Voicing a Vision: Compulsory Marriage, Part 3

Marriage is not necessarily sinful, just a distraction from the more important work of ministry. That was what the Apostle Paul seemed to think (1 Corinthians 7:25-32); and the Church has never figured out what to make of it.

While there has never been a coherent tradition of “marriage theology” in Christian history, we can say this much: the Church usually reacts to whatever else is going on in the wider culture or in its own ranks, whether in response to Greco-Roman marriage practices, the privileging of monastic vocations, or the emergence of an official state contract that decided how to divvy up property for legitimate heirs (which happened relatively late in European history).

Today’s complex socio-religious landscape threatens to lure the Church into that familiar, reactive pattern – either the Church embraces or rejects the State’s decisions about civil marriage.

Civil marriage equality ought to be a no-brainer for the Church – it’s a civil contract to which any couple should have access. But is that all the Church wants to say about marriage? Will the Church simply baptize Las Vegas wedding chapels and be done with it? Couldn’t Christians offer something a bit more compelling, something people want to hear but don’t expect the Church to say?

The Church has an unprecedented opportunity today to voice a vision of human relationships that speaks to how people really live their lives, and in the process, advance what Jesus called the “kingdom of God.” I don’t know everything about what that vision ought to entail, but here are just a few thoughts toward it, clustered around families, finances, and fidelity (yes, I like alliteration).

1. Families

A recent congressional hearing on the “Defense of Marriage Act” highlighted the paucity of coherent arguments among those who oppose marriage equality. Among the several absurd things now on the congressional record is this: “Marriage makes a family.”

No, actually, it doesn’t. Civil marriage makes a contract between two people. That contract comes with a lot of benefits, but “family” is not among them. My mother and I are a family, not because we have a contract but because of the love, care, compassion, and commitment of our relationship. That’s what “makes a family.”

The Church could voice a vision about families by, well, turning to Jesus. When told that his mother and brothers were waiting to see him, Jesus said, “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:50). And when he was dying on the cross, Jesus looked at his mother and his beloved disciple and said, “Woman, here is your son.” And to the disciple, “Here is your mother” (John 19:26-27).

Let’s be clear here: The State does not (and probably never will) recognize either of those two Gospel forms of family as a family. But the Church can and should do that. If the Church did, thousands of people would be profoundly grateful.

2. Finances

If I lost my job tomorrow, my health insurance would become exorbitantly expensive. Linking health care to employment is among the more absurd features of American culture. And marriage matters here because of another absurd feature of American culture: If you’re unemployed but married to an employed person, you can get access to your spouse’s health insurance.

Why in the world should affordable health insurance be linked to whether or not you’re married? As I noted in Part One of this mini-series, health insurance is just one reason why the so-called “freedom to marry” quickly becomes the “necessity to marry” just to get access to a physician.

There are many other financial benefits that attach to marriage, and the Church might turn to Jesus (again) for developing its own voice. Jesus looked rather askance, to say the least, at the privileging of some types of social relation over others.

The Church could voice a different vision by insisting that we no longer live with economically or socially privileged relationships. Everyone should have equal access to what everyone needs to thrive and flourish, regardless of the relationships to which they are called – both human and other animals. I know that sounds like socialism. Don’t blame me; blame Jesus.

3. Fidelity

Everyone knows what “infidelity” means without having to spell it out – a spouse broke a sexual rule. But that kind of marital fidelity emerged in human history mostly to protect property inheritance rights for legitimate heirs.

Biblical writers had a dramatically different view: faithfulness is not about what one cannot do, it is instead what enables one to do something better. The Hebrew prophets denounced the “adulterous” practices of Israel because they weren’t caring for orphans and widows, or showing hospitality to strangers, or tending the land responsibly, or practicing economic justice for the poor. Faithfulness to their covenant with God would have enabled them to do all of that and more.

The Church could offer a compelling vision of fidelity by paying attention to Jesus (again). We know a good tree, Jesus said, not just be looking at it but by the kind of fruit it yields (Matthew 7:16).What does your relationship (of whatever type) enable you to do to make the world a better place?

Civil marriage contracts don’t make families, and they don’t create financial justice for all, and they don’t empower people with the gifts of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). That doesn’t make civil marriage “bad,” just short of the Gospel mark toward which the Church could and should aim.

But covenantal relationships (of various types), entered into deliberately and with spiritual intention, can create families, and promote economic justice for all, and bear fruit in households and communities of remarkable generosity, hospitality, and compassion.

That’s the vision the Church could be voicing today by saying unequivocally two things at the same time: 1) civil marriage equality is good and necessary for social justice; and 2) civil marriage equality is not nearly enough for a Gospel vision of human thriving.

If the Church voiced that vision, we’d see many more people saying “I do” to queerly Christian discipleship.


Keeping it Civil: Compulsory Marriage, Part 2

The marriage equality train has clearly left the station. After New York, it’s only a matter of time until it rolls through the remaining 44 states. This is good news and the Church has good reasons to board that train. But as I suggested last week, the Church shouldn’t leave its theological luggage sitting on the platform.

The freedom of religious expression in the U.S. means at least this much: The Church is not beholden to the State’s definition of marriage. And as Andre Gide once noted, “To free one’s self is nothing; the truly arduous task is to know what to do with one’s freedom.”

So what could the Church to do with its freedom when it comes to marriage? Here are just three broad suggestions:

1. Let’s Keep Changing Marriage

Opponents of civil marriage equality insist that this movement will “redefine marriage.” Let’s hope they are correct. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. Recall just two important ways in which marriage has already changed.

The Bible reminds us that “wives” were once considered a lovely form of property – and the more you could acquire the better. This took an extraordinarily long time to fix, and we still see hangovers of that legacy in today’s wedding rites: fathers “giving away” their daughters and women taking on their husband’s names. And do note that marital rape was not considered a crime in every U.S. state until 1993.

Let’s also recall that prior to the abolition of slavery Africans were forbidden from marrying at all. After abolition, “miscegenation” (mixed-race marriage) was illegal in this country. And it was not until as late as 1967 that state statutes forbidding such marriages were declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court (in a case rather deliciously called “Loving versus Virginia”).

Mildred & Richard Loving

For a very long time, the institution of marriage was an excellent tool for subjugating women and maintaining white supremacy. Thank God marriage changed. But we’re not done.

I hope same-gender married couples will continue the centuries-long evolution of the institution of marriage toward an egalitarian partnership and that those who benefit from this privileged relationship will use their privilege to dismantle the economic and social benefits that attach to it.

That’s an uphill battle, to be sure. The Church should be leading that charge, and a good first step is to keep civil marriage civil.

2. Let’s (Really) Separate Church from State

In most jurisdictions, clergy are agents of the state for marriage licenses just by virtue of being clergy. Others can be temporarily deputized to sign that document as well, but why should ordination to Christian ministry have anything to do with a State contract? It’s time for that to stop.

The minister’s signature on that document implies that the Church endorses the State’s definition of marriage. Do we really? Civil marriage is a contract and the State cares mostly about how to adjudicate the fallout when the parties break that contract. Surely the Church wants to say something more than that about marriage.

Imagine instead that day when the State no longer allows clergy to sign civil marriage licenses because the Church’s standards are too high. Imagine the Church offering a vision of the covenant of marriage that is far more robust than any legal contract. Imagine the Church celebrating many different kinds of covenantal life for the sake of its Gospel mission in the world.

We can take a small but important step in that kind of imagining by detaching the State’s contract from religious ceremonies. To that end, personally, I will no longer sign the state’s marriage license for any couple; let’s keep civil marriage civil.

3. Let’s Value God’s Blessing

This should be obvious, but for some reason the Church doesn’t seem convinced. Consider just two among many recent examples.

Presbyterian minister Janie Spahr got into trouble last year for signing California marriage licenses (when they were legal for same-gender couples). Since 2000, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has actually allowed ministers to bless same-gender relationships, but they can’t sign the state’s contract for them. Janie would not have stumbled if she had just witnessed the state’s marriage and then later blessed the relationship. The logic is distressingly clear: the State’s contract trumps the Church’s blessing.

Consider as well the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, where same-gender clergy couples are now required to get married, as the State of New York has made that option available. Many of those relationships were likely already blessed and affirmed in the Church. In the language of the new diocesan guidelines, the state’s marriage contract will “regularize” those same-gender relationships.

The logic here is equally distressing: merely blessed relationships are “irregular”; only the State can “regularize” them. Does the Church really have so little regard for its own pronouncement of divine blessing?

If we kept civil marriage civil, the Church might rediscover its theological voice and find something to say about marriage that the wider society might really like to hear. In the third and final part of this mini-series, I’ll suggest just a few things the Church could say.

I can’t do that alone, however. I do hope all of us who care about the queerly good news of Christian faith will plunge into this conversation and fine-tune that voice together. I believe more people than most Christian clergy realize are eager for us to listen carefully and then to speak….


I Do and So Must You: Compulsory Marriage, Part 1

Full civil marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples now stands within reach. If the Roman Catholic governor of New York can get this done, so can everyone else. This is nothing short of amazing and cause for great celebration. If we’re not careful, however, this heady moment could derail a queerly Christian witness to the good news of the Gospel.

I worry, for example, that at least one diocese in the Episcopal Church has so quickly boarded the state’s marriage train that it left its theological luggage in the station. The Diocese of Long Island, responding to the recent marriage equality legislation in New York, is now requiring its clergy in same-gender relationships to get married. Some of these couples may have had their relationship liturgically celebrated and blessed already, yet Long Island is now relying on the state’s civil contract to make those relationships religiously legitimate. (Read more about those diocesan policies and their national implications here.)

In microcosm, Long Island casts the ongoing confusions between Church and State in bold relief. Surely Christians want to say something more about marriage than whatever the state says about it. But what do we want to say?

I recently heard feminist Catholic theologian Mary Hunt preach a wonderful sermon in which she applauded the inevitable march toward full marriage equality and then urged us to imagine how we can do better.

Marriage, she said (rather provocatively), is not a right but a privilege. Health care, on the other hand, is not a privilege but a right. We can do better than marriage equality if we detach the basic human right to health care from the privileging of just one kind of relationship. If we continue to make human rights contingent on a privileged relationship, then the “freedom to marry” quickly becomes the “necessity to marry” just to get affordable access to a physician.

In a similar vein, Christian ethicist Marvin Ellison has noted that the divorce rate is so high in the United States because the marriage rate is so high. Ellison would have us notice, in other words, that marriage has become the default position for what it means to be a grown-up, a rite of passage into being a responsible, contributing member of society. Here the “freedom to marry” becomes the “pressure to marry” just to look like an adult.

In the midst of this ever-shifting cultural landscape, the Church has good reasons to applaud the freedom to marry as a matter of social justice. But is that all? The Church can and should do better. The Church can and should bear witness to something other than the economic necessity to marry or the social pressure to marry, and the Church could do this by turning to its own theological traditions.

To be sure, there is no single, coherent theology of marriage in Christian history, but there are rich theological themes in that history that we can still tap today. Christian traditions, for example, invite us to consider marriage as a vocation to which some but not all people are called. There are many other vocational paths through which we can bear witness to the good news of the Gospel and the Church can and should celebrate them as well.

Other themes in Christian history also come to mind to provoke our spiritual imagination – the creation of households (of many various types), the significance of covenants (rather than contracts), how relationships of all kinds empower us for ministry in the world, to name just a few.

Most of all, perhaps, many married couples know what the Church seems rather strangely to have forgotten: marriage is not the best thing we can hope for. Yet over the course of several centuries in the modern West, the Church has baptized marriage as the apex of human fulfillment – just ask the modern wedding industry how much it costs to celebrate that fulfillment.

Both Jesus and the Apostle Paul would find such exultation of marriage rather strange indeed, as both of them suggested something quite different: rather than marriage, union with God is the apex of human fulfillment. At its best, marriage can only reflect and point to that hopeful promise and, thankfully, other types of covenantal relationship can do the same.

Everyone who wants to enter into a civil marriage contract should be able to do so. The Church should say that, loudly and clearly. The Church could also say something else: no one should feel compelled to get married for economic or social reasons. And to those who don’t want to get married, the Church can offer some queerly Christian hope: you can live a full, meaningful, responsible, adult life – even if you’re not married.

Will the Church say those important things? Only if it ends its collusion with the State. And I’ll say more about that in Part Two. Stay tuned.