What I believe about marriage
I’m a Christian.
This means I believe that Jesus Christ is God’s king (Christ just means ‘king’). It means I believe in a God who made the world, who made us, who loves us enough to send Jesus to die for us to not just connect us to the life God made us for, or pay the price for our failure to live that life, but to bring us a new sort of life altogether; eternal life. I believe the God who made the world and us actually has something to say about the ideal human life. The Bible opens with the story of God making us as his ‘image bearers’ in the world — representatives of the nature and character of God, and shows that his plan for humanity involves us ‘being fruitful and multiplying’ — in the next part of the story he puts people in a garden filled with beautiful things to do and eat. It’s legitimate to take this ‘fruity’ picture of human life and talk about what, for people who believe in the Bible, a ‘flourishing’ or good and fruitful life looks like.
The God in the Bible’s first chapters is good, and loving, and hospitable. We are to be like him. There’s another complex and mind blowingly good thing about the Christian God; the Christian God is triune, a God of relationship because the nature of God is relational — father, son and Spirit. When this God makes humankind, God says ‘let us make man in our image’ — the ‘us’ and ‘our’ are plural; and then we’re told he makes us male and female; different and equal, different and necessary in this job of being like God. We see something of God’s nature and image when his image bearers relate together in intimate love. Our culture believes intimacy is just about sex, but the Bible doesn’t say all intimacy is sexual, it does, however, then picture sexuality and marriage — between men and women — as part of what a flourishing life might look like. I’d say that intimate relationships with others are an essential part of bearing God’s image, and marriage between a man and a woman is a form of that; another form is family, so when the story of the Bible introduces marriage as a foundational and good-for-flourishing relationship, it says this:
The man said,
“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.
This is what Christians believe marriage is — two different image bearers (man and woman) — joining together to express a particular sort of oneness, or intimacy, through sex (a joining of flesh) and a ‘communion’ or commitment to unity. Like God’s inter-triune love spills out to produce the creation of the world and humanity, this marriage relationship can produce a particular sort of fruit; the ‘multiplication’ Genesis 1 talks about — children. It creates families as a context for more love and intimacy. In an ideal world. The world doesn’t stay ideal for very long in the Bible’s story, in the next few sentences in the Bible this first marriage almost falls apart, and the love and intimacy pictured initially fades away, or is shattered, by self interest.
Christians believe this picture of marriage and intimacy is God’s design for all people; for the good and fruitful life. If we were able to achieve it, and as much as we are able to achieve it, the outcomes are better than alternative options. We believe it is good for people who don’t believe in God even if they don’t believe it is; and so that it can be loving to encourage people to see marriage the way it is created by God. This is complicated in a world where belief in God is contested, and where there are other understandings of what marriage is. It’s also complicated in a world where there is so much wrong with us, and with marriage, that this ideal almost never seems to happen; even in good marriages; those marriages are affected by our selfishness so that they aren’t ‘perfect harmonious unions’ or ‘perfect intimacy’. So we can’t argue for an ideal that is impossible to achieve, but nor should we ignore this ideal in thinking about what a good or flourishing life looks like.
When we get things wrong in this world it’s an expression of what happens in the next part of the story — sin — our rejection of God’s plan for human flourishing, and our pursuit of our own. It’s interesting that this attempt to redefine flourishing also involves fruit; and the rejection of God’s hospitable plan for a flourishing life.
For Christians, our goal is to pursue relationships that reflect who we were made to be, life and love reflecting the character of God. Our marriages are part of that, but not all of that… we also have a ‘church family’ that we belong to; brothers and sisters not just of flesh and blood, but people adopted into God’s family. We’re used to family structures that are bigger than just the biological, and understand that children are often raised in the context of a village or community far beyond just these biological family units. That’s what it looks like when we use our marriages and families for the overflowing of love, intimacy (beyond sex), and hospitality.
We can’t really do this getting back to the created ideal, we believe, on our own steam. Our hearts and loves are so disordered by our attempts to build fruitful or flourishing lives that we naturally put all sorts of things in the place God is meant to occupy in our hearts, minds, and devotion. We put money first. Or sex first. Or marriage first. Or the success of our nuclear family first. All these things are good things, but when our sin, our selfishness, leads us to put these things first we are both putting God out of his place, and distorting the way we live around our love for these things. An example of this would be where valuing my nuclear family might stop me hospitably loving those in need, or where valuing money above my family might turn me into a miser who doesn’t treat my children generously or kindly; we all have a hierarchy of loves; and if we put anything other than God at the top of that hierarchy, that thing becomes our god, and rules our other loves. We all understand the ‘flourishing’ life based on what we put in this God slot. The Bible says that just like in this first story in the Bible, when we reject God and pursue flourishing apart from him — he gives us what we want — life apart from him, which actually means death, because he is the source of life. The Bible pictures this as exile from God, or estrangement, or divorce. A breaking of intimacy. This is what Christians mean when we talk about sin earning judgment from God — he lovingly gives us what we ask for, we just don’t always realise we’re asking for death. And we miss that God wants our good, and that his ways are best for us, and that there’s actually harm and destruction involved in choosing to love things other than him.
The Old Testament frames life in this world in this way; we can pursue fruitfulness by choosing the living God, and be given the goodness of eternal life in him, or we can pursue fruitfulness apart from him and choose to love, or worship, dead, breathless, things and so die. These things are good things God has made — like marriage — but if we make them ultimate things we die. Over and over again it becomes clear that we can’t actually choose life by default; that we need God to intervene and change our loves by reclaiming them; the Old Testament is the story of humanity waiting for God to re-order our loves by his Spirit; it’s us waiting for the image of God in all of us to be rediscovered and re-breathed into, because we humans become the image of dead gods as we pursue them.
Now. This all seems a long way from the conversation about marriage; so let’s head back that way.
God, in the Old Testament, is depicted as a scorned spouse; a divorcee, who waits patiently for his ex — us — to stop playing the field, loving all sorts of things or partners, that aren’t our spouse, who waits with the offer that we might come home to the one who truly loves and is good for us; but doesn’t just wait passively. God sets out to bring us back by sending Jesus — a person of the Trinity — into the world to invite us back. We humans, generally, don’t think much of that offer, we like playing the field; so we killed Jesus. We mostly scorned his offer. We mostly choose to keep doing our own thing; but some of us — Christians — take it up. We re-enter the intimate relationship with God that we were made for. And this intimate relationship shapes how we understand our other intimate relationships; including marriage and family. We start pursuing God’s pattern for life again. We start ordering our sexual love and where we seek intimacy around God’s design for flourishing.
Now. I’m a Christian, as I said, which means I love Jesus. I love Jesus more than I love my wife. I love God too, but there’s something particular about a Christian’s relationship to Jesus. I love Jesus, and Jesus is a man, and I’m a man… the Bible even pictures the Christian’s love for Jesus (brought about by an intimate relationship where God dwells in us and makes us one with the Trinity by the Spirit, ‘uniting us to Christ’) as a marriage; the church is often called ‘the bride of Christ’. For some churches, especially the Catholic Church, marriage is a sacrament; something that reveals something deep, and true, and real, about our relationship with God. This is even part of why the Catholics practice celibacy for nuns and priests. I’m not Catholic, I don’t think marriage is a sacrament because I don’t think all people should (or can) participate in marriage. But I do believe marriage is a picture of the Gospel and the oneness it creates; it’s something beautiful for Christians because of this symbolism, and this symbolism is to shape the way we approach marriages as Christians (Ephesians 5:21-33). I believe, as a Christian, that how I understand marriage, and how I either participate in marriage, or don’t, is a product of who God is (and who I am, a sinful and broken image bearer being transformed by God’s Spirit). I don’t believe that Christian marriages are ideal, or never end in divorce, or never feature sinful behaviour; but I do believe Christians approach marriage by putting God first, and loving Jesus such that our ‘marriage’ to him is our ultimate reality. Jesus puts it this way when he is asked about marriage by people trying to figure out how it works in a broken world. They’re actually asking about divorce, and how that works, but he answers them by going all the way back to the beginning of the story, and God’s design for 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.” — Matthew 19:4-6
As his answer continues, Jesus makes a bold claim that how we approach marriage, and sex (our loves for things and people God has made that reveal something about the nature of God) — how we approach the ‘flourishing life’, actually begins with how we understand our relationship with him as our loving king, and how we understand life in his kingdom. He says:
“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 19:11-12
There are three things to notice here:
- Jesus knows this teaching is hard and some won’t accept it.
- Jesus says some are born ‘eunuchs’ — eunuchs were unable to be married or have sex, typically because they had been castrated so they could be ‘safely’ around a powerful person’s collection of wives (a horrible practice); but Jesus says some are born in such a way that marriage as God has designed it is not for them.
- Jesus says some will choose to live as eunuchs — without sex and marriage — ‘for the sake of the kingdom of heaven’
- Jesus repeats that this teaching is for ‘the one who can accept it’ and that if they can they should.
Jesus is saying that our human flourishing; our need for intimacy, might first be found in the kingdom of heaven, and that this will, for some people, shape how we participate (or don’t) in marriage and family. There are many Christians who are same sex attracted, or single, who practice this teaching by not marrying and being celibate. If this meant ‘no intimacy’ that would be destructive for human flourishing; intimacy (apart from sex) instead needs to be found in the context of family; I think it’s reasonable in the first century to see this as taking place in being adopted into a household (the church, and the way it gathered as family), but it probably also comes with the adoption of children within that family, and a role with them. This has interesting implications for how we, the church, might accommodate families built around a same sex union where those parents choose to follow Jesus, and so redefine their family life around his teaching about sex, marriage, and intimacy.
Because I believe all this, I’m very happy to affirm the Presbyterian Church’s doctrinal position on marriage, before the plebiscite, and after it, no matter what the result is. This is what I believe marriage is, and the basis on which I will conduct marriages as a minister, and seek to have those marriages recognised by the government of Australia:
“the life-long union of one man with one woman, voluntarily entered into, excluding all others.”
I believe this is what marriage is. Unequivocally. I also believe that a good and flourishing life involves seeing marriage this way, and either entering or not entering one on that basis. I believe marriage, defined this way, is the best definition of marriage for my society and my neighbours.
But (the limits of my belief in a democracy).
I don’t think the plebiscite is asking “what is your definition of marriage” or “how do you understand marriage” but “what should the definition of marriage be in Australia”. I believe these are different questions (as I’ve been trying to spell out in previous conversations). While I understand the logic of people who agree with me on the definition of marriage in wanting to see that definition upheld as long as possible, and find it compelling, I also believe there are limits to how far this definition can and will extend.
I believe these limits are, in some ways, actually God-given, as a result of our departure from his plan for a flourishing life (as cultures, not just individuals); and our decision to have common gods, or idols, that shape our society and our understanding of the good and flourishing life in community.
I believe this makes this marriage debate more complicated than the plebiscite and this discussion allows it to be, and think we should have a much more sophisticated conversation, with better solutions than those that are currently on the table (one might be for the government to stop defining marriage altogether, and to just offer ‘registered relationships’, another would be to have an inclusive definition of marriage with very robust freedom of religion laws that go beyond simply protecting celebrants). This is why I don’t think there’s a clear cut binding case for Christians (or Presbyterians) to vote no in the plebiscite campaign, or persuade others to do so, while holding to the definition of marriage above.
There are five important things to notice.
- I am a Christian.
- I believe marriage is defined this way, and that it is built into a good life in this world, because I am a Christian and believe God made the world.
- Many of my neighbours are not Christians.
- Some of my neighbours identify as Christians and have a different understanding of marriage.
- Australia is a democracy.
I love my neighbours, and one of the ways I think I’m to do this is to participate well in the democracy (I don’t buy that participating well means accepting the status quo for participation established via special interests, or a winner takes all approach to power and discourse; I don’t believe it is limited to casting a vote). Here’s how this love shapes my thinking about this debate.
- Because I love my neighbours and want them to flourish I would like them to become Christians; to meet Jesus and find God’s pattern for a flourishing life.
- Because I love my neighbours I also want them to be free to pursue life in the same way that God wants them to; to choose life in God, and its consequences, or to choose life apart from God and its consequences. I want to make the case for the former, but I want to accept and protect the right for them to do the latter, even if that means they adopt different meanings for words and institutions as a result.
- Because Australia is a democracy, I think it should accommodate this free pursuit, and my ability to make the case for a flourishing life being found in God’s design, including his design for marriage (and the corollary that life apart from God is not a flourishing life at all). You might think this case hangs on the plebiscite result; I’m looking beyond it. If you think the plebiscite is the be all and end all, then you should definitely vote no and campaign accordingly.
- Because Australia is a democracy I believe other people should have a say in, and be represented in, the laws of Australia. Just as I should, and I hope my views might be accommodated still beyond marriage redefinition.
- Because Australia is a democracy, and we all have the ability to have a say in how our society operates, and what the law does and doesn’t recognise, we should all speak, converse, vote, and live according to our consciences and our freedom; balancing this with the freedoms of others, and seeking their good (I can see how this can lead to a no vote, a yes vote, or a not voting approach to the plebiscite).
Here’s some other bits and pieces to throw in the mix of this conversation.
I believe that it is presently true that all Australians can enter into a marriage as God defines it for Christians, and as the law currently defines it; there have been and continue to be, many same sex attracted people entering opposite orientation marriages. My sister is married to my brother in law, who is same sex attracted.
I believe that it’s at least partly evident that what we’re being asked for is to change the fundamental definition of marriage (and that it’s not about love at all), and that this is clear because we have to qualify the word to talk about the campaign ‘same sex marriage’; some people calling for a changed definition have noticed this and started saying ‘or as I prefer to call it ‘just marriage’… it’s not bigotry to point this out, and to ask what might be at stake in the change; but nor is that we’re changing the definition of a word or institution a knockdown argument. We do that all the time, for very good reasons (and sometimes for bad reasons).
The best argument for same sex marriage
I hear many gay neighbours — those who are strangers and friends — asking for the definition of marriage to change because they believe they should have the right to pursue a flourishing life as they see fit; which includes changing the definition of the word marriage to incorporate their life long commitment to another, at the exclusion of all others. This is, I think, compelling in the context of a secular democracy where no religious view is given priority.
I don’t believe ‘love is love’ is actually the best argument for marriage redefinition, marriage equality, or same sex marriage. I don’t buy the argument that sex is love (or that it necessarily involves, or is involved in, intimacy). I believe it’s that for a gay couple to flourish as best as they can within their understanding of the good life in this world, a relationship of commitment, love, and intimacy, is, without God, better for them than alternatives. And, because gay couples can already adopt, birth, and raise children, I believe this sort of relationship provides more stability for children than alternatives (just as this is true for marriages that are not Christian marriages). I don’t believe these marriages are God’s ideal (or marriage at all, in God’s sight, or the sight of the church), but I am able to hold my (God’s) definition of marriage while recognising that other people can and will define marriage differently. That must surely be how Christians in nations where marriage has been redefined operate? And how we must operate beyond the plebiscite if marriage is then redefined at law in Australia. I don’t see this as involving cognitive dissonance, or cheapening my own definition or marriage just because the meaning of the word now being contested.
I believe it is important to listen well, and with empathy, to our gay neighbours, and to understand what they seek and why our best arguments for marriage don’t convince them. I believe it has been a mistake for Christian leaders to ignore the human rights arguments for marriage because we think human rights are either conferred by the God our neighbours don’t believe in, are non-existent, or must be universal. It means that there is some emotional weight to the argument that we are this century’s racists or bigots. We’ve utterly failed to engage with this argument in a compelling way because we’ve tended to simply deny its weight, or we’ve jumped straight to the important question of competing rights without acknowledging the strength of the argument (on the basis of human flourishing and ‘the good’ and that being derived from a competing view of the world).
What about the rights of the child and ‘normalisation’ of ‘genderless parenting’
Some people believe that our duty as Christians is to help the government ‘restrain evil’ or maximise morality, through our vote (I’d say that’s one way to do it, but it’s limited). This sounds nice in an ideal world where there’s a clear line between black and white. They use this line of argument to say that a Christian must oppose same sex marriage not so much because of the freedom of the people entering the marriage, but for the rights of the children. Life in this world — a world that isn’t ideal, but is broken by sin — is complicated, and a good life involves balancing non ideal options while pursuing virtue out of love for others. Here’s a little example of a conundrum; Christians are rightly heartbroken by abortion, we see it as a fundamentally unrelated question to the question of same sex marriage, but it isn’t. Everything is connected. One of the solutions for minimising abortion must surely be to allow more imaginative options for a woman fearing the results of an unwanted pregnancy; including, as many Christians have suggested, better adoption laws. Now. We say children should have a right to know their biological parents; but that’s not the same as saying they should not be adopted, because we’d say in this other circumstance that adoption is better than abortion. That creates a quandary though when it comes to same sex adoption, doesn’t it? Life is complicated; ethics are often about retrieving good, and restraining evil, is it better, for those opposing same sex marriage through the children’s rights prism, for those children to be adopted or aborted? Idealism can make for some pretty messed up politics; our world is a world of competing goods, competing evils, and imaginative solutions. Wisdom is about charting a course between these competing rights, wrongs, and contested rights and contested wrongs.
Human rights can, I think, be conferred within a particular community by the decision of that community, in response to the desires of people within that community. I do believe that the rights of children are important, and that in an ideal world a child would know their biological family (and they should have a right to know) — but also that family is bigger than biology (and the suggestion that it isn’t is relatively modern and western; for example, adoption in Rome made parentage a very interesting thing, and part of the early church growing as rapidly as it did was their practice of adopting and caring for abandoned and unwanted children, in part because our doctrine of adoption into God’s family as co-heirs with Christ makes that a really big deal). I don’t believe we operate in an ideal world, or a Christian one, but a world where ideas are contested and in some sense this contest should, wherever possible, involve contradictory ideas co-existing through a commitment to charity and empathy.
Now, let’s for a moment take off the political hat and put on the pastoral and evangelistic hat we should be wearing as the church; the Gospel hat. How will our words here and now be heard by the same sex families that already exist? Let alone the future ones? How will our statements about absolutes and ideals and good and evil (disconnected from the Gospel and its power to re-order our loves) be heard by these families, who are already vulnerable because they fall outside social norms (there’s a reason people in our community think we need Safe Schools, and it’s not that Christians have an exclusive run on bigotry/hatred of people outside the norm). How might we speak about these families in a way that supports them and invites them to see us as an ally in loving them and their kids in a world where there is no ideal? I want gay families to come to my church. I want them to be loved by us. I want them to hear of God’s love for them and decide together what impact that will have on their life together, and I want our church families to be geared towards intimacy enough that these families can continue to love each other, be committed to each other, be involved in the lives of the children they’ve committed to, but also pursue a flourishing life of faith in Jesus. This isn’t helped when Christians publicly suggest we’re creating a stolen generation or the ‘commodification of children’.
My biggest concerns
Let’s go back to my first paragraph. I’m a Christian. I think God is real and good and loving. And the best life is found in loving him. Not in sex. Not in marriage. Not in human family and having and raising children (though these are all good things). I don’t want to spend the next few weeks (or years) trying to tell people why they should see marriage the way I see it without also, or first, inviting people to see the world the way I see it; to see the goodness of God’s design for our humanity, for intimacy, and for love. To see that a life lived with God at the centre, following Jesus, is a better, more beautiful, and more presently and eternally satisfying life — so much so that we can change or give up other loves, and approach other good gifts of God differently to our neighbours.
I want my neighbours to understand how marriage operates in the lives of Christians who believe the stuff I’ve written above; that it is special and important and good for humanity. I want Christians to work hard at building marriage relationships, families, and intimacy beyond sex, in such a way that our way of life is compelling and definitively and persuasively ‘more flourishing’ than the alternatives. As I participate in this particular conversation I want it to be the top half of this post that is my consistent contribution to the conversation, it’s having that view accommodated that is my goal in a democracy (not having it squish all other views). I want to listen more than I speak. I want people to understand that love and intimacy in marriage is good, but love and intimacy in Jesus and his church is better (I want to build the church so it actually is better too). And that they’re fundamentally connected — that marriage is a metaphor for the bigger and richer reality of connection to God.
Here’s an interesting thing; McCrindle Research indicates that a growing percentage of Aussies know very few Christians in real life; some people are unable to empathise with our cold ‘rational’ arguments because they have no emotional/relational context to see or hear them in. You want to persuade people about Christian marriage and family — invite them into your home; but I reckon there’s a corollary. I think part of our tone deafness on this when it comes to the trenches, is that so many Christians have no deep relationships with gay people or couples. We’re not able to feel the strength of their emotional or coherently rational (without God) arguments, because we have no emotional/relational context to hear them, and when we do hear them it’s in the context of a fight where we’re just seeking to defend our patch.
We’re not even great at accommodating same sex attracted people in our churches and providing non-sexual intimacy, and non-biological family, in our church culture. How many of us have shared meals with gay friends in our homes, or even on our streets? How many of us are listening to reports from vulnerable gay people about what this plebiscite feels like for them? How quick are we to dismiss those emotions and hurts as valid data in an ‘evidence based’ democracy? How many of us are prepared to question the status quo of democracy in this country and whether a zero-sum game built around a non-binding vote following a public conversation where we hurl invective at each other is the best way to make decisions for the good of all? To participate in our democracy according to this status quo is to reinforce it… yet saying you’re not going to participate in a non-binding plebiscite creates the assumption you’re not doing your duty or participating in our shared life.
I believe the best thing for my gay neighbours — before or after they marry, if they marry or not — is loving Jesus. That marriage. I don’t want to be asking or answering ‘how does the church fight the gay marriage culture war’, but ‘how do we help our neighbours discover the love and intimacy of God and his people in a way that makes us wonder if sex and marriage are actually the ultimate thing to build our life around.
I want to be asking, talking, and pondering questions like: ‘how do we be a church that gay families come into, where they meet Jesus in such a way that it radically rearranges their lives’ in the same way I want to be asking ‘how do we be a church that straight families come into, where they meet Jesus in such a way that it radically rearranges their lives’ — at the moment our tone deaf, un-empathetic, approach to the marriage debate means I don’t think we need to worry too much about those questions; there’s very little chance that, apart from a miraculous work of God, these families are going to check Jesus out at all; we’re hardening hearts towards Jesus, rather than softening them. I say this appreciating the paradox that somehow it is always a miracle for someone to move from death to life as the Spirit works in us, and that it is God who softens and hardens hearts; I think God delights in doing this through soft-hearted people though.