Deeper and more urgent than the fights over “gay marriage”

Discussion among Christians (especially Christians who found their faith on Scripture) of “gay marriage” have been bitter and acrimonious. This issue cuts deep. There are of course for some participants personal reasons why this issue is emotional. Yet it cuts so deep not only for that reason, I think, but also because it reveals a lack of coherent practical theology of marriage and sex. Thus in discussing this issue too often Christians have to fall back on tradition, or traditional understandings of Scripture.

Colleagues to whom over the years I have lamented our lack of such a practical theology of marriage and sex have often responded by denying that there is a lack. They seem to believe that the traditional standards are still being upheld. Yet, the acceptance of no fault divorce, uncertainty about what advice (except avoidance of full intercourse before marriage) to give to young people, the less than clear role of single adults in most churches… are just a few symptoms of the absence of such a theology of sex.

“Traditionally” Christians have held that marriage is a lifelong exclusive faithful sexual relationship between two people whose goal is to procreate and bring up the next generation. Yet little or none of that seems reflected in the ways churches behave today around marriage. Social changes like no fault divorce and contraception have altered our practice hugely, yet they are poorly integrated into our theology. In much of our talk about marriage companionship has replaced talk of procreation and child rearing. We have accepted our society’s definition of humans as sexual beings to such an extent that we have little or no place and certainly no clearly understood roles for single adults in church (except as in New Testament times “widows”).

Although (with the exception of the “wedding at Cana”, which contains no teaching about marriage)  there is little said in the Bible about marriage. Yet we are not left without resources, Genesis 1 and 2 provide two quite different and complementary possible starting places. Yet most conversations start with one or the other, seldom both. The core biblical virtue of faithfulness is clearly important, but how is it to be outworked today? In a traditional view sex outside marriage is wrong because it risked children outside marriage, how does widespread and usually effective contraception affect this? On what basis do we today advocate sexual exclusivity?

I have linked to it before, but Richard Beck’s post “The Icons of God in Marriage: Nature and Election” is a helpful thought starter, providing as he does at least a useful and deeply theological way of framing the questions.

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