Before you start here today, Dan advised me to split this essay in half because it is exceeding long -- even by the standard of, well, what Dan and I usually write. I did not take his advice, so pack a lunch before you get started here -- and my apologies to your boss and your family as you dig in.
The blogosphere is absolutely a-twitter over that Newsweek essay reproaching the conservative view of marriage – and rightly so. I mean, we have all read at least this much of this piece of writing:
Let's try for a minute to take the religious conservatives at their word and define marriage as the Bible does. Shall we look to Abraham, the great patriarch, who slept with his servant when he discovered his beloved wife Sarah was infertile? Or to Jacob, who fathered children with four different women (two sisters and their servants)? Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon and the kings of Judah and Israel—all these fathers and heroes were polygamists. The New Testament model of marriage is hardly better. Jesus himself was single and preached an indifference to earthly attachments—especially family. The apostle Paul (also single) regarded marriage as an act of last resort for those unable to contain their animal lust. "It is better to marry than to burn with passion," says the apostle, in one of the most lukewarm endorsements of a treasured institution ever uttered. Would any contemporary heterosexual married couple—who likely woke up on their wedding day harboring some optimistic and newfangled ideas about gender equality and romantic love—turn to the Bible as a how-to script?And most folks responding have sort of lost it in various ways because let’s face it: if anyone read Hamlet or Harry Potter with the critical finesse exercised in this paragraph, well, one would think they were reading something from a blog with only 5 or 6 readers – not from a magazine which people would (and did) pay money for.
Of course not, yet the religious opponents of gay marriage would have it be so.
But the thing which I think is interesting is the underlined part: “of course not”.
Lisa Miller’s point here is clear: if this is what conservative readers of the Bible – the ones advocating against “gay marriage” – mean when they say a “Biblical definition of marriage”, of course no one would want that. There’s a certain irony in this, but if the “religious conservatives” would “define marriage as the Bible does” – and define it therefore as loose polygamy for the sensually and spiritually weak, a vehicle only for the satisfaction of urges one cannot control for the fulfillment of promises one doesn’t think God is willing or able to keep, of course nobody would want that.
The problem for Lisa Miller, and her editor Jon Meacham, and their publication Newsweek, is that this is not the definition of marriage religious conservatives are promoting.
I am about to pour out the 100-proof polemics here, so before I tell you what exactly “conservatives” are (or at least ought to be) demanding, let me make something transparently clear: what I am personally demanding is not some sort of crime of hate against people with whom we disagree. I could repost it here, but back last summer I posted this piece about apologetic encounters with people who have loved ones who are g-l-b-t-q, or are themselves g-l-b-t-q, and I stand by it emphatically. This is not about how to injure anyone.
Here’s where I’d start: there is no question that of course the Christian church does not define marriage the way Ms. Miller has in her opening salvo here. But the reason Ms. Miller can make her point as hap-hazardly as she does in her essay is that the church has done a lousy job of defining marriage in the last 100 years. Someone might want to make the case that the church has been doing a poor job longer than that – I leave that case to that person, whomever he or she may be.
But here’s the truth: nobody can frame Barack Obama as a supporter of the war in Iraq, right? Nobody can frame Bill O’Reilly as a supporter of Barack Obama, yes? Nobody can frame Sean Penn as a political conservative – or even as a moderate. In fact, nobody can frame the advocates against Prop 8 as advocates of marriage in spite of their repetition of the word.
But why? Why can these people not be carelessly framed with not just a caricature of their views but with an outright contradiction of their views? Let me say it plainly: it is because these other people and groups are clearly on the record regarding what they believe. Publicly, openly, often: they say exactly what they mean, they do not apologize for it, and they are categorically militant to say what they are in favor of and are not merely and glibly chanting slogans about what they are against.
“But Frank,” says the politically-conservative reader who has stumbled onto this blog post, “how can you say that? Aren’t the proponents of Prop 8 and like legislation clearly for the union of one man and one woman? Don’t they say that often enough?”
My answer, unequivocally, is:
NO.There are very few problems in the church that make me this angry, but this one is in the top 3. See: this is why Ms. Miller can say exegetically- and theologically- ludicrous things about what “Christian” religious conservatives want. Religious conservatives don’t really know what they want, or how to get it. And frankly, they have effaced their own position so badly in this case, it is no wonder we can see the head of the hideous monster about to be born cresting behind what they say they want.
What the student of the Bible ought to want in this case is not a social agenda. What the student of Biblical principles here should want is not for the government to force people to one kind of, um, gender entanglement over another.
Here’s why I say that: if the primary need for marriage is a social contract, one which gives me rights over another person, and rights regarding another person’s property so that they do not cheat me or that I am not otherwise cheated, I say plainly: let everyone have that. If that is all, or even principally, what marriage is, then please let every person have that as often as possible and with as many people as possible. Let Government (great “G” intended) protect the rights of each person so that no one is cheated.
But here’s the thing: I think – and historically the church thinks -- that marriage is not the social construction of a network of rights – especially the “right” to some emotive or financial state of being appeased. In fact, the church (since it has come up) reads the Bible to mean that marriage is a surrendering of rights first to God and then to another person for manifold theological purposes – that is, a wide variety of purposes which, when acted out, give glory to God.
Marriage is about God. That is, the God who created us out of the dust for a purpose and subordinated to Himself. Marriage is about the Creator of all things and the purpose He made in mankind.
Now, all the people who liked Lisa Miller’s essay are thinking, “he’s going to break into the procreation riff here, and I’m checking out.” But because that is actually going to be my last and most derivative point, you should not check out. You think it’s a crude and dangerous club. Let’s wait a second here and put that purpose in its right place, and see if you still believe that.
The purpose of God in creating mankind is first to show the power of God over all things. The story goes like this:
YHVH-God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.and then God says:
It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.Man’s purpose in God’s creation is to work and “subdue the Earth” as it says in another place, and God makes woman to help man. That word “helper” there in the Hebrew is later used in the OT almost exclusively to mean the kind of aid only God Himself can provide -- as in Psa 115:11, or Psa 124:8.
So God put Adam over all creation, and puts Eve with him as a divinely-given help in order to subdue the Earth. And Jesus – since Jesus’ opinion came up in Ms. Miller’s essay – says this about these events:
Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate."That celibate, single Jesus said that – endorsing the story in Genesis not only by saying He believed that’s what happened but in fact by saying those words from Genesis 2 were actually spoken by God. So what we have is not just some human story but God’s very own story-telling, God’s very own words telling us that marriage was made for man and woman, that in marriage they would become one flesh, and that it should never be separated because God made it so.
Marriage is therefore a glorification of God in our obedience, to do a thing the way He said it should be done, and not to treat it – as we do today in our churches – as something which is often abandoned because the other person has become to us not our own flesh, but merely a room-mate or worse: merely a contractor who we can fire when we aren’t satisfied with their work.
And that’s not hardly all. This Paul fellow whom Ms. Miller seems to think held a very low view of marriage didn’t quite receive the husbands and wives in Ephesus as second-string, morally-weak jobbers for the faith. To the men he said this:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.Which, sadly, is the most powerful theological statement about human relationships and God in the entire Bible – and our churches treat it like it is some kind of cryptic betrayal of what we ought to stand for.
Yet to the women, Paul said this:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.And of course, Ms. Miller and Mr. Meacham want none of that – even if they would concede that the man is called to die for the sake of lifting his wife up. How can they admit that submission to a savior is actually a work of right-minded obedience? It would be a fatal betrayal of the godless religion they have tried to advance in their essays.
And in that, let me say for all of them that of course they do not want this kind of marriage, either. A marriage which at its root is a union intended and created by God that glorifies Him by being for the good of mankind – man and woman both – which creates a permanent and unbreakable bond in which one submits to the other, and the other in turn commits even to die for the sake of the first in order to nurture her as his own body – and that this union (here it is now: watch it) is the union where God has ordained to bring more human life into this world -- is simply not what the opportunists who chant “gay marriage” want for themselves.
Now, so what? Read the rest of this essay carefully, because it makes two points against both sides of this public argument which ought to give both sides a reason to pause.
“So what?” #1 is this: if the church was serious about this kind of love – which is Christ’s kind of love, first and foremost demonstrated on the Cross for a specific bride in order to make her holy and spotless before God – it wouldn’t abide a social Gospel of nondescript good will or idiotic exhortations about “your best life now”. Listen: often in marriage, you are not on the receiving end of good things but are in fact in the middle of hard doings. And if you expect that your marriage should be about satisfying you instead of sanctifying someone else through sacrifice, you will want to end your marriage in short order – kids and social appearances be damned. And let’s be honest: since divorce in the church looks like divorce in the world – that is, we do it just as often and for all the same reasons – I suspect we think of “marriage” in the same way the world does. So when the world simply wants to make the law look like what we are actually practicing, we have to look in the mirror and admit to ourselves that we are to blame for what the world thinks of marriage.
But my final “so what” here is to Ms. Miller and her tribe of social liberation kin: don’t kid yourself about what you “of course” don’t want. I find it almost incredulously-ironic, as I said above, that when Ms. Miller lists the sins of the OT patriarchs, she overlooks how the Bible describes what these acts were: “every man did what was right in his own eyes,” and “they did what was evil in the sight of YHVH, and they provoked Him to jealousy with their sins that they committed, more than all that their fathers had done.” It is expecially vexing and darkly funny to see her editor Mr. Meacham appeal to the sacrament of marriage when what he wants isn't what God has specifically called holy. To appeal to sacrament is to appeal to God's view of a thing, and to call for a blessing on an invented standard which seems right to a man but ignores or contorts God's specific prescription for things is exactly the opposite of "sacrament".
You see: if what you want is the church to bless your social-contract view of marriage, and you admit that this view is about what you want and not about what God has prescribed for you – male, female, for His glory, to your obedience, that you will sacrifice and for the sake of bearing children – you are asking for what you abhor in others, what "of course" we should abhor in the patriarchs described by Moses and the Prophets. Demanding a higher standard from others when one will not abide it himself is called “hypocrisy”, as we all know well and enjoy saying to the poor, ill-advised conservatives who want to do through Government what they cannot do themselves.
The other side, however, is in the far more pitiable position of wanting the government merely to allow them to do what they see in others as rank stupidity and evil. I’m not sure there’s a word for that (the Bible has one -- you can find it in Prov 12:1) but if they come up with one that means what I mean, let's by all means use that word instead. They should own up to what they are asking for, but please do not call it "marriage".
Stop asking for “marriage”. You don’t want marriage but a way to make other people put their blessing on your life and choices; you want them to call your values "holy" when you can't even say where they came from. I say you should have what you want here – because frankly you deserve what you are asking for, and that is not a compliment.
We are at fault here: we have taught you that marriage is a cheap thing which is easily made and easily unmade, and that it is about the pursuit of happiness. Shame on us for teaching you such a thing -- may God have mercy on us for it; let us repent for making marriage about human urges and rights. But if we are willing to stand corrected -- because of course nobody should want such a thing as you have asked for, a thing like the sinners of the Old Testament have done -- you yourselves should change your minds. May God grant mercy that you, too, will stand corrected and you will repent of your offense against Him.