Marriage has always been, and continues to be, a perplexing reality for Christians. From the Apostle Paul’s confusing advice to the more recent agonizing over divorce, Christian marriage has been plagued by anxiety and confusion. The conflicts in the church today are only the most recent chapter in millennia of struggle.
Marriage has always been a dynamic and difficult reality for Christians. This shouldn’t be surprising when we consider that marriage is an expression of our bodies at their most intimate and vulnerable, an expression with critically important socio-economic implications, and one that our experience leads us to interpret through the mystery of the Spirit of God.
Right now, our culture is redefining the meaning of marriage to include monogamous, non-heterosexual couples. So only recently having agonized our way to the recognition, as our culture claimed, that marriages can end other than through death, the church is required to agonize through the possibility of non-heterosexual marriages that violate an assumption that has been similarly unquestioned for millennia. Just as monogamous heterosexual sex acts have come to be understood as the heart of marriage in the Spirit, now we must answer the question posed by our culture: Can homosexual sex acts also be at the heart of marriage in the Spirit?
Of course, as any couple married for more than a few years can tell you, while a marriage may have begun with a sex act, what keeps a marriage vibrant is something else, a mystery that arises between the couple that can spark over a cup of coffee or taking out the trash as much as in the bedroom. Somehow, something emerges between the two that gives life to each other as their life together leads to life transformed.
There is grace in a true marriage, one that transcends sex and remains even in its absence. This grace is also directed outward to the community, as out of the mystery of mutuality arises the strength to face adversity, energy to take on challenges, and a creative drive to see life birthed or renewed. A true marriage releases the partners to the service of each other and the world.
For many Christians, the mystery in marriage is so powerful and good it is named a sacrament, a taste of the very grace and presence of God. According to this perspective, the Spirit does not merely bless such relationships, but imbues them with divine grace. Mennonites have not embraced the language of sacrament because it violates our traditional understanding of discipleship. Still, most Mennonites recognize there is some sacred power, quite independent of our own accomplishments, alive in our most central and intimate relationships. It is why we bless them in our congregations. The mystery is fundamental to the reality.
Saying ‘no’ to homosexual marriage is ‘false biblicism’
Now that our culture defines long-term homosexual relationships as equivalent to long-term heterosexual relationships, the church must explore the possibility that such relationships are also marriages in the Spirit, relationships that carry the mystery the church has traditionally celebrated. This will not be easy because the idea that homosexual marriages are spiritual relationships violates millennia of norms and seems intuitively offensive to many. It is outside of normal theological and ethical reflection about our bodies and how we use them, and engages Christians in a very difficult cultural, as well as intra-Christian, dialogue around gender norms, sexual display and sexual expression. A clear “yes” or “no” to this question is not easy, even if “no” rolls easily off the lips of many Christians.
For those in the biblicist traditions shaped by Menno Simons and John Howard Yoder, the Bible is the central source for responding to change. Unfortunately, there is little guidance in the Bible regarding sexuality and practically none regarding marriage. We will need to proceed carefully and in community, testing the Spirit in mutual service as we discern the true answer. We will need to read widely and deeply, and with patience and great scholarly care, if we wish to find any assistance for our theological and ethical task. Above all, we will need to listen to each other and our stories. Through the careful discernment of the people of God over the generations, we will find the answer.
But there will be some who claim “no” is the biblical answer. That claim is a false biblicism. One cannot legitimately read the scarcity of material and declare a voice from God. Nor would it matter even if there appeared to be such a voice. Mennonites are actually careful discerners of the Spirit of God even more than readers of the biblical text. We have a long history of making the text say what our experience of God’s presence tells us it needs to say.
An excellent example is the presence of women in church leadership, a practice so acceptable in the General Conference and Mennonite Church traditions that it no longer merits attention. The dominant message of the Bible is of women’s fertility and subservience to men; however, having experimented with women in church leadership for over a century and finding through experience that women were indeed blessed by God with the gifts of leadership, the church knit together the weakest of biblical arguments and accepted what had become the practice.
If a historical review took place, it would be obvious the church denied the traditional teachings of the people of God and the Bible to affirm what the culture indicated and experience taught, namely that God’s Spirit could act through women in leadership. Then at the end of the process church theologians fabricated a biblical authority for this change. Once experienced for some time, a non-biblical innovation became canon—authoritative guide—and the biblical interpretation followed.
An ever-changing experiment in faithfulness
This example indicates how little the Bible guides us, despite our official biblicism. However, that does not mean the Bible is meaningless. The Bible of the church is about the metaphors, images, stories and teachings that give us a common imagination as the people of God.
Despite our desire to find arcs of meaning to control our behaviour, such arcs are only in the mind of the perceiver. But there are lives filled with the text. When it comes to contemporary marriage, our task is to read and ponder the text, and then tell our stories about how it fills our marriages.
One marriage may be a reflection on the Song of Solomon; another, Paul’s instructions to avoid desire; and another, Abraham and Sarah’s wilderness companionship. Or perhaps a marriage may be a meditation on all three at one point or another in its life. Every marriage is unique and informed in its own way by the text, and each becomes its own churchly meditation.
This approach to the Bible foundationally recognizes the church as an ever-changing experiment in faithfulness. As with women in leadership, it will be our stories that become the basis for the church at some future date to understand marriage. It will be a future generation that hears our stories and judges the correct way of living.
We struggle so the next generation has the evidence through our successes and failures to see where God is leading. We don’t have answers because we can’t have answers yet. The culture has presented us with a confusing environment around an important aspect of life, and now we must live out our responses with as much faithfulness as we can intuit as individuals, couples and congregations, so the next generation can find the true path of faithfulness.
A daunting task
Of particular difficulty as we experiment with the meaning of marriage is the issue of bodies and how we exist through them. Bodies are mysterious, powerful and scary. We live in them, but even more so, in all their difficult, vulnerable complexity, we are them.
The contemporary situation around marriage forces us to explore our embodied existence with personal integrity, collective courage and scholarly depth. But we are forced to do so with the caveat that we are embracing one of the most profound mysteries in God’s creation, the mystery of how God works through our bodies to touch and transform us. This is a journey into deep questions regarding the meaning of grace itself in a world God created. The task is daunting and we have hardly begun.
For some within the Mennonite tradition, this situation encourages us to explore the language of sacrament. The sacraments are not a biblical phenomenon, but they are something that seems in retrospect to be a key guiding perspective to the way Mennonites engage in ethics.
Mennonites find holiness touching our lives though acts of service, in hymns and in the community gathered. Through these experiences we feel something of God leaking into us and transforming us for the better. The language of sacrament seems the best way to talk about these experiences. Since marriage is one of the traditional sacraments, it only seems appropriate to engage that framework here. We must answer the question, “What of God breaks through to us through a true marriage?”
Through a new definition of marriage our culture has put a challenge before us that touches every aspect of how we live and what we believe. This is culture’s right since culture has always been the fabric out of which we construct our marriages. As part of this experiment we are forced to explore the meaning of our bodies as vessels of grace.
Now it is up to us to discover what God might be saying through this situation and these possibilities. We will struggle and a future generation will let us know where and how we succeeded as a faithful people.
Bruce Hiebert, Ph.D., is academic dean of Yorkville University’s British Columbia campus and researches questions of gender, ethics and decision-making, especially in terms of biblical authority and church tradition. He is a member of Langley Mennonite Fellowship.
See also “What is ‘good’ and ‘acceptable’?”
1. Do you think the proper place for weddings is in the church? What role does God’s grace play in marriage? What role does the church play in marriage? Do you agree with Bruce Hiebert that “there is some sacred power, quite independent of our own accomplishments, alive in our most central and intimate relationships”? Are you comfortable thinking of marriage as a sacrament?
2. How have our expectations of marriage been changing over the years? Where has the church strayed from the path of faithfulness? Do you agree with Hiebert that we have come to accept the norms of the broader culture in terms of divorce and remarriage?
3. Hiebert says that on the issue of women in church leadership, “the church knit together the weakest of biblical arguments and accepted what had become practice.” Do you agree? Is he right in saying that we take our direction from culture, rather than the Bible?
4. Hiebert suggests that when it comes to contemporary marriage we are in an “experiment in faithfulness” and only the next generation can determine “where God is leading.” Do you find his rationale convincing?
—By Barb Draper