Way back when I posted twice about marriage, I was preparing a general case about the texture of Christian marriage as a particular sacramental institution. I proposed a variety of ways of thinking about Christian marriage, noting that a strictly biblical version of Christian marriage (hence, a version defined by marriage as the New Testament represents it) begins with indissolubility, exclusive duality, constitutive gender complementarity, and the subordination of women to men.* Add to that the long-standing tradition that sexual expression in marriage serves solely procreative ends, and you can get a plausible picture of “traditional Christian marriage.”
Being a vexatiously picky hermeneutical philosopher, I’d be prepared to argue that one can’t simply pick that characterization (or any) up, carve it in stone, and identify it as a changeless divine model for marriage. Let’s ignore my fussiness, though — some with whom I’d be arguing will dismiss my objections out of hand, so we’ll save trouble by affirming what I would myself dispute: that this traditional biblical Christian marriage constitutes a timeless pattern by which [some] Christian marriages orient themselves to God’s will.
Having granted that possibility to those who want to claim it, what are we to say of those who enter into Christian marriage, but who understand that vocation to involve some departure from the “traditional” model I describe above? Perhaps these couples decline to enforce male supremacy in the relationship, or they permit sexual expression apart from procreative intent. Certainly that makes a noteworthy difference from the traditional model — at least, from the most traditional perspective it does. Does a very-conservative marriage that allows both spouses equal authority within the marriage deviate from the “traditional” norm so far that the traditionalist can no longer recognize it as a legitimate marriage? that their reluctance to accord him final authority counts as a sin?
In other words: if you dig in your heels and draw a line in the sand (deliberately, delightedly mixed metaphor) against Change, you can make a pretty resilient case that God permits your kind of marriage, but not others (not the kinds with authority-sharing, remarriage after divorce, recreational marital sex, or more controversially, “open” relationships or same-sex couples). That case is not, I’d insist, airtight — but it’s admirably simple and well-attested.
Once you openly admit some mode of change in your model, though, you enter a different zone of reasoning. Once you adopt (let’s say) shared-authority in marriage as an alternative to traditional biblical Christian marriage, you have opted to permit certain changes and resist others. Then you need to make as strong a case as possible for the particular change that you advocate, and make clear the extent to which the change remains in continuity with the tradition, and you need to differentiate your proposal from “anything goes.”
I see convincing cases to be made for some such changes, and very plausible cases for others. I don’t see how one can inveigh against the possibility (for instance) of same-sex marriages when one allows remarriage after divorce. I don’t see why biblical mandates for gender complementarity can have eternal authority, but biblical mandates for male-dominance (or traditional mandates that sex be oriented solely toward procreation) no longer bind the consciences of Christian spouses.
Let’s step back for a second from an exclusive concentration on marriage. Over the past hundred-fifty years or so, certain portions of the church have adopted particular changes in their doctrine and discipline. Vatican I promulgated the Pope’s explicit claim to ex cathedra infallibility; churches have begun to recognize the marriages of people who have previously been divorced; Roman Catholics have recently accorded dogmatic authority relative to certain claims about the Virgin Mary; many churches now ordain women; some churches recognize same-sex relationships; some churches reject Constantinian baptism (by this rejection, I mean positively the expectation that baptism involve catechesis and a demonstrable commitment to Christian life); and an increasing number of congregations share the sacramental elements with non-baptized congregants. These are all changes from what has long been taught, whether as a making-binding of a traditional point, or the repristination of a quiescent practice, or the reformation of a practice which the church had allegedly misappropriated. These changes look obvious, natural, quite harmonious with the tradition — to their proponents. To their opponents, they endanger the very integrity of the Body of Christ.
Every thoughtful Christian can articulate reasons why these changes shouldn’t simply be equated with one another. “Change” is not automatically good; resistance to change, likewise. Some changes make sharp turns away from the Church’s received wisdom, where others simply make the gospel’s teaching effective in hitherto neglected ways. Of these changes, I’m intrigued to notice that none entails rejecting the conciliar doctrines; one can [not to say that all do] ardently uphold Nicene trinitarian theology, Chalcedonian christology, and countless other marks of orthodoxy, while at the same time adopting and resisting particular points from the list above.
Recently I’ve noticed that some re-asserting voices have begun demurring at the assumption that all “conservative” or all “catholic” observers hold to the same sample of positive and negative changes in the church. I’ve also seen conservative objections to both “open communion” and “open baptism,” which in my own reflections portend a much weightier problem for the church’s relation to its tradition than does the question of who’s in what kind of ecclesiastically-approved marriage-like relationship (I’m not trying to convince others of this, at the moment, just adding my tuppence). This seems good to me — not because I want to fracture the opposition in order to trample them as my side** rolls to victory, but because all of us owe one another a careful account for our theological consciences. Facile binaries between “us” and “them” serve the political purpose of drumming up the fevers of the partisans (especially when we pathologize or anathematize those with whom we disagree), but they rarely clarify the best grounds for advocating one or another theological position, and almost never give somebody a good reason for changing her or his mind.
In the extremely complicated context I’ve stirred up, I can make a case that committed, lifelong, exclusive relationships between people of the same sex makes less of a problem for the church than remarriage, or (to shift out of the sexuality debate) “open communion.” Other people can make strong arguments against those propositions. As I said earlier, I’m prepared to hunker down with hypomonê, respecting those wise souls who disagree with me, not using muscle to settle spiritual dissent.
In the meantime, let’s encourage everyone, on every side, to read and listen more widely, for the more we learn about our teaching and traditions, the more clearly we’ll be able to frame our claims about the truth, and the more we’ll share a repertoire of common premises by which to develop wiser, more edifying disagreements.
Let’s look for profound theologians (regardless of their “side”) who deal with the complexities of these conflicts, which so grieve the people of God — rather than assailing the follies of our least-apt interlocutors.
Let’s work out which claims best bespeak the gospel of holiness and grace. Let’s learn who among us can patiently endure waiting for the Spirit to sort out our confusions, and who knows already what the rest of us ought to recognize if not for our ignorance and willfulness.
And by all means, let’s pray that the truth so win the hearts of us all, that we can lay down insult and accusation in favor of praise and thanksgiving, upholding one another in the vows we have made to God in the church, and showing to all onlookers the kind of shared life that bespeaks the beauty of holiness, the variegated solidarity, and the admirable clarity that point to the One God of heaven and earth.
* The household code in Ephesians stipulates that husbands love their wives, as Christ loved the church; that can be read so as to ground a marital ethic of mutual submission. The prevalent instances of “traditional Christian marriage,” however, have in effect if not also in theory located decisive authority with the husband, the “head” of the wife as Christ is of the church.
** I don’t even want an “opposition” or a “side” — here I’m couching my renunciation in terms that one might anticipate from conventional popular polemics.
DRMA: I Don’t Remember by Peter Gabriel; Thow That Men Do Call It Dotage by Henry VIII/St. George’s Canzona; Pink Turns To Blue by Hüsker Dü; Landslide by Shannon Campbell; Revival by the Allman Brothers Band; Thank You by Led Zeppelin; She Belongs To Me by Bob Dylan; One Beat by Sleater-Kinney; Jammin’ by Bob Marley and the Wailers; Do I? by Decibully; He Brought Us by Delois Barrett Campbell and the Barrett Sisters; (I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone by the Sex Pistols; Something So Right by Annie Lennox; Akimbo by Ani DiFranco; Hard To Explain by Strokes; Rain by the Blake Babies; Cool Dry Place by the Traveling Wilburys; Hypnotized by Fleetwood Mac; If God Will Send His Angels by U2.