Gay Marriage: a theological perspective
“There can be no such thing as gay marriage. Marriage is between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others”. Lord Tebbit’s statement encapsulates what is essentially the bottom line for many of those who are outraged by the proposals of Lynne Featherstone MP to legalise gay marriage.
There are of course many complex political issues which relate to this, on both sides of the debate. This post, however, will not attempt to argue within such a frame of reference; instead, the focus will be a theological one. Can a Christian ever endorse gay marriage?
Many Scriptural passages are cited to support the idea that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman, with a view to procreation. The Yahwist’s creation story famously states: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). This is taken to be the correct model for marriage – any distortion of this model, including homosexual marriage, is against the divine intention. This idea cannot be simply dismissed as ancient nonsense because it is, as is also well-known, cited by Christ, according to Mark and Matthew, to condemn divorce.
Surely this leaves the matter indisputable? For Christ, marriage is between one man and one woman. It is the ideal model and anything different is wrong. However, this perspective neglects the rest of this passage. For Jesus draws attention to the notable exception of eunuchs (eunouchoi). He acknowledges that not every man will marry and have sex with a woman: some people are eunuchoi ‘from birth’, some have been castrated and some actively choose to remain celibate for the sake of their faith.
Many have argued that the eunuchs who have been so from birth may have referred to homosexual men. Whether or not there is a case for this, this is the not the line of argument I wish to pursue here. Rather, the point we can take from this is more general: yes, Jesus cited Gen 2:24 as a model for marriage – but he clearly acknowledges that this doesn’t apply for everyone. Of course, it does not automatically follow that gay marriages must be accepted – what is clear is that this particular text cannot simply be cited as a clear-cut case for heterosexual marriage being the only acceptable lifestyle: the matter is more complex than this as Christ, in His wisdom, identified.
It is also sometimes argued that homosexuals cannot ‘marry’ because the model of one man and one woman represents the union between Christ and his church, usually based on the tradition following from Augustine based on Ephesians 5:
‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. (Eph 5:31-32)
Paul clearly envisaged the male-female union as symbolic of the union between Christ and the church. Without doubt Paul would not have considered homosexual marriages as symbolic of such a union. Indeed, Paul makes quite explicit why it is that he identifies specifically the union of man and woman as symbolic of such a union:
For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church…Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. (Eph 5:23-24)
The problem with this model is that it not only reduces women to a status which they, thankfully, in Western society, no longer hold, but it also is completely incorrect. Paul’s model for marriage is, unsurprisingly, not ideal. It is true that he acknowledges the need for the husband to love his wife, but then adds “in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word” (Eph 5:26). For Paul, the husband represents Christ in a marriage because the woman ought to obey him and submit to him, whilst his purpose is to sanctify her.
With all due respect to the great Apostle, his understanding of both women and relationships was, at best, incredibly flawed. Women are not subordinate to men; both women and men are created in the image of God and to all people, women and men, is extended the invitation of redemption through Christ. It goes without saying that a marriage could not work with one partner being entirely submissive and obedient to the other. And far from men being in a position of superiority in which they are able to sanctify their wives, it is often women who need to remind their husbands of what is righteous and just and ultimately good.
Paul’s model for marriage, on which he bases the parallel with the union of Christ and his church, is therefore not applied by Christians today, and it cannot be used to assert that only heterosexual marriage works because only heterosexual marriage symbolizes the union of Christ and his church: marriage does not, indeed cannot, work in the way Paul imagines.
There are, of course, arguments against gay marriage which are not based on Scripture, such as the assertion that heterosexual marriage is undermined by gay marriage. By allowing two women or two men to marry, it is suggested that society is somehow undermining the union of man and woman. But it is difficult to see how this is the case. Will less heterosexual couples marry now, in outrage at homosexual marriage? Is the union of a woman and a man of less significance simply because two men or two women can also form such a union? Such ideas are implausible, and, more to the point, if they really were the case, homosexual marriage would not be needed to undermine heterosexual marriage: heterosexuals would be doing a good enough job of undermining it themselves.
It is also sometimes objected that, if we are to allow gay people to marry, then there is nothing to stop us allowing two relatives or an adult and a child marrying. We shall be obliged to open the doors to all kinds of incest and paedophilia – such is the consequence of the sort of wishy-washy, liberal mindset which allows for gay marriage. But this simply isn’t true. Society’s condemnations of incest are rarely based on Scripture; condemnation of paedophilia even less so. We do not base our opposition to incest on Old Testament prescriptions and prohibitions largely because, as one minister puts it, “A close reading of scripture reveals a sexual ethic we do not and would not want wholly to embrace now: polygamy, concubinage, levirate marriage, and such horrifying rules as the requirement that a rapist pay the bride-price to the rape victim’s father and marry her without the right of divorce.”
Society, of course, has very good reasons for refusing to allow incestuous and paedophilic relationships, reasons which do not apply to homosexual marriages. Experience and the insights of the natural and social sciences tell us that incest distorts familial relationships and damages them, and that paedophilia involves an unhealthy power dynamic and would require the consent of those who cannot truly consent. Absolute permissiveness does not necessarily follow simply from allowing homosexual marriage.
Even if none of the above objections are compelling, how do we know that homosexual marriage works? The short answer is that we do not. We cannot know for sure because it is only something that we have very recently begun to consider allowing. But neither do we know that it cannot work. The main evidence we have so far is the evidence from six years of civil partnerships in the UK, evidence which, for some, suggests that couples in such relationships are less likely to divorce than their heterosexual counterparts.
This is not an argument that gay marriage is superior to heterosexual marriage. Neither is it an attempt to argue against heterosexual marriage in any way. His Grace has rightly noted, drawing on Aristotle, that heterosexual marriage (including procreation) “is essential for the functioning of society”. I quite agree. We need men and women to marry and have children for the continuation of human society. But allowing people who are already homosexual, who will never experience attractions to members of the opposite sex and will therefore never enter heterosexual marriage and have children, will not undermine or threaten this.
A defence of gay marriage usually arises, if anything, from a great respect for the institution of marriage as a union of mutual love between two people. For the Christian, marriage is of course about even more than this – it is about two people, through their union, participating in the life of God. There is something altogether beautiful about two people committing themselves to one another, making sacrifices for one another, and indeed in physically expressing their love via intimacy with one another. This is the ultimate purpose of marriage and sex: to strengthen a bond between two people, and, for Christians, to ultimately reveal a new understanding of God through their union. This understanding is effected via a change in married people – as Rowan Williams points out, they are caused to re-perceive themselves as loved by another. Procreation is a wonderful product of heterosexual marriage and, needless to say, it is necessary that procreation occurs in society: but it is not the ultimate aim of marriage (as couples who cannot or have chosen not to have children demonstrate). The union of two people is about far more than breeding.
These wonderful truths about marriage are to be celebrated and encouraged: but they are not excluded from or eradicated by the union of two people of the same gender. On the contrary: allowing more couples to celebrate their love and to enter a commitment which will discipline them, enhance their understanding of God and ultimately transform them can only be a good thing.