Let Me Not Admit Impediments

I was thinking this morning during the sermon (nothing against our rector’s sermon — she’s batting 1.000 in the Sundays I’ve attended), thinking about marriage. Marriage was on my mind partly because I’ve been working with Juliet about the blessing of her marriage, and partly because I was remembering a discussion with Micah about the sacramental character of marriage. The thoughts I rehearsed fall short, I’m sure, of originality, but I haven’t heard them recently in the din about who might be allowed to marry whom, so I thought I’d write them down here instead of catching up on my email as I really ought.

So first, I recalled that in church we call this sacramental rite “Christian Marriage” — a recognition that marriage exists in a variety of modes, of which Christian marriage is only one. That’s a no-brainer, in a certain sense; Christians didn’t invent marriage, nor did the Christian kind of marriage instantly displace every other basis for marriage once it was introduced. (Indeed, one could well argue that there’s no one thing rightly identified “Christian marriage,” in the empirical sense that Christian groups define that state differently — but that would be a distraction, especially since I’m about to make a point relative to the divine institution of the rite.)

Quick, now: I’m not arguing that marriage is whatever you make it.

Instead, I want to point out that the church’s definition of marriage can differ from the state’s definition. That’s a very good thing; all sorts of mischief might result if we were bound to the state’s definition. We shouldn’t want to be stuck with the state’s definition of marriage, and (by the same token) we shouldn’t want to compel the state’s definition of marriage to match the church’s (at least, if we work toward that goal, we should do so on secular grounds). People advance many bogus arguments relative to “separation of church and state,” but I hope that most people can agree that the state shouldn’t be endorsing one particular theological definition of marriage to the detriment of the practice of other religious definitions. That’s one reason we had a revolution over here.

Within the church’s ambit, Christian marriage (as a sacramental rite) constitutes a practice that bears a resemblance to other institutions of marriage, but which derives its appropriate expression not from particular state or cultural versions of marriage, but from God’s will for humanity. Moreover, we have to construe that will as revealed particularly in the New Testament. as distinct (for example) from the concubinage, polygamy, and levirate marriage practiced without divine disapprobation in the Old Testament.

A distinctly Christian version of marriage can appeal, then to the New Testament (especially where it bespeaks a harmonious affirmation of the Old Testament). The most obvious characteristics of marriage in the New Testament, as best I recall, involve its indissolubility, its exclusive duality, its constitutive gender complementarity, and the subordination of women to men in marriage. Christian marriage begins (at least “begins”) with those characteristics. The New Testament does not anywhere give a definition of marriage — it does clearly point out certain characteristics of marriages among Christians.

Now, many bodies of Christians endeavor to work from this starting-point to a mode of marriage that brings God’s will for people living together in marriage into focus in a way that corresponds to other theological premises (perhaps for some, “holiness,” for others “inclusivity”). Many Christian groups allow that the trajectory toward indissoluble marriage can run by way of failed attempts at that goal. Others take the gospel’s call for mutuality and the rejection of social differentiation as ground for construing marital subordination more symmetrically than unilaterally. My point in this paragraph is not to suggest that no one actually lives out a strictly New-Testament-ly version of marriage; I’m willing to allow that some people don’t understand themselves to be practicing any form of adaptation, fine-tuning, harmonizing, or anything other than reproducing literally in their lives the form of married life prescribed in Scripture.* All of these entail using human faculties of judgment and reason to connect a concept of “marriage” that isn’t, can’t be derived exclusively from Scripture, to a practice of distinctively Christian marriage that draws on and perpetuates that vision of God’s marital will that the authoritative teaching of the church has helped articulate.

My interest in laying all of this out derives from (a) wanting to distinguish arguments about the nature of marriage-in-general from arguments about the Christian shape of marriage; (b) wanting to suggest that people who care about the destiny of Christian marriage take the time to differentiate their arguments about how Christians should order their marital relations from arguments about how a given state should order its institution of marriage; (c) wanting to open the topic of the locally-adapted character of Christian marriage, always pointed toward a divine archetype whose appearance is sketched in Scripture, and fleshed out by the saints; (d) wanting to begin a process of moving from the NT characterization of marriage to subsequent, various, different instantiations of marriage — instantiations whose soundness and validity we must assay. Does my position here predetermine the outcome of such deliberations? I hope not; I imagine that someone with whom I disagree vehemently could mount a case for her or his divergent understanding of marriage while observing these points (and one can always argue that I’ve erred in these prolegomena).

It will help me say anything further on this subject, though, to have first narrowed what I think about to the field of Christian marriage, grounded in a specific construal of the New Testament characterization of marriage, as the tradition has interacted with rival non-Christian characterizations of marriage. I will know better what counts as a relevant consideration, and what amounts to a distraction.

But tonight, I have to help Si and Margaret finish Si’s second round of college applications. And I still have a mountain of email to answer.

* I reserve the perhaps-trivial hesitation that, in a world no longer determined by Hellenistic law and cultural norms, one will necessarily be involved in some kind of recapture of a now-inaccessible ancient mode of marriage. That doesn’t prove anything one way or another, and it won’t impress someone who thinks that their affirmation of the definition of marriage they derive from the teachings they accept, from their reading of a preferred English translation of the Bible, and from their lived sense of continuity with “how it has always been done.” It’s important to me, though, since I would argue that at all stages of a tradition, those who want to submit to the tradition take on an on-going self-critical process of approximation.

5 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Okay, here’s a thought…. Perhaps part of the appeal of the Da Vinci Code folderol is a deep hunger for a Christian model for marriage (rather than just a few snippets of prescription scattered here and there in the New Testament).

    Marriage doesn’t get a whole lot of props in the New Testament, it seems to me. Parenting is used metaphorically all the time (mostly fatherhood, but nevermind), but romantic love ~ clearly not a big seller in societies of the time ~ and monogamously bonded marriage just don’t get a lot of press time.

    In fact, although you mention ‘fleshed out by the saints,’ I’m hard put to come up with stories of marriages that are held up as ideal. Can you mention some?

  2. Yes, pat, if one free-associates with the rubrics “Christian” and “couples,” Heloise and Abelard are likely to come up pretty quickly — which is not the best possible testimony regarding Christian advocacy of the nuptial state.

    Pascale, I threw in “the saints” because of my unwillingness ever to overlook what our forebears taught us about theological topics. I don’t, however, see a particularly promising field of “ideal marriage” literature — and some of the Fathers’ writings paint a pretty grim picture of marital life. I know that if I turned aside for a moment or two from my last-minutes effort to get my second son into college, I could scoop up an illuminating basket of patristic teaching on marriage, but this is my Epistles term (not my Early Church term), and I’m back to single-parenting, and right now I simply may not take up that side-project. I do have so much to learn, though, and this is only one of many such topics.

  3. abelard was only my lame attempt at humor. although he is my new inspiration for any discussion about the purpose of the crucifixion as a salvific act.

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