Saturday, February 10, 2007

What is marriage?

One of the questions facing our age, is what is a marriage. A theology of marriage is desperately needed at present. The civil union, defacto and homosexual relationships phenomenon brings this to the fore. In the good old days (were there any really?) in western society, marriage was easily defined. When two heterosexual people wanted to 'become one' they went through a civil union often in a religious context. Defacto and homosexual relationships did occur but were frowned upon. Civil unions were nowhere to be seen. Marriage was safe in its cultural context.

Now we are faced with essentially three forms of cohabitation: traditional marriage, civil unions and defacto relationships. This raises the question for me, what is a marriage in Christian terms? Are civil unions and defacto relationships actually forms of marriage or are they non-marital sinful relationships? Many evangelicals, I believe working from their Christendom mindset, automatically believe them to be non-marriage and inadequate. This leads them to reject people in defacto relationships for leadership in church or even membership. Without critical thought they bar civil unions from church even if they are heterosexual relationships.

My examination of the Bible suggests that marriage is a creation ordinance whereby a man and woman leave their parents home and form a new home and family unit (in continuity and relationship to the wider family). Today in NZ this happens in three ways; first two people just decide to move in together (often celebrated as a glorious day in soaps) and form a defacto relationship. Second, two people form a civil union, declaring legally before the government their commitment, usually without religious connection (not exclusively so). Third, two people get married in the traditional sense. Some do so without any spiritual or religious connection with a marriage celebrant outside of church. Others do so in the traditional Christian/Christendom church wedding. All seemingly make some kind of commitment to each other. In the wedding, it is usually a lifelong commitment; the defacto relationship often leaves this open.

So how does God see all this? One could argue that the traditional marriage is the ideal. But where are we told in the Scriptures that we must marry in a church, before a priest/minister/pastor, or that we need to do things in any set pattern. Cultures define the point of marriage differently. Complicating things is that traditional marriages fail almost to the point of 1 in 2! Are those marriages which fail any more authentic than the defacto that lasts or even crashes?

Further complicating this is that the Scriptures do not define what makes a marriage a marriage. Paul in 1 Cor 6:16-17 seems to even suggest that to have sexual relationship with a prostitute makes the partners one flesh; a relationship that violates the relationship the believer has with Christ and offends the Spirit.

So here is my attempt to at least get close to the answer.

1. A man and a woman
One thing that is consistent through Scripture is that marriage is between two willing adult partners, one a man, one a woman. Now when a person is a man or a woman is a problem again not defined in Scripture. Indeed in Jewish culture, 12 seemed a critical age. It would seem that adolescence defines the turning point. So, while the age is hard to pin down, marriage is to be between a man and a woman. As such, homosexual relationships however defined would seem to fall outside of this. Polygamy, while found in the earlier part of the OT, is not verified in the NT and monogamy is assumed throughout the NT. Adultery is forbidden!

2. A total commitment of one to the other
The marriage relationship is consistently seen as a lifelong one in the Bible. This is seen in Hosea where the marriage relationship is a metaphor for commitment to God from the covenant people. This total commitment underwrites all the NT says about marriage.

Beyond this it is hard to be prescriptive. The manner in which the relationship is formed or ratified is difficult to define. There is no requirement of a legal dimension, a church wedding, verification before a priest/minister/pastor or God's people (marriage is a creation ordinance for all humanity not a specifically Christian ordinance). The notion of arranged marriages is not addressed; we in the west may be uncomfortable, but it has worked well in many cultures for centuries.

That being the case, perhaps we need to readdress our attitude to civil unions and defacto relationships. Perhaps the questions are: are the two people engaging in a heterosexual relationship of two adults? Are these two thoroughly committed to each other? Are they living exclusively and not engaging in adultery?

If so, should it matter to us that the man and woman are in a defacto or civil union relationship? Are in fact they married even though they do not acknowledge that they are? If so, then we should not just assume a defacto or civil union relationship (aside from a homosexual union) is not marriage. We should treat each relationship on its merit in relationship. We may find that a couple in a defacto can participate in leadership because they are in fact married by the biblical definition.

All these are just thoughts. I would be interested in your response.

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