Well … not the first polarity you are imagining, not the Mars/Venus thing. Those are different planets. Magnetic poles occur on the same planet. We’ll get to the poles, but first: the planet.
A side effect of our nation’s protracted religious disestablishment is all the excitement about marriage: what it is, what it isn’t, who can and who can’t, and confusion between the interests of church and state. A contributing factor to this arousal is hormonal. The thinking brain and the hormonal brain are one and the same. Thus, a degree of personal reference is only fair. Where one starts perambulating influences where one ends up.
I am a heterosexual male, happily married now, once divorced, who pursues ever more faithful abundant life as a disciple of the risen Lord Jesus Christ. I live in a culture that is tilted toward titillation. I live in a religious context that pits the “progressives,” who bring a more justice-oriented perspective, over against the “evangelicals,” who bring a more biblical prescriptionist perspective.
On the right, I tire of the arrogance that claims to have “the” one and only scriptural position on the topic. Scripture presents dozens of assertions that are problematic for our own context. On the left, I sometimes experience the absence of theological substance due to ancillary scriptural mooring.
MARRIAGE: ONE CHRISTIAN’S VIEW
Key question: What is God’s purpose in creating us to be sexual beings? Two theologically derived ethical principles are expressed in Scripture: intimate relational mutuality and procreation. These twin values present a dynamic polarity. Classically, Protestants have emphasized mutuality while Roman Catholic Christians have emphasized procreative values. Both normative ethical principles flow from the biblical witness. Each of these values contributes to a common energy field. Neither apart from the other can be as faithful as both together. Of course, things get complex at that point and some Christians have an aversion to complexity.
Regarding mutuality: “What is the chief end of man (sic)?” asks the first question of the Shorter Catechism: “To glorify God and enjoy him (sic) forever.” All of our relationships serve THIS relationship. My intimate, mutual relationship
with my wife has penultimate value as it serves my ultimate relationship with God. In our mutual intimacy I know a depth and mystery that I would describe as a sacramental experience of God. Classically, Protestants have acknowledged baptism and the Lord’s Supper as the two “ordinary” sacraments, that is to say they are ordinary means to the experience of the grace of God not to be neglected by any Christian. There are also extraordinary sacramental experiences. These moments are not ordinarily the means by which we experience God but they can occasionally be an extraordinary means to the experience of God. This relational mutuality can be “extraordinarily” sacramental. Marriage can be an experience of the incarnation. As we accommodate ourselves to each other we taste God’s accommodation of God’s self to us in Jesus Christ. We die to self and rise to truer self.
Regarding procreation: Adam and Eve are instructed to be fruitful and multiply. Sex between a man and a woman is the biblically indicated norm for procreation. Even in a world of surrogacy, infertility and same-gender mutuality, the normative way a child is and should be brought into the world is through male/female sex. The whole gestation-to-birth experience can also be extraordinarily sacramental. Those who would raise intimate relational mutuality to “the” singular value regarding marriage tend to diminish the
procreative norm. Those that raise the procreative norm as “the” singular value regarding marriage disparage sex apart from any procreative possibility. Yet, our hormonal self-interest objects. Some hear a voice relegating our relationships with infertile spouses, same-gender partners, urologically-adjusted husbands, post-menopausal wives, or birth control-practicing couples as being lesser in quality or faithfulness. Overpopulation adds additional complexity to the mix of values.
Yet both of these ethical norms are important to any theological perspective that attests to the unique authority of Scripture. They are norms, however, from which we all fall short. They are norms that interact with other values and contextual realities as we chart a responsible, appropriate, moral behavioral response.
Jesus, in the Beatitudes, points out that none of us is on the pure, holy side of things. We all fall short of this “goodness.” When the normative “holy” life is no longer possible, what life approaching holiness might still be available to us? What then is available to the couple whose procreative potential is eradicated by infertility? What dimension of grace is available to the gay, lesbian, transgendered? Is intimacy with God then available only through chastity? Or is intimacy with God manifest also by means of an intimate, mutual, non-procreative sexual relationship? Or by a procreative marital relationship that lacks intimate mutuality? Even in a context where one value is more available than the other, there is a desire for the one that is lacking: the same-gender couple longing for a child; the lonely marital relationship hungry for intimacy. Is there some accommodation of grace to our broken condition? Zora Neal Hurston describes so well the nature of love that like the sea “takes its shape from the shore it meets.” How might we understand God’s intention for our abundant life in our own particular broken context?
I am divorced, but now joyfully remarried. My marriage is built upon all that I have learned through previous failed relationships. My sinfulness has been known to me in those relationships as in no other relationships. The biblical observation that sin can be transmuted to the third and fourth generation has been my family of origin experience. I have discovered God’s grace and forgiveness across those relationships as in no other relationships. My wife and I bring our brokenness, our shortcomings, our finite selves and love each other as we simultaneously discover how extensively God loves us.
But I am divorced. Jesus said plenty about divorce and nothing that favored it. The norm he clearly sets is absolute marital faithfulness. Jesus doesn’t overlook the fact that my relationship is outside that ethical norm. There is no pathway for me to return to the “good” side of the norm he establishes. One day I just recognized the fact that I am a sinner without hope but by the grace of God. Yet I have tasted the fullness of God’s gracious accommodation of God’s self in my current marriage. However, my condition falls short of the ethical norm Jesus proclaims.
Is there a range of accommodation for others whose contexts put the “norm” beyond their attainment? Can we start with the confession of our brokenness and God’s gracious accommodation to that contextual reality while even still recognizing the ethical norms that define our brokenness?
MARRIAGE: A CHRISTIAN DEFINITION?
The biblical witness does not provide a clear-cut single definition of marriage. No Christian would advocate for the understanding of marriage operative in forcing Diana to marry her rapist. Deuteronomy prescribes that if your brother dies you are required to marry his wife and produce a son. God has a special list for those who fail to do this! Plenty of polygamy is condoned in the biblical witness. Even the New Testament refers to a “bishop” only having one wife, which would seem to imply it’s OK for non-bishops to have more than one. Even the most fervent biblical prescriptionist will need to extract theological values from which to expound ethical norms by which to judge the appropriateness of certain practices. Every Christian is on the same slippery slope of applying scripturally derived theological values from which ethical principles flow logically (to the degree a hormonal being can be logical) leading to the contextual application or adaptation of those ethical principles engaging the reality of our human brokenness. Any expression of absolute certainty is essentially idolatrous.
Marriage: Shall we use that word only for the first-time-joined, committed, monogamous heterosexual relationship of a man and a woman? Perhaps there are different words we would prefer for those of us in relationships coming out of some definition of brokenness. Mine, for example, would be a “second” marriage, which some churches would not acknowledge as being a real marriage at all. What of the infertile union, the gay union, the lesbian union, the arranged marriage? Are these not appropriate unions between two people? Do we need an expanded nomenclature to capture their uniqueness? Perhaps we need less definition, which ascribes a certain black-white, either-or absoluteness, and more a description of a range of appropriate relationships that bear sacramental possibility for the Christians so engaged. Such a range might provide boundaries that value intimate relational mutuality and a sexual expression that is subservient to that mutuality yet values the family as the normative nest where children are conceived, born and raised. Our brokenness presents contexts in which the pure norm is unattainable, yet within which God’s accommodating grace can none-the-less be experienced. Those relationships are appropriate even as they aspire to the norm by which God’s abundance can be even more fully experienced.
MARRIAGE: ONE CITIZEN’S VIEW
The state continues to pretend that it can define marriage, which it cannot without violating the First Amendment. The church and the state continue to be con-fused (as in “fused with”). The state does have a limited concern that children be raised with care and security and that our proclivity to be sexual needs bounds that serve the common good. While as citizens we do need to share some common agreement as to the appropriate, limited concerns of the state, we cannot expect the state to enforce our own theologically derived meaning that we add to the concerns of the state. We need to de-fuse religious meaning and the state’s limited interests. In that light, it is time the state cease using religious ministers to function on its behalf. We need to de-couple the legal paperwork/contract aspect from the religious blessing aspect.
MARRIAGE: A PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH (U.S.A.) VIEW
So what are we to do with a Book of Order that defines marriage? Perhaps we leave it like it is. It does point toward the normative ethical principles that continue to be operative. Yet, let’s allow each session the latitude to approve which civil/legal marriages it will bless as having sacramental potential. We already give this authority to sessions regarding the exercise of the ordinary sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We also have latitude regarding the blessing of inter-religious marriages and second (or third or more) marriages. We already have this latitude about what relationships to bless (or not) denomination by denomination. Perhaps it is time this latitude be provided congregation by congregation.
For sure, it is time for teaching elders to quit functioning as agents of the state.
G. WILSON GUNN JR. is general presbyter of National Capital Presbytery, based in Rockville, Maryland.