But is it marriage?

Now that gay marriage is a fact in this country, I think it makes sense for Christians – especially those of us who consider ourselves Evangelicals – to consider seriously and prayerfully all that the Bible has to say about marriage, and then to decide how this might relate specifically to gay people. That is certainly a more Christian project than simply grabbing a couple of convenient proof texts and wading into the fray to bash our neighbours over the head with them. I do not believe that the Word of God was given to us to be abused in this way, not even by bishops!

In the Bible, we seem to see two versions of marriage. One might be called “customary marriage” and it exists outside the Bible too. Every society has a status that can be called marriage, and customs that determine who can enter into it, how it should be established, whether and under what circumstances it can be dissolved, and so forth. The societies described in the Old and New Testament are no exception. Marriage customs often vary widely between societies, and also within societies at different times. There is nothing God-given about them.

Mostly the Bible takes customary marriage as a given. When Jacob married two wives and took two additional concubines, it was because things were done that way at that time. The Law of Moses contains some regulations about customary marriage, but again they take the institution for granted and merely try to make it more fair for all the parties concerned.

The other type of marriage, which might be called “sacramental marriage”, is presented as God’s view of what a marriage ought to be like. Curiously there are no actual biblical examples (except perhaps Adam and Eve) but there is some important New Testament teaching on the subject. It is worth noting that a sacramental marriage is not the same thing as a “church wedding”. The New Testament Church didn’t do weddings; when they did get around to devising a Christian marriage rite, they tried to incorporate ideas about sacramental marriage into it, but most of the weddings carried out during the period of Christendom were actually just customary marriages with a Christian colouring.

Customary marriage is basically about the production of legitimate children, as is shown by the word “matrimony”. This is literally the condition under which a woman is allowed to become a mother. Its universality arises from the fact that, in most societies, property passes from father to son, but there is often uncertainty about a child’s actual paternity. The solution is to assign one or more women to one man, who is then assumed to be the father of any children that are produced. Often he is given legal powers to restrict other men’s access in order to ensure this. This explains why polygamy is common but polyandry (one woman having more than one husband) very rare.

For the Israelites of the Old Testament period, marriage was polygamous, and not necessarily lifelong. Divorce was regulated, however, to protect wives from being abandoned. A man could not divorce his wife merely on a whim, but must give her a bill specifying some actual crime that she had committed against him: for example he might accuse her of adultery (Num 5 vv.11-28) or of not having been a virgin when he married her (Deut 22 vv.13-18). She was entitled to defend herself against these charges; if she succeeded, he would be forbidden to divorce her ever afterwards (Deut 22 v.19).

Marriage seldom had anything to do with love. Marriages were arranged between the bridegroom (or his father) and the bride’s father. A bride-price was normally paid (Gen 24 vv.53, 29 vv. 18-20). The bride might be asked to give her consent to the arrangement (Gen 24 vv.57-59) but this was not considered essential.

A man could take slave women as concubines in addition to his wives. They had certain rights, and could not be sold (Ex 21 vv.8-9). Their sons were entitled to a small inheritance (Gen 25 v.5-6). A woman who brought female slaves into her husband’s household could give one to him as a concubine if she was unable to bear a child, and the concubine’s children would then count as her own (Gen 6 vv.1-2, 30 vv.3). Clearly those who argue that marriage has always been the lifelong union of one man and one woman have not read their Bibles very carefully.

Did Old Testament practice allow for same-sex marriages? Not as such. At least we have no record of it. That is more or less what one would expect in a society where only customary marriage existed. Same-sex couples do not spontaneously produce children, so society has no need to make provision for ensuring the legitimacy of such children. But we do have two examples of same-sex relationships that were sealed by solemn covenants, and both are described with evident approval.

The better-known is of course David and Jonathan. We are explicitly told that their close and loving relationship was regulated by a covenant into which they had entered voluntarily. Making a covenant was a solemn business in those days. It was far more than just a promise. The ritual required the slaughter of an animal, which was then divided in half (Gen 15 vv.10-11, 17-19). Each of the partners in turn would have walked between the separated pieces proclaiming: “May the LORD do so to me and more also if... (I do not keep these promises that I have made).”

Was this actually a sexual relationship? We are not told so explicitly but the intemperate response of Saul, Jonathan’s father, suggests that he thought it was. You do not accuse your son of bringing shame on his mother merely because he has made a politically ill-advised friendship. This rant definitely has the feel of a homophobic father abusing a gay son. A further clue may lie in the fact that before he knew David, Jonathan had another close relationship with his armour-bearer. The two of them are shown egging each other on to reckless deeds in battle in a way that is very reminiscent of that other famously gay couple, Achilles and Patroclus. And we also have David’s own verdict in his beautiful lament for Saul and Jonathan, the Song of the Bow: “Your love for me was wonderful, greater than the love of women” (2 Sam 1, v.26).

When Ruth, David’s great-grandmother, was a young widow, she developed a passionate relationship with Naomi, the woman who had been her mother-in-law. Her famous vow to Naomi (Ruth, 1 vv.16-17) is almost indistinguishable from a marriage vow. And it too contains those characteristic words that indicate that a formal covenant is being made: “May the LORD do so to me and more also...”

But, some people may say, Jonathan was married and had a son, and Ruth married twice. Surely they must have been heterosexual. This is to misunderstand the nature of customary marriage. This type of marriage is not and never was about sexual attraction or romance or personal fulfilment. It is about producing children, legitimate heirs for your family. Nobody asks if you are sexually attracted to the spouse your family has chosen for you or indeed to anyone of that gender. If you are, that’s a bonus; if not, tough luck! Ruth married Boaz, not because she was in love with him, but because he was the levir, the next of kin whose job it was to redeem the family fortune. It was her duty – above all her duty to Naomi, the woman she loved. How else was she going to provide Naomi with a son to replace the ones she had lost? Ruth did in fact give her first-born son by Boaz to Naomi, who adopted him (Ruth 4, vv.16-17). Greater love hath no woman than this!

The Old Testament’s implied approval of formal covenants between same-sex couples seems to contradict the prohibitions of gay male sex in the law of Moses. The primary prohibition here seems to be of anal intercourse (presumably that is what is meant by “lying with a man as with a woman” (Lev 20 v.22)). The more general prohibition in Lev 18 v.22 looks like an example of the well-known Jewish practice of “putting a fence round the law”, i.e. banning, as a precautionary measure, anything that resembles or might lead to an already forbidden act. The term to’eva or “abomination” indicates what the problem is here. In Hebrew, this word does not signify moral evil but rather breaches of taboo that generate a “yuck!” factor. Hence sex between men (which makes a lot of straight men uncomfortable) is described as “abomination”, but not sex between women, which surely is morally equivalent. Eating insects is definitely an “abomination” (Lev 11 v.23); murder and adultery are merely immoral. So if Ruth and Naomi were lovers in the physical sense, they were not actually doing anything that was prohibited. For male couples like David and Jonathan, I suspect it was more a case of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

By New Testament times, polygamy had died out, but divorce was very common. Indeed divorce laws had grown much more liberal. The rabbinical school of Shammai still held that divorce should be limited to cases of adultery, but the school of Hilel allowed it simply because the woman was a bad cook! When Jesus was asked by his disciples if a man could divorce his wife for any reason at all (Mt 19 v.3), they were actually asking him which of these two schools he subscribed to. They probably expected him to side with Hilel, since his famous Golden Rule was based on one of Hilel’s sayings (“Whatever seems vile to you, do not do it to others. That is the whole of the Law; the rest is commentary”). They must have been quite surprised when he came down on the side of Shammai. As this incident is the first in the New Testament that deals with sacramental marriage, it is worth considering it in more detail.

Jesus starts by rooting God’s plan for marriage in the garden of Eden (Mt 19 v.4-5, Gen 1 v.27, 2 v.24). But it is important to note that in Genesis 2, we do not yet have an identifiable “Adam and Eve”. The Authorised Version is misleading in calling the man Adam as, in the original Hebrew, he still has an attached article (ha adam – The Man). Likewise his partner is called The Woman. Only much later, after the Fall, do they acquire names. This is not therefore a story about personal romantic fulfilment for two individuals who just happen to be of opposite genders but rather about the more general relationship between men and women. We start with the fact that “it is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2 v.18), and “alone” must mean without a woman rather than without a companion, since a woman is the solution provided.

That it is not good for men to be without women is still true today, regardless of their sexual orientation. All-male environments are notoriously toxic, full of bullying, brutal competition, and emotional illiteracy. And all-female ones may not be much better; they are often full of gossip and petty cruelty, emotional literacy used to deal poisoned wounds. Men and women need each other socially even when they do not relate to each other sexually. It is only when The Man and The Woman work together side by side that the image of God (Gen 1 v.26) is realised. Both Gen 2 and Mt 19/Mk 10 treat heterosexual marriage as a particularly good example of this collaboration.

In the Catholic tradition, this has long been linked with the procreative aspect of marriage. The argument goes that when a man and a woman together realise the image of God, they acquire His ability to create, and new life results. Hence of course the traditional Catholic rejection of birth control and the more recent furious opposition to gay marriage, which cannot be procreative. It’s a pretty concept but I think it goes a lot further than either Scripture or logic can take us. None of the relevant passages mentions procreation (Gen 1 does but not Gen 2). Furthermore, human procreation is no different biologically from that of other mammals which are not made in the image of God, and it often takes place in circumstances that have nothing to do with marriage and do not in any way reflect the divine image (rape, abuse, prostitution, promiscuity...). Equally it may fail to take place even between Christian married couples that actively desire it.

Starting from Gen 2 (and ignoring the question of procreation altogether), Jesus lays down for his disciples a first draft for sacramental marriage. It is God-given (unlike customary marriage, which is very much a social construct). It is essentially monogamous and lifelong – no divorce! It involves a total separation from one’s previous family (again unlike customary marriage, which is largely concerned with carrying existing families forward into the next generation and making alliances between them). And it is exclusively for people who have recovered the innocence of mankind before the Fall and are no longer afflicted with “hardness of heart” (a.k.a. original sin). Otherwise divorce would still be needed (Mt 19 v.8, Mk 10 v.5). Sacramental marriage is for the redeemed, that is for Christians.

One very obvious difference between sacramental and customary marriage (in both its Old and New Testament forms) is the double standard that applied in the latter between men and women. A woman who desired a man other than her husband had only two choices: she could suppress her desire or she could commit adultery and risk being stoned to death. A man who desired a woman other than his wife had a third choice: he could divorce his wife, marry the other woman and have as much sex with her as he wanted. This was obviously very convenient for men! But according to Jesus, neither divorce nor the application of double standards are part of God’s plan for marriage; they are at best a concession to human sinfulness. In equating divorce with adultery, Jesus is very careful to make his words symmetrical: divorce is adultery for men as well (Mt 19 v.9, Mk 10 vv.11-12). The disciples’ response is hilariously reminiscent of a very spoilt little boy who discovers that the rules of the game he is playing apply to him as well as to his opponents: “Well in that case, I won’t play your stupid game any more!”

“If that is the way it is between man and wife,” they said, “it is better not to marry at all.” (Mt 19 v.10).

Jesus replies ambiguously: “Not everyone can receive this saying but only those to whom it is given.” Which saying is he talking about? His own saying about divorce being a form of adultery, or what his disciples have just said about it being better not to marry? Probably not the former, since that would leave men free to go on divorcing their wives and marrying other women if they simply cannot see (or choose not to see) why this is actually equivalent to adultery. Jesus would surely not have regarded adultery as a valid lifestyle choice! Some have argued that “this saying” refers to everything Jesus has said about marriage up to this point and that his follow-up comments about “born eunuchs” are a recognition that heterosexual marriage is not after all an option for gay people (implying that something else ought to be on offer for them). Well, I am not gay, but if I were, I would be hugely offended at being called a eunuch. And this interpretation also creates an odd hiatus in the conversation: the disciples have just suggested that even celibacy is a better option than a marriage that genuinely binds one for life, so one would expect Jesus’s words to be a specific response to that point. For these reasons I think it much more likely that the “born eunuchs” he is referring to are what we would nowadays call asexuals.

Some people are asexual by nature and are simply not interested in having sexual relationships with other people. This is not frigidity but an inbuilt orientation, just as gayness is. However there are others who have become truly frigid as a result of rape or sexual abuse and who fear a sexual relationship. These two groups are the psychical equivalents of the born eunuchs and made eunuchs that Jesus uses as examples of the kind of people who are better off not marrying. And some people, as he points out, have vocations within the Kingdom of Heaven that are simply not compatible with marriage. But his disciples’ suggested reason for not marrying (a disinclination by men to take on an equal share of the duties and responsibilities of true sacramental marriage) is not on the list! People who remain celibate for such a reason are unlikely to find either happiness or spiritual growth along that path.

Does that mean that marriage is exclusively for heterosexuals? Certainly Jesus says nothing here about same-sex couples. But it is always dangerous to draw conclusions from what has not been said. At this stage we have only one passage about sacramental marriage under our belts, so a variety of interpretations are possible:

  1. Sacramental marriage as defined by Jesus is exclusively between a man and a woman, and no equivalent is described for a same-sex couple. Therefore, since sex for Christians can take place only within marriage, gay people must be celibate. This is the traditionalist position.

  2. Jesus is using a man and a woman as an example, but what he says is equally applicable to a same-sex couple. This is the liberal position and it leads naturally to a full acceptance of gay marriage.

  3. An intermediate position might be that sacramental marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman but equivalent sacramental unions might well be possible between same-sex couples. Jesus is talking here about marriage, but most of what he says would be applicable to any sexual relationship sealed by a solemn covenant.

The main difficulty with the hard-line liberal position is that Gen 2 is definitely about “The Man” and “The Woman” and the social as well as sexual relationships between them. It is about the need for men in general (including gay men) to have women around to rescue them from that which is “not good”, with marriage then treated as a specific example of this (“Therefore shall a man cleave unto his wife...”). The Woman is actually called The Man’s rescuer (ezer). It is not (pace the late Benny Hazlehurst) a story about romantic fulfilment, in which the two protagonists could have been of the same gender without fundamentally altering the point.

On the other hand, the hard-line traditionalist position falls foul of what is said elsewhere in Scripture about celibacy: who can be celibate and who ought not to be. Celibacy is a spiritual gift and, like all God’s gifts, it is given to some and not to others, for God distributes His gifts as he pleases (1 Cor 7 v.7).

You can recognise those who have received this particular gift by two infallible signs: they are happy and fulfilled as celibates, and they are opposed to compulsory celibacy for others. They do not like watching something that has been a blessing for them perverted into a curse for others. Conversely those who have found in compulsory celibacy only a grievous burden are often the ones who are most insistent that others of their kind should be forced to embrace it and suffer as they themselves have done. The late Pope Paul II was an excellent example of this type of man. When he talked about priestly celibacy, it was always in terms of sacrifice.

Catholics who believe that, when God calls a man to the priesthood, He invariably gives him the gift of celibacy to go with it, have their perfect reflection in Evangelicals who believe that God invariably gives the gift of celibacy to those He has created gay. Both beliefs are contrary to what the Bible has to say about spiritual gifts and contrary to what is observed in practice. In fact both have been proved false over and over again. The result is a very large number of spiritually and emotionally crippled lives. By their fruits shall ye know them!

Jesus has nothing else to say directly about marriage (except that it will not occur in heaven). Some people have drawn conclusions from his presence at the wedding in Cana, but this is a dubious exercise, since John implies that Jesus only attended because his mother was a friend of the family (Jn 2 vv.1-2). The fact that he did attend – and provided some extra booze for the party – suggests that he approved of marriage and marital sex in general (as indeed any Jewish rabbi would), but it hardly constitutes a specific vote for heterosexuality.

More relevant perhaps is Jesus’s habit of referring to himself as “the Bridegroom”. It was actually a messianic title (which is why John the Baptist also applies it to Jesus (Jn 3 v.29)). It derives from allegorical interpretations of the Song of Songs, in which the Bride is Israel and the Bridegroom either God (as in Ezekiel and Hosea) or the Messiah. The repeated instruction “Do not stir up my beloved until he is ready” was often interpreted as a warning against premature messianic enthusiasm: the Messiah will appear when he is ready and not before. There was a widespread rabbinical tradition, which Jesus also followed, of describing the Messiah’s final triumph as his wedding banquet.

If Jesus is the Bridegroom, who is his Bride? Israel certainly, but also the Church since, in the New Testament, the Church is not a replacement for Israel but an extension of Israel into the gentile world. Paul (in Romans 11 vv.16-18) describes the Church as an olive tree with (Jewish) Israel as the root and trunk and the gentile Christians as additional branches grafted in. In the Apocalypse (Rev 12 vv.1-6), we see Israel giving birth to the Messiah and then transforming into the Church, “the mother of all who put their trust in him” (Rev 12 v.17). Finally the two are fused in the vision of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven as the Bride of the Lamb, her crown of twelve stars transformed into a golden city wall with twelve gates (Rev 21 vv.10-12).

Paul, in Ephesians 5 vv.21-33, uses this symbolism to express his teaching about sacramental marriage. Like Jesus, Paul roots marriage in the past – The Man and The Woman in Eden (vv.31-33) – but he also roots it in the present – the ongoing relationship between Christ and his Church as a model for husband and wife (vv.23-27). Paul also uses the metaphor of head and body (vv.28-30): your head is the part of your body responsible for looking after, protecting and nourishing the rest. In the same way Christ loves, protects and nourishes the Church, and husbands should love, protect and nourish their wives before they have any right to talk about wifely obedience. For the Church, according to Paul, obeys Christ out of gratitude for his sacrifice, not as a result of force majeur.

This pattern of symbolism clearly implies an asymmetric relationship and uses the complementarity of male and female to represent it. It simply would not work with a same-sex relationship. If sacramental marriage requires a mirroring of Christ and his Church, then it seems to be available only to heterosexuals. However, matters are more complicated than this, for Christ is not only the Bridegroom of the Church. He is also the Bridegroom of the individual Christian soul.

For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy; for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. (2 Cor 11 v.2)

Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, to him who was raised from the dead. (Rom 7 v.4)

What? Know ye not that he which is joined to a harlot is one body? For two, saith he, shall be one flesh. But he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit. (1 Cor 6 vv.16-17)

The last passage is particularly mind-boggling. By using intercourse with a prostitute as an example, Paul shows that it is the sexual intercourse taking place within marriage which is the basis for his metaphor and not other aspects of marriage such as loving intimacy, procreation or the creation of an economic unit.

That we are “in Christ” is one of Paul’s favourite metaphors. But equally Christ is “in us”. It is a mutual interpenetration. And this is not just Paul’s idea either; Jesus himself used almost identical imagery at the Last Supper: “I in you and you in me” (Jn 14 v.20). That not only sounds like a spiritual version of sex; it actually sounds rather like gay sex, in which everything is, in principle, reversible. As this is precisely the aspect of homosexuality that straight men tend to find most unsettling, it is perhaps not surprising that the cult of Christ as the Divine Bridegroom became largely a female one. One possible consequence of the Church being more prepared to celebrate publicly the mutual love of gay couples is that more people of both sexes might be emboldened to recover this undoubtedly scriptural dimension to their prayer lives.

It took a long time for the Church to develop the kind of marriage rites that we take for granted today. Only the Eastern Orthodox churches had a true marriage service in the Middle Ages; in the Catholic Church, couples took their vows outside the church in a kind of “hand-fasting” and then went inside for a nuptial mass. But throughout the Middle Ages both the Eastern and the Western Churches had a kind of shadow rite for male couples. In the West it was called wedded brotherhood and in the East adelphopoiesis (brother-making).

Two men would take lifelong vows of fidelity and would receive a blessing on their relationship, and much of the associated ritual was taken from the local marriage rite, whether Eastern or Western. What on earth was going on here? What did these men think they were doing? Were they expected to have sexual intercourse afterwards? Were they even allowed to? We simply do not know. We do know that men entered into wedded brotherhood for a variety of motives: sometimes it was a business arrangement (it made the men each other’s heirs), sometimes it was a pact between warriors, a Christian version of blood-brotherhood. But inevitably many gay couples must have taken advantage of it too.

The prayer commonly used during a Greek adelphopoiesis ceremony asked that the two men might live “in unashamed faithfulness and free of scandal for the rest of their lives.” This is wildly ambiguous. Did it mean that there was no shame in them expressing their love sexually and that people should not be scandalised if they did so? Or, on the contrary,was it an implicit warning to them not to do such a thing because it would be considered shameful and would cause a scandal? We know that adelphopoiesis was abolished in the 15th century because it was being “abused” but we don’t know what the supposed abuse consisted of. Perhaps it was simply a case of gay couples taking the words of the service rather more literally than was originally intended. But if wedded brotherhood was not meant to be a form of marriage, why were so many elements of the marriage service included in it?

One interesting difference between Eastern adelphopoiesis and marriage ceremonies was in the Scriptural readings that were used. For a wedding, it was often Gen 2 vv.18-24 or Eph 5 vv.22-33. For an adelphopoiesis, Ps 133 or Jn 15 vv.12-17 were preferred. This suggests another possible symbolic role for this type of wedded brotherhood: as an image of the “horizontal” love between Christians, just as marriage is an image of the “vertical” relationship between Christ and the Church. In which case a Church that encouraged and blessed both types of covenanted sexual partnership might well provide more and better role models than one that had heterosexual marriage only.

The liturgy currently being developed in the Episcopal Church for blessing gay partnerships looks very much like an attempt to revive wedded brotherhood for the 21st century, only this time on the full understanding that sex is intended to be part of the bargain. It is called The Witnessing and Blessing of Lifelong Covenants – rather long-winded perhaps, but it suggests that the intention is not to blur the boundaries of marriage by simply extending it to same-sex couples, but rather to place marriage within a wider context of God-blessed, covenantal, 1:1 relationships that also includes those between persons of the same gender.

I have a lot of sympathy for those who say that unless a same-sex union is actually called “marriage” it will never be seen as equal in value. We have, after all, had plenty of experience of “separate but equal” being used to mean “separate and unequal”. All the same, Scripture does not seem to support a simple conflation of same sex covenantal partnerships with sacramental marriage; the whole issue is more subtle and complex than that. And if two things really are different, it is not ultimately useful to pretend that they are the same, merely as a convenient way of making them equal. If equality of esteem is really our goal, it would surely be better to approach it from first principles. There is after all a great deal in Holy Scripture about equality and inclusiveness which could form the basis for such a project.