It seems only fair to start a reflection on marriage with my own marriage. Starting here is just as important to me as the content of what I share. When it comes to all matters of faith and life, I believe we need to start with ourselves. Otherwise we subject others to judgment, scrutiny, or standards that we may safely avoid in our own lives. I fear we easily justify our own behavior while disparaging similar behavior by others.
So here’s my story about marriage. My husband John and I will be celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary in a few days. We have been together 30 years. These numbers astound me, as when we began our journey together I couldn’t imagine 25 years. When we were young and in love, it was impossible to imagine the deeper dimensions love could have, and definitely impossible to imagine how a couple in a nursing home could possibly need a “do not disturb” sign.If the Biblical image of marriage is that we become “one flesh” I can see the truth of this after all this time as I look back. We continue to be very different people with distinct vocations and identities, that sometimes clash, but we do experience life as “one unit” in many ways. There is an almost unconscious familiarity with each other’s thought patterns, habits, bodies, tastes, that my spouse can almost feel like a part of myself. The “we-ness” becomes as second nature as the “I-ness” of things. I love this about marriage. But I also know it comes with a caution –make sure the “we” is an equal measure of you and I –not just “I” writ large. Someone recently pointed out to me how John and I seem to operate almost seamlessly as a unit, especially as we deal with children, household chores, day to day life. I guess I hadn’t really appreciated how wonderful this is. How much implicit trust there is as we move through the days, how much steadfast reliance we demonstrate with each other, how much we rely on each other’s small sacrifices to make our own lives better. How much our children see us as a “them” –not just individuals to relate to separately.
I’m pausing in this moment realizing that I am more able now to be grateful for this long and steady relationship than I have been at some points along the trajectory. At any given moment there might be a surge of anger, a disappointment in not being heard, a feeling of being taken for granted. But when those moments (maybe even seasons) are blended in with the long, slow, pulse of a relationship that has constituted more than half my life, I am able to see that marriage is indeed a gift of God for the “well-being of the entire human family (W-4.9001).” It really is in the context of this life-entwining relationship that we can experience the “full expression of love” between a man and a woman (as the Book of Common Worship beautifully puts it). In some ways it is only time and the wear and tear of life that gives partners the opportunities to experience this full expression of love.In our love of labels for each other and ourselves, we may miss how our own and others’ lives defy the very labels we seem to love. I am basically very prudish and conservative when it comes to sexuality and marriage in my own life, while serving a congregation known for its “liberal” bent. I married fairly young, have remained faithful throughout the 25 years and my husband is the only person with whom I have had sex. I admit that we did have sex before we were married, but it was after a year together and a strong sense that our commitment was a lifelong one. Even the most conservative among us these days has toned down the rhetoric against “fornicators destined for hell” but, though I know I am a sinner, I honestly don’t think my relationship is what Paul or other New Testament writers had in mind when they used the term.
To my knowledge I have only done one wedding for a couple that had not had intercourse before the ceremony. Even for that couple, it was clear to me that only one of them was a virgin. While I wish people in our culture would slow things down and actually date before hopping into bed with each other, my biggest concern is not when people begin having sex relative to the state or church sanction of their relationship, but what their sexual relationship means in the larger context of a loving partnership. Though I bristle at how sexualized our culture is, I am glad we seem to have set aside the focus on (especially female) virginity. It is possible, I understand, to have “hymen repair” surgery in some places in the world who seem to have held onto, or even revived this obsession with female purity.Thankfully marriage has changed for the better since the days of the ancient Israelites and the first century in the Roman Empire. No doubt even within Christian communities marriage has gone through many permutations throughout the world over 2000 years. Some assumptions we westerners are likely to hold, that people in the pages of scripture were unlikely to hold are:
*Marriage is a voluntary institution.*We marry someone because we love him/her. Marriage certainly carries economic benefits, but we avoid thinking of these as the primary reason for marriage.
*Each person has one marriage partner (concubines exist, but they are no longer in style). It’s not just deacons in the church who should be “the husband of one wife.”
*We have a broader view of adultery, applying it to both males and females and even to members of couples who are not legally married.*We don’t consider infertility to be the same thing as a failed marriage.
*We don’t require men to marry their dead brothers’ wives.*We are not happy about divorce, but we are more likely to offer counseling than condemnation for those in struggling marriages, and we generally don’t treat people in second (or third) marriages as adulterers.
*We involve the state, which I used to think wasn’t a good idea or important, but it allows for intervention on behalf of children in terms of inheritance if things go wrong. Calvin apparently gave us this idea of the state’s involvement in marriage so that records could be kept publicly. There are lots of reasons for everyone to be able to know who is actually married to whom.*We downplay the “wives be subject...” (not everyone of course) and emphasize the mutuality of marriage and the fullness of the image of God in BOTH male and female.
So, have we abandoned the Bible in our search for the meaning of marriage? In many ways yes, and rightly so. We have also generally abandoned the Bible as a source for medical advice or information on charting the course of the planets. But interestingly we find so much in the Bible that we have found meaningful for relationships that it continues to be a powerful source of guidance and hope for marriage and other relationships. Think about the passages we tend to choose for weddings: the biggie of course 1 Corinthians 13 – great wisdom for a couple –but not about marriage. I love the beatitudes for a wedding –some of the same points as 1 Corinthians but not so overdone. But it’s not about marriage. What about that threefold cord in Ecclesiastes? Hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but Jewish tradition teaches these cords are the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This applies great to marriage, but it’s not actually about marriage. Another tried and true passage is from the book of Ruth. I mean, when you get married, it’s a good idea to have a certain loyalty to your mother-in-law, but we translate a daughter-in-law/mother-in-law relationship into wisdom about fidelity and the courage to give oneself fully to another in heterosexual marriage. Takes some doing to get there, but it’s worth it. It’s a beautiful text. I can’t think of an actual marriage in scripture that we hold up as a model of the kind of love and faithfulness we encourage as pastors. Anybody who has a marriage like Adam and Eve needs a good therapist.So here’s the $64,000 (married, filing jointly) question. If we search scripture and find more meaningful to us passages that aren’t even about marriage and apply them to marriage, why can’t we take these same passages and apply them meaningfully to people of the same gender who are yearning to live faithfully and lovingly in the kinds of relationships we celebrate with differently gendered couples?
The more convinced I am that marriage is both an important stabilizing influence on a personal life, the lives of children and the life of a community, the more convinced I am that those who happen to be attracted to someone of the same gender need to have access to the same opportunity. I’m sure a single life has its advantages and perhaps does free up some valuable time and energy for service to Christ to have one’s undivided attention, but marriage allows a look into one’s own soul that probably cannot be matched in other kinds of relationships. And more than we probably realize, our marriages are at least at times held together by our extended families, our faith communities, our friends.Why would we honor the love and friendship shared by two “spinster school teachers” as reflective of God’s grace, but denigrate them for wrapping their arms around each other at night? We had to recalibrate our interpretation of scripture when we found out the stars weren’t lodged in a dome above us, but part of an ever expanding universe. Why can’t we recalibrate for a man who has known since being a young child that his attractions were “different” or a woman whose heart swells at the sight of her beloved that she is forced to introduce as her “roommate” to the faith community she loves?