The essays you read here are based on my own preparatory notes with some of the conversation from the class considered.
What follows is part THREE of our discussion, which looks at marriage and how it developed over the centuries.
For part ONE of our discussion, which focuses on the Bible and how we Episcopalians view/read it, please click HERE.
For part TWO, which looks at what the Bible has to say about “homosexuality”, click HERE.
This is an important question because the Church has defined marriage in particular ways over its history, but marriage has never been an exclusively Christian thing. Marriage existed prior to The Church, as well as alongside The Church.
As The Episcopal Church’s Taskforce on the Study of Marriage writes: “The history of Christian marriage is as complex and diverse as the history of Christianity, with the meaning of that word ‘marriage’ having changed and morphed as generations of faithful Christians have sought to define for themselves the nature of a holy life lived out in the midst of daily life.” (From Essay 3: A History of Christian Marriage, p. 45 of the Taskforce’s report, which can be read here.)
To further explore whether or not same-sex marriage is compatible with The Church’s understandings of marriage, it will be helpful to provide an overview of marriage throughout history.
Marriage, in the most general terms, is the recognizing, by a social group, a particular relationship between at least two persons (commonly a man and a woman). That relationship is is somehow “solemnized” or “blessed” by an authority figure, in order to grant that relationship some degree of “official” status (for lack of a better word).
In all of my research on the matter (and I’ve done a lot), I’ve wondered: what is the purpose of marriage, in general terms (meaning, not specifically what a particular church defines marriage as)? Why do/would people get married? The answer to this question will help us moving forward, I think.
And the best answer that I can give for this is that marriage is primarily concerned with legitimacy.
Perhaps it's a bit too imaginative on my part, but here's my brief anthropology of marriage:
-Like other animals on earth, humans start having sex with each other, making babies.
-In time, the desire to figure out whose baby is whose arises.
-Marriage is then created to offer an accounting of familial lineage.
One of the biggest things that marriage deals with is the issue of legitimacy. Especially when it comes to people in positions of authority. Even still, much of the world expects people to know their familial lineage(s) for a variety of reasons.
Added to this is the fact that, as we saw in part two of this series, for most of human history, it was believed that men were responsible for childbirth. They contained, basically, people "seeds" that they planted in a woman—who merely served as the fertile ground for growing that seed into a sprouted human. So marriage has largely concerned itself with identifying which woman held which man's seed. Which is not that different from determining plots of land for growing wheat or grapes or whatever.
This explains why much of the ancient world (including the world recorded in the Bible) was accepting of polygamy. Generally, a man could have many wives because the seed of his children belonged to him. But a woman could not have more than one husband because this would confuse matters of legitimacy, of whose child was “grown” in the woman’s womb.
This extends to a practice known as “levirate marriage” and is recorded in Deuteronomy 25:5-6. This rule has it that a woman, whose husband dies prior to her having a child from him, is to be married to her husband’s brother. If she conceives and has a child, that child is considered to belong to her first husband, the one who died.
So, again, the concern is with legitimacy in terms of children—of which child is the offspring of which man.
In the background of any conversation on marriage is the question of sex. For many (most?) Christians, marriage serves as the precursor for “correct” sexual activity. Indeed, in practice a wedding is the action that grants one “permission” to engage in sex. Such a notion informs the assumptions we make when we talk about marriage.
Another assumption is that marriage is defined as only being a few things: lifelong, monogamous, for the purposes of having children, between one man and one woman.
A key question to ask ourselves is: where do we get these assumptions?
Many will say (as we’ve seen previously) that “what the Bible says” is the primary factor in our understanding of marriage. So, what does the Bible say?
The Bible tends to depict marriages as being “post-coital”, leaving open the possibility for polygamy and for a dissolution of the marriage; further, consent not being a requirement in either case (look at the marriage of Isaac for instance—though Rachel consents to the marriage, it is depicted as though their “marriage” is the sexual event itself, not any kind of ceremony; this is found in Genesis 24:67).
In Genesis, Abraham takes Hagar as a wife, but there is no evidence that Hagar consents to the idea (this is not to accuse Abraham of anything; rather to point out that the Bible does not place a huge emphasis on “love” being a primary reason for marriage—as it is in the contemporary Western world).
In the gospels, Jesus forbids divorce, whereas even Moses (and Saint Paul) allowed for it (compare Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and I Corinthians 7 with Mark 10:2-9—this is also a passage that is often used by opponents of Same-Sex Marriage to reiterate the whole “Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve” thing; Jesus is focusing not so much on the gender of the couple as He is the fact that they “become one flesh” and that “because God has joined them, let no one separate them”).
So, marriage in the Bible tends to look very different from what we think of marriage today—even those marriages we would call “biblical marriages.”
To further speak of the concept of “biblical” marriage, the Bible does not lay out a schema or liturgy for a wedding. The Torah does not prescribe a practice or ritual for marriage. We don’t even really get a clear picture of what one looked like in the various biblical time periods. Indeed, most of our readings for weddings come from stories that have nothing to do with marriage.
So what about the history of The Church? Have things changed there?
Indeed, the “reasons” for getting married have changed over the centuries in The Church. What began as something to fulfill the command “be fruitful and multiply” has evolved to accommodate (and even emphasize) a sense of “being in love.”
At various times, The Church has understood marriage to be:
Once-in-a-lifetime (Orthodox Christians still maintain this stance, following what Saint Paul says in I Corinthians, cited above).
A social custom that The Church ought to have no business with (a popular view for the Reformers).
Trial-based (a Celtic custom that permitted a divorce at three years as “no harm no foul”).
Only reserved for baptized Christians (it wasn’t until the 20th Century that this was changed).
Of second-class status (reflected in Paul’s writings in I Corinthians and maintained at various times throughout the Church, where celibacy is treated as “the greater gift”).
Arranged (meaning, one or more parties of the couple do not consent).
And class-based (only those who could afford the dowry for a bride could get married). Indeed, monogamy was largely seen throughout history as something only for lower-class men who could not afford more than one wife.
When considering all the various understandings and changes in regards to marriage, perhaps one could say that child-rearing is the one constant. But even St. John Chrysostom writes that this is not a requirement for Christian marriages. In his sermon on marriage he says:
“[N]ow that resurrection is at our gates, and we do not speak of death, but advance toward a life better than the present, the desire for posterity is superfluous. If you desire children, you can get much better children now, a nobler childbirth and better health in your old age, if you give birth by spiritual labor. So there remains only one reason for marriage, to avoid fornication, and the remedy is offered for this purpose.”
This latter sentence speaks to what Saint Paul says of marriage in I Corinthians:
“Each man should have his own wife and each woman should have her own husband because of sexual immorality […] I’m telling those who are single and widows that it’s good for them to stay single like me. But if they can’t control themselves, they should get married, because it’s better to marry than to burn with passion.” (I Corinthians 7:2, 8-9).
So, for Paul and Chrysostom, the primary purpose of marriage is not for making children, but for the control of one’s sexual urges, which we’ll discuss a bit more below.
But in regards to the question of procreation being a primary “purpose” for marriage, there is the additional factor of this:
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27)
Same-sex marriages are uniquely equipped to live into this call, especially the care for orphans. There are many gay couples who long to adopt children and permitting that would not only satisfy what St. James teaches, but would also acknowledge the “traditional” aspect of marriage involving the raising and care of children.
So marriage, as we understand it in much of The Church and in society at large, has moved from being about making babies and into “the place for sex to happen” and, now, to be the ultimate expression of love.
In the Ancient World, as reflected in the Bible, love was completely arbitrary to marriage. What was important was the procreation of children. In fact, it almost seems extraordinary when people were in love, as enough to warrant a mention (Isaac is said to love Rachel in Genesis 24, Tobias—who appears in a famous reading used in weddings—is said to take his wife, Sarah, not “out of lust but with sincerity” in Tobit 8:7, among others). All of this as though “love” was not a normal part of a marriage—like it is today.
In the New Testament period, the marriage question that faced The Church was: is marriage compatible with the Christian faith?
As seen above, in I Corinthians 7, this is a question being asked of Paul. Paul simply teaches that celibacy is the preference, but if people can’t accept that then they should get married. And this concept has remained central throughout much of Christian history—marriage is the context in which Christian sexuality is to be reserved. Or, “no sex outside of marriage.”
This is because, as Paul writes in I Corinthians and Ephesians, sexual activity is a joining of two people into one body. Therefore, this is something that is meant to be reserved for the lifelong bond of a marriage contract, reflected in what is written in Genesis.
So what is the point of any of this?
This is to show that marriage has changed much over the centuries. The Church has moved from seeing marriage as a second-grade calling for those who desire children to become an expression of love and the context in which Christian sexuality is allowed to flourish.
And this begs the question: is a same-sex marriage compatible with this understanding?
For The Episcopal Church, the answer has been overwhelmingly “yes.”
The primary gift of marriage for The Episcopal Church has been “for their mutual joy.” Yes, there is the understanding that marriage carries with it “help and comfort” and, lastly, “the procreation of children.”
This order of priorities reflects a developing shift that has happened not only within The Episcopal Church, but in wider society. Marriage has been seen to be mostly about love and sharing a life together—with children, if possible.
Which leads to the next big question: who defines marriage?
The answer to this is quite complex, but is answered in this: history shows that “marriage” is a social custom defined by wider culture, but is recognized and “spoken to” by means of religious institutions.
Historically, people brought their marriages to The Church and sought a blessing. Over time, The Church became the instrument through which marriages were defined. But now we are seeing a return to the ancient practices in some ways.
For example, what do we do with a marriage that has taken place outside of The Church? Let’s say that they are not Christians, but then they are converted and baptized. Is their marriage valid? Does the Church need to bless that marriage in order to validate it?
The Roman Catholic Church (as far as I know) tends to do a good job of saying “yes” to this last question. But they’re in the minority. Other churches in the United States simply recognize a marriage if it is a legally binding one. There’s no need to seek solemnization or a blessing or whatever.
I mention this simply to demonstrate how our culture currently treats marriage. For the most part it is no longer an exclusive institution of The Church—and this is the case even within The Church itself, not all marriages recognized by The Church are “Church” marriages.
So, for one, it makes the Evangelical opposition to same-sex marriage interesting (because they don’t have a sacramental understanding of marriage, rendering their protests of same-sex marriage’s validity somewhat moot).
Secondly, this places us in a similar position of the Ancient Church, the same Church that once asked Saint Paul “is it okay for us to have sex, for us to get married?” (see I Corinthians 7:1). We’re now being confronted with people wanting to bring their marriages, their relationships, to The Church and seek God’s blessing.
This is a remarkable time in Church history.
For starters, this goes against the trends. While it’s often so-wrongly reported that “over 50% of marriages in America end in divorce” (the actual number is in the realm of 30%), it’s true that divorce is considered normal. Further, because of divorce, fewer people are getting married, or are putting off marriage.
As I think it was Stanley Hauerwas who once said something like: “Gay people are actively fighting for something that many of you straight people are trying to get out of or avoid; this is significant.”
it would be easy for The Episcopal Church to avoid the topic of marriage altogether. But this would have been a concession to the culture at large. Rather, The Episcopal Church reaffirmed the institution of marriage and extended it to same-sex couples.
For this priest, this is anything but heretical.
The Church is, in effect, saying what The Jerusalem Council said to Gentiles: “We shouldn’t create problems for Gentiles who turn to God.”
Instead of expecting Gentile believers to have to become Jews first, The Church decided that they needed only to avoid all the markers that would make them look like pagans.
The Church is now doing something similar. We are recognizing that same-sex couples are coming to us, The Church, and seeking after God’s blessing. And we are saying in return that, like with all Christians, the expectation is that one’s sexuality is to be reserved for marriage. We’re not leaving people where they were found. This is hardly an “anything goes” approach, hardly something immoral.
Rather, The Church is reasserting the need for morality in relationships.
In a world that increasingly denies the importance or relevance of marriage, we stand in opposition and proclaim the goods and gifts of marriage.
And we’ve done this thanks to the call and witness of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers.