whose marriage? – a biblical reflection on culture, church, and change

Supreme CourtYesterday, the Supreme Court denied cert, issuing a written notification of declination to hear cases from Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin, all challenging previous rulings of appeals courts that declared state laws banning same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Allowing the decisions of those lower courts to stand, same-sex marriage, already permitted in a number of states and the District of Columbia, soon will be the law in the aforementioned five and additional states governed by the appellate courts’ rulings, including Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Thinking of marriage, I reflect afresh on Jesus’ words, quoting Genesis, “From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female, thus shall a man leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” I also recall a line from one of my favorite hymns, “New occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth.”

The world has, is changed. So, too, marriage mores. Yet so it always has been.

In times past, there was a nearly universally-held (if not always observed) ideal of marriage between one woman and one man for life to which sex for purposes of procreation was reserved. The abandonment of this paradigm was accompanied by an almost wholesale public acknowledgement and acceptance of…

Sex, largely premarital and non-marital, for pleasure…

Co-habitation before marriage or with no intent to marry; once prosaically termed “without benefit of clergy” or judgmentally, “living in sin.” (Nearly forty years ago, when I was first ordained, clergy customarily advised co-habiting engaged couples to “separate for a season,” usually a month before their wedding day, to preserve the integrity or the illusion of the marriage ceremony that presumed consummation of the relationship had yet to take place!)…

Divorce. What God hath joined together, we humans regularly have put asunder…

Serial marriages (following the human rubric of persistence, trying ‘til we get it right)…

Children born sans marriage and, through birth technologies, conceived sans the procreative sexual act…

And the blessing and marriage of same-sex couples.

Change is constant in society and in the church; again, leading me to reflect on Jesus’ words.

He was asked whether divorce was lawful. “What,” he replied, “did Moses command?” The answer: According to Deuteronomy, divorce was allowed if the wife was found objectionable. Whether that involved adultery or any displeasing action, many in Jesus’ day, convinced that divorce was lawful for the man, wanted to know whether Jesus upheld or contravened scripture.

Jesus focused on the human dynamic that gave rise to the law. “Because of your hardness of heart” (human failure to honor the ideal intention for human relations) “Moses wrote this commandment” (divorce being a lesser evil than abusive marriages). Then Jesus moved from legal precept to spiritual principle: “From the beginning, God made them male and female…and the two shall become one flesh.”

This word, I believe, acknowledges the relationship between a woman and a man in marriage. Therefore, in Jesus’ day, it did not address the legality of divorce. Jesus was no legalist reciting “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” to cover all cases and conditions. Nor does his word, in our day, answer definitively, indeed, at all whether gays and lesbians can marry. Even if Jesus was a legalist, he, as human, was bound to his time and place. Thus he hardly could offer authoritative instruction (nor should his words be stretched or strained to do so) about an issue that in his time did not exist. This word does one thing only. It speaks of the relationship of a woman and a man in marriage. It is silent on all other questions.

Still, this word does speak to a larger concern than the sex of the marriage partners. This is a theological declaration (“In the beginning, God”) with a spiritual intention (“and the two shall become one flesh”). Jesus declares what marriage is from heaven’s perspective. Marriage is not a legal contract assuring ownership and inheritance rights and the fluid transfer of property. Although, in our world, we often make it so. Nor is it primarily a social institution providing stability for families and the wider culture. Although, in our society, we often make it so. It is a dynamic, organic union where God joins in covenant with two people who, in the oneness of their love for God and each other, become for each other and the world an incarnate sign of God’s unconditional love.

We have the law. Its function is to govern human conduct. We need guidance precisely because of our intrinsic individual will to power, our desire to have our way and, thus, our susceptibility to the hardness of heart that inures us to the harmful consequences of our choices in our relations with others. The law, however, is more than its function, for its intention is to point not to an aspiration, not to a standard of existence that is not yet, but rather to what already is, that state of being that the community has discerned leads to fulfillment.

Thus laws that decide for whom marriage applies can and do change, indeed, have changed, for communities can discern that a new occasion has come making an ancient good uncouth. However, no matter the changes, what remains, at least, for Jesus’ followers, whoever we are, LGBTQ or straight, and with whomever we live, is our calling in our relational living to be one with another in love and in our daily living to bear and share that love in the world.

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2 thoughts on “whose marriage? – a biblical reflection on culture, church, and change

  1. I was blown away by the Supreme Court’s denial of cert, but VERY happy as well. Finally!!!!!! A change with the Times!!!!! What could be better??

    I was instantly sad too, for all of the people who lived their lives in secret and / or as unmarried lovers because of our Laws and / or who died before the legality of marriage could become a reality for them. I especially thought of my friends Pat and Helen, my dear “aunts” as I called them, who had been together for decades as a couple having met as nurses in World War II. To our church friends Pat and Helen were simply known as “friends” or in some cases “sisters”.

    I would have LOVED to be at their wedding and I thought alot yesterday what it would have been like. Until Helen died 5 years ago, Pat wasn’t even “out” to her beloved nieces and nephews, her only living relatives. I was one of their confidants, who shared in the beauty of their Love. Though they were two women, I don’t think their romantic love could have been any deeper, any more real than had they been a “traditional” couple. When Pat died two years ago, I was devastated, not only about her loss, but also because she and Helen had been denied a marriage for all of their lives, just because of who they were (or were not).

    I’m sorry they didn’t get to witness yesterday’s event (or non-event) and all of the hastily thrown together and joyous weddings that resulted. Yesterday was a beautiful day so I went out in our yard and said a few words of prayer of Thanksgiving at our fountain for Pat and Helen and everyone else in the LGBT community who are now FREE to express their LOVE just like any other couple! Pat and Helen would be smiling, in spite of the fact that they were never able to “share their love with the world”. But they would also have been toasting with a glass of wine too in both vindication and celebration!! Amen to that!!

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  2. I thought of Pat and Helen, too, and other couples I know and some couples I know via friends of friends of friends…all those who did not witness and share, to the delight of their hearts at the depth of their souls, in the exchange of marital vows. Yet, sadly so, is this not always what happens in every circumstance of momentous cultural change – that there are countless folk who longed to see the day, but died before it arrived. So, now, as we stand and rejoice with those who celebrate, we remember Pat and Helen and many others, honoring their love, which, in the arms of eternity, abides forever.

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