Ted Grimsrud—May 19, 2013
In the first of these posts on gay marriage, I suggested that our starting point—whether (1) we assume acceptance unless persuaded to withhold it by the evidence or (2) assume withholding acceptance unless we are persuaded by the evidence to give it—is crucial in considering the issue of how Christians might respond to gay marriage. I suggested that the benefit of the doubt should be in favor of churches embracing such relationships and the people in them. One main reason for an accepting starting point, that I discussed in the first post, is the importance of hospitality in the biblical story.
The second main reason for an accepting starting point, that I will discuss in this post, has to do with the goodness of marriage. My third post will focus on the biblical bases usually used by those who would withhold acceptance, testing whether that evidence is strong enough to persuade us to withhold acceptance after all.
Most of the theological literature in relation to homosexuality until quite recently did not focus particularly closely on marriage. Major books from a “restrictive” perspective that urged Christians not to “normalize” homosexuality could comfortably repeat stereotypes about sexual promiscuity and short-term relationships being the norm especially among gay men (and probably among lesbians as well).
It was easy to equate “homosexuality” with obvious “sexual immorality” since gays and lesbians were, it seemed, not involved in committed, long-term relationships—and probably did not really desire to. So in the literature, we encountered widespread use of terms such as “the gay lifestyle” and “homosexual practice” (note the singular) as if there was only one “lifestyle” or “practice” and it involved a lot of casual sex with multiple partners.
Of course, all along in the debate over the past 40 or so years, many gay people and allies argued against these stereotypes. In just the past few years, though, as the movement toward legalizing and affirming gay marriage has gained remarkable traction, increasing numbers of people are learning of the existence of countless same-sex marriages that have existed for decades and reflect similar patterns as opposite-sex marriages—for better and for worse.
So, is it possible to construct a theology of marriage that does not discriminate against same-sex couples and that accounts for the actual experience of healthy marriages of many such couples?
Elements of “Christian marriage”
Understandings of marriage have evolved a great deal over the generations. Christians in the 21st century typically would affirm that many of their convictions about marriage are shaped in crucial ways by biblical themes. However, it is difficult to find a direct model for what marriage should be like that Christians apply directly and in detail from the Bible. We typically recognize that views have evolved even while the basic themes remain vitally important.
The list I offer here of many of the main elements of a Christian is gathered from general understandings and impressions of what Christians think today (recognizing that it is only a suggestive, partial, undeveloped list, not a thoroughgoing theologically-grounded definition of Christian marriage.
Still, these are generally accepted elements of a Christian understanding of marriage:
(1) It is based on shared Christian values and commitments. Both partners have similar convictions about God, the meaning of life, sources for faith, vocation, commitment to a faith community, ethical values, and other aspects of the life of faith.
(2) It is centered on promises of fidelity, commitment, and monogamy. In entering the marriage covenant, both partners agree to be faithful to each other, to share life together, and to work at their disagreements in constructive ways.
(3) The relationship is accountable to a faith community for support and encouragement. Being “married in the church” is an act that provides the community’s blessing to the relationship and involves a mutual commitment where the couple commits to the community and the community commits to the couple.
(4) The relationship is considered to be permanent, “until death do us part.” Partly this affirmation is based on biblical teaching (see Mark 10 where Jesus forbids divorce absolutely). Maybe more so, this affirmation is based on a recognition that an acceptance of the permanence of marriage provides more incentive for partners to work out their differences and resolve their conflicts.
(5) The relationship is to be characterized by companionship and intimacy. An important affirmation of this element of marriage as foundational goes clear back to the creation account in Genesis 2 where the original human being’s loneliness was identified as the major reason for the creation of a second human being made out of the “rib” of the first.
(6) Marriage provides the context for continuing the species through procreation (see Genesis 1—“be fruitful and multiply”). As well, marriage provides the setting for nurturing children. Human beings, of all species, are born vulnerable and needing help. We learn how to navigate life over time; we are not born knowing all we need to know or having adequate guidance from our instincts.
(7) The Bible presents marriage as being an arrangement made between males and females. Both mentions of the origins of marriage in the Genesis creation accounts (Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:18) refer to marriage being made up of one male and one female. Jesus quotes the Genesis one account in his discussion of marriage (see Mark 10:2-9 and Matthew 19:1-9).
Exceptions to the “norm” concerning marriage
In thinking about this description of marriage, though, we should note right away that both the Bible itself and Christian practice (especially currently) allows for some exceptions to the norms implied in this list. When such exceptions are made, Christians generally do not assume that the exceptions invalidate the norms—marriage is defined in terms of these seven points even if in some cases not every single one of the points on the list are not present.
So, for example, one of the very passages where Jesus quotes Genesis two in describing marriage as between a male and a female (Matthew 19:1-9) has as its direct point the allowing for divorce under certain circumstances, compromising on the norm of permanence. The Apostle Paul also allows for divorce under certain circumstances in 1 Corinthians 7:10-15.
Most Christian groups in North America today are pretty accepting of divorce and remarriage. Increasingly, in fact, it is seen as unremarkable for pastors and other church leaders to be in their second (or more) marriage even while their first spouse survives. Yet, the churches still affirm the permanence of marriage as the ideal and expectation.
The 1995 Mennonite Confession of Faith states in Article 19 that marriage is defined as being for one man and one woman for life and footnotes the Mark version of Jesus’ statement about marriage that actually does not allow for divorce or remarriage. But in the commentary, the Confession hints at flexibility on this point and, in fact, Mennonite practice is becoming increasingly accepting of divorce and remarriage.
Even though the Genesis one mention of the origins of marriage implies that the main purpose of marriage is procreation (“be fruitful and multiply”), Christians tend to accept childless marriage as perfectly acceptable. Certainly, marriage between people older than childbearing age is seen as acceptable as is marriage when one of the partners is infertile. In addition, generally churches do not look with disfavor upon married couples who choose not to have children.
A quite different phenomenon is the presence in the Bible of the acceptance of polygamy as a valid type of marriage—contradicting the one man, one woman norm. On the other hand, in tension with the call to be fruitful and multiply, we have numerous cases of unmarried men who actually are heroes in the Bible (especially Jesus and Paul). The Bible seems in general to assume patriarchal dynamics in marriage. We do not today allow polygamy and we don’t accept the patriarchal dynamics. So, the Bible itself does not exactly conform with our current notions of Christian marriage.
Gay marriage in relation to the “norms”
Our questions, then, are how creative should we be in thinking about how we view marriage in the churches today and how do we think about acceptance of exceptions to traditional “one-man-one-woman-for-life-with-children” norms for marriage? More specifically, to return to the hypothetical marriage I mentioned in the first post, the partnership of “Ilse” and “Jennifer.” How do we think of their marriage in relation to our list of the elements of Christian marriage and our list of exceptions to the standard picture of marriage?
The first five points on the list of elements of Christian marriage clearly are present in Ilse and Jennifer’s relationship (shared Christian convictions, commitment to fidelity, connection with a faith community, permanence, and companionship). The sixth point, having and nurturing children is potentially present either through artificial fertilization or adoption. Only the seventh point is missing.
Is there any reason why, if the churches today can make exceptions to biblical expectations and bless second marriages for divorced people and childless marriages, why churches could not also make an exception to what is described in the Bible and bless marriages between two people of the same sex?
The goodness of marriage
One reason why churches should be willing to make this kind of exception is our starting point of the call to hospitality. We should not put stumbling blocks in the way of people of faith such as Ilse and Jennifer by asking them to choose between participation in a faith community and sharing their lives together. We should be especially sensitive to their situation because they are part of a vulnerable population that has been treated with hostility and violence.
Another reason why churches should be willing to make this kind of exception is due to the high value that Christians place of marriage. We recognize as Christians (and simply as citizens in this country) that marriage is a good thing, something that is good for people and for society and for the churches. Marriage is difficult and not always a blessing—but the difficulty actually motivates churches to work at supporting it because of its potential goodness. These are some reasons why we see marriage as good:
• It is virtually universal among human beings, recognized a valuable in all cultures
• It can be important for people’s emotional health
• It helps meet our needs for intimacy and companionship
• It provides pleasure—physically, socially, emotionally
• It makes monogamy (seen as a good thing) more possible
• It can enhance physical health
• It provides economic benefits
• It is a context for spiritual community—and serves as a building block for wider communities
• It gives a context for child-rearing—note especially the crucial importance of healthy environments for early childhood
Denying the benefits of marriage?
So we face the question about blessing Ilse and Jennifer’s marriage in light of the biblical emphasis on hospitality and care for vulnerable people: What are our bases for denying the benefits of marriage from people such as Ilse and Jennifer?
The issue of withholding such benefits becomes even more challenging when we keep in mind the growing acceptance of the conclusion that for some people the deep-seated attraction to people of the same sex is unchosen and unchangeable. This acceptance is reflected in the “official” teaching of the Mennonite Church USA and is even acknowledged by such ministries as Exodus International that used to seek to help gays change their affectional orientation. If this orientation is unchangeable, for churches to assert that Ilse and Jennifer’s relationship is illegitimate may force them into a choice between their congregational connection and their marriage.
All of this is to set the stage for the third section of this paper on embracing gay marriage. The argument I develop allows for the possibility that nonetheless, we could decide that withholding this embrace is still necessary for Christian churches because the evidence that gay marriage is wrong is too clear. The benefit of the doubt is toward embrace for the reasons given, but that benefit of doubt may be overcome with clear evidence.
The main rationale to withhold the churches’ affirmation of Ilse and Jennifer’s relationship or their involvement as congregational leaders or even their congregational membership would be the belief that the Bible clearly teaches that such relationships are sinful and not to be accepted as morally legitimate for Christians.
My position is that given the biblical message of welcome and hospitality in general, the evidence would have to be quite strong in favor of a restrictive conclusion. To conclude that, for the sake of protecting the faith community’s very identity as people of God, we must say no to Ilse and Jennifer, we must have irresistible evidence.
So the final part of this series of posts will look closely at the biblical evidence that is cited to support a “restrictive stance” that withholds an embrace of gay marriage. Because of what we have discussed so far, we should expect that this evidence be clear and decisive in order to cause us to overcome the benefit of the doubt in favor of embrace.