Saturday, August 1, 2015

Christian Marriage for Only Man and Woman?

My column in today's Grand Haven Tribune on whether or not marriage is a state that is proper both to opposite sex and same-sex couples. The print version was edited slightly (probably for length!), so I'm posting the full version I wrote here. 

In my last column, I wrote about “the notorious six,” the six passages of Scripture that deal explicitly with the question of homosexuality. I talked about how two are from a Levitical code that condemns many things we don’t believe are sinful for us today (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13). Two are stories of brutal rape (Genesis 19:1–29 and Judges 19:1–30). One is Paul’s condemnation of a system of male prostitution (1 Corinthians 6:9). The final one is Paul’s condemnation of those who give up what is natural for the purpose of sexual experimentation (Romans 1:18–29). I argued none of these even consider, much less reject, the reality of the covenanted sharing of life and sexual intimacy between two people of the same-sex.

So the question remains, however, whether marriage is indeed the proper state, the best call to gay Christians. This question raises up an oft-overlooked verse in the debate. Though Jesus never chose to address the question of same-sex activity in any form, he did address the question of marriage. He says in Matthew 19, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.”

How does this text affect our understanding of same-sex relationships, particularly as they relate to the Christian teaching of marriage?

What Jesus is describing here is the primeval origin of marriage, what God had intended when he made the first two people back in Genesis 1–2. The original intent of marriage, at the beginning, was one man and one woman united for life. And the primary purpose of that relationship, as described in Genesis, was so a person would not be alone, but would have “a helper as his partner.”

You might be catching that when Jesus references this ancient text, he is actually not primarily concerned about same-sex relationships, but rather with the question of divorce. Indeed, for conservative Christians who have embraced a more generous understanding of divorce, one that allows for remarriage as an experience of grace after that tragedy—for those same Christians to use this text to reject same-sex relationships is one of the cheapest interpretive moves out there in contemporary Christianity.

Jesus’ disagreement in Matthew 19 is with a system of divorce that had grown from the Mosaic code, one in which women had no choice but could simply be dismissed at will. This increasingly led to poverty, to the discarding of someone after a man was done with her. Jesus rejects this, insisting that just because the code allowed for divorce in our fallen world does not mean that people can be discarded. He insisted that the allowance of divorce does not change the original intention of marriage—to wit, that it should be life-long, that it was focused on a self-giving care for the other.

Christians are people of grace, people who, following Jesus, do not use the law to wound, but use the law of love to heal. For that reason, many contemporary Christians find no trouble agreeing with Jesus that discarding people is wrong, but still would say that if a divorce does happen—always a tragedy—those divorced people are not precluded from the grace of remarriage in the future.

Similarly, one of the original creation intents of marriage was for the procreation of children. However, some couples are not able to do that. Some choose not to do that. We do not forbid them from marriage. The vast majority of Christians also would not forbid them from the experience of sex within that marriage. One of the biggest reasons is because the actual creation intent that comes from God’s own mouth is that marriage is so that a person is not alone, but that she or he can live a partnered life with another.

So, for people who, simply through the virtue of how they were created, are gay or lesbian… what is the graced response? When it comes to divorced people and those who cannot (or choose not to) bear children, two groups who may not experience the full original intent of marriage in creation, they are still invited to marriage because of the deeper grace of a covenanted life with a partner. Will the church also share that grace with those who, because they are gay or lesbian, clearly cannot be united for life in a sexual union with someone of the opposite-sex, not without entering into a relationship that will wound much more than it will heal?

Jesus is teaching us about the intent of marriage—not about the only possible way it can be experienced. For the church to be an avenue of grace in our world, it must offer the grace of marriage to GLBTQ people just the same as it does to those who are divorced, just the same as it does to those who are infertile or who choose not to have children.

Jesus also taught the legalists in his day that humans were not created for the law, but the law was created for humans (Mk 2:27). Jesus rejected those who took such a strict interpretation of the law that it wound up wounding those without power, tying burdens on people’s backs that were impossible to carry. He rejected religious leaders who would not try to lift those weights (Mt 23:4 and Lk 11:46). Jesus taught us that disciplined love is at the heart of who we are. And disciplined love does indeed call for all people in the church to have access to all of the sacraments—including that of Holy Matrimony.

The Very Rev. Jared C. Cramer serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven and as dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan. He will be offering a four-week series on the Christian Teaching of Marriage on Wednesday nights in August at St. John’s, from 5:30pm–6:30pm, after 5:15pm Evening Prayer. All are welcome.