“Everyone should have the right to get married, it’s just common sense”. I’ll bet you’ve heard that one before. Let me just say at the outset, I’m not concerned with the whole argument over civil unions performed by a justice of the peace. Secular law is one thing, Christian marriage is another. When it comes to Christian marriage, marriage is not a right at all— it is a privilege granted by God, and some would even say, it’s a sacrament— holy matrimony. I agree. The polls seem to now show that a slight majority of Americans think gay marriage should be o.k. Even Christians have gotten caught up in the larger debate, without adequate reflection on the nature of Christian marriage. So, whether it’s ‘trending’ or not, a few important things need to be said about marriage by a Biblical scholar like myself. What does the Bible actually say?
First of all, the presupposition of Jesus himself about marriage, as enunciated in Mk. 10 and Mt. 19 is that human beings are created male and female in the image of God for each other. Were that not the case, it would be impossible for us to fulfill the original creation mandate to propagate the species. When propagation of the species is taken out of the context of the theological assumptions about the image of God, and how male and female were created for each other, then of course the discussion about marriage, and what counts as marriage gets skewed. There was a time when I didn’t think it would be necessary to point out that according to the Bible only males can properly be husbands and then possibly fathers, and only females can properly be wives, and then mothers, and that the only way you get to the mother and father situation is by male and female coupling and producing offspring, but apparently this is no longer a common sense assumption of our culture. So let’s walk through exactly what Jesus himself does say about marriage and singleness for a bit.
Let me admit from the outset that the church has often done an atrocious disservice to many single people who simply do not have the gift of getting married in the Lord, or being married. As Paul says in 1 Cor. 7, both marriage in the Lord, and celibacy in singleness require a ‘charisma‘ a grace gift from God. Paul doesn’t see either Christian marriage or singleness as simply a matter of what is ‘natural’. He believes it requires grace to either be properly and successfully married in the Lord, or to remain single for the sake of the Kingdom. The church has made the hideous mistake of assuming everyone ought to be married, and often preaching that way. Singles ministries themselves are too often geared towards helping single people find a mate— ala Christianmingle.com. Not everyone is called to mate, or have a mate in God’s economy. Indeed, Jesus himself had no mate, and Paul, at least when he wrote his letters, didn’t have one either, though he says he had a right to have a Christian wife if God so led. Another of the great sins of the church in this very matter is the failure of the church to BE a family to all its members. If the church was really the family of faith, there would be less lonely single persons in the church, less Christians “looking for love in all the wrong places”. These are profound failures of the modern church in America. So what does Jesus say about marriage and singleness for the Kingdom? Here’s the text of Mt. 19—
Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’[a] 5 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’[b]? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
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.”
You will notice that Jesus goes back behind the Mosaic legislation to the creation order intention of God in this argument, a creation order grounded in male-female difference and pairing. It seems evident that he has no time for the aberrations that cropped up after the Fall, namely polygamy, Levirate marriage and other aberrations caused by fallen patriarchal schemes of ordering life. No, he’s going back to God’s creation intent, and he says from the outset we were created male and female for each other. But he also says that there is another possible calling– ‘to those to whom it is given’ [by God], namely remaining single for the sake of the Kingdom. Jesus even uses the graphic term being a eunuch, which clearly in a Jewish setting had a particularly clear meaning— it meant someone not involved in sexual activity, and if a eunuch from birth or due to surgery, not capable of intercourse. That is, Jesus says that now that the eschatological age of the Kingdom is breaking into history, his followers have exactly two choices— fidelity in heterosexual monogamy (one life, one wife— noting that Jesus is rejecting the Mosaic allowing of the various grounds of divorce in Deuteronomy, with only the exception of porneia— which could mean either incest or prostitution if it refers to a particular sexual sin. I suspect Jesus is referring to incest, like the case of Herod Antipas with his brother’s wife. After all, criticizing that relationship is what got John his cousin beheaded). The other choice is celibacy in singleness. The former is holy matrimony, and latter is holy singleness. Jesus does not provide us with any other options. Neither does Paul, as a careful exegesis of 1 Cor. 7 will show.
So, while it may be the new common sense of our age that all sorts of sexual relating should be baptized and called good, and even called marriage, and even called Christian marriage (whether gay marriage, or bisexual marriage, or transgendered marriage, or queer marriage with multiple partners or polygamy), neither Jesus nor Paul would have agreed. Their views on marriage are grounded in the creation order of male and female made for each other, and they do not agree that other inclinations or orientations are part of God’s good creation. Indeed, if asked they would have said such relating is a result of the Fall, not because “God made me this way”. And of course here we have touched on the major problem with whole debate about gay marriage in the church— it’s advocates are almost always guilty of totally ignoring the fact of human fallenness, including the fallenness of so many many human desires which are genuine but not necessarily good.
Think on these things.