Sunday, 27 August 2017

What is 'Christian Marriage'?

So, over the next couple of months we are going to be talking a lot about same sex marriage thanks to the governments decision to hold a 'national survey' on this question in place of the promised plebiscite.  Debate is hotting up already.  The level of vitriol from some conservative Christians has risen appreciably, and it is not only directed at proponents of same sex marriage.  I have seen savage things said to and about quite conservative Christians who have gently suggested that their fellow Christians could consider voting yes, or even just abstaining without compromising their own view of marriage.  The fear and anger in the air is palpable.

I don't want to rehash those arguments.  You can follow the links or find them, and many like them, on the internet if you are masochistic enough to want to read them.  Personally I will be voting yes, but you need not let that influence your decision.  Follow your own conscience wherever it leads you.

The thing is, I think many, perhaps most, Christians have lost sight of what Christian marriage is.  Nothing shows this better than the previous 'story of the month' about Christian marriage, Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson's sobering expose of church responses to domestic and family violence.  Referring to various pieces of research, official inquiries, the experiences of counsellors and church leaders, and the stories of women themselves, they point out a number of sad truths.
  • Many Christian women have suffered abuse at the hands of Christian husbands.
  • Often these husbands justify this abuse in Christian terms, referring to passages about wives obeying their husbands and so forth.
  • Many women, when they approach church leaders for help, are told to stay with their abusive husbands in the hope that they will repent, and sometimes church leaders even side with the abuser.
  • Some prominent Christian leaders have even said such things publicly and had them published in books about Christian marriage.
Many Christians have responded well to this story, expressing sorrow for the women involved and reaffirming Christian abhorrence of violence against women.  Yet many others, egged on by right-wing commentators like Andrew Bolt, have swarmed all over the article in an attempt to discredit it.

Are these two discussions linked?  My response is, absolutely!  Both are about Christian marriage, and both feature conservative Christians, supporters of both the church and the sanctity of marriage, responding in an angry, defensive manner to what they perceive as threats to the church and to a 'pure' Christianity.  I think this defensiveness, and the ideas about marriage that sit behind it, are mistaken.  This will take a while to explain, but if you have the time and patience, read on.


I've talked about marriage in different contexts before - in discussing opposition to same sex marriage and in relation to a non-legalistic understanding of Paul's teaching on households.  In this post I'd like to talk more directly about what this non-legal ethic means for a Christian understanding of marriage.

What could possibly lead a Christian pastor, a man (usually) who conducts weddings frequently, who often counsels couples and whose life is immersed in the Christian faith, to think that somehow a woman should continue in a marriage in which she is regularly assaulted and humiliated?  It is likely to be a pastor who, like our staunch opponents of same sex marriage, holds what is often thought of as a 'high' view of the sanctity of marriage.

This view is described succinctly by Susan Adams.

It’s the idea that marriage as given by God is one man, one woman, monogamous and for life, that this is God’s design for human flourishing, as well as pointing us to larger mysteries of who God is. 

The Australian Christian Lobby says something similar.

Marriage is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.  It is a bedrock institution of our society.  Marriage provides a natural, timeless and sustainable foundation for our civilisation.

These descriptions seem uncontroversial because they are traditional.  They are what we have always been taught, they are in the vows we take and hear our friends and family members take whenever we attend a wedding.  They are what most heterosexual people (that is, the majority of us) mean if we marry.  It doesn't always work out this way, but this at least is what we intend at the beginning.

Still, just because something is traditional doesn't mean it's Christian.  What these descriptions do is to idealise (or, perhaps, idolise) marriage as an institution.  This takes our focus off real people and their joys and struggles and onto something abstract. Once something becomes an idol in this way, we often find that real people get hurt in protecting it.


If you google the phrase 'Biblical marriage' you will of course see several variations on the meme below, which I'm sure most of my readers have seen before.

Like all memes this is to some extent a cheap shot, but what it illustrates is that not all marriages are the same.  This list of alternative marriage arrangements are all found in the Bible, some explicitly mandated in Torah, some described and at least accepted as 'normal' in the various historical books of the Old Testament.  Many of these differ in various ways from the recent Christian  descriptions given above.  Some are not voluntary, particularly for the women.  Some are not monogamous.  Many, perhaps most, would be rejected by the church today and some could get you arrested.

What's really interesting is that Jesus and the apostles do not go to any trouble to correct this diversity of forms.  Certainly Paul says that an 'overseer' or 'bishop' should be 'husband of one wife' (1 Tim 3:2), but polygamy does not appear in any of his 'sin lists' in the way homosexuality/pederasty (depending on translation) does.  So what explains the subsequent strong Christian advocacy of monogamy?

I suspect that to a large extent it simply reflected the culture in which the church was founded.  Both Roman and Greek marriage law were essentially monogamous, and for a Christian leader to have multiple wives (or husbands) in these cultures would have opened them to contempt.  As the church became more fully integrated into Roman society monogamy became more firmly entrenched as the form of marriage it endorsed.

However, as I have written elsewhere, the simple term 'monogamy' does not exhaust the variety of marriage arrangements that might fit under this broad banner.  Marriages may be arranged by relatives or by the couple themselves, they may be entered into because of romantic love, the desire to secure inheritance, the need to make a political or business alliance.  The couple may live in their own household or in an extended family situation.  Their marriage may be more or less easily dissoluble.

Neither Jesus nor the apostles spend any energy discussing this variety of forms.  I believe this is because, unlike us, they are not much interested in the external form of things.  They don't arbitrate between the forms of 'Biblical marriage' they read about in the Hebrew scriptures, or comment on Roman marriage law.  I suggest this is because they simply accept these as background to their discussion about what marriage means for a follower of Jesus.  If you like, legal marriage is a container into which the new wine of the spirit can be poured.  It is the spirit which gives life, not the container.

We can illustrate this from Jesus' words on the subject in Matthew 19.  The incident starts with a question from the Pharisees.

‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’

It's not clear whether the Pharisees are stating their own belief here, or if they are proposing an extreme interpretation to try and trap Jesus into saying something immoral.  I have heard Jesus' reply quoted endlessly in recent years by defenders of 'traditional marriage'.

‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

Much has been made of Jesus' reference to the statement from Genesis, that the Creator 'made them male and female', to suggest that God's intention is for marriage to be heterosexual.  This issue was not part of the discussion here, the immediate subject in view is divorce and the depth of the unity between husband and wife.  This, says Jesus, is not a mere contract that can be terminated by going through the right process.  It is something integral to the people concerned and the relationship between them and God.

‘Why then,’ they asked, ‘did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?’

Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.’

It is tempting for Christians to conclude from this (and many have) that Jesus is establishing or restating a more stringent set of rules around marriage.  This suggests that for Christians, marriage is inviolable, one man and one woman for life.  Divorce and remarriage are therefore adultery, save in a single circumstance where one of them has committed this adultery already.  In this case, many Christian teachers will advise that even then if the marriage can be saved through repentance then it should be.

This seems moral and noble, but it is also the thinking which leads pastors to advise women to go back to their abusive husbands - because divorce is a terrible evil, a subverting of God's will.  The sacred bond of marriage must be preserved at all costs.

But is this what Jesus is really trying to do here?  I think not.  Interestingly, this same teaching also appears, in abbreviated form, in Matthew 5.

31 ‘It has been said, “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.” 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.'

The Sermon on the Mount features a series of such statements, using the same formula - 'you have heard that it was said....but I say to you....'.  In each case the external, precisely defined law of Moses is substituted with an inner, spiritual attitude or intention.  The one immediately before this is as follows.

27 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.'

What is 'sexual immorality'?.  In the context of this sermon, it is 'looking at a woman (or, presumably, a man) lustfully'.  The act of adultery is replaced by adulterous thoughts and desires.  What Jesus is seeking from his followers is not obedience to a set of external laws, it is a transformation, a change of heart and mind in which they are mindful of their every thought and desire.

Is Jesus then saying any of us can divorce at any time?  Not really, he is discouraging divorce, but he is doing so in a context in which people's minds, and consequently the way they live and treat one another, are transformed.  Christians don't avoid divorce out of respect for God's law, but because they are new people, because they are learning (through many failures) to genuinely love and serve one another.

This is made even clearer when we think about the story of the woman caught in adultery, which appears in John 8.  Once again the 'teachers of the law' test Jesus on a point of Mosaic law, this time bringing him a woman caught in adultery and asking if he agrees that she should be stoned, as the Mosaic law states.  Notice that he doesn't engage in a discussion about this law.  He does not modify it, suggest a softening of it or a different interpretation.  Nor does he endorse it and say, 'you're right, go ahead and stone her'.  Instead he puts the question back on them.

If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.

They retreat in shame, and he sends the woman home with the admonition, 'leave your life of sin'.

In this story we see two things.  We are all grappling with sin, and failing at least some of the time; and our sins, including the sin of adultery, can be forgiven.  So, on a strictly legalistic interpretation of Jesus' teaching we could all get divorced, given that in one way or another we have all been unfaithful.  Yet at the same time, even adultery need not lead to divorce, because we can all forgive and be forgiven.  There is no simple, straightforward rule to follow which will make everything easy, there is only the lifelong, difficult path of growth and transformation.

So Matthew 19 continues as the the disciples comment on how difficult this path is.

10 The disciples said to him, ‘If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.’

11 Jesus replied, ‘Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 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.’

Christian marriage is hard and challenging.  So is Christian singleness.  It is something to which we are called, not something we can simply do by following a guidebook.  It, like the Christian life in general, is not adherence to an external set of forms, but a whole-of-life transformation to which Christians are called by God.


We find a similar teaching in Paul's writings, set out most clearly in Ephesians 5.

21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her....

I've discussed this passage more fully in an earlier post, so I'll try to be brief.  What Paul is doing here is illustrating a general principle of conduct.  We should 'submit to one another out of reverence for Christ'.  This principle applies to us all, married or single, in all areas of our lives.  It is the principle of selfless love and service which is encapsulated in various phrases Jesus coins or quotes - 'love your neighbour as yourself', 'do to others as you want them to to do you', 'love one another as I have loved you', 'everyone will know you are my disciples if you love one another'.  This same principle is exemplified by Jesus himself, who 'gave himself up for us'.  We are called to do the same, as Jesus says in Mark 10.

...whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,  and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Hence, Christian marriage is not about fitting into a pattern dictated by Biblical rules - the submissive wife, the husband who leads lovingly, the obedient children.   It is not an external arrangement of a particular form, a valued social institution, a legal contract with rights and obligations.  It may possibly be 'a bedrock institution of our society' and 'a natural, timeless and sustainable foundation for our civilisation'.  But what is that to us?  Is our society or our civilisation Christian?  As Groucho Marx said, 'marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?'  All those things are aspects of civil marriage, in which Christians take part along with other people. But they are not 'God's design for human flourishing'.

God's design for human flourishing is to live as Jesus lived and serve as he served (and as far as we know, Jesus was single).  It is living out the radical, self giving love of Jesus.  This self-giving love applies between husband and wife, between parents and children, between slaves and masters (masters are to serve their slaves) and by implication in all our other relationships.

We are to be salt and light in our society, and we will only do this if we follow Christ in self-giving love.  In marriage we must show this self-giving love to our partner.  This need not look the same for each of us, because we will give what that person needs.  There is no 'biblical pattern' besides this, no set form that the relationship must take, no biblically defined gender roles.  These are external forms which must be inhabited by the Spirit of Christ which is the only thing that gives them life, that makes them Christian.

I certainly don't live like this.  I am willing to bet that you don't either.  But this is what Jesus calls us all to.  This is Christian marriage.  'The one who can accept this should accept it'.


What does this understanding of Christian marriage mean for our current/recent debates?

For starters, it should be completely clear that a marriage in which one partner is violent to the other is not a 'Christian marriage'.  It is hardly even an idealised human marriage as described by EA or the ACL - it is not 'God's design for human flourishing'.  But it is certainly not marriage as envisaged by Paul or Jesus, a marriage in which each partner lovingly serves the other.  Rather it is a marriage in which one person demands service from the other but gives none in return.  It is bondage, a form of slavery.

Is such a marriage worth preserving?  Clearly not in its present form.  If it were somehow possible for the abuser to repent and learn to serve, then it could possibly be transformed into a Christian marriage.  In the meantime, the pastor lovingly advising the person being abused is hardly in a position to say, 'stay in your marriage and risk death'.  Rather, the pastor will say, 'I am concerned about your safety, how can I help you to be safe'.  Certainly Christians can be called to die for one another and for their faith, but this is not Plan A.

An exceptionally holy woman may discern that it is her duty to return and serve her abusive husband in the hope of showing him Christ-like love.  Based on the evidence, such a strategy is extremely unlikely to work, any more than supplying drugs to an addict will help them to get clean. Nor is this a choice someone else should make for a vulnerable, trapped person, much less present to her as God's will based on an idealisation of the institution of marriage.

What, then, of same sex marriages?  It seems to me that a relationship between two people of the same gender has no less (and also no more) chance of being a Christian marriage by this definition than a relationship between people of the opposite gender.  The couple will face exactly the same challenge - overcoming their selfishness and learning to serve one another in love.  When someone puts their own life on hold to care for a terminally ill partner, it is no less Christ-like because that person is of the same gender.  And when someone abuses their partner, it is not more Christ-like if the partner happens to be of the opposite gender.


Is this a slippery slope?  Will I be arguing next that polygamy might be OK?  Incest?  Marrying your dog?  These questions miss the point entirely.  They are attempts to drag the debate back the the question of external forms.  But this is to approach the question from the wrong direction.  If the way of sacrificial love is a slippery slope then it is one we are called to climb, not to slide down.  Sure we may slip but we need to pick ourselves up and keep climbing.

My question would be, how does this relationship enable a life of mutual service?  I imagine, for instance, that a polygamous relationship would make this much harder.  The husband, in the traditional form of polygamy, would always be in a position of power, a position of superiority.  If it were attempted in our culture the forces of sexual jealousy would eventually tear it apart.  Perhaps in other cultures they have ways to address this, but the challenge would be immense.  Nonetheless, defenders of 'Christian marriage' should take care with this subject, because many of the Old Testament heroes were polygamous, and their polygamy is not condemned anywhere in the New Testament.

The degree of difficulty for incest would seem insurmountable.  Aside from childhood games, I have only ever encountered incest in the context of abuse.  The more powerful party (father, older brother, uncle, etc) forces, tricks or bribes the weaker one and then they are trapped. There is an abuser and a victim.  The victim is scarred for life, the abuser generally also a damaged person. Is this the basis for a Christian marriage?  Such hardly seems possible.  

But this is prurient.  A closing thought.  Towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7) Jesus says the following.

‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

‘Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.'

This is, of course, a warning against hypocrisy, but seen in the context of the rest of the sermon it is also a warning against focusing on the externals of the law.  It is a warning not to be trapped by the things 'you have heard it was said', and instead to be guided by the 'but I say'.  How can you condemn someone else for their adultery when you yourself are consumed by lust?  The Law is a log in our eye which prevents us from seeing the spirit.

Our idealisation of marriage is one such log.  It enables us to notice the speck of same sex marriage even as we fail to see abuse in heterosexual marriages and even urge the preservation of such marriages in God's name.  It enables us to condemn certain obvious behaviour while failing to address the lack of Christ-like love so many of us have in our own relationships.

Jesus, as far as we know, was single.  If we were to imitate him in externals, none of us would marry. But this is not what Christ-likeness involves.  Rather it is about the spirit of love and service - in our singleness or our marriages, in our work or our homes, in our churches or our neighbourhoods, towards our friends, our enemies or total strangers.

This is what it means to be Christian.  Everything else is just packaging.


Living Liminal said...

Very well said. If we were to concentrate even half the energy we expend on defending our idols, into actually loving and serving those around us, the world would be an infinitely better place.

Brad said...

Thanks for your thoughtful commentary, Jon. Always appreciate the way you approach these things.