“RE-DEFINING” MARRIAGE

May 14, 2012 by Dr. David Kendall

Last week our President announced the end of his personal evolution of thought on same-sex marriage by endorsing it.   He acknowledges the deeply divisive nature of the issue and thus the differing conclusions to which others have, and will, come.  He grounded his conclusions in a love ethic that endeavors to practice the Golden Rule and claimed that his thinking is rooted in our common Judeo-Christian heritage.  Of course, many others disagree, respectfully or not.  I am among those who disagree, respectfully.

What has fascinated me most is the way the question has been framed, in a way which involves a logical fallacy—if anyone really cares about such things—and also virtually precludes discussion.

The President’s announcement brought adulation and praise from many.  Almost without exception (I didn’t see any) the praise came because our President took a stand for equality and for the freedom of people to choose for themselves.  The President affirmed “marriage equality” and the individual’s right to choose whom to love and marry.  There you have it—it’s a question of equality and freedom.  Who can argue against such things?  Who wants to stand up and say, “I do not believe all people alike should be able to marry!”?  Or, “I believe someone other than you should decide whom you can love and marry!”?

But this way of framing the question “begs’ the question (the logical fallacy).  To “beg” the question is to assume a part of what you want to prove as a basis for proving it.  The question “begged” in this case is, “What is marriage?”  Or, to put it another way, would a loving commitment between two people of the same sex even constitute a “marriage?”  Some would say, “Of course!”  But simply asserting it doesn’t convince anyone not already convinced.  Others would answer the question with a “No,’ and at least some of them could explain their answer.  They would argue that “marriage” has always meant this or that, and what it has always meant is fundamentally different from what a same-sex union would be.  To be sure, someone else could argue against that, but in the current climate no one gets to such a point.  In the reframing of the issues around equality and freedom the notion of “marriage” itself has been re-defined.  It has been re-defined in a way that makes all talk about the nature of marriage itself unnecessary and actually beside the point.

I am among those who would disagree respectfully with the framing of the question in these ways and with its implicit re-defining of marriage itself.  More about that in a moment.  First, however, as a follower of Jesus I want to understand as clearly as possible the views of those who disagree with me, to see behind the words to the heart, and often the deep pain that provides context for their words.  This is what love does and what followers of the Lord of love do.  Then, also, as a follower of Jesus I will firmly but graciously respond with all the social, cultural and political opportunities available to move discussion and decision-making toward fuller compatibility with the kingdom Jesus brings to our world.  Finally, I want to insist that followers of Jesus must engage in their own re-defining of marriage, and the issues surrounding it, and to do so with transparency and courage.  Let me suggest two ways our re-defining and re-framing might go.

First, we “re-define” marriage by recalling and reimagining the story our Scriptures tell.  In many ways, it’s the story of multiple marriages.  It includes the union or “marriage” of heaven and earth.  The creation and union of the original man and woman stands specifically as the primary way in which the creator God chooses to express and reflect God’s presence in the world God made—i.e., together they are or become the image of God’s self given to the world God made.   When this originating “marital union” occurs, the world was very good, ripe for flourishing of every kind, human and nonhuman.  When the original marital union suffers a violation, when the humans decide they can do better than God, brokenness enters the world in multiple ways and at multiple levels.  Everywhere brokenness soon prevails and what once was very good, now submits to ruin.  Prior to the brokenness all was well—equality, freedom and love prevail.  After the brokenness, the opposites prevail.  God’s response to the brokenness brings healing, restoration, reconciliation, and renewal.  Through Abraham, Israel, Judah, and ultimately through Messiah Jesus God opens to us a kingdom where heaven and earth once again will be united, when humans will be one with their God, with each other, and with the world God now remakes.  Often, these sweeping realities are described in terms of marriage, infidelity and divorce, reconciliation, renewed courtship, re-engagement, and remarriage.  At the last, a final marriage between the Messiah and his people becomes the setting for the new heaven and earth.

In broad strokes, we re-define marriage by recalling the primary role and meaning it has for the story Scriptures tell as our story.  At the least, that story calls into question whether we can understand “marriage” as a “right” or “entitlement” or “benefit” that a society or civil government owes us.  Certainly, a civil government may do whatever it chooses.  And, certainly, followers of Jesus—participants in the Scripture story—will seek to shape civil government in ways compatible with that story.  Still, just as we place our ultimate allegiance in Jesus’ kingdom, so we insist and embrace marriage as gift and
seek to enter in to its blessings as such.

In addition, taking the story Scripture tells as our context, we would insist that it was precisely when human beings took matters into their own hands that brokenness gained the upper hand.  When the first humans decided to define life on their terms and seek their own way of understanding—deconstructing and reconstructing life in ways seemingly more suitable to them, that chaos came to stay.  In that light, we would insist that redefining marriage, or anything else, reflects more of the problem than the solution that humanity most needs.  We would insist that true intimacy, transparency, freedom and joy attend only the life that God offers us.

This suggests the second way we must re-define marriage.  And to do so we must begin to face our failure and rebellion against what our Scripture story clearly shows us.  When followers of Jesus do not observe God’s plan for sexuality they compromise their ability to represent God’s way.  When they engage in pre- and extra-marital relations, dabble in pornography, or break their vows through infidelity, they commit crimes against God’s good idea of marriage.   Less salacious but no more justified, when professing Christians routinely do not themselves enter into the joys of marriage, but settle for cold and distant relationships, or simply abandon their vows , they lose whatever voice they might have had in the current discussion.  When followers of Jesus reject God’s idea of marriage in actual practice, they have no credible basis for correcting others whose views on marriage may be errant.

We must consider why anyone should listen to us telling them about marriage when we so often reject our own and God’s instructions?  When divorce rates soar among us, and when Christian marriage counseling continues to be big business in our circles, why would others deem our understanding helpful?

But what if we “re-defined” marriage in practice?  What if followers of Jesus truly followed Jesus?  If in Jesus’ name, we found grace to wait on sexual expression, grace to enter into deep and joyful intimacy with the one to whom Jesus leads us, grace to forgive and be forgiven, grace to become truly one in Jesus, grace to weather the storms of life together better and stronger than on our own, grace to grow old graciously and sweetly together, grace to experience a bond so insoluble that even death does not threaten?  What if among more and more of us, God’s good idea of marriage—God’s idea—appeared on beautiful and inviting display?

How might God work if we could “re-define” marriage, beginning in our homes, in such ways?

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