What can be said about this month’s marriage equality ruling that has not yet been said?
With reference to the Bible and church history, a lot, it turns out.
Very little of it relates to critiquing the Supreme Court ruling. As Lamin Sanneh writes in Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity, it is ever the “particular temper” of Christianity “to serve and witness to the one sovereign God in a world organized, instructed, and administered by others.”
That God’s critique is addressed first and primarily to us and our service and witness, not to the others (like the Supreme Court) in their organization, instruction, and administration of the world, is evident throughout the Scripture. In the midst of raging persecution, the book of Revelation opens with Jesus critiquing not the Roman emperor nor the rulings of the Roman courts but rather the service and witness of his churches in such times. With all due respect to churches like New Manna Baptist in Marion, N.C., who responded to the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling by proclaiming Luke 21:28 —“And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and life up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh”—the actual verse addressed to churches in similar circumstances in the Scripture is Revelation 2:5: “Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.”
Christians this week have been quick to presuppose a church faithful to biblical marriage living in an world unfaithful to it. Even the usually fiercely biblical Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore intoned, “The Court now has disregarded thousands of years of definition of the most foundational unit of society.” Calling on Christians to “embody a gospel marriage culture,” he urged, “Let’s talk about marriage the way Jesus and the apostles taught us to.”
But it was not Jesus or the apostles who taught us to regard marriage as the most foundational unit of society. No doubt this was true of marriage in the old creation. But Jesus and the apostles taught us that the old creation is passing away, and marriage along with it. If we talk about marriage the way Jesus and the apostles taught us to (and we should), we would be saying things like:
The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. (Jesus, in Luke 20:34-36)
What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.” (Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31)
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)
I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord. (Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7:32-35)
Jesus and the apostles are most decidedly not anti-marriage, and, sophistry of the hour notwithstanding, it is not difficult to demonstrate that scripture and church history define marriage as between man and woman. But it is equally straightforward to demonstrate through scripture and church history that marriage is not essential to Christian discipleship, nor is it the fulcrum of the gospel. Jesus did not die for it, nor is it the foundational institution of his kingdom. Paul’s concerns about marriage causing Christians to lose focus on the Lord’s affairs are coming disturbingly true again at this hour.
Sum it up and say: Marriage is an honorable estate but a temporary one, and it will cease to exist in the new creation. Ephesians 5:31-32 describes it as “a profound mystery…about Christ and the church.”
But it is this new creation, not marriage as the sign that points to it, that Jesus and the apostles commend to the center of our attention–and our time, energy, public presence, and discipleship. And what should occupy the center of our attention, according to Jesus and the apostles, is the foundational unit of the new creation, the church. As Christopher Yuan and Rosaria Butterfield write in their thoughtful piece, Something greater than marriage: A response to the SCOTUS decision, “As important as earthly marriage and family are, they are both fleetingly temporary, while Christ and the family of God (the church) are wondrously eternal.”
In his commentary on Galatians, J. Louis Martyn shows that while Jesus and the apostles affirm the estate of marriage in the old creation, they simultaneously reveal that even the greatest marriage relationship in the old creation is less than the least church relationship in the new:
If one were to recall the affirmation “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18), one would also remember that the creational response to loneliness is married fidelity between man and woman (Gen 2:24; Mark 10:6-7). But in its announcement of the new creation, the apocalyptic baptismal formula declares the erasure of the distinction of male from female. Now the answer to loneliness is not marriage, but rather the new-creational community that God is calling into being in Christ, the church marked by mutual love, as it is led by the Spirit of Christ (Gal 3:28b; 5:6, 13, 22; 6:15)… Just as, in Galatians 5:13-14, the need to surmount loneliness is now met not by marriage, but rather by the loving mutuality enacted in the new creation, the church of God.
This is the basic theological error in Rob Bell’s assessment, echoed by others, that gay marriage is a compassionate and divinely sanctioned response to “[o]ne of the oldest aches in the bones of humanity”—loneliness. “Loneliness is not good for the world,” Bell says. “Whoever you are, gay or straight, it is totally normal, natural and healthy to want someone to go through life with. It’s central to our humanity. We want someone to go on the journey with.” But the fundamental witness of Jesus and the apostles is that it is the church—not marriage, gay or straight—that is the new creation remedy for our oldest ache.
This is not only Rob Bell’s error but the essence of the evangelical church’s error as well, as evidenced in the recent marriage equality debate. Russell Moore suggests that “[p]ermanent, stable marriages with families” may become a core part of a church’s bold 21st-century witness. When celibacy has entered the marriage equality discussion, it has typically appeared as a biblically-plausible option for those not suited to marriage, e.g., those with homosexual proclivities.
But Jesus and the apostles did not regard permanent, stable marriages as the church’s bold witness. They regarded celibacy in this way, indicating that even those who were married should live as though celibate. This does not mean husbands and wives neglecting one another but instead regarding as eternal and thus primary their brother-sister relationship (and its associated roles and responsibilities) in the new creation family called church, and their husband-wife relationship as a vital second. It also means husbands and wives loving each other with the same agape love with which Christ teaches us to love our enemies rather than with a specially privileged spousal love, as I recently wrote. Kierkegaard proposed much the same in his far-too-infrequently read Works of Love.
As Patricia Snow rightly contends in Dismantling the Cross: A Call for Renewed Emphasis on the Celibate Vocation,
[I]n the whole history of the Church the choice for celibacy has always been understood to be objectively higher than the choice for marriage, because the celibate anticipates in his flesh the world of the future resurrection. Rather than pass through the intermediate state of earthly marriage, the priest or religious steps outside the bounds of ordinary life and begins to live, in advance, the nuptial realities of heaven.
Lest such high regard for celibacy sound more Catholic than Protestant, no less a Protestant luminary than John Calvin reminds us that Protestants do not elevate marriage to the level of sacrament; it is good and holy (like shoemaking and shaving, he says), but it is not, nor has it been, nor should it be, the center of our Christian witness. Writes Calvin in his Institutes:
The last of all this [discussion of sacraments] is marriage, which, while all admit it to be an institution of God, no man ever saw to be a sacrament, until the time of [Pope] Gregory. And would it ever have occurred to the mind of any sober man? It is a good and holy ordinance of God. And agriculture, architecture, shoemaking, and shaving, are lawful ordinances of God; but they are not sacraments. For in a sacrament, the thing required is not only that it be a work of God, but that it be an external ceremony appointed by God to confirm a promise. That there is nothing of the kind in marriage, even children can judge.
The long perspective of church history is nearly always a helpful tonic at seemingly frightening moments like these. Christians concerned about the recent marriage equality decision would do well to read Philip Lyndon Reynold’s masterful Marriage in the Western Church: The Christianization of Marriage During the Patristic and Early Medieval Periods. Four representative quotes from Reynolds about marriage in the early church will help put the present moment in kingdom perspective:
From one point of view, marriage seemed to be on the secular side of the divide, for although Augustine emphasized the peculiarities of marriage “in the Church,” those who devoted themselves to God by becoming “dead to the world” rejected marriage. Not only was their celibacy an important and necessary part of their new way of life, but it was also a symbol of their rejection of the world and of its mundane preoccupations. Such persons, like the prudent virgins in Jesus’ parable, were ready for the next life, in which no-one would marry or be given in marriage (Luke 20:35). Contrariwise, to marry was to affirm decisively that one remained in the world. (p. xvi)
In referring to virgins and widows, Isidore [of Seville, writing between 598 and 615 AD] was thinking of persons who had voluntarily dedicated themselves to these ways of life as ways of serving God, and they would normally have confirmed this dedication by vows and consecration. (p. xvii)
[It is] Augustine’s notion that one may divide Christians into three kinds: clerics, monks or continents, and married folk.” (p. xvii)
Although exegetes assumed that married persons constituted the humblest rank and were preoccupied with the things of this world (the saeculum), they treated marriage, unlike such things as farming and soldiering, as a religious vocation rather than as an honourable alternative to one. (p. xvii)
We are accustomed to weddings solemnized in the church (we now expect this of Christians who marry), but as Reynolds notes, such were in fact not customary until the 9th century in the East and even later in the West (p. xix-xx). Conversely, consecration ceremonies for those accepting Christ’s call to a celibate life were already a fact of church life and had been for nearly a thousand years before weddings filled regular slots on church calendars.
But sadly, in that crucial era one thousand years ago when wedding vows finally crowded vows of celibacy out of the mainstream of Christian life and worship, and when married Christians were blessed by the church to live as those who were married rather than as those who were not, the church opted for a most devastating form of marriage equality from which it has yet to recover. It began to accept this-worldly marriage and celibacy as equal—equally central to the church’s mission, equally representative of the new creation, equally able to produce Christians focused on the coming kingdom. In so doing, it created a millennium-old confusion in the church’s understanding of God’s plan for new creation human relationships that makes the church’s present marriage woes pale in comparison.