On making a submission to the Senate Select Committee on the Exposure Draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill

screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-3-30-18-pmOn 30 November 2016, the Senate of the Australian Federal Parliament resolved to establish a Select Committee to inquire into the Commonwealth Government’s exposure draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill. The Committee is due to report on or by 13 February this year.

The Committee is looking into religious views on amending the Marriage Act, and is using Attorney-General George Brandis’ Exposure Draft Bill on Marriage as a reference point. To be clear, the committee is not asking whether the law should change. Rather, it is asking what, assuming a change of law, might be the implications of such a change, including implications for religious bodies and organisations.

The background to this inquiry is in part the suggestion from many religious leaders and religious lobby groups that legalising same-sex marriage threatens to undermine religious freedoms and communities. This concern, almost always poorly expressed, is possibly the highest hurdle still to be passed if there is to be a change in law. Yet it is not at all an argument against same-sex marriage itself. At most, it is merely a claim that amendments to the law should safeguard religious interests, some cultural geography, and the rights of religious communities to mark marriage in ways consistent with their particular ‘doctrines, tenets or beliefs’.

Submissions from a variety of religious perspectives are welcome and vital at this stage. The Committee is receiving submissions by email and online only until next Friday 13 January.

The Committee invites short submissions, written in one’s own words (pro forma submissions, in other words, will be disregarded), from all sections of faith groups. It will also accept submissions from those who wish their names not to be publicly disclosed. This is an important safeguard so that all views can be freely expressed.

The Committee has provided some general advice here on preparing submissions. In addition, a friend of mine has provided a helpful framework for making a submission on this particular inquiry:

Guidelines for Submission

Address to: Committee Secretary, Select Committee on the Exposure Draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill, Department of the Senate, PO Box 6100, Canberra ACT 2600.

Heading: Submission to Select Committee on the Exposure Draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill

Your Name, Title & Contact Details
(+ if you wish: ‘I do not wish my name to be disclosed publicly’.)

Reason for Writing – who you represent
Give the Committee an insight into who you represent. For ordained members of religious bodies, this is mostly self-evident. For others, however, it is suggested that you sketch some background of your involvement in your religious organisation. In particular, mention any leadership roles that you have fulfilled, such as committees, volunteer roles, etc., as well as the length and extent of your involvement. Your age too may be added – young people’s views are typically under-represented. Clergy should include positions held and all titles.

Reason for Writing – your interest in this issue
A personal connection to the issue is relevant. For example, your engagement with or in the LGBTIQ community, your conversations with friends, relatives, and religious communities, and your involvement in public discourses around this matter can be mentioned here. Mention also any previous submissions that you have been involved in, if and where you have written on the topic, and ways that you have been involved in advocacy in any form.

Your Views on the Terms of Reference (*)
Many legal experts will be giving advice on the technicalities of the legislation – you don’t need to do that. More important here is to convey views of people of faith ‘on the ground’. For example:

‘I remember when the Church changed its position on divorce by accepting divorcees for re-marriage. The law didn’t need to be changed during that major change. Some ministers refuse to remarry divorcees and I don’t see the need for any extra powers to refuse same sex couples’. [add a personal anecdote to illustrate]


‘I have same-sex friends who wish to marry. They would never contemplate “forcing” an unwilling minister to marry them against his/her wishes. What kind of wedding would that be?’

(*) It’s often helpful to highlight the Terms of Reference (ToR) addressed. You can put the ToR as a sub-heading or simply put ‘Term of Reference (a)’ – they’re numbered (a)–(d).

The Committee’s advice here is clear:

Please read the terms of reference carefully before making your submission. The committee has resolved that it will only accept submissions strictly addressing its terms of reference, with a particular focus on the following areas:

  • the proposed exemptions in the Exposure Draft for ministers of religion, marriage celebrants and religious bodies and organisations to refuse to conduct or solemnise marriages, and the extent to which those exemptions prevent encroachment upon religious freedoms; 
  • the nature and effect of the proposed amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984;
  • whether there should be any consequential amendments to this bill, or any other Act, and, if so, the nature and effect of those consequential amendments. 

Substantive submissions that explore the technical aspects of the terms of reference will be published, however the committee does not have the resources or time to consider short statements expressing support either for or against same-sex marriage.  As such, these statements will be treated as correspondence and not published.

As mentioned, claims about the denial of religious freedom are central. Fears being raised include ministers being forced to officiate at same-sex weddings, churches being forced to hold same-sex weddings in their buildings, and religious bodies being forced to provide commercial goods and services to same-sex weddings. The draft Bill aims to address these fears by adding multiple means for faith groups to refuse involvement in same-sex weddings. But many think these new measures go too far. The Bill singles out same-sex couples as the paramount concern of religious people. It also provides brand new, potentially sweeping, powers for refusal by religious groups – and even civil celebrants.

Analysis of the draft Bill by Australians for Equality is here and here. For a different perspective, see the Australian Christian Lobby’s analysis here.

Personal stories have great value. Just keep them clear, concise, and relevant to the Terms of Reference (remembering that this inquiry is not about if the law should change but about what effects would result from the change). Don’t worry about making lots of points. One well-made point serves best.

Conclude with a statement on the effect of legalising same-sex marriage on your faith community, and a recommendation. A conclusion + recommendation might be:

‘The existing Marriage Act already gives my religious body/ministers sufficient power to refuse to officiate at, or participate in, same sex weddings.

Recommendation: A law that recognises marriage irrespective of gender should retain and not exceed these powers’.

Remember, the closing date is Friday 13 January. You can make a submission by either emailing it or uploading it online.

On the fallacy of ‘Christian marriage’


‘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.


Nicholas Wolterstorff on homosexuality and same-sex marriage

‘Once one says that a homosexual orientation is no more culpable or disordered than a heterosexual orientation, and once one observes that Scripture does not teach that God says that homosexual activity is always wrong, I think we’re left to conclude that justice requires that the church offer the great good of marriage both to heterosexual couples committed to a loving, covenantal relationship, and to homosexual couples so committed’.

So stated Nicholas Wolterstorff, a conservative Christian philosopher, in a recent lecture (which you can listen to below) given at Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It’s not, as far as the Christian community can be concerned, what one would call a knock-down argument in support of same-sex marriage — the nearest we have to such, I think, has already been offered elsewhere; in Rowan Williams’s essay ‘The Body’s Grace’, and in Eugene Rogers’s Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way Into the Triune God, for example — but it is consistent with and builds upon Wolterstorff’s highly-regarded and mature body of work on the nature and implications of divinely-ordained justice for God’s world, and for the flourishing of its life, and so goes some way towards supporting the argument for why the state should champion such action, and for why the church can and should support the state in this its work. Clearly, the church has its own work to do on this matter, as does the state. The twain should stay out of each other’s way more often.

While some might lament the fact that Wolterstorff didn’t give this lecture many moons ago, perhaps to the board of Calvin College where he is, rightly enough, revered; and while some (although not I) may have considered this a missed opportunity to decimate more directly Richard Swinburne’s recent nonsense about homosexuality being a ‘disorder’; and while some may prefer that the argument for state support of same-sex marriage be defended on lines more Senecan, Grotian, or Hobbesian, and that any argument for church support of same-sex marriage be grounded on more explicitly christological and trinitarian grounds; and while some may charge that his argument would have been better served had Wolterstorff stayed in his more-traversed paddocks of philosophy rather than wandered off into the territory of biblical exegesis; his words here make a constructive and clear contribution to what is typically and lamentably an unconstructive (and very often a de-structive) and muddled discussion. I’ve learnt a lot from Wolterstorff over the years, for all of which I’m grateful. I’m grateful too for his gentle witness here this time, and for the conversations that it might open up.

Is the ACL the least theologically-literate lobby group in the country?

ACLIs the Australian Christian Lobby the least theologically-literate lobby group in the country?

They may well be, for according to their latest newsletter, ‘A marriage plebiscite is … the only way that, as Christians, we can secure both the future of marriage, and our freedoms to believe and practice our faith’.

This piece of brilliant propaganda might be the least Christian statement on marriage that I’ve ever read. What an embarrassment these people are to the Good News.

They’re certainly right about one thing, however: ‘There’s more at stake this election [sic] than marriage’. But even on that subject, the institution of marriage is far too important to be left to the likes of the ACL to define it.

[Update: Within minutes of this little post going live, the Australian Christian Lobby blocked me from the ability to post comments on, or even to ‘Like’, their Facebook page. (As far as I am aware, this is a first for me.) So much for being about promoting ‘public contributions of the Christian faith reflected in the political life of the nation’.]

Anabaptist Ethics and Same-Sex Marriage

The resurrectionOn the Road, the journal of the Anabaptist Association of Australia & New Zealand, have just republished a conference paper written by my dear friend Bruce Hamill. The paper, which was written in an effort to bring some constructive theology to bear upon a vexed set of questions, is titled ‘Anabaptist Ethics and Same-Sex Marriage’. Here’s how it concludes:

Marriage — that ancient institution serving the nurture of companionship and human flourishing in love — has for most of Christian history been assumed to be defined by the biological complementarity of ‘male and female’, although not necessarily by procreation. In Jesus and the apocalyptic Christian writers not only does the coming kingdom relativise the institution of marriage to this ‘time between the times’, it sets it, and all the other institutions within which we live, under the authority and judgement of Christ. In doing this it re-establishes marriage in terms of a new purpose for disciples of Christ — indeed a two-fold purpose — to bear witness to the new creation seen in the love of Christ for the church and to practise the life of that new creation in intimate acts of mutual and bodily self-donation. This ethical revolution reaches its clearest expression when Paul concludes that even creational structures like ‘male and female’ do not define life in Christ. It is thus a small step with the benefit of biological and psychological science to conclude that other creational structures such as samesex orientation might, for some, provide a more appropriate vehicle for the discipline of marriage.

You can read the entire piece online here and here, or as a single pdf here.

Theologies of marriage

arnolfini-weddingA couple of years ago, the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (the denomination in which I was serving at the time) asked the church’s Doctrine Core Group to provide the church with a discussion paper on marriage. That group decided to approach the task by inviting a select and representative number to write a brief response to the following question:

‘What do you believe lies at the heart of a Christian doctrine of marriage, and what are the key biblical and theological considerations that inform your position?’

The full discussion paper can be downloaded here. It was offered in the hope that the statements therein might provoke deeper engagement with the complex issues about marriage in church and society. The contributions – of which there are seven – were published anonymously to encourage readers to hear and judge each case on its own merits. I reproduce them here, in part because the denomination in which I currently serve, the Baptist Union of Victoria, is engaged – or at least ought to be engaged! – in some theological reflection on the questions (one assumption here, among others, is that the Church, including its Baptist tribe, might have some unique things to say about marriage, things which the State can’t say) and I hope that these contributions might assist to that end.

Contribution 1

We believe the Presbyterian Church’s approach to marriage must faithfully reflect the teachings of Jesus and the Scriptures, regardless of whatever society or the State may do. The Church is not at liberty to put aside the teachings of its Head. As a denomination derived from the Reformation, we are meant to be subject not to human ideas but to Scripture. Constitutionally, the Presbyterian Church recognises the Word of God in the Scriptures as the ‘supreme rule of faith and life’. We need to take that seriously. We shouldn’t try to reinterpret the teachings of Jesus and Scripture to make them mean something else.

The 2012 General Assembly of our Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand strongly declared “that it upholds the historic Christian understanding of marriage as the loving, faithful union of a man and a woman (reflecting the complementarity of male and female created in God’s image), which is grounded in nature and in Scripture, is supremely revealed in Jesus’ teaching about marriage, and is given by God for the well-being of human society…”. General Assembly also resolved that it “does not support same-sex ‘marriage’”.

We believe the 2012 General Assembly got it right. Christian understanding of marriage reflects the profound truth that God made us both male and female in God’s own image (Genesis 1:27) – with both genders necessary to reflect the image of God. Marriage is grounded in God-given nature, in basic male-female physiology. Marriage is the good and purposeful gift of God (Genesis 2:18, 24). In marriage, God intends that male and female come together in love and mutuality, trust and faithfulness, and the two became one – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. No other type of contractual, covenantal or legal sexual relationship – no matter how loving, stable or sincere – can ever be regarded by the Christian Church as marriage in the true biblical sense.

Out of that unique male-female union, God brings new life (Genesis 1:28). We are to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”. Male-female complementarity is therefore foundational – not only to bearing the image of God, but to human flourishing. It is at the heart of what it means to be human. Right across the biblical narrative, marriage is endorsed – and is central to human life.

Jesus’ teaching on marriage reinforces the indispensable core of the Bible’s understanding of marriage: “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning 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” (Matthew 19:4–5). Jesus also rejects sexual immorality (Mark 7:21–22) and lust (Matthew 5:28).

Some claim there is no one model of marriage in the Scriptures. In the Old Testament, for instance, we see many examples of polygamy, a defective form of marriage which was common in Ancient Near Eastern culture. But while polygamy is tolerated in the Old Testament, it is never endorsed by God or by Scripture, and it plays no part in the teaching of Jesus or the New Testament.

The reality of marriage, in Scripture and in human experience generally, includes not only blessing but also an inevitable falling short of what God intended – sometimes in major ways such as cruelty, adultery, neglect or divorce. In our sinfulness, we all need God’s forgiveness and grace.

Some argue that marriage is just a human arrangement, a largely secular matter. Certainly, marriage is a “civil contract”, but it is also much more than that. For followers of Christ, prayerfully entering into a marital covenant and making solemn promises before God, marriage is also sacred. The sexual union of a husband and wife in marriage is more than just physical, and can also have something of a “sacramental” character.

The idea of recognising homosexual relationships as “marriage” is completely foreign to Scripture. While some disagree with what the Bible teaches, there can be no question that the Bible consistently forbids the practice of homosexuality (eg Romans 1:22–28, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10, Jude 7). Like all other sexual immorality, homosexuality reflects humanity’s fallenness.

Same-sex “marriage” finds no place in the historic Christian doctrine of marriage, or in the teaching of our Subordinate Standards. The Church’s classic Reformed standard, the Westminster Confession, devotes a whole chapter to marriage. This begins: “Marriage is to be between one man and one woman …for the mutual help of husband and wife [and] for the increase of mankind.” The Presbyterian Church’s Directory of Worship (1995) states that Christian marriage is “a commitment for life made by a woman and a man to each other, publicly witnessed before God and acknowledged by the community of faith”.

We must be guided by the resolutions of General Assembly that “God’s intention for sexual relationships, as affirmed by Jesus Christ, is loving, mutual and faithful marriage between a man and a woman, and that intimate sexual expressions outside of that context fall short of God’s standard” (1991), and that marriage is “the loving, faithful union of a man and a woman” (2012).

The Bible’s teaching on marriage is not the absolute core of the Gospel, like the Cross and Resurrection, but it is still very important. It is not optional. Three of the Ten Commandments, for instance, are related to marriage.

The Word of God is the “supreme rule” of both “faith and life”. Some argue that the Church should just proclaim salvation in Christ, and allow freedom (diversity) in all other matters of belief and life – including matters relating to marriage and morality. But such a view is a distortion of New Testament teaching. Christ is both Saviour and Lord. The gospel is not just about salvation. It is also about following Christ, and about transformation. Having received salvation by grace, we should then honour God in how we live (eg Matthew 7:17–23, Romans 6:13, 1 Corinthians 6:19–20, Ephesians 4:1, Colossians 1:10). Grace does not abrogate truth, or the call to holiness.

The Church is not able to dictate the beliefs and laws of society at large. But we must also insist that the Church cannot be dictated to by society. In all matters, including marriage, we believe the Holy Spirit calls the Church to remain authentically faithful to the teachings of Jesus and Scripture.

Contribution 2

Whatever else marriage may be, it is at its most fundamental level a relationship between two parties. It is a relationship established in virtue of God’s pronouncement that it is not good that man should be alone (Genesis 2:18). We human beings have need of companionship. According to the Genesis account (Genesis 2:18–25), marriage is a divinely instituted provision for that need. While the Genesis text indicates a complementarity in the companionship of male and female, it becomes clear as the biblical story unfolds that the need for companionship may also be met by other means, above all in the fellowship of the Body of Christ. The Church, in fact, is set forth in the New Testament as the paramount form of community in which all should expect to find, whether married or not, the unconditional love, forgiveness, and companionship to which the marriage relationship also aspires.

A secondary feature of marriage occurring between a man and a woman is the procreation of children. Genesis 1:28 and 3:16 are commonly taken as biblical warrant for this procreative function of marriage. The Old Testament, however, records numerous instances in which the fathering of children is thought to be more important than the maintenance of a monogamous relationship (eg Genesis 16:1–2, Deuteronomy 25:5–6). A husband may take additional wives or engage the childbearing services of a slave in the household in order to secure progeny. Adultery, however, is condemned (Exodus 20:14, Deuteronomy 22:22). Whether or not the arrangements seen in the Old Testament for the procreation of children outside of marriage should be approved of, they do suggest that procreation is a secondary good associated with marriage rather than its primary purpose. In accordance with the view that procreation does not belong to the essence of marriage, the absence of offspring does not undermine the good of marriage and so provides no justification for divorce (Matthew 5:32, Mark 10:6–9).

What then does constitute the good of marriage? In formulating a response to this question, it is helpful to attend to the fact that the language of marital relationships is often used in the Bible to speak of the relationship that God has established, first with Israel (eg Ezekiel 16: 8–14, Jeremiah 2:2, 31:32, Isaiah 54:5), and then with the Church (eg John 3:29, Matthew 9:15, 2 Corinthians 11:2, Revelation 19:7–9). Although it is commonly supposed that the term “marriage” applies primarily to the covenant commitment made between a man and a woman and only secondarily, by way of analogy, to the relationship God establishes with Israel and the Church, we may learn better about the essence of marriage by attending first to the marriage God establishes with his people, before then considering what this may imply for our understanding of human marriage.

The first thing to notice about the relationship between God and Israel, and between Christ and the Church is that it is a covenant not a contract. Talk of marriage as a covenant rather than a contract is derived from this divine precedent. A covenant is “a promise binding two people or two parties to love one another unconditionally.” This accounts for the steadfastness of God’s commitment to Israel in spite of Israel’s unfaithfulness (Leviticus 26:44). We observe, secondly, that the covenant God makes is grounded in love. Again, we learn best what love is by attending to the divine love, especially as it is revealed to us in and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because the true nature of love is revealed in Christ, Paul enjoins husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). It is in this context too, that Paul speaks of a man and his wife becoming one flesh just as Christ unites the Church in his body and tenderly nourishes and cares for it (Ephesians 5:28–32).

Further explanation of what love consists of is found 1 Corinthians 13. A third characteristic of the divine covenant is that it operates according to grace rather on the basis of deserts. God loves Israel and Christ loves the Church, not because they deserve to be loved, but simply because it is love’s way to embrace the other in spite of the other’s weakness and imperfection — even in spite of the other’s sin. Marriage is an act of gracious hospitality, of unconditional openness to the other, and of self-giving. The operations of divine grace in the marriage God establishes with his people should discourage us, I think, from conceiving the marriage relationship in terms of rights. Marriage is established in virtue of the unconditional gift of oneself to the other, not on the basis of rights held over against one another.

These theological observations suggest that marriage is a covenant relationship that is motivated by love and operates according to grace. It is, furthermore, a form of human relationship that mirrors, however imperfectly, the relationship that God desires to have with us.

We should take note, however, that spousal relationships are listed in Luke 14:26 among various forms of kinship that take second place to the disciples’ relationships with Christ. Marriage between one human being and another is good, but it is not the ultimate good. The ultimate good is the fellowship with God and neighbour that is being perfected by the Spirit in the Body of Christ. Marriage, and, by extension, the life of the family, is an important and divinely instituted means by which people may be formed for the kind of relationship that is ultimately to be perfected in the communion that Christ establishes with his people. Despite their many failings, and despite the tragic dysfunction that sometimes afflicts them, marriage and family relationships remain the place, subordinate only to the Church, where we are most likely to learn the gestures of unconditional love, of forgiveness, and of grace that, under divine command and enabling, are to be extended to all.

With respect to the question of whether marriage may be entered into by partners of the same gender, it seems to me that the precedent of God’s relationship to Israel and of Christ to the Church yields insight into the nature of marriage that does not preclude such a relationship being established between partners of the same gender. It remains an open question however, whether the complementarity of male and female indicated in Genesis, should be taken as normative for the marriage relationship between two human partners. That is the question that is now before the Church.

Contribution 3

In the following paper I offer my reflections on what I believe lies at the heart of a doctrine of Christian marriage. As a woman in her mid-fifties who recently married for the first time, I have found myself engaging with this question on a very personal level. Marriage, as revealed in both Scripture and Jesus’ teaching, is initiated by God as an expression of love in community. Sacred and permanent, it offers protection and exclusivity for the expression of fidelity and conjugal love between a man and a woman. It is fundamental to my understanding of Christian marriage that it be a union between a man and a woman, as both are made in God’s image, therefore it is their complementary, but different natures, that reflect most authentically the mystery of the divine nature.

The divine nature is presented in the Scriptures as both feminine and masculine. God speaks of her conception, nurture, and birth in the continuing story of Israel. Yet God is also warrior, king, and father. God’s nature transcends gender, but by creating both male and female and joining them together as one God’s nature is “captured”, so to speak. Therefore when man and woman become one, it is their union (their becoming one) that reflects the complete/divine nature.

The physical/biological differences of men and women are obvious, but there is also a spiritual/emotional difference between them that is well attested in our churches, marriages, and relationships in general.

The “complete” nature of God, as expressed by both man and woman becoming one, finds its roots in the Genesis account of creation: Man (Adam) was created in the image of God, but finding him incomplete in/by himself, God created a specific helper/companion (ezer; Eve). Out of the one species, but creating a separate, distinctive and complementary being, God created the ideal reflection of the divine nature. Creativity, procreation, and abiding companionship all find their expression on the two beings becoming one. My reading of the creation account is that humanity was the pinnacle of creation. When the two complementary beings become one, their unity creates and perpetuates the image of the divine. I believe that it was God’s desire for the creative, spiritual and physical cycle of creation to continue through the mystery and sanctity of marriage.

Jesus also affirmed marriage as a divine institution laid down by God at the very beginning of creation. United by God two (man and woman) become one, and remain so until death (Mark 10.6–7, 9; Genesis 1.27; 2.24). The mystery of this sacred union between man and woman is that it offers a reflection of the image of God in community; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. By this I mean that God is more than one, yet the same essence. The three persons of the trinity are separate, yet one. Each person of the trinity has a different expression, but they are the same! For me that means that in the Genesis account of creation the trinity was already present, and reflected in the creation of man and woman. Therefore marriage, at its heart, is an expression of God’s love/nature lived out in action for creation to be witness to, and benefit from.

The starting point for my position on a Christian doctrine of marriage is the concept of covenant. Biblically the marriage relationship was used as a distinctive metaphor for the covenantal relationship God had with Israel (Ezekiel 16.8). Permanence, faithfulness and self-sacrificing love are the pillars of God’s covenant relationship. Marriage, as a covenant relationship between two complementary natures made in God’s image, reflects the ideal of God’s relationship of love and fidelity with his/her people.

Pauline material develops this tradition by proclaiming that the sacred and permanent status of marriage is an analogy for the relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5.32). Marriage, in New Testament terms, is portrayed as the perfect example of covenantal oneness; a union created between a man and a woman by the unifying power of love.

The commitment to love unconditionally, as Christ loved the Church, implies self-sacrifice. Christ’s love led him to the cross, so biblically marriage becomes a vehicle for living out Christ’s self-sacrificing love. For me the concepts of obedience and discipleship are fundamental to my understanding of Christian marriage. God’s covenant love and Christ’s self-sacrificing love fit within a context of relationship. Marriage cannot be removed from this setting; it finds its expression only in relationship with God’s revelation (Jesus and Scripture).

The biblical vision for marriage, as a reflection of God’s love and unbreakable faithfulness, lies at the heart of my understanding of Christian marriage. Creator God created two complementary beings in his/her image to become one flesh. The purpose for such a union is, I believe, not only to offer human companionship, or produce children, but also to reveal the divine nature and character of an unseen God. Love by its very nature can only be authentically expressed in community, therefore marriage becomes the most complete expression of divine love.

Contribution 4

Being both Māori and Christian my starting point on any subject is always my beloved wharenui, Te Maungarongo. On the taraiti side of the whare is our cultural side that captures our histories, genealogies, stories, songs, proverbs and everything that constitutes being Māori. On the opposite tarawhanui side of the whare are the biblical equivalents of those same stories. The backbone of the whare is the tahuhu where both culture and Scripture come together under watchful eye of God. Neither side of the whare can be separated as they interpret and inform each other. To separate the two would divide the whare and result in cultural and biblical amnesia.

The second pair of poupou in Te Maungarongo depict Rangi and Papatuanuku the primodial parents. Opposite is the biblical equivalent of Adam and Eve. This theme of cultural and biblical equivalents facing each other is consistent throughout the whare. The tenth poupou depicts the celebrated love story of Tutanekai and Hinemoa. The Biblical equivalent opposite is the Book of Psalms as the story focuses at this level upon the sweet music of the Putourino that encouraged Hinemoa to swim Lake Rotorua to Tutanekai upon Mokoia Island. At other levels the story deals with issues of politically arranged marriage, social status, tribal responsibility of procreation and of male affection and relationship towards another male. These are real stories that we still encounter today and are not simple fables or myths.

The back and front walls of the whare tell the story of the early church. At the apex of the exterior of the whare is the ancestor, in this case Jesus, holding the cross inviting you to take up the cross. On the interior of the inside back wall is the cross of Calvary. Both crosses challenge us to view those same stories through the cross of Christ and gain a new understanding of how things are done consistent with how they are lived in the Kingdom of God.

The hermeneutical question is not which side of the whare we start from, but how do both sides of Te Maungarongo come together in us, the living embodiment of those stories. The hermeneutical starting point is me, the mokopuna. Whakapapa works backwards. It starts with me and what I bring to this story.

Marriage was a stumbling block to Māori being baptised by the early Presbyterian Māori missions with their doctrine of one man and one woman in marriage. Iwi practised polgamy and this was non-negotiable to the missionaries. The pressures of government and Church eventually saw the demise of polygamy. Today polygamy has been replaced with defacto relationships and solo-parenting that has lead to a fatherless generation of children. These people are unfairly sterotyped as beneficiaries who spend their benefit on alcohol, smokes and drugs and substitute their income with illegal activities. Yet for the majority this is totally untrue. The Bible gives the imperative to look after the least in society and names them as the widow, the orphan and the unemployed. In my context that is about 80 percent of my whanau.

The context above is the taraiti side of the whare which is brought into conversation with the biblical that has many similar stories of political arranged marriages, marriage and social status, affairs, liasons, incest, rape, unemployment, poverty, adoption and single parenting. This conversation gives me a further reference point, and what new insights I may have are lifted up to be viewed through the cross of Jesus at Calvary. Jesus dealt with similar issues of human existence and gives new understandings and insights into how things are lived in the Kingdom of God. This is Te Maungarongo that moves me in the direction of the cross where I am given a new blueprint for the future.

No story is complete without the architects of my Presbyterian whare: Rua Kenana, prophet of Maungapohatu; Tu Rakuraku of Waimana; the Rt Rev Eru Tumutara; Bishop of the Ringatu Church; and the Presbyterian missionary the Very Rev J G Laughton CMG or Hoani. These architects of Te Maungarongo provide the overarching hermeneutical princple with their covenanted relationships with Hoani providing a safe and sound Christian future for their children and grandchildren.

Rua Kenana said to Hoani: “There is your Church, the children. You have the children, leave the old people to me.”

In a similar fashion, Tu Rakuraku said to Hoani: “Leave the old world to us, you have the children so they may have a better life than what we have experienced”.

The Rt Rev Eru Tumutara said to Hoani: “Teach my children the wisdom of the world but most importantly teach them the wisdom of God.”

These covenants are translated as Ōhākī, a gift that arises from within you and is binding on all future generations and can never be broken. All three gentlemen had experienced at a personal level the poverty of the New Zealand Wars, but they saw in the Presbyterian Church an opportunity for their children to have a better life, safe from what they witnessed.

In conclusion, the hermeutical process begins with me, the mokopuna, the blueprint of the future. The hermeneutical reference points are a conversation between the pillars of Te Maungarongo, cultural, context, Scripture and Christian tradition. These are held up to the apex of the whare where I view them through the cross of Jesus Christ. The overarching principle in the hermeneutical process is Te Ōhākī, the gift that is my salvation in the new world free from anything that separates me from the love of God.

Contribution 5

Theological Method

The question of marriage, as with any theological reflection, does not come to the Church in a vacuum. Society now understands marriage as a relationship between two people, committed to each other, irrespective of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity. Marriage is seen as an intimate and yet public commitment between two adults that is recognised in law. The theological issue has arisen because on the one hand we have Assembly decisions that restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples and, on the other hand, ministers and congregations who wish to be able to celebrate marriage in the full, inclusive sense in which it is now understood.

From an ethical perspective, an evolving theology of marriage must include the voices of same-sex couples and transgendered people who wish to marry, because it is the lives of these people who will be directly affected by
the Church’s decision-making. Christian same-sex couples speak about their desire to express their love and commitment to one another in the context of their faith community. They want to belong to each other in love and to their congregations in ministry. Like couples who access civil marriage, they value the social recognition and support that comes with marriage. They also acknowledge the spiritual aspect of marriage to which law and secular society pay little attention. They are “claiming the blessing” that the Church has come to understand that marriage can be, a blessing of communion and community. And they wish to teach their children about the social and spiritual value of deep commitment to a life partner in a loving and just relationship.

Children of gay and lesbian parents are expressing the hope that their parents could marry. Approximately 24 percent of same-sex couples are raising children. Social research has overwhelmingly established that these children have outcomes that are as good or better than children raised by opposite-sex couples. The one thing that makes their lives difficult is discrimination against their families. In changing the marriage law, society has removed one source of discrimination, but the Church continues to perpetuate it.

The Bible

The Bible on its own cannot provide the answers to the question of whether the Church should allow ministers to marry same sex couples because it is simply not a question that the Bible addresses. The Biblical writers had no knowledge of the continuum of human sexual orientation. Throughout the biblical record, different kinds of unions are accepted in different places and times, evolving and changing with culture and circumstance.

New Testament teachings about marriage are included with other teachings which are generally accepted as being time and culture bound. For example prohibitions against women teaching, or braiding their hair, are found alongside the imperative that a church leader should be “the husband of one wife”. (1 Timothy 2:9 – 3:2).

Biblical marriage includes polygamy, marriage within the family, reproduction with a deceased husband’s closest relative and prohibitions against marriage with people of other faiths or ethnicities. At times these patterns were normative and at other times they were considered less relevant.

The Genesis story of Adam and Eve is often cited as evidence that marriage can only be heterosexual because Jesus cited it in Mark 10:1–12. Context is crucial. Jesus was asked a question about the lawfulness of divorce. He responded by referencing the Genesis story and saying that “what God has joined together, let no one separate”. He concluded unequivocally that remarriage after divorce is adultery. It is disingenuous to extrapolate this teaching addressed to heterosexual couples to exclude same-sex marriage. Especially when the Church has significantly reinterpreted Jesus’s clear teaching on divorce.

The History of Marriage

It is impossible to give adequate consideration here to the way marriage has evolved over the past two millennia except to note that it has changed dramatically. Until the modern period, marriage was primarily based on political alliances for the elite and economic survival for the masses. Women were regarded as property transferred from father to husband, thus connecting families for political or economic benefits.

The diverse forms of familial relationships that many people think are unprecedented changes in family life, are mostly not new at all. Human beings have been creatively constructing families for a very long time. There have been times in the past when it was more common for children to be born out of wedlock than it is now. Step-families were very common in the past because of the high rates of death and remarriage. And even same-sex marriage, though relatively rare, has been sanctioned in some cultures.

Similarly, arrangements that are presented as “traditional marriage” in popular culture have a relatively recent history. The involvement of Church or state in marriage is a more recent “tradition” in human history. For centuries of Christian tradition, a couple were considered married when privately they said to each other the words of intent: “I take you to be my husband or wife”. Neither judge nor clergy were involved.

Marriage, shaped by political or economic considerations, began to change in the 18th century, five thousand years after it first took shape in the ancient tribes and kingdoms of the Middle East. Only then did love begin to dominate marriage discourse. Marriage began to be seen as a private relationship between two people rather than as part of a system of political or economic alliances. While there have always been loving marriages, the purpose of marriage for much of human history was more mundane.

Relational Ethics

What marks us as humans is our capacity for intelligent moral judgement. We cannot base our decisions about marriage solely on appeals to Scripture, tradition/history or on an unexamined understanding of biological or psychological complementarity of the sexes. The idea of male and female duality is frequently an unexamined assumption in theological conversation about marriage. It must be considered in light of contemporary science and social theory.

The freedom given to us in Christ includes the freedom to discern God’s will and the ways that God continues to speak to us through the Spirit. In limiting human sexual expression to heterosexual marriage, the Church has lost its place in the human community of ethical discernment. The public has heard us say that heterosexual intercourse within marriage is the requirement for God’s blessing. They have not heard us say that relationships that are mutual, equal, loving, committed and grounded, are relationships that reflect God’s faithfulness and grace. Moving beyond requiring humans to choose between heterosexual marriage and celibacy would create a space for the Church to talk about what makes a relationship good and therefore to invite people into the spiritual depth and commitment that good marriage can provide.

Contribution 6

It has taken some time to canvas the views of members of the Pacific community that I am involved with, however I present a view that is shared in common by every person that has contributed to the question: “What is the Pacific Christian’s perspective of the doctrine of marriage?”

Primarily, we strongly believe that marriage is the bond between a man and a woman as blessed by Jesus Christ the head of the Church. The general belief is a call for the Presbyterian Church to hold strictly to biblical teachings about Christian marriage as a necessary step to the formation and beginning of a family.

I would like to also include extracts from the Vatican’s International Theological Commission entitled Statements on the Doctrine of Marriage which reflect the thinking of the Pacific community I am representing in this statement.

Marriage in Christ

As is easily shown in the New Testament, Jesus confirmed this institution which existed “from the very beginning”, and cured it of its previous defects (Mark 10:2–9, 10–12) by restoring all its dignity and its original requirements. He sanctified this state of life (Gaudium et Spes 48, 2) by including it within the mystery of love, which unites him as Redeemer to his Church. This is the reason why the task of regulating Christian marriage (1 Corinthians 7:10) has been entrusted to the Church.

The Apostles

The Epistles of the New Testament say that marriage should be honoured in every way (Hebrews 13:4) and, in response to certain attacks, they present it as a good work of the Creator (1 Timothy 4:1–5). Rather, they exalt matrimony among the faithful because it is included in the mystery of Covenant and love that unites Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:22–23; Gaudium et Spes 48, 2).

They ask, therefore, that marriage be contracted “in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39) and that matrimonial life be lived in accordance with the dignity of a new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17), “in Christ” (Ephesians 5:21–33), putting Christians on guard against the pagans’ habits (1 Corinthians 6:12–20; 6:9–10).

On the basis of a “right deriving from faith” and in their desire to assure its permanence, the Churches of apostolic times formulated certain moral orientations (Colossians 3:18; Titus 2:3–5; 1 Peter 3:1–7) and juridical dispositions that would help people live matrimony “according to the faith” in different human situations and conditions.

Real Symbol and Sacramental Sign

Jesus Christ disclosed in a prophetic way the reality of matrimony as it was intended by God at man’s beginnings (Genesis 1:27; 2:24; Mark 10:6, 7–8; Matthew 19:4, 5) and restored it through his death and Resurrection. For this reason Christian marriage is lived “in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39) and is also determined by elements of the saving action performed by Christ.

Already in the Old Testament the matrimonial union was a figure of the Covenant between God and the people of Israel (Hosea 2; Jeremiah 3:6–13; Ezekiel 16 and 23; Isaiah 54). In the New Testament, Christian marriage rises to a new dignity as a representation of the mystery that unites Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:21–33). Theological interpretation illuminates this analogy more profoundly: the supreme love and gift of the Lord who shed his blood and the faithful and irrevocable attachment of his Spouse the Church, become models and examples for Christian matrimony.

This resemblance is a relationship of real sharing in the Covenant of love between Christ and the Church. From its own standpoint, Christian marriage, as a real symbol and sacramental sign, represents the Church of Christ concretely in the world and, especially under its family aspect, it is called rightly the “domestic Church” (Lumen Gentium 11).

Sacrament in a Real Sense

In such a way matrimony takes on the likeness of the mystery of the union between Jesus Christ and his Church. This inclusion of Christian marriage in the economy of salvation is enough to justify the title “sacrament” in a broad sense.

But it is also at once the concrete condensation and the real actualization of this primordial sacrament. It follows from this that Christian marriage is in itself a real and true sign of salvation, which confers the grace of God. For this reason the Catholic Church numbers it among the seven sacraments (Denzinger-A Schönmetzer, 1327, 1801).

A unique bond exists between the indissolubility of marriage and its sacramentality, that is, a reciprocal, constitutive relationship. Indissolubility makes one’s grasp of the sacramental nature of Christian matrimony easier, and from the theological point of view, its sacramental nature constitutes the final grounds, although not the only grounds, for its indissolubility.


It is fair to say that all of the above points of view resonate with the thinking of Pacific Christians in the Presbyterian Church. However the question that is in the news items lately has been the same-sex marriage question. There is a strong “No” from the Pacific community that have responded to me on this point.

I pass on the blessings from those I represent to the doctrine committee for this important task you are charged with.

Contribution 7

I. Foundation. “For … all things have been created through him and for him” (Colossians 1.16). Jesus Christ is the one Word of God in, by and for whom humanity is constituted. He alone reveals God’s will for human life and flourishing. Consequently, marriage ought primarily to be understood christologically. The Church therefore rejects as false all efforts to ground its doctrine and ethics in sources apart from and besides this one Word of God. Such efforts threaten to turn an institution or relationship into an idol, an anti-Christ.

II. Eschatology. “ ‘… and the two will become one flesh’. This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5.31–32). Like every gift from God, marriage is good and fitting – not only for individual persons and families, but also for the flourishing of human society. But its goodness is closely associated with its provisionality – with its being bound to the creation which is passing away (eg. Luke 18.29; Matthew 19.12; 22.30) – and with it, as with celibacy, bearing prophetic witness to the coming new creation. Its ultimate meaning is eschatological and so it is called to be characterised by the transforming of old markers and the reconstituting of human relationality in the light of God’s coming. The Church therefore rejects efforts to explain the mystery of marriage solely in terms of the old creation. Furthermore, because Holy Scripture speaks of marriage in terms of Christ’s relation to the Church unbound by gender, we reject the claim that marriage’s signalling of Christ’s relationship with his bride must be gender specific.

III. Discipleship. “Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me’” (Luke 9.23). Jesus Christ calls and the Holy Spirit empowers persons to leave behind all that has the appearance of certainty, and to become his disciples. This call precedes and exists uncompetitively with all other claims that may be made. God’s provision (marriage is a “gift” rather than a “right”) of marriage during this time-between-the-times is a particular vocation given to some so that they might be trained in the way of discipleship; learn how to recognise the otherness of the other (i.e., as a being not under their power); be taught love of neighbour; celebrate the mystery of friendship; be schooled in embodied witness, repentance and virtue; practice the meaning of sacrifice, the risk of hospitality and the formation of community and be ready to accept the challenges of new life which love creates – the disciplines of denial and restraint that liberate human persons for sanctification. The Church therefore rejects as false all efforts to understand marriage (and all other human relationships) independently of the call to discipleship.

IV. Desire. “This is my body, which is given for you” (Luke 22.19). Marriage occasions a social context to commit oneself to being where one’s body is, to make one’s body available for the other – “for better, for worse … for as long as you live” (Book of Common Order) – and for desire to mean more than meeting emotional and physical needs. While it is beyond the creature’s power to make sex spiritually or sacramentally significant (indeed, all such attempts are idolatrous), it is entirely commensurate with God’s character to do so; ie. to make good on the promise that human beings are more than material. “The moral question, at this point, ought to be how much we want our sexual activity to communicate, how much we want it to display a breadth of human possibility and a sense of the body’s capacity to heal and enlarge the life of other subjects,” says Rowan Williams. The Church therefore rejects as illegitimate all expressions of desire for other persons unbridled and undirected by commitment to the relationship in which the blessing of the other is not a foremost concern.

V. Election and covenant. “How can I give you up, Ephraim?” (Hosea 11.8). Marriage serves as an analogue to, and a reflection of the electing love of God (however imperfect). Marriage exists because God loves Israel, in whom God also makes space for gentiles. This is God’s counter word to the fear many couples experience; namely, the threat to the security of their own marriages from the “other”. The Word of God brings persons into covenant communion with God and with each other, the character of which is holy, loving, and unbreakable. The Church therefore rejects all theological justification for divorce. That said, lest we turn God’s gracious provision into an ideology, the Church equally rejects all notions of indissolubility which smuggle in a metaphysic whereby divorce and remarriage are made authentic impossibilities. “Indeed, if one purpose of marriage is to serve as a sign of God’s love in the world … how can we reject the possibility that a second marriage after a divorce could serve as a sign of grace and redemption from the sin and brokenness of the past?” (Richard Hays).

VI. Responsible freedom. “You were called to freedom; do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (Galatians 5.13). Marriage is an expression of the freedom granted to God’s human creatures and to the societies they form. So, “It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry, who are able with judgement to give their consent” (The Westminster Confession of Faith). Marriage, in other words, is created not by a ceremony per se but by an act of responsible freedom. Where possible, a public ceremony – wherein the “I do” confessed by the couple and heard by a public serves as both creative and performative utterance – might also represent such an act and so ought to be the norm. Still, “there are many marriages, true though incomplete, which the Church has never blessed or the State ratified” (James K. Baxter). If a couple “cannot or will not have one another in this freedom, it is far better for them not to want to have one another at all” (Karl Barth). The Church therefore rejects all pre-determined images (whether understood in terms of roles, or contractual obligations, or any other matters decided in advance) of what any particular marriage might look like as being fundamentally at odds with the loving promise of covenant freedom in God. “Gratuitous, beyond our fathom, both binding and freeing, this love re-invades us, shifts the boundaries of our being” (Micheal O’Siadhail).

The Marriage Amendment Act One Year On: How are the Churches Responding?

kiwisLast night, the Centre for Theology and Public Issues and the Otago University Students’ Association Queer Support co-hosted a public event on how churches are responding to the Marriage Amendment Act that passed through the New Zealand parliament last year. A wide number of people were invited to speak at the event, five of whom said ‘Yes’. These were Kelvin Wright (Anglican Bishop of Dunedin), Greg Hughson (Methodist Minister and Otago University Chaplain), Mark Chamberlain (Roman Catholic Priest at the Church of the Holy Name and Otago University Chaplain), Bruce Hamill (Minister at Coastal Unity Presbyterian Church and Convenor of the Doctrine Core Group for the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand), and Neill Ballantyne (Queer Support Officer, OUSA).

Each were invited to respond to the following three questions:

Question 1: In general Christian Churches in New Zealand were opposed to the amending of the Marriage Act to include couples of the same gender. This passed on the 17th of April 2013. This amendment allowed for ministers to refuse to marry a couple for matters of conscience. In your experience how are the churches responding to this change and in your opinion how do you think they should respond?

Question 2: It has been said that there is a sense of inevitability that the church will become more inclusive in its attitudes towards LGBT people and sexual morality. How would you respond to this claim?

Question 3: What does the marriage equality process show about the relationship between church and society in New Zealand on issues of morality. Are the churches still able to give moral leadership to wider society or is wider society giving leadership to the church?

Kelvin did well to highlight the nature of Anglicanism as broad and determined to hold together, through its polity and eucharistic centre, irreconcilable positions on all manner of subjects, a characteristic for which it remains deeply indebted to Queen Elizabeth I. Greg documented something of the long and painful journey that New Zealand Methodists have travelled on their road to, in 2003, signing a Memorandum of Understanding  which would allow diversity of opinion on the matter of marriage of LGBT persons and which made it possible for people to stand together with their differences and ‘with integrity’. Mark draw attention to the nature of all human sexuality and relationships as ‘gift’, stressed that the church must walk a difficult path of being deeply immersed in the culture while not being held captive to public opinion and to take its marching orders from the Gospel as interpreted through, and in continuity with, Scripture and the tradition. He could not, therefore, envisage a time when Rome might change its line on marriage. He did not, as far as I can remember, use the language of ‘sacrament’, although such was clearly informing his definition of marriage. Neill’s overall point last night was a good one – that the inclusive nature of the kingdom (or ‘queendom’) of God is radically at odds with the expressions of pharisaism and gate-keeperism that too often characterises those communities called to bear witness to that kingdom – but he might have found a more gracious and considerate way to make it.

The stand out response, in my view, was that by Bruce (who managed to cram a two-hour lecture into about 10 minutes!). Below is a transcript of his response:


Thanks for the privilege of being part of this forum and also for the commitment of CTPI to let theology out of the closet (so to speak) on this issue.

Let me speak about what I know a little about – the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand – my denomination. Our response as a denomination was to reaffirm a traditional definition of marriage in stark contrast to the Act. This decision came after many years of bitter conflict in our General Assemblies, first over homosexuality and leadership and more recently over same-sex marriage. At this point the conservative view is in the ascendancy and consistently gets over 60% of the vote on these matters. It looks as if this next Assembly will be no exception and I suspect there will be a move to ensure that those minister’s whose conscience calls them to reject the national church position will no longer have the possibility of ‘conscientious objection’ on this matter.

I know that the denominational response is what the ‘public’ sees. However, in my view the denominational response is unlikely to be the best response. Let me explain. In my view, churches need to respond with discernment in community – and denominational bodies are not really communities (certainly not primary communities) let alone communities of discernment. Even the way most local Presbyterian congregations are structures means that thy usually don’t function well in this way.

Before I say something about what I think the Church should have done (and why), a few comments on Question 3.

I think the response of the church to date shows at least two things about the relationship between church and society.

  1. It shows that the wider society has been profoundly influenced by Jesus Christ and his crucifixion, and his decision to live in solidarity, without violence, with those who were the victims of society. We cannot underestimate the influence of this story on our culture in the West.
  2. It also shows a willingness on the part of the church not to take the decisions of the wider society as morally authoritative. Both of these things I take to be good things.

As for moral leadership, I think this is a loaded and not particularly helpful question. You could say that both Church and Society are giving moral leadership but with a different set of morals, or in different directions. The question assumes that there are universal moral principles at stake here that all parties agree on and then someone just needs to act on or make statements on in order to give leadership. If there is no such thing then it’s not a question of who’s leading who but of who’s leading in the right direction. In other words the question of who’s leading who can only be answered in the context of a wider narrative of what the good life is. For Christians this is really about what it means to live in conformity to and communion with Christ and thus ‘with the grain of the universe’.

The irony is that, in my view, the wider society, with its willingness to make space for minority groups, seems to be more closely conformed to Christ on this matter than those who claim to be Christian.

To return to Question 1: In my view what the PCANZ should have done is not simply to reaffirm the traditional definition of marriage but should have been prompted to rethink the limits and nature of our understanding of marriage. Actually in 2012 when the PCANZ did reaffirm a traditional definition there was also a motion put to the Assembly that the Doctrine Core Group (which I convene) produce a discussion paper on the theology of marriage. The motion was rejected. It was only in February of this year that the Council of Assembly did call for a discussion document, which we have since produced.

What I want to do today is offer four reasons, from within the tradition itself, in support of a rethink.

  1. As a protest wing of the catholic church, we of the reformed tradition have a little motto which goes ‘the reformed church is constantly being reformed’ (we like to say it in Latin so no one understands it). I think the point is a simple one. The institutions within which the people of God live their lives are not platonic forms. There is constant pressure from the triune God for their reform. The working out of the gospel means that the church is always learning how to be the church. Reform of institutions is something we are called to do on good authority. Both Jesus and the Apostles were right into it. Think of Israel’s great institutions – the Temple, the Purity Codes and the Sabbath – none of which came of unscathed with their encounter with Jesus of Nazareth. Not to mention the way Jesus profoundly challenged the centrality of ‘Family’. I often wonder whether Jesus’ motto ‘the Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath’ might well apply to marriage. Think of Peter’s vision of unclean creatures and the way it paved the way for a rethink of ethnic identity. Look at Paul’s deconstruction of the role of the Torah (Law) in the light of Jesus’ coming. Should we exempt marriage from such reforming processes? It seems to me that the onus is clearly on the traditionalists to come up with a reason for why the incarnation makes no real difference to how we think about marriage.
  1. Secondly, in Christian ethics, nature and the structures of creation play a subordinate role to the ‘new creation’ in Christ (see, e.g. Gal 3.28). This is to say that Christians understand human life and action in the light of its ‘end’ (eschatologically). For us the fulfilment of creation’s purposes, the ‘kingdom of God’, has arrived in the middle of time interrupting all our practices and redirecting them towards a new form of life. The good life is an embodiment of the future made possible now. In Paul we see this as he elaborates on the close connection between the church’s relationship to Christ (which he calls ‘a profound mystery’) and the marriage relationship. A similar analogy is drawn in Hosea. And both, as Rowan Williams observes in his wonderful essay ‘The Body’s Grace’, remind us that ‘there is a good deal [in the Bible] to steer us away from assuming that reproductive sex is a norm, however important and theologically significant it may be.’ When the Bible talks of marriage it has little interest in the pragmatics of human reproduction. And so the case can be made that whatever biological assumptions have been made up until quite recently in discussion of marriage, these things don’t really get to the point of marriage as the church is learning to practice it in the light of the eschaton.
  1. Having said that, the ‘kingdom of God’ arises in the context of an old creation and is not divorced from biology and history. An account of marriage must in turn take into account any new understanding of creation and of human biology and psychology (and so on). Scientific disciplines help us at precisely this point. In the ancient world of the biblical writers there was little understanding that the dynamic processes of human desire might be constrained and structured according a same-sex orientation as well as a heterosexual one. This is a significant mandate for reconsidering the modes of marital expression that the kingdom of God might take among the people of God. So (1) the call to reform (2) the priority of eschatology (3) the biological context, and finally what I want to call …
  1. Marriage as sanctification: The biological context of the Christian life suggests to us that there are some partners, for some of us, who are apposite without being opposite. It may be that this situation ought not to bar same sex couples from marriage precisely because of the significance role that marriage can play in Christian discipleship. If indeed the bodily relatedness, the one-fleshness of marriage is a kind of icon of the trinity (the relatedness of God) and if indeed it reflects something of the mystery of Christ and his body, if indeed it is a discipline of learning to love our nearest neighbour as our self, if in short it is really about sanctification, then the conservative elements in the church may be effectively seeking (in the words of Eugene Rogers) to ‘deprive same-sex couples not so much of satisfaction as of sanctification.’ (A lot more needs to be said here of course). Because bodies matter in salvation. Because we are being saved as embodied creatures in all the particularity of our limitation, then we should seriously consider revising the limits of our doctrine of marriage. To quote Eugene Rogers again ‘no conservative I know has seriously argued that same-sex couples needs sanctification any less than opposite-sex couples’.

For these four reasons I say, it’s time for a rethink.

In conclusion (and in response to Q. 2): Is a more inclusive church inevitable? There is no inevitability this side of the eschaton. However, if we don’t define ‘church’ according to the particular institutions that claim that title, I remain hopeful (confident even) that God will raise up communities who will find ways of including LGBT people in the way of Jesus Christ.

another discussion paper on marriage

leunig-if-you-see-anything-unusualIt seems like lots of people are doing it these days. Sometimes they are doing it without the express invitation of the wider assembly, and sometimes with the expressed request of such bodies. But in each case their doing of it represents a defiant expression of the conviction that nothing in life is a settled matter, and that theology, like other responsible sciences, remains an enterprise which opens up space for deeper engagement and reflection on things which matter deeply to us.

So, earlier this year, the Doctrine Core Group of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand prepared a discussion paper called Christian Perspectives on Marriage: A Discussion Document.

And now the  Doctrine Working Group of the Uniting Church in Australia has prepared their own discussion paper on marriage and same-gender relationships in the form of a commentary on the marriage service in Uniting in Worship 2.

The two documents take different approaches, but both are accompanied by an invitation to respond in some way. More importantly, I think, both are an invitation to a form of prayer – an invitation to think, to listen, to confess, to say ‘Thank you’, to say ‘But I don’t understand, although I want to’, to together hear the Word of the patient Lord.

I commend them to you.

Christian Perspectives on Marriage

Christian Perspectives on MarriageLast year, the Council of Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand asked the church’s Doctrine Core Group to provide the church with a discussion paper on marriage. That group decided to approach the task by inviting a select and representative number to write a brief response to the following question:

‘What do you believe lies at the heart of a Christian doctrine of marriage, and what are the key biblical and theological considerations that inform your position?’

The discussion paper is now available for download here. It is offered in the hope that the statements therein might provoke deeper engagement with the complex issues about marriage in New Zealand church and society.

On complementarity, univocity, equivocity, and analogy … and God

Same sex marriage

A good friend just directed me to Andrew Davison’s interesting piece on complementarity, published yesterday over at the Church Times site. Here’s the gist:

Sexual difference is obviously not sufficient to guarantee complementarity; and it seems, empirically, that it is not even necessary: not if the word “complementary” is taken to refer to something real in the world.

Complementarity rests on more than sexual difference. As with similarity and difference, it is worked out on many levels – many more than the bishops acknowledge. It matters which experiences and traditions a couple share, for instance, and which they do not. The otherness that a woman finds in a man is not exhausted by his maleness: there is also the fact that he is a Scot while she is English, that he tends to think in concrete terms while she tends to be abstract-minded, and so on. Similarities between a man and a woman are also important. Our own experience confirms that a certain irreducible difference exists between any two people, in any kind of relationship. The difference of one person from another is more profound than a difference of sex,even in an opposite-sex relationship. When a man finds comfort in his female partner, for instance, her femaleness is not a matter of indifference, but she also matters as another human being: as someone to talk to, someone to rely on, someone to share responsibilities with. Adam’s first response to the creation of Eve was to her similarity with him – “This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh” – not to her difference.

So many elements of similarity and difference are interwoven in a heterosexual relationship that picking out just one sort of difference – sexual difference – as if it were all that mattered for complementarity is remarkably short-sighted. No one loves someone else simply as a man or simply as a woman, and not also as funny, or serious, or Welsh, or practical, or tall, or dark-haired, or a hundred other factors. A collapse of difference into male-female difference, which so undergirds current Church of England formulations, reduces our vision of sexual relationships to the level of a budget brothel: you ask for a woman, you ask for a man, and you take the first one who’s free: sexual difference is what matters, not particularity.

You can read the entire piece here. Those interested in the questions raised here might also like to read Eugene Rogers’s essay ‘Same-sex complementarity’, published a few years ago in Christian Century. I found Rogers’s essay, as well as his book Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way into the Triune God, to be very helpful resources.

The matter is of particular interest to me at the moment because I’m currently working on a short statement on marriage, by invitation of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand.

That love which ‘shifts the boundaries of our being’

old couple

Nothing can explain this adventure – let’s say a quirk
of fortune steered us together – we made our covenants,
began this odyssey of ours, by hunch and guesswork,
a blind date where foolish love consented in advance.
No my beloved, neither knew what lay behind the frontiers.
You told me once you hesitated: A needle can waver,
then fix on its pole; I am still after many years
baffled that the needle’s gift dipped in my favour.
Should I dare to be so lucky? Is this a dream?
Suddenly in the commonplace that first amazement seizes
me all over again – a freak twist to the theme,
subtle jazz of the new familiar, trip of surprises.
Gratuitous, beyond our fathom, both binding and freeing,
this love re-invades us, shifts the boundaries of our being.

– Micheal O’Siadhail, ‘Out of the Blue’, in Poems 1975–1995: Hail! Madam Jazz and A Fragile City (Bloodaxe: Newcastle upon Tyne, 1999), 124.

October stations …



Link love

Leunig love

Leunig-iPad-The Lost Art

Leunig - Words for mystery

[Source: The Age]

Barth on marriage (some notes from CD III/4)

Over the past few weeks, I have been teaching on a diverse range of subjects – childhood, worship, disability, religious pluralism, and marriage. On each occasion, Uncle Karl has never been too far away. I found his section on marriage in CD III/4 (pp. 225–29) to be a particularly fruitful launching pad. For those who may be interested, here’s a wee summary of that section:

  1. Marriage is treated by Barth under the rubric of the divine command. This implies that marriage’s eventuality ‘must have the character of a responsible act outwards in relation to those around’.
  2. The material significance of the institutional and formal side of marriage ‘is an event and its substance a reality in virtue of which the two partners thus joined together enter and come to stand in a new and different relationship to those around them, and the latter in turn must adopt a new relationship to them. In relationship to others they are no longer these two individuals. They are now a married couple’.
  3. This transition of the couple ‘from affection to love and marriage’ means a change in their place in the ‘framework of the civil and ecclesiastical society to which they belong’. Married, they are now ‘a new life-cell’ in a wider societal structure, a ‘distinct and special circle, a family, a new sociological unity which can be broadened by the addition of children’.
  4. Those who enter and live in marriage make a ‘decision’ which has necessary social consequences, effects and implications: ‘Marriage cannot and will not be carried through as a purely private undertaking. Even the smallest cottage of the happiest of lovers cannot be habitable inside unless it has at least a door and a few windows opening outwards. At some point it finds itself implicated in affinities and friendships as part of the Christian and civil community … Marriage would not be marriage were it not for the willingness and readiness to undertake such active participation in the nearer, the more distant and the most distant events of the surrounding contemporary world’.
  5. Marriage is not a license or ‘permission to establish an egoistic partnership of two persons, but a new and special commitment to such active participation, in which it may and must be significant and fruitful, an outward witness and help, as the inner fellowship of these two persons, and in which it may in its own place and manner be a factor in human history’.
  6. Those who decide to be married may ‘not shrink from this responsibility. And those who wish to live and not languish in marriage will have to take this responsibility in all seriousness’.
  7. ‘This outward responsibility of marriage is symbolised in its external form, and from this standpoint it includes the institutional act and status of marriage’.
  8. But a wedding does not make or constitute a marriage: ‘the equation of marriage with the wedding ceremony is a dreadful and deep-rooted error. Two people may be formally married and fail to live a life which can seriously be regarded as married life. And it may happen that two people are not married and yet in their precarious way live under the law of marriage. A wedding is only the regulative confirmation and legitimation of a marriage before and by society. It does not constitute marriage’. Barth considers such confusion as ‘the fundamental mistake in the traditional doctrine of marriage’: ‘It despises love, with all the inevitable consequences, because in relation to the genesis of marriage it looks only outwards to the institutional character of marriage, to the actual ceremony, to the formal decision bound up with marriage. From this standpoint it necessarily regards, love as an alien, easily painful, imponderable and probably rather dangerous element. But from this standpoint it cannot without legalism and artificiality vindicate its true and justifiable concern with regard to marriage. From institutional marriage as such there is naturally no way to love, nor to full, exclusive, lasting fellowship in marriage. Above all, the institution in itself offers not the smallest guarantee that a marriage is concluded in responsibility before God. But now that we have dissociated ourselves from this doctrine of marriage which is essentially a doctrine of the wedding ceremony, it is time to give it its due’.
  9. This does not mean, however, the privitisation of marriage. Indeed, founding of a new sociological unit in the human demands ‘public advertisement and recognition, and a definite form’: ‘How can two persons try to achieve this transition without confessing themselves to the world around as two who have become one, acknowledging their obligation towards it? And how can they try to be a couple without coming forward and acting in society as such, and without being addressed and treated as such from without?’
  10.  It is proper therefore that the wider society recognises the creation of a ‘new sociological unit’ and ‘makes possible their special life’. Those who would be married ought to be prepared to make a ‘public confession of their marriage and desire public confirmation of it’.
  11. Such public confession takes three forms – domestic, legal and ecclesiastical – none of which is able to underlie or guarantee the inner reality of marriage as a mutual understanding of the two partners, nor can they secure the essential reality of the couple’s outward relationship, their responsibility before society and active share in its life. ‘The institution in all its forms is only the means of this understanding – an instrument subject to historical variation in its forms, limited in its externality, and unable to bring about the actual approval of a marriage by all the members of the surrounding society. Nevertheless, in spite of its limitations, it is an unambiguous and indeed the only unambiguous means of achieving this understanding. That is the reason why those who desire marriage must be prepared to respect this institution and to desire its order and protection, i.e., not the constitution but the declaration of marriage by the wedding ceremony’.
  12. The domestic aspect of marriage normally signifies (for young couples, in particular) a broadening of the relationship in which they stand to their parents as children. ‘It is this which justifies parents in having a part in this act, or the way to it, and obliges children to consult their parents in the matter … Marriage without an understanding with the parents is always an audacious undertaking, and without their consent, or at least an attempt to secure it, will usually be unsuccessful. But in this matter the understanding can only have the character of an intensive – and, if the parents are shrewd, not too intensive– counselling, not of command, prohibition or obligatory obedience. The “Honour thy father and mother” is defined and limited by the fact that the parents are now confronted by respectful and teachable but adult and free [persons], and that even the most well meaning of parents can neither give nor take away from their children what constitutes marriage as marriage – the gift and task of married life-fellowship and the love which lies at the basis of marriage together with its responsibility before God’.
  13. The legal side of marriage. True to the Reformed tradition, Barth believes that the state’s demands of notification, ratification and official proclamation of ‘a real marriage’ are legitimate and that the state’s authority ought to be respected by the contracting parties in this matter marriage. But ‘even the declaration of the state cannot constitute marriage. According to the valid and effective formula, it can only declare it to be concluded. It is concluded in heaven by God and on earth by the married couple’. Those, therefore, who seek to be married ‘must’, in Barth’s words, ‘also desire its legal conditions and consequences and therefore its official enactment’. Then in the fine print, which is often the locus of Barth’s hidden gems, Barth states: ‘It should be urged on state officials that they ought to confine themselves to the legal aspect and not invest it with a pseudo-religious character’.
  14. The ecclesiastical side. Here Barth insists not only that ‘the conclusion of a Christian marriage has the character of an event in the Christian community’, even though church weddings are  not ‘unconditionally demanded either by a biblical direction or by the nature of the case’, but also that ‘the so-called marriage altar is a free invention of the flowery speech of modern religion. In its present-day form this ecclesiastical action is a survival from the time when the Church and its law took the place of the law of the state and therefore – to the great detriment of its own task – equated its law, i.e., its understanding of what is right before God, with the law of the state, the independence of which was at that time not realised. In obscure vacillation between an act of law and one of pastoral care it is thus widely enacted on and even beyond the border line of what is justifiable in the Christian community. In its presentday form and constitution, it is no less questionable, both from the Christian and the general standpoint, than other occasional offices such as confirmation and burial’. Barth’s logic here is precisely why I – as a minister – no longer agree to be party to the so-called ‘signing of the register’ in weddings. Not only do I reject the notion of the church functioning in a reduced ministry as the state’s (unpaid) chaplain, but also, and more importantly, as Barth rightly points out, the distinction between law and pastoral care, and, we might add, between law and prophecy, is blurred ‘beyond the border line of what is justifiable in the Christian community’.
  15. The Church can only say that ‘it is of importance to make clear in some special formal way the responsibility of a marriage concluded in the sight of God as a responsibility before the Christian community’. While Barth concedes that ‘the right form in which to do this has still to be found’, he is unyielding that regardless of form, ‘it must be completely divested of the character of a religious doublet to the civil ceremony. It should honestly assume the character of a pastoral exhortation – not the first, but the final and public one – concerning the conclusion of marriage, of a declaration of the union of these two members, to which the community must respond with a reminder of God’s promise and command and a proclamation of the divine blessing. Such an exhortation needs to be freed from all ambiguous connexion with the social festivity of the marriage celebrations and integrated with or plainly annexed to the regular worship of the community’.
  16. There remains ‘the decisive fact, with or without the emphasis of a special sacramental action, that the contracting of a marriage has a spiritual implication and obligation’, and this not only in relation to God, but also in relation of people, and therefore to the Christian community.
  17. ‘The conclusion and existence of a marriage honours or dishonours, promotes or disturbs, edifies or scandalises the whole community. It requires the faith, the preaching, the intercession, the understanding and loving interest of the latter. It is an affair of the community and not merely of the married couple. If the declaration of this commitment and obligation cannot be a legal action like the corresponding declaration in the case of the state, it must yet be considered that if the latter is to be seriously effective and powerful it presupposes the existence of this spiritual and ecclesiastical tie and obligation. And although this spiritual tie and obligation cannot be created or guaranteed by any declaration – and the marriage itself certainly cannot be constituted by what takes place between the married couple and the community – the credal declaration of a marriage to the community and the responsive declaration of the latter cannot be evaded in some form, perhaps extremely unpretentious. The event of a marriage in its full bearing on the mutual relationship between the community and the couple must be presented in some way no less to the former than to the latter’.

An anniversary

Today, Judy and I celebrated our wedding anniversary. Ten years ago, we made public vows to one another to ‘establish our marriage in the cross of Christ’, we shared in our first holy communion together as partners-in-covenant, and then we enjoyed another meal together with family and friends, some of whom we still keep in touch with.

Though this morning’s news that parts of the recently-opened Mediterranean Garden at the Dunedin Botanic Garden had again been vandalised left something of a cloud over an already-cloudy Dunedin day, it was good to pack the troops into the ute and drive down to the Taieri Mouth where we sat in the car, ate home-made salami Caesar salad out of old ice-cream containers, drink a bottle of cheap-but-Aussie Cabernet Sauvignon out of chipped plastic picnic glasses, and enjoy knowing that the downpour which was blurring our view of the Taieri River at its low and muddy tide was also filling our near-empty water tank at home. I think we also broke the record in how many knock-knock ‘jokes’ (I use the word loosely) a perfect four-year-old daughter and her besotted-father can author in an afternoon. Samuel appeared unimpressed. A stop at Pier 24 – for hot chocolate, a fluffy and a barely-passable flat white – on the way home was required by all, and was ruined only by watching the seagulls defecate all over the car that I’d just washed for the first time in twelve months. It’s not like they don’t have anywhere else to void excrement from their little sand- and chip-filled bowels!

We decided that dinner tonight would be at one of our favourite eating holes – Fleurs Place. It was a good choice. We began with seafood chowder, and scallops (from Nelson) cooked with mushroom and locally-cured bacon. Then came the main course: a whole blue cod, baked, and served with locally-grown vegetables and four additional fish fillets – sole, moki, gurnard and more blue cod – lightly pan-fried and served with chilli, coconut and coriander. Good Central Otago wine and an appropriate amount of pilsner accompanied a conversation in which gratitude, joy and hope recurred as dominant themes. It’s often hard, but it’s good to love, to keep loving, and to share together in the hope of love’s great victory. There was no room left for dessert.

The drive home was slow, as after-dinner driving should be. The heavy fog on the highway had by now largely lifted, or was blown away. We talked more, and wondered about these two poems by RS Thomas:

Nineteen years now
Under the same roof
Eating our bread,
Using the same air:
Sighing, if one sighs,
Meeting the other’s
Words with a look
That thaws suspicion.

Nineteen years now
Sharing life’s table,
And not to be first
To call the meal long
We balance it thoughtfully
On the tip of the tongue.
Careful to maintain
The strict palate.

Nineteen years now
Keeping simple house.
Opening the door
To friend and stranger;
Opening the womb
Softly to let enter
The one child
With his huge hunger.

– RS Thomas, ‘Anniversary’, in Collected Poems, 1945–1990 (London: Dent, 1993), 103.

A Marriage

We met
under a shower
of bird-notes.
Fifty years passed,
love’s moment
in a world in
servitude to time.
She was young;
I kissed with my eyes
closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.
‘Come.’ said death,
choosing her as his
partner for
the last dance. And she,
who in life
had done everything
with a bird’s grace,
opened her bill now
for the shedding
of one sigh no
heavier than a feather.

– RS Thomas, ‘A Marriage’, in Collected Poems, 1945–1990 (London: Dent, 1993), 533.



William Stringfellow, Instead of Death – Part III

Chapter Three of Instead of Death is titled ‘Sex and the Search for Self’. Here, the issue is not pleasure or lust but concerns personal identity under the Word of God. Stringfellow’s thesis here is that ‘the search for self is the most characteristic aspect of sex’ (p. 37). And this too is the ‘very theme of the gospel’ (p. 38). Throughout this chapter, he makes the ‘radical’ assumption that people both inside and outside the church are doing it, and nearly doing it, and that sexuality is an element of every human transaction or communication, even when nothing happens to ‘dramatize the fact’. And so he laments the ‘conventional denunciations’ of sex heard so often in the church – of sex as sin and as some something ‘foul or dirty or animalistic’. ‘Nothing that has ever been done in a bedroom, in the back seat of a car, or, for that matter, in a brothel is beyond the scope of the gospel and, therefore, beyond the Church’s care for the world. The fantasies, fears, and fairy tales associated with sex must be dispelled so that, within the Church, sex is admitted, discussed, and understood with intelligence, maturity, compassion, and, most of all, a reverence for the ministry of Christ in restoring human life to human beings’ (pp. 38–9). Stringfellow returns to play this melody later on, this time in regard to pornography and its associated secrecy:

‘If sex in all of its meanings, practices, and rituals is not in the open – frankly recognized, intelligently considered, and compassionately dealt with – then what is to be expected except that sex will be the subject of gossip, rumor, escapism, fantasy, and the lure of that which is forbidden? Recourse to pornography among adolescents is, as far as I can discern, far less the consequence of racketeer activities or abnormal adolescent preoccupation with sex than of the fear of candor about sex among adults, including parents and pastors’. (p. 50)

Stringfellow rightly names the heresy called ‘Christian marriage’ as a ‘vain, romantic and unbiblical’ concept, as pure fiction, and as ridiculous as the notion of a ‘Christian nation’ or a ‘Christian lawyer’ or a ‘Christian athlete’, or, we might add, ‘Christian music’. What might a ‘Christian’ crotchet look and sound like?! These are, like marriage, realities of the fallen life of the world, inherently secular, and subject to the power of death. ‘They are’, Stringfellow writes, ‘aspects of the present, transient, perishing existence of the world’ (p. 41). That clergy are licensed by the State to perform the functions of a civil magistrate only adds to the confusion about ‘Christian marriage’, and, Stringfellow claims, ‘greatly compromises the discretion of the clergy as to whom they shall marry’ (p. 42).

Wipf & Stock have offered readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem 40% off the retail price of any of the Stringfellow volumes. To obtain the 40% discount, just include the coupon code STRINGFELLOW with your order.

Sex and Human Existence (or, Engaging Sex in the Right Places)

Magritte loversHalden’s and Ben’s recent posts on sex and personhood reminded me of Ray Anderson’s essay ‘Bonding Without Bondage’ (in On Being Family: A Social Theology of the Family). Anderson’s essay is on marriage, and begins by identifying a subtle but important distinction between a ‘theological’ view (i.e. that determined by theology proper and its Gospel shape) and an ‘ethical’ view (i.e. that determined by appeals to natural law) of marriage. The former is that held by Karl Barth, the latter by Emil Brunner. Anderson recalls that for Brunner marriage is not good in se, but only as it provides the optimum containment for what is otherwise unbridled impulse. For Brunner, sexuality is sanctified only through marriage, unless one chooses total abstinence. In other words, Brunner suggests that the erotic sexual impulse is an ‘unnatural’ and ‘unbridled biological instinct’ which can only be consecrated through marriage, or the ethical demand of abstinence (Love and Marriage, 183, 195). Barth, conversely, contends that human sexuality is a determination of human existence as the image and likeness of God and thus exists prior to, and independent of, marriage as a true order.

Anderson highlights that whereas for Brunner sexuality is sanctified as an ethical existence under the command of God only in the marriage relation, for Barth the command of God sanctifies human persons by including their sexuality within their humanity. In other words, the sexual relation of woman and man has already been constituted a true order of humanity, as an integral part of total humanity as male and female. Marriage, therefore, however conceived, integrates sexuality into total humanity.

Anderson observes that Brunner’s position of human sexuality ad extra to human personhood has serious consequences for understanding the role of sexuality in the case of the unmarried person as well as for a discussion of the matter of homosexuality. If we follow Brunner and understand the married couple as the basic model of man and woman as a community of love and all other relations as peripheral to it, then marriage will be offered as the highest – if not the only – possibility for authentic personhood. If, on the other hand, we follow Barth that humanity as determined by God is cohumanity, existing concretely as either male or female, then marriage (however conceived) is seen not as a ‘containment’ of that which has no other ethical point of reference, but as the ‘contextualizing’ of that which comes to expression in the total encounter of persons.

loversOne of the main points that Anderson seeks to bring home is that the divine command (‘What God has joined together …’) does not take place behind our backs, independent of human response and recognition. While marriage is grounded in God’s covenant love, it involves the mutual recognition, choice, and commitment of two people who are brought together by God in covenant partnership. God joins together actually as well as theoretically. God joins together in and by the encounter and decision of the two who form the union: not only on the basis of this human act of love but coincidental with it and as its objective validation. What begins as affection and feelings of love is absorbed into personal will expressed as commitment in marriage (with or without ‘a wedding’).

According to Barth, love, in contradistinction to mere affection,

‘may be recognised by the fact that it is determined, and indeed determined upon the life-partnership of marriage. Love does not question; it gives an answer. Love does not think; it knows. Love does not hesitate; it acts. Love does not fall into raptures; it is ready to undertake responsibilities. Love puts behind it all the Ifs and Buts, all the conditions, reservations, obscurities and uncertainties that may arise between a man and a woman. Love is not only affinity and attraction; it is union. Love makes these two persons indispensable to each other’. (CD III.4, 221)

Of course, one could – and indeed should – ask, what has love got to do with it?

Still, while certain to set marriage within the absolute determination of divine command, Anderson is equally concerned to not set marriage above the reality and practice of human existence. In this way, he avoids the idealism(s) often associated with marriage. He also notes that marriage can never be the solution to problems of personal unhappiness or loneliness. It can never be the relational horizon within which one expects to meet all his or her personal needs. Marriage, he contends, offers an expression of love and sexuality not realisable in any other human relationship, but it is no more human than any other human task or relationship. And, in particular, because marriage takes place under the divine command,

‘the sphere of the relationships of man and woman as they are embodied and lived out among us human beings is not simply a labyrinth of errors and failings, a morass of impurity, or a vale of tears at disorder and distress. For by the grace of God … there are always in this sphere individual means of conservation and rescue, of deliverance and restoration, assured points and lines even where everything seems to vacillate and dissolve, elements of order in the midst of disorder … And if there is no perfect marriage, there are marriages which for all their imperfection can be and are maintained and carried through, and in the last resort not without promise and joyfulness, arising with a certain necessity, and fragmentarily, at least, undertaken in all sincerity as a work of free life-fellowship. There is also loyalty even in the midst of disloyalty and constancy amid open inconstancy … Thus even where man does not keep the command, the command keeps man … He who here commands does not only judge and forgive: He also helps and heals’. (CD III.4, 239–40)

Ray Anderson on Marriage

‘Is it impossible for God to work in the life of one who has suffered an irretrievable loss of the “one flesh” relationship in such a way that he cannot or will not join this person together with another in a new marriage? Or, dare we suggest that the command of God can both put to death and raise again persons who experience dissolution of the marriage bond? Would it be too much to paraphrase the words of Jesus and say, “Marriage is made for man and not man for marriage!” If a theology of marriage insists that marriage is a work of God and exists under the command of God, there does seem to be a basis to suggest that in the situation where sinful humanity has experienced brokenness and loss, the commandment of God is the presence of God himself at the center of that person’s life to effect new being and new possibilities. This would be to take the authority of Scripture seriously as directing us to God himself as the one who summons us in Scripture to acknowledge him as the author of life rather than of a “law that kills.”

… Because God joins himself to the temporal social relationship consummated as a marriage and recognized by society and the church, that marriage is indissoluble on any grounds whatsoever other than the command of God. If a marriage comes to the point of utter breakdown so that it is a disorder rather than an order of human relationship, and inherently destructive to the persons involved, one can only seek to bring that relationship under God’s judgment. For Christians, this means that the breakdown of a marriage to the point of utter failure is a betrayal of the covenant love that God has invested in that marriage, and is therefore a sin. To attempt to find legal or moral grounds on which to be excused from the marriage contract is, in our opinion, untenable. The scriptural teaching on marriage and divorce clearly brings the marriage under the judgment of God as the one who has the absolute right of determining its status.

If Christians, and the church, do not have a process to deal with sin and with grace as a work of God, then there will be little hope for those who become victims and casualties of hopeless marriages. But where the work of God is understood as his contemporary presence and power under the authority of Scripture to release those who are in bondage and create a new status where “all things are new,” then the church as the community of Christ will have the courage to say NO to a continued state of disorder and YES to the forgiveness and grace of God that brings persons under a new authority of divine healing and hope. We are speaking here, by analogy, of a “death and resurrection” experience as the work of God in the midst of human lives. To create a “law of marriage” that would deny God the authority and power to put a marriage to death and to raise the persons to new life through repentance and forgiveness would appear to be a desperate and dangerous course of action. What God has joined together, indeed, let not man put asunder. But where God puts asunder as a judgment against sin and disorder, and therefore as his work, let not man uphold a law against God.

… The command of God by which marriage as a human, social relation is given the status of covenant partnership is a positive and rich resource of growth and renewal. What God “joins together” he attends with love and faithfulness. This is a promise and commitment of God himself to the marriage relation as a source of love, healing, and hope. The Christian community participates in this work of God by providing a context of support and enabling grace for each marriage that belongs to the community.

Those who undertake the calling of ministry to families through pastoral care and counseling have as their first priority the ministry of encouragement and support for marriages. This is a constructive and positive reinforcement of marriage and prevents its deterioration into a shell of the love and commitment it is meant to express. God is faithful to weak and problem-plagued marriages – not merely angry at unfaithfulness. God is patient and loving to marriages where love has been lost – not merely angry at our own anger and lovelessness. God is hopeful toward marriages that are ready to crash – not merely angry at our incompetence. God never gives up on his “joining together,” because God is himself the covenant partner of marriage. This produces a bonding that never is allowed to become bondage’. – Ray S. Anderson, ‘Bonding without Bondage’, in Ray S. Anderson and Dennis B. Guernsey, On Being Family: A Social Theology of the Family (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1986), 103–4.

Hauerwas on sex, marriage, politics and love

Jan van Eyck, ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ (1434). Oil on oak panel of 3 vertical boards; National Gallery, London.

Jan van Eyck, ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ (1434). Oil on oak panel of 3 vertical boards; National Gallery, London.

‘The dominant assumption has been that the evaluation of different kinds of sexual expressions should center on whether they are or are not expressive of love. On the contrary, the ethics of sex must begin with political considerations, because ethically the issue of the proper form of sexual activity raises the most profound issues about the nature and form of political community. I am not denying that sex obviously has to do with interpersonal matters, but I am asserting that we do not even know what we need to say about the personal level until we have some sense of the political context necessary for the ordering of sexual activity. Indeed, one of the main difficulties with the assumption that thc ethics of sex can be determined on the basis of interpersonal criteria is the failure to see how that assumption itself reflects a political option. To reduce issues of sexuality to the question of whether acts of sex are or are not fulfilling for those involved is to manifest the assumption of political liberalism that sex is a private matter. The hold this political theory has on us is illustrated by how readily we also accept the assumption that the private nature of sexuality does not involve issues of political theory …

‘We must understand that if Christians and non-Christians differ over marriage, that difference does not lie in their understanding of the quality of interpersonal relationship needed to enter or sustain a marriage, but rather in a disagreement about the nature of marriage and its place in the Christian and national community. Christians above all should note that there are no conceptual or institutional reasons that require love between the parties to exist in order for the marriage to be successful …

The requirement of love in marriage is not correlative to the intrinsic nature of marriage but is based on the admonition for Christians to love one another. We do not love because we are married, but because we are Christian. We may, however, learn what such love is like within the context of marriage. For the Christian tradition claims that marriage helps to support an inclusive community of love by grounding it in a pattern of faithfulness toward another. The love that is required in marriage functions politically by defining the nature of Christian social order, and as children arrive they are trained in that order.

Moreover, Christians should see that the family cannot, contrary to [Bertrand] Russell’s claim, exist as an end in itself nor by itself provide a sufficient check against pretentious rationalism. Such an assumption is but a continuation of the liberal perversion of the family and only makes the family and marriage more personally destructive. When families exist for no reason other than their own existence, they become quasi-churches, which ask sacrifices far too great and for insufficient reasons. The risk of families which demand that we love one another can be taken only when there are sustaining communities with sufficient convictions that can provide means to form and limit the status of the family. If the family does stand as a necessary check on the state, as Russell and I both think it should, it does so because it first has a place in an institution that also stands against the state – the church …

‘ … the ambivalence of the church toward marriage is grounded in the eschatological convictions which freed some from the necessity of marriage – i.e., singleness becomes a genuine option for service to the community. This is a dangerous doctrine indeed, for it is a strange community which would risk giving singleness an equal status with marriage. But that is what the church did, and as a result marriage was made a vocation rather than a natural necessity. But as a vocation, marriage can be sustained only so long as it is clear what purposes it serves in the community which created it in the first place. With the loss of such a community sanction, we are left with the bare assumption that marriage is a voluntary institution motivated by the need for interpersonal intimacy …

‘Many want to treat sex as just another form of communication – like shaking hands. I suppose in response to such a suggestion one can at least point out that sex is often more fun than shaking hands. However, the reason that we seem to assume that sex should be reserved for “special relations” is not that sex itself is special, but that the nature of sex serves the ends of intimacy. But intimacy is indeed a tricky matter to sustain, and that may be the reason why many have argued that marriage is necessary to provide the perduring framework to sustain intimacy.

Moreover, once the political function of marriage is understood to be central for the meaning and institution of marriage, we have a better idea of what kinds of people we ought to be to deal with marriage. Most of the literature that attempts to instruct us about getting along in marriage fails to face up to a fact so clearly true that I have dared to call it Hauerwas’s Law: You always marry the wrong person. It is as important to note, of course, as Herbert Richardson pointed out to me, that the reverse of the law is also true: namely, that you also always marry the right person. The point of the law is to suggest the inadequacy of the current assumption that the success or failure of a marriage can be determined by marrying the “right person.” Even if you have married the “right person,” there is no guarantee that he or she will remain such, for people have a disturbing tendency to change. Indeed, it seems that many so-called “happy marriages” are such because of the partners’ efforts to preserve “love” by preventing either from changing.

This law is meant not only to challenge current romantic assumptions but to point out that marriage is a more basic reality than the interpersonal relations which may or may not characterize a particular marriage. Indeed, the demand that those in a marriage love one another requires that marriage have a basis other than the love itself. For it is only on such a basis that we can have any idea of how we should love’.

– Stanley Hauerwas, ‘Sex and Politics: Bertrand Russell and “Human Sexuality”‘.

The Public Purpose of Marriage

In a recent article entitled ‘Focus on the Public Purpose of Marriage: Protecting Children’, Colleen Carroll Campbell, writes:

‘Battles over same-sex marriage typically turn on arguments about gay rights, judicial activism and views on homosexuality. Absent are answers to a more fundamental question: What is the public purpose of marriage?’

She concludes by asserting that marriage only survives in a culture for as long as a critical mass of the population views it as the socially acceptable context for childbearing and childrearing. When popular support for marriage drops too low and public policy denies the unique value of marriage between a man and a woman as a guarantor of social stability, fewer men and women marry. More children, she argues, are deprived of the presence of their mothers and fathers. Thus marriage ‘no longer serves its civic purpose, which always has been more about defending child welfare than validating adult desires’.

It is only when marriage passes beyond mere consent that it becomes concerned with its real nature as ethical, and so related to matters of family, of kinship, and so of the State. That is why Forsyth argued that we must always bar unions that do not conform to the conditions of the State’s welfare. [I would want to say more here than Forsyth does, especially about the proleptic and prophetic aspects of marriage, and of the life of the church as the foretaste of the kingdom, a life in which all relationship are re-defined]. While it is a lot more, marriage is no less than a social act. The social form, therefore, is not indifferent. Forsyth avers, ‘It is part of the substance. It is a piece of social morality, i.e. of social existence. It is bound up with the safety, honour, and welfare of society’.

Thus what mere civil marriages betray is any sense that the relationship concerns more than the two selves. Forsyth is worth recounting here: ‘If anything is ethical on that universal scale, it has already begun to be more than ethical. On that wide scale, and on such an intimate subject, it becomes also deep and sacred, it becomes religious. Even if you own no more than the religion of Humanity that is so. You cannot treat human society as one whole without your ethic becoming religious. Even the Positivists, since they worship Humanity, treat marriage in their religious ritual as a sacrament. And I do not wonder that the Roman Church treats it so. I do not agree with that Church in so doing, for reasons which would be misplaced here. All I do say is that the more one ponders the solemn implicates and slow effects of marriage, moral and spiritual, the more one feels that it has something sacramental in its nature. It may be less than a church sacrament, but it is a moral; it is certainly more than a contract … If not a sacrament, it is a means of grace; and, like every means of grace, it sweetens or hardens according as it is used’.

What Forsyth betrays here in an appreciation that a merely social view of marriage is quite inadequate, even if humanity be all we have in view. Sorry Colleen, but marriage calls for more than social sanction and exists for more (though not less) than ‘defending child welfare’. Marriage calls for divine sanctification (if life do so at all) and exists to bear witness to divine blessing, and to the divine life itself. Forsyth again: ‘If [marriage] means so much for the soul and for society, that is really because it belongs to the Kingdom of God, to the will of the God Who ordered society and its destiny. If it is organic to the structure of society, it is vital to the purpose of God. It is a union which reflects a union deep in the eternal nature of a triune God Himself’.

[There is much that Forsyth fails to say about marriage, and not all that he says will – or should – fly with us today. He was, as we are, a person of his age and who was responding to the pressing questions of his age, and must be read in light of such. This, however, is not to let him off the hook so much as it is to encourage reading beyond the boundaries of his corpus.]

The New Disconnect: Kids and Marriage … and Happiness

‘The nonpartisan Pew Research Center yesterday released an 88-page demographic recap of surveys and interviews of 2,020 adults on the subject of marital satisfaction, including nine factors that make up a happy marriage. In what the report described as “the single most striking finding,” only 41 percent of Americans said children were very important to a successful marriage, a 24 percentage-point drop versus 1990, when 65 percent of Americans described children as very important to a successful marriage. Children still matter – 85 percent of parents with children under 18 described them as a top source of personal fulfillment – but kids are not as integral to a happy marriage’.

Read the entire article here.

The article’s author, Leslie Morgan Steiner, ends her piece by asking her readers, ‘Do your children contribute to the happiness (or unhappiness) of your marriage? Or are the two completely separate as you go about finding “balance” in your life?’

Whatever we make of these findings, one thing remains true. As rich a contribution kids make to our marriages, they ought never be the foundation or the glue of the relationship. One day, I hope, Sinead will leave home. That’s one reason (though not the main one) why we can’t allow Sinead to be the centre and be all and end all of our marriage. To be sure, she is a part of our marriage, and always will be. But she is neither its ground nor its goal. And while she contributes significantly to our joy, our joy is not dependent on her. My deepest joy comes from knowing who I am in God. And from that place, I remain convinced that one of the most loving things I can do for Sinead is to love her mother.

I remember once hearing a paper by Prof. Ellen Charry from Princeton on God and the Art of Happiness in which she engaged with Augustine and Aquinas to offer a voice into a much-neglected theme in the Christian tradition concerning the nature and source of happiness (which she distinguished from joy). Her basic thesis is that true happiness requires a certain level of material comfort in order to truly flow, citing Jesus’ concern for one’s physical needs before attending to their spiritual and emotional needs. I suspect she needs to do a lot more (theological) work if her argument is to stick, but it did raise a number of questions for me. Primarily, what is the relationship between happiness and security, whether physical, political, social, material or spiritual? Is a certain level of safety/security a pre-requisite for human happiness? Can one be both anxious and happy? Frightened and happy? What is the relationship between happiness and forgiveness? And happiness and service? And how does a doctrine of eschatological hope relate to the now-and-not-yet of happiness? What is the relationship between communal and individual happiness?

Against much current thinking that assumes that God’s job in life (if one can put it so crudely) is to make us happy, both P T Forsyth and C S Lewis have written eloquently concerning the fact that God does not save us in order to make us happy. He saves us that we might serve and worship and commune with him. Happiness is what happens in the overflow of that loving relationship. It is never the goal itself.

BTW: found this and this today.