient formal covenant-cutting treaty with a church wedding.
In the U.S., however, we have created a “both/and” system wherein clergy have continued to act for the state as “declarers” of “religious” civil unions (called marriages) while the state also provides “secular” officials; county clerks and justices of the peace, etc., who declare equally official civil unions which are also called marriages!
Clearly, the system in places like Switzerland is cleaner and yet linguistically, I doubt that those Swiss citizens who only made a pledge to each other and the state at the local government office refer to their relationships as “civil unions.” I do not know but I suspect they would say if asked, “Yes, we were married in 1989” (or whenever) but they did not get “married” in a church nor before a Christian community by a pastor and theirs is not what Christians mean by getting married. Which is why you may know couples who have become Christians since they were “married” who then choose to renew their vows before God and everybody after they come to appreciate what Christian marriage means. I know such couples.
Part One: Conclusion
All of this is to argue, there is no way today for Christians (and other religious groups) to reclaim the term “marriage” as referring only to what comes about in these covenant-cutting ceremonies in cultic gathering places. The thing which begins in the court office may only be a civil union from the Christian point of view but such couples, united in civil union ceremonies will hold that they are “married,” whether we like it or not. We can maintain our own meaning for the word “marriage” (and we surely should) but no one else is going to notice or care.
Part Two: What Shall Christian Communities Do About Gay Marriage?
Which leaves Christians where? Once same-sex unions – “marriages” – are recognized as legal in the U.S. the churches and other “religious” organizations will need to decide how to respond. On this matter, I am highly conflicted. (Moreover, my nuanced [confused?] position gets me in trouble with everyone and I am sharing it here with trepidation as usually I am a risk avoider who stays away from unpleasant situations.)
For Christian Same-Sex Marriage
I have read the literature on what the Scriptures teach and do not teach on this subject and I have concluded that no passage in either the older covenant texts nor the new covenant books speak to our question at all. Some passages have to do with the failure of hospitality – not primarily homosexual behavior – and to the degree that those texts do touch on same-sex relations, they do so in the context of rape. Even the famous passage in Leviticus lacks the element of consent and sanction. In one Pauline passage the apostle condemns male tutors who take sexual advantage of their male students and in another he aptly describes those who, having abandoned God, throw off their own normal desires and become utterly promiscuous, without boundaries, a circumstance which was condemned regularly in the older testament, especially in relationship to Baal worship. Such a passage does not describe a person with a same-sex orientation acting on it. It describes opposite-sex oriented persons acting outside their own nature/orientations in a licentious manner.
Every biblical incident or circumstance represents the same sort of power differentials and/or lawless behavior which are condemned whether they are found in a homosexual situation in Sodom or in a heterosexual situation in Gibeah of Benjamin. No passage in the Bible describes our circumstance, one where faithful couples in exclusive same-sex relationships wish to have their love solemnized in the same way that opposite-sex couples do. These are relationships between people with hard-wired, same-sex orientations who want their love and fidelity to be honored by their Christian communities.
I can find no biblical injunction against such gracious honor and blessing.
Against Christian Same-sex Marriage
There is no question in my mind that the norm for creation was and is, one man and one woman, together, for a lifetime. There is also no question in my mind that God created men to be wired for sexual attraction and passion for women and vice-versa. The biological complementarity of marriage is that the guy has a tab A which fits into the female’s slot B. And the normative result of that blessed union is usually, eventually, more than a marriage. “One plus one” in this case usually equals three and four and even more in many cases; marriage leads to family.
From the beginning, marriage was the means by which God’s “project managers of creation” were to fill the earth and thus begin to fulfill their very first marching orders from God (Genesis 1:28).
So, in terms of the way creation was and is supposed to be, same-sex relationships, regardless of how deep and true and meaningful they may be, are not normative, not in the original plan for creation.
Most of us have probably heard GLBT people say in response to this biblical viewpoint, “I am just the way God made me and God does not make mistakes!” This argument from creation will not do. While God does not make mistakes, we all know that this good creation, this fallen creation, is full of mistakes, full of situations which are outside the creation norms. A child born with Down’s Syndrome is “the way God made” her? Of course not. A child born with a heart defect like my father and his father before him were not “born the way God made” them in the sense I mean when I say “norm.”
Anything which falls outside the norms, outside of God’s original intentions for creation is not the will of God; it is what happens when a good creation is held down in futility and is subjected to many millennia of toxic evil. The creation as we know it is broken; we must therefore be careful when we argue from a broken creation. It is full of realities which were never intended by God from the beginning, including, I believe, confused (bi-sexual) and same-sex orientations.
So, how do I bring these conflicted views together? By asking some questions.
If same-sex orientation is an example of the brokenness of creation, do we as Christians make room for God’s grace in broken situations? Of course we do; all the time. Some opposite-sex couples cannot have children. Do we forbid such couples marrying because they cannot “fill the earth” with children? Some couples who wish to be married are too old to have children. The companionship of marriage is a good and blessed thing in any case.
Moreover, some couples, after they have married, find they cannot maintain that companionship, cannot create a home filled with peace. In this broken situation we allow for divorce as difficult and painful as divorce usually is because some things are even worse than divorce. Most churches also condone and most clergy perform marriages of divorced people because grace is stronger than sin and ours is the God of do-overs.
Was divorce a part of God’s norm? No. Jesus clearly states that the plan of God was for one woman to live with one man for a lifetime. “Moses gave you the writ of divorce…” but “…from the beginning of creation” it was not so (Mark 10). Divorce was a mercy which God gave to Israel because they could not always live by the norm as things were meant to be. Surely, then, the new covenant in King Jesus does not have less grace for broken marriages than existed under Moses!
As God did with Israel, do we, in our larger society, make room for things which we know at some level are not the way things were meant to be? Yes. For instance, war is an evil thing, a broken situation which always brings even more evil to those involved in it and to those who love them. The evils of war are like ripples in a pond which harm generation after generation. War should not exist. War is hell. Yet we recognize in our world that some things, like the present massacre of Syrian citizens by their own evil government, are worse than war, more unjust than war. We not only allow for war, we also honor those (on our side) who fight in wars (Memorial Day, anyone?).
Is same-sex marriage a solution to something evil? Yes. As the rapid spread of AIDs in the U.S. through the gay communities in the late 20th century should tell us, rampant promiscuity is a primary feature of “the gay lifestyle.” And as many persons within the GLBT communities will tell you, life as a series of shallow encounters with virtual strangers is just as lonely and empty of warmth and joy among same-sex persons as it is among heterosexuals.
I have known two people well who are sex addicts; one is gay and one is straight. While sexual addiction is widespread among heterosexuals, how much worse must it be in a world where there is no culturally recognized safe place of refuge, no healthy, blessed alternative to it?
Of course, many gay men and lesbian women, a few of whom I have had the honor to know, have turned away from “the gay lifestyle” quite intentionally and have constructed homes of healing inside relationships with one other person, even though their choice to live exclusively leaves them outside of the laws which sanction and benefit such coupled life. These are the folks who are pushing hard for the same recognition that others have for their bound (wedding band?) and joyous partnerships. Some of the couples I have met are Christians.
Part Two: Conclusion
I do not know what Christian communities are going to do about this issue when same-sex “marriages” become legal in the U.S. I hope the Christian communities I know and love are wise enough and gracious enough to draw their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters back in and support their committed relationships by lovingly blessing and confirming them.
Your comments and questions are welcome, as always.