On the fallacy of ‘Christian marriage’

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‘How Reymont and Melusina were betrothed/And by the bishop were blessed in their bed on their wedlock’. Woodcut from The Fair Melusina, 15th century. Source

‘There really is no such thing as “Christian marriage” as the term is commonly used. “Christian marriage” is a vain, romantic, unbiblical conception. “Christian marriage” is a fiction. There is no more an institution of “Christian marriage” than there is a “Christian nation” or a “Christian lawyer” or a “Christian athlete.” Even where such terms are invoked as a matter of careless formulation and imprecise speech, they are symptoms of a desire to separate Christians from the common life of the world, whereas Christians are called into radical involvement in the common life of the world. To be sure, there are Christians who are athletes and those who practice law, and there are Christians who are citizens of this and the other nations. But none of these or similar activities or institutions are in any respect essentially Christian, nor can they be changed or reconstituted in order to become Christian. They are, on the contrary, realities of the fallen life of the world. They are inherently secular and worldly; they are subject to the power of death; they are aspects of the present, transient, perishing existence of the world.

It is the same with marriage. Marriage is a fallen estate. That does not mean that it is not an honorable estate, but only that it is a relationship subject to death. It is a relationship established in and appropriate for the present age, but not known or, more precisely, radically transcended and transfigured in both the Creation and the Eschaton – in both the beginning and the end of human history.

As with any other reality of secular life, the Christian takes marriage seriously for what it is, but for no more or less than that. The Christian does not suffer illusions about marriage, but recognizes that marriage is a civil contract in which two parties promise to exchange certain services and responsibilities with respect to each other and to assume certain obligations for offspring of the marriage. At the same time, marriage is no merely private contract, for society at large has a particular interest in the honoring and enforcement of this contract. If the marriage contract is observed and performed with reasonable diligence, society, as well as the married couple and their children, benefits since an enduring marriage contributes to the economic, social, and psychological stability of the whole of society.

The fiction that there is some ideal of marriage for Christians which is better than or essentially different from an ordinary secular marriage is not only fostered by most Sunday School curriculum materials on the subject, but also by the practice of authorizing the clergy to act for the state in the execution of the marriage contract. Clergymen [sic] are licensed by the state to perform the functions of a civil magistrate, in spite of the supposed separation of church and state in this country. This both lends weight to the confusion about “Christian marriage,” and greatly compromises the discretion of the clergy as to whom they shall marry. In the office and function of a civil magistrate, no clergyman really has the grounds to refuse to marry any two people who present themselves to him, whether they are Christians or not, whether they are temperamentally or otherwise ready to marry, as long as they meet the civil requirements for marriage; that is, are of a certain age, have had blood tests, meet any residence requirements, have a valid license, and pay the fee.

A more theologically responsible practice, I suggest, would be to divest the clergy of this civil office and require that all who will be married present themselves to the civil magistrate to be married. Then, if those who are so married are Christians, they will go to their congregation to offer, within the company of the Church, their marriage to be blessed, to seek the intercessions of the whole Church for the marriage, and to celebrate their marriage in the Church as a sacrament. A similar practice is followed in many parts of Europe and Latin America.

To restore such a practice would go a long way toward recovering the sacramental integrity of marriage between Christians. For to discard the fiction of “Christian marriage” and to understand that marriage is an ordinary, secular, and fallen estate in no way denigrates marriage for Christians. On the contrary, in marriage and all else the Christian is fully participant in secular life; but at the same time he [or she] is constantly engaged in offering his [or her] involvement in secular life for the glory of God. In such an offering, that which is ordinary is rendered extraordinary, that which is merely worldly is transfigured, that which is most common becomes the means of worship, and each act or event of everyday life becomes sacramental – a sign and celebration of God’s care for every act and event of everyday life in this world. Rather than demean or downgrade marriage, to restore such a practice would again give to the marriages of Christians the dignity of that which is secular made holy, of that which is a sign of death become a witness to redemption to all those, married or not, who are not Christian’.

– William Stringfellow, Instead of Death (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2004), 40–43.

 

4 thoughts on “On the fallacy of ‘Christian marriage’

  1. This is a view I have been very tempted towards for a long time. It sidesteps so many problems. Yet, Jesus saying reported in Matt 19:6 and par. seems to suggest that God plays a significant part in establishing each marriage. If the separation of church and state were followed in the way S. seems to suggest would that divine role only apply to marriages blessed in church, and if so would they be subject somehow to ecclesiastic divorce regulations that would differ from those of the state? If so we’d need a distinct set of marriage registers…

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  2. On the one hand, who could deny that marriage is transient and historically formed and so on? And who would want to say that there is one thing called “Christian marriage?” Insofar as marriage is an institution, all this is obvious. But I always feel a little out of it in these discussions. I feel the same way reading about contemplative practices when they are set out in such a way that the “false self” includes the messiness of marriage and kids that interferes with the simple unity with God, as if these relationships are inessential.

    I don’t believe in the eternity of marriage or anything like that. I do, though, sometimes think that my marriage–before which I was not entirely incarnate–and my children, transient as these arrangements are, are not separate from the fullest experience of God and myself of which I am capable. I myself–not everyone–would have remained stuck in myself if my family had not forced me out. Insofar as I am myself at all, I am not separate from that process.

    If I had not believed that my marriage somehow participated in whatever unity of God I am capable of, I think I might have opted out somewhere along the way. As an institution, marriage didn’t really fit my desires or my more utopian longings. But I kept faith in my marriage because of my ultimate concerns–reasoning one of my friends called “insane.”

    Looking back after this long marriage, now with two grandchildren, I am well aware of the transience of things. But I think there is something like Christian marriage, and I think something happens in it that is no more transient than God. The forgiveness and perseverance and mutual help and care over an entire lifetime–that love would not have been my experience otherwise. I am not saying that marriage is the only or best anything–or that other forms of life are not as profound or spiritual or whatever. Just that it seems to me that there is something like Christian marriage–and, as a Christian universalist, I don’t even think that you have to be a Christian to experience it.

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  3. I think I understand the point being made and as marriage exists in some form in almost every culture (except late modernity) it is a valid point. Nevertheless, one might point out that Scripture seems to anchor marriage in both the creation – God bringing Eve to Adam and Adam (or the man) leaving his household to enter the home of his wife and in redemption – Paul arguing that marriage echoes the relationship of Christ and the Church. This raises interesting questions about why it is the man should be the one to leave his home, when in many cultures it is the woman who is taken and whether this has relevance for the incarnation, where one in the form of God leaves his heavenly home for the sake of the Church/Bride.

    On another point, marriage was once viewed as a purely personal arrangement between the two persons – at least in the UK and possibly wider Christendom – but the Church got involved and insisted on a “Church Wedding”, not because it wanted to encroach, but because men were making marriage promises to women (and girls) only to abandon them after having their way with them. A ceremony with witnesses was devised in order to protect women from this abuse. Men could no longer get married at a whim, nor deny it at their own convenience. In the same way, the vows as originally formulated reflect an “agape” view of love as willed commitment and not just feeling.

    So I agree the wedding is not exclusively “Christian” in some sort of domineering sense – as if the rest of the world has to grudgingly give Christianity the credit for inventing it. However, it’s traditional form (in the western world at least) is a Christian creation and bears a Christian shape and for Christians, reflects significant Scriptural realities. This does not mean I disagree with the idea of secular ceremonies for those who want them, but that is the reality here in the UK in any case – although there is a significate minority who still want a “Church Wedding” despite not normally attending. Since a minister of the Church of England is simultaneously a Registrar, all C of E weddings are automatically also civil ceremonies. Free Churches either have a Registrar in attendance or, increasingly, their ministers are trained as Registrars, so that a wedding is both civil and spiritual.

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