Mothers’ Day, a retrospect

Perhaps it’s because I recently did a series of guest posts summarising the ideas from my book about God as mother (I also did podcast versions of the summaries) or perhaps there really have been more voices raised this year putting the case against having a “mothers’ day”. Either way, the mothers’ day scrooges make at least two very powerful cases. Both are emotionally charged, so I have waited till a couple of days after to write this post.

Let me first summarise how I hear the cases against (I do not want to be thought to be picking an order, so I’ll start with the first that crossed my eyes and ears this year):

Many women either do not have children, or have lost children. For them “mothers’ day” is an annual reminder of their pain, rubbing salt into their wounds. This is a real and powerful argument, which (of course) applies almost equally to fathers’ day.1 The argument is a crushing indictment of the rush to profit from this day at the expense of these sisters. It is also a sharp and accurate critique of the way “mothers’ day” is treated in many (until recently most) churches – at the least, we should not celebrate and pray for mothers without recognising and praying for the pain of many non-mothers.

Many people have/had bad mothers. Somehow because our societal expectations of mothers are higher (men are expected to neglect their children “because of their jobs” and we turn a less than sharp eye to the way some men father children and then relinquish their responsibilities to love and care for their offspring,2  the experience of a bad mother hurts at least as deeply and is perhaps more often hidden than that of a bad father. Mothers’ day is for them also a painful reminder.

And yet, precisely because parenting arouses such deep hurt or sense of blessing,  it is important. Children need good loving adult care. In a society which has turned its back resolutely, if with blind stupidity, to the “it takes a village to raise a child” approach3 mothers and fathers (and the grandmothers and grandfathers who often share or assume the role in a broken world)4 whether biological or adoptive, or even honorary need celebrating and supporting.

Perhaps, instead of mothers’ day and fathers’ day we could have a few childrens’ days each year, when everyone celebrates those who care(d) for them as children, and also those who are currently caring for children. A day when instead of being exclusive we include. When parents gift childless people  with the pleasure of a picnic and a play in the park with the children (or whatever) and children enjoy the gift of time (and perhaps, to keep the supermarket owners from starvation, chocolate or toys) from honorary aunties and uncles, and we all celebrate the wonder and joy of childhood. We could also spend some of the money that is currently lavished on cards and presents to support the organisations that provide this care for children who are less parentally gifted.

  1. I would not have written “almost” because, for childless men with strong parental feelings, the “almost” seems an insult to their pain, yet I recognise that such strong parental feelings are, sadly, less common in men than women in our society. []
  2. Again, I know this IS a generalisation, there are also men denied the chance to fully fulfill their role because of the way our courts privilege the mother’s “claim”. []
  3. The proverb is African, but the practice was once simply human. []
  4. It is striking how many grandparents we know who are primary or very significant caregivers for small children. []

Reflections on the debate over “marriage equality”

I’ve been watching the debate over the marriage equality bill with growing horror. Somehow the skill, humour and gentleness with which the “other side” has argued the case “for” has provoked many in the “Christian” camp to excesses that sometimes do deserve the accusations of gay bashing.

Of course the churches were on the back foot. Those Christians, that opposed the bill did so largely because they believe that Scripture teaches that homosexual activity is sinful. Without that conviction few have such clearly defined understandings of marriage or sex that they could bear the weight of the discussion. Yet by and large our society sees “sinful” as a positive adjective (“a sinfully rich” chocolate dessert anyone?) and the Bible as an outdated set of rules from a bygone age. (That both these views are dangerously false does not change their widespread adoption, or the fact that Christians cannot argue in the public square against gay marriage on the grounds that “the Bible says homosexuality is sinful”, and expect to be listened to.) Given this inability to argue from Scripture the public arguments offered have been tortuous and often false.  (Gays getting hitched will somehow destroy the meaning of heterosexual marriages, anyone?)

This, plus preparing to talk at Hillcrest Baptist on Sunday on “Gay Marriage”, has made me even more aware that, over the last century or so, the world has shifted on issues of sex and marriage and that Christians have by and large reacted, and often merely allowed themselves to be swept along by the social currents of the day. Before the current bill was passed the definition of marriage had already been changed drastically by reforms of divorce laws, changes in attitudes, language and habits have made sex merely about “pleasure”, and marriage about “self-fulfillment”, or (romantic) “love”.

The Pharisees cling to the old certainties and denounce the sins of others, while the Sadducees happily slide into the behaviour of the world around. The standard of the internal Christian discussion of the issues seems to amount to little more than one side bashing the same half-dozen Bible texts over their opponents’ heads, while their opponents suggest that somehow the changes in “culture” (seldom much more carefully discussed) mean those same texts are irrelevant. Either way the Bible loses its authority. The “Fundies” make Scripture a laughing stock, and the “Liberals” simply ignore it.

My response to the passing of the Bill? Christians need to take seriously the need to teach themselves and each other to read and interpret Scripture, and not merely treat it as a “promise box”,  or an armory full of convenient one-size-fits-all clubs.

Authority and submission

Dictators like Idi Amin exercise fearful authority of the first sort but lose the second sort. Caricature by Edmund S. Valtman.
(Gifted to the U.S. Library of Congress via Wikimedia)

Authority and submission are fraught concepts in families. There are two sorts of authority, earned, and that bestowed by position. Which works in families?

Authority, Submission, and the Sydney Anglicans

When I posted my thoughts on the Sydney Anglicans’ decision to “let” women promise to “submit” in the wedding service (suggesting that the logic of Ephesians 5 would suggest men should promise to submit too, see below) it provoked some discussion on Facebook. One friend, in particular, was concerned about “authority”. So it may be helpful to set out here a bit about my approach to “authority”.

Two sorts of authority

Earned authority

There are two rather different sources of authority. First, people earn authority by their actions. In most instances this is bestowed by others because someone consistently “leads well”. Almost always we see such a person exercising hesed the sort of faithful kindness and love that the Bible consistently encourages us to show in relationships (whether family or covenants of various sorts) and which God shows to us supremely.1 This sort of authority is bestowed by others and earned. It correlates closely with respect and honour. If someone acts badly or faithlessly they literally dis-honour themselves, losing respect and authority.

Positional authority

The other sort is given by social convention to certain people because of the position they occupy or the title they have been given or inherited. This is the respect due to kings, lords, teachers, judges and others “in authority”. It is often unearned, or the earning has been invisible to those under the authority. It is a matter of social convention. Naturally usually there is a high degree of correlation between the two sorts, but they are not the same thing.

There seems to be a spectrum of attitudes to socially conventional authority. On one hand many people believe that society depends on it being “properly respected”. On the other, others believe respect and authority should be earned. Few of us hold one view or the other completely. Most “conventional” people believe that socially bestowed positional authority can be lost through bad behaviour (though they may differ on what sorts of bad behaviours lead to this). Most “personalists” accept that people can be given a certain amount of authority (at least to make and enforce rules) by their position.

Scripture is not as helpful in deciding between these two positions as we might expect. The Bible seems to support both. There are numerous passages that enjoin the faithful to “respect authority” and honour those placed in authority – even pagan rulers. On the other hand prophets, like Jesus, remind us that we need to earn real authority and/or that the only true authority is God (e.g. Matt 23:8-12).

Authority and submission in the family

So, which sort of authority exists within a family? In my experience, although society recognises and teaches that parents have and should exercise proper authority over their children, this authority needs to be earned and maintained. From a baby’s first cry, thhroughcare and protection through years of hesed we build up a store of authority. This is one reason why fostering can often be difficult especially at the start.


  1. The Bible uses the word more often of God than of humans. []

“Marriage Equality”?

The discussion/debate/fight about proposals that homosexual couples should be allowed to marry continues to provoke heat, rhetorical flourishes, opinion polls and petitions, but little light. Many people seem to have made up their minds, or at least to know where they stand on the issue,1 but for those of us who would like to think things through there is little food for our thought. Two articles provoked my thinking (from different directions) today.

First, David Instone-Brewer’s visual sermon “Jesus likes Children” with its visual from the Warren Cup2 was a harsh reminder of the brutal sexual cruelty Graeco-Roman culture took for granted. David wrote (only exaggerating a little?):

Here is a picture of a boy Jesus may have played with. I mean that quite literally.
– it comes from a silver goblet which was made near Bethlehem in about 10 AD
– so the model for this artist was born about the same time as Jesus
– he is dressed in the rags of a slave, but perhaps the model wasn’t a slave
– it is a cute picture, but you can’t see here what he is looking so worried about

It comes from the Warren Cup, which is on exhibit in the British Museum
– other museums had refused to buy it and the USA even refused it entry
– the USA customs considered it too pornographic to allow into the country
– but by the 1960’s when the British Museum bought it, attitudes had changed
– it shows two graphic scenes of adult male homosexual acts in progress
– and in the middle, is this door and the little boy worried by what he sees
– he is worried, probably, because he has been sent to service one of the men

Multitudes of children like him were victimised throughout the Roman empire
– Roman morality didn’t think that this was wrong, especially for slaves
– but Jesus thought this was wrong, and was incensed by it.

Detail from the Warren Cup, from Wikimedia

Whatever our “modern” liberal culture believes sexuality is dangerous and left without social and legal controls will cause untold harm. (This recognition could be used to argue either side of the “debate”, but for me it instantly disposes of the trite claim that the decision is a small one.)

The second food for thought came from an article with the off-putting title “Those kinky Hebrews: marriage in the Judeo-Christian scriptures“. I expected the usual simplistic Abraham, Isaaand Jacob (not to mention the Hebrew kings) had decidedly dodgy family structures, so anything goes. However, though Alan Austin does descend to such depths often he works at a more sophisticated level. Not least he points out clearly how the laws of the Pentateuch attempt to legislate (and mitigate?) some decidedly odd sexual and family practices.

The better parts of his article are a sharp reminder that simplistic arguments from Scripture do not work. All in all I thoroughly recommend to those in or near Auckland the forthcoming Carey Conversation on Same Sex Marriage.

  1. Which is not always the same things at all, for many seem to simply accept their community’s understanding as “obvious” without thought. []
  2. David and the British Museum assume it to be genuine, I’m more sceptical of such dubiously provenanced “antiquities” of great value, but actually  it does not matter for my point here, since the genuineness of the artifact is not germane. []

Why Marry?

Why Marry? There is strength in numbers, two are stronger than one!

The Fellowship of the Ring by Dunechaser

My previous post Why Marriage? addressed the more personal question Why Marry? only in passing. Let’s think a little more about the reasons for getting married, rather than other forms of close ongoing relationship for a couple living together. Why do, or “should” a couple prefer marriage to e.g. a civil union, or simply doing their own thing?

In purely instrumental practical terms the evidence is strong. Married people are healthier and happier. Yet it is seldom such pragmatism that drives people to “pop the question” or respond “I do” in a formal ceremony. Marriage is a matter of the heart, they say, yet the alternative forms of cohabitation allow just as much romance, so why would someone choose to marry?


The key perceived1 difference between marriage and other forms of cohabitation (e.g. civil unions and “living together”) is the level of commitment. Cohabitation (without some form of “contract”, other than the promises and hopes each partner may make to the other) is by its nature impermanent, while it may last “until death do us part” there is no formal or structural reason why it should. Marriage, by contrast, makes a central feature of the promises made by the couple to each other, but in public with a written record (in the form of the marriage certificate).

This public vow is one of the strongest forms of voluntary commitment which people can make. It is all encompassing: “for richer for poorer”, “in sickness and in health”, and permanent: “until death parts us”. Whatever the legal niceties, and in fact in most Western countries today marriages can be dissolved pretty much at will and for no other reason than “we want to separate”, this publicly vowed commitment is perceived as being stronger in marriage than in a civil union.


This near absolute commitment one to another may be the ideal of friendship and family, it is the dream on which communes are often founded, and yet it is seldom found to such a degree except in the family relationships of parents and children, sometimes siblings, and marriage partners. When it is found elsewhere we celebrate it as a rare and wonderful thing. The story in Scripture that best expresses this commitment (which is the heart of marriage) is interestingly not of a marriage relationship2 but that or Ruth and Naomi (her mother-in-law)3 see esp. Ruth 1:16-17.

Humans “do” poorly in isolation, on our own we are weak and fragile. Mutual support enables us to exceed our normal capacities. It is not strange that war stories and indeed much other fiction often revolves around tales of deep companionship. Marriage offers such mutual support and commitment that is not attenuated (at least in intent and ideal) by time and distance (as most sibling relationships are) nor dependent on some exterior goal (as most “fellowships” are) but thrives on difference and demands to be unconditional.

“Unconditional positive regard” may be an ideal of therapy, though surely few therapists manage more than a pretense, and it is indeed probably an impossible ideal. Yet of all human relationships marriage comes closest to offering us this benefit, and thus the way in which our husband or wife “loves, honours and cherishes” us despite being well aware of our weaknesses and failings comes as close as is humanly possible (along with the parent child relationship?) to mirroring our relationship to God. Truely, marriage is a spiritual phenomenon. And the answer to the question: Why marry? is that we want to give and receive this level of commitment.4


  1. I write “perceived” because as will become apparent at least in formal and legal terms the difference may not be enforceable! []
  2. A reminder that commitment is not unique to marriage. []
  3. So produced by a marriage relationship. []
  4. BTW in Hebrew this voluntary yet unbreakable  “commitment” is called hesed. A word with only poor glosses in English. []

Why Marriage?

Why marriage? Why leave the chairs empty on a lovely beach?

The Odd Couple
© Copyright Martin Addison and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

Why marriage? According to the research evidence marriage leads to greater health, wealth, and happiness! Marriage has so many positive outcomes for married people, as almost all studies report.

After the question What is marriage? another good place to start laying foundations for discussion of marriage is: Why marriage?

Negative answers

It’s a question that apparently many people today in Western societies (at least) ask. In NZ (as in most Western countries) the marriage rate1 has been declining almost every year since 1970. The introduction of “Civil Unions” has had little effect on this trend (there were only 301 civil unions registered last year, including both same sex and heterosexual unions, while there were 20,231 marriages).2

This suggests that over the last four decades people have increasingly been unconvinced that “Why marry?” has a good positive answer.

Positive answers

Yet the evidence seems clear. On almost all mental and many physical health statistics those who are married do “better” even when other factors like income and profession are factored out.3 There is even evidence that married people are wealthier, though whether the impact of bringing up children (a very expensive hobby ;) was taken into account I am not sure! Children are, of course, the other (and probably much more significant) reason people should marry. Again the statistics seem clear, children born and raised by a married couple do better on almost every measure.

If, even only for the sake of argument, we accept that marriage has great benefits for the individual and for society, then an interesting slant on the demand for “gay marriage” is suggested. If marriage has such obvious benefits, surely it would be wrong to deny those benefits to all who desire them?

However, if (again even if only for the sake of argument) we accept that “gay marriage” is socially desirable, and even ethically desirable.(For even if homosexuality is morally wrong, it would still be morally wrong to deny the health benefits of marriage to a homosexual couple.) There remain two major problems to discuss. One is theological and only concerns Christians except insofar as it might impinge of religious liberty. The other is social and should concern everyone.


Taking the social issue first. Marriage normally implies bringing up children. Society encourages couples who are unable to conceive and so produce and bring up children to adopt. Should we extend this “right”4 also to Gay Marriages? There seems to be evidence5 that children are “best” brought up in a stable married relationship where both male and female partners are present as objects of attachment and as role-models. If (again for the sake of argument)6 this is likely to be true, then perhaps even if the right to gay marriage is allowed the “right” to adopt of such gay couples might need to be restricted (compared to otherwise similar hetero-sexual couples). For there is a clear and stronger right. All children have a right to an upbringing that is as “good”, and likely to achieve good outcomes, as we can reasonably offer them. This right (of a relatively helpless child) is a higher obligation on society than any right of an adult couple.

Therefore: we need research reports, carefully compiled and debated by both professionals and the community at large to determine whether children do have such a “need” for both male and female parental figures. And, Christians of all people should not be distracted from this fundamental question of the rights of children (the powerless on this issue), by debate over mere sexual morality!

Gay marriage in Church:

Returning to the less important question, if a society introduces Gay Marriage should churches be compelled to celebrate such marriages. Here the clear answer in any open society is, no! Each church (and, of course, other community) should have the right not to recognise or celebrate such marriages. Anything else would be the imposition of religious rules by the state in a case where there is no clear obligation on the state to do so.

We have come a long and winding way from the apparently simple question: Why marriage? This is because like: What is marriage? it is a very good question. It is one that should be near the forefront of the coming discussions!

  1. I.e. the number of marriages per 1000 unmarried people aged 16 and over. []
  2. All statistics, unless otherwise mentioned, are drawn from the government’s Statistics New Zealand website mainly around this page. []
  3. See for example “Marriage and men’s health” summary report from Harvard Medical School. []
  4. I have used inverted commas to signal that I am far from convinced that there IS such a “right”, but the discussion is often phrased that way. []
  5. I confess I have not yet studied the evidence enough to have my own opinion, hence “seems”. []
  6. And, as with the other suppositions,  until or unless evidence suggests the contrary. []

What is marriage?

We often mean several quite different things when we say or think “marriage”. What is marriage? If we are to talk of marriage we need to know what we mean.

What is marriage? Are seagulls "married"?

Photo from:

I’m preparing for a TV interview about marriage for a series on “issues” like “environment, war and peace, poverty and justice, sexuality  race, relations…etc.”. The first question listed as a probable topic of conversation is: “What is marriage?”

This is a great beginning, and the answer is more complicated than we usually think. For a start when we say “marriage” in most societies there are a whole range of different things in mind. In ancient Mesopotamia1 there was a sort of scale of marriage relationships perhaps beginning with concubinage where the woman was owned (the situation was sometimes more complex with the concubine being owned by one of the man’s wives)2 up to a form of marriage in which the wife had not only the legal rights of a wife but also those of a sister. In Congo marriages went from ones contracted informally between the couple3 through “mariage coutumier” where the relationship is sealed by the families and appropriate presents have been offered by the groom to the bride’s relatives,4 a marriage registered and recognised by the state, and finally, often years later when the couple could afford it, one celebrated in church.

In NZ the situation is both simpler and more confused. We have “living together”, which simply means the two people share their a home and are assumed by others to be in a sexual relationship, through various complex stages by which this relationship is recognised by family and friends or by government departments and the legal system – a de facto marriage, to “marriage” which is recognised in law, but often celebrated in a church ceremony. Alongside this we now also have “civil unions” which are also legally much the same as marriages, but can be contracted by gay couples as well as hetero ones.

So, when a conversation, like this TV interview, talks about marriage it might be talking about a relationship that is:

  • recognised as such by the NZ state (a civil contract)
  • consecrated as such by a church5 (religious vows)
  • recognised by the NZ state, but not named marriage (civil union)

I will leave out “living together” in all its varieties because in common speech this sort of relationship is distinguished from marriage and couples often have lengthy discussions about whether and when to make the transition, so they seem to be two distinct “things”.

For the other three it might seem sensible to also separate out civil unions, as they also are explicitly not called marriages. Yet their legal status is the same.6 And for any theological consideration that is the rub. Marriage (the religious institution) and marriage (the legal institution) whether certified by the state as such and/or indeed by anyone else7 are intrinsically muddled together.

This muddle makes perfect sense for a secular state. At least in so far as the goal is to reduce benefit payments. But it muddies the water for Christian/Theological discussion. So, in reply to the question: What is marriage? I must first ask for clarification: Do you mean the theological institution, the legal one, or as a state recognised by society?

  1. I believe, those of you who are more expert than I please correct me! []
  2. Think of Jacob sleeping with Leah and Rachel’s slaves Zilpah and Bilhah in Gen 30. []
  3. What in NZ we’d call “living together”, or de facto. []
  4. Often suits of clothes and crates of beer, though in the hilly East until recently a bride’s value was often calculated in cattle. []
  5. Or other organised religious body. []
  6. Actually things here get even more confusing, since de facto relationships (living together) when, spotted by the state, also legally incurs the same obligations and benefits! []
  7. A couple living together are treated as if they were married. []

More on the Bible and marriage

From a webpage titled: History of Winnie the Pooh

Gavin (at Otagosh) posted a fairly long response to my piece Biblical marriages. Since he took the trouble to reply at some length as a post, I’ll do the same.

His critique starts

Then Tim makes an amazing statement: “In terms of the teaching of Scripture it is clear that Gen 2 is a privileged text (Jesus and Paul both cite it when discussing marriage).”

Genesis 2 is a privileged text?  In what sense?  Both Jesus and Paul cite other texts too.  Or, to be more specific, Paul and the Gospel writers cite other texts.1

Well, yes, evidently both Jesus and Paul2 also refer to other parts of Scripture. A full treatment of what the Bible says about marriage would need to treat them and yet other texts (that neither of these use) also. But still it seems to me, for a Christian reading of Scripture the fact that both Jesus and Paul (more than once) cite Gen 2 does make that passage a somewhat privileged locus for seeking a biblical understanding of marriage.3 No, Gavin, I cannot accept that all texts, or passages, are equal. Like most people4 I have a “canon within the canon, though it will be different for different purposes and I think that (as I began to here)5

From a webpage titled: History of Winnie the Pooh

Gavin continued:

There were no “red letter” options available to indicate Jesus’ actual words, quotation marks had yet to be invented, and speaking of “invented”, much (please note that I’m not saying all) of the material attributed to Jesus has clearly been put into his mouth.

This seems to assume that when I say “Jesus” my interest is historical. There is a terrible tendency in modern thought to value history and “facts”. But I am not a historian, I am a theologian, my primary interest is not in reconstructing a plausible history but in the character “Jesus” who inspires and is the centre of the New Testament. This Jesus whether or not “invented”6 does make special use of this passage.

This section of the post concludes:

Tim’s decision to anoint Genesis two as “privileged” is entired [sic]7 theological and subjective.

I hope that I have shown that the first is entirely true, but perhaps to be expected of a theologian, and that the second is true only in the most general sense. I gave a reason that Gavin did not like, and in a short post failed to present any of the others, perhaps I have begun to rectify that lack above.

Gavin then quotes something I wrote and rejects it. I wrote:

“in this (as in everything else) human sinfulness warps and twists God’s intent. All of the ‘biblical’ marriages listed in the graphic reflect this.”

Gavin replied:

The problem is that, as Tim knows full well, the documents themselves contain little or no condemnation of these customs.  If there’s warping and twisting going on, wouldn’t you assume that this would be signalled within the text

Well, Gavin and I might assume that, but the fact is that biblical narratives though they frequently recount the most terrible breaches of God’s desires (as expressed in the texts themselves) seldom mark them as such, we cannot rely on such explicit markers. But then the simple fact that no Bible character (with the arguable exception of Jesus) is presented without faults, sins and failings might suggest – and certainly does to my theological reading – that the Bible sees humans as sinful, warped and twisted. Nice middle-class liberal moderns may not like it, but we are all broken and in need of repair.

On the charge of biblicism that Gavin closes with, perhaps I’d be happy to plead guilty.

  1. I am sorry, I have spent half an hour playing with HTML but cannot reproduce gavin’s emphasis in these quotes, something to do with the way this theme handles blockquotes :( []
  2. See below, I’ll continue to use these convenient shorthand designations despite Gavin’s scorning of them. []
  3. Much like a blog post getting lots of links would privilegeit in Google’s algorithms ;) []
  4. Except raging fundamentalists. []
  5. Though of course in a longer treatment I should have added other reasons, like the claim that Genesis serves as a preface to both the Torah and Scripture as a whole, and the further claim that the early chapters are particularly “laden” with significant teaching, and the claim that Gen 2 is “about” marriage and is one of few Old Testament texts that are… []
  6. I know why I put quotation marks round the word, since i seriously doubt that the gospel authors or the traditions that may stand behind them intended to “invent”, but why does Gavin use scare quotes here? []
  7. PS3/2/12  now corrected in the original post. []