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What do Christians think marriage is really about?

Amid all the controversy over sex and marriage in the modern era, it is easy for conservatives and Christians to imagine that the church has always had it right, that if we could only get to a past era of godliness and morality, following the light of the Christian tradition, or the example of the saints in Scripture, all would be well. Skeptics have no trouble pointing to the flaws in this view. So many of the heroes of Scripture – Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon, and many more – were polygamists. The Torah seems to have tolerated polygamy in the same way that it tolerated divorce.

And what of the Christian tradition? Consider the views of the greatest early church father Augustine:

Conjugal intercourse for the sake of procreation carries no fault; intercourse for the sake of satisfying lust, provided that it takes place with a spouse, carries a forgivable fault (venialis culpa) because of marital fidelity; but adultery or fornication carries a mortal fault. Therefore, abstention from all intercourse is better even than marital intercourse that takes place for the sake of procreation.

So writes Augustine in his treatise The Good of Marriage, which he wrote around 410. For Augustine there is a hierarchy of virtues and vices when it comes to human sexuality.

  1. Perfect Virtue – celibacy
  2. No Fault – sex within marriage for the purpose of procreation
  3. Venial Fault – sex within marriage for the purpose of satisfying sexual desire
  4. Mortal Fault – sex outside of marriage

As bizarre as it may seem to most Protestants today, this view of marriage was not out of the ordinary in Augustine’s day, particularly for an intellectual or a philosopher. Sexual desire was viewed by Platonists and Stoics alike as a form of enslavement to the passions of the body, which rational human beings seek to transcend. The early church widely identified the passion of sexual desire with original sin, or concupiscence. Augustine speaks for that tradition when he insists that sex is only fully virtuous when the sexual partners view themselves first and foremost as parents rather than as passionate lovers, sex being a problematic means to a laudable end. Augustine stresses with absolute clarity that sex for the purpose of satisfying sexual desire is not permitted per se. It is simply forgivable.

In fact, Augustine’s view of sexuality powerfully shaped the medieval church (its influence is still obvious, if diminished, even in John Calvin) and to a significant extent that of the Roman Catholic Church to this day. The path of perfect virtue, for Rome, and the path that all priests must take, is that of celibacy. Married partners who engage in sex without being open to the possibility of procreation fall into sin – hence the ban on artificial birth control.

Augustine’s view of polygamy in the Old Testament makes his understanding of marriage seem all the more bizarre. For while Augustine believed celibacy is the way of perfect godliness after the incarnation of Christ, he insists that in Old Testament times procreation was an obligation of such importance that polygamy itself was legitimate, so long as it was engaged in for the purpose of procreation. Why? Because all of God’s promises of salvation for his people, and of blessing for the human race, were tied up in the propagation of a godly seed.

Among the ancient fathers, of course, it was permissible to take another woman, with the permission of one’s wife, and to produce children that were shared in common, the husband providing the seed and the intercourse, the wife providing the right and authorization. Whether this is also permitted in our own day I would not be so rash as to say. For today there is not the same need of procreation that there was in the past. In those days it was even permissible for husbands who could have children to take other wives in order to produce more numerous progeny, which is something that is certainly not allowed today.

One of the consequences of the church’s classic obsession with procreation as the only perfect justification of sex has been that it didn’t seem difficult at all to demonstrate why homosexuality is sinful. Sexual desire itself was suspect. How much more sexual desire entirely removed from its one legitimate purpose?

Since at least the Victorian era, however, the West has embraced romantic love as the perfect form and expression of sexuality, with procreation falling to the side as a possible – though by no means necessary, and often inconvenient or feared – byproduct. The result, as we all know, is that sexual fulfillment has become its own virtue, more important than marriage (hence adultery, no-fault divorce, fornication, and cohabitation) or potential obligations to the human beings who receive life from it (hence abortion-on-demand).

Catholics will point out that Protestants themselves have exacerbated these trends through their over-eagerness to distance themselves from classic Catholic teaching on sex and marriage. It is probably more accurate to say that Protestants fell into a form of biblicism that led them to abandon natural law, reason, and careful reflection on why what the Bible says about sex and marriage is true. For liberal Protestants this meant that the collapse of biblical authority opened the floodgates to the modern infatuation with sexual autonomy. For conservative Protestants it has led to a stand for traditional marriage that is more tenacious and rigid than ever before – but all too often lacking in the thoughtfulness and wisdom that would make it persuasive to outsiders. God says marriage is between a man and a woman. We shouldn’t question why. Just obey.

Scripture, of course, offers the sort of reflective guidance that could have spared the early and medieval church from its troubling denigration of sexuality, which owed more to Greek philosophy than to the teachings of Jesus or Paul. It also offers sufficient guidance to spare the modern liberal church from the increasingly accepted alternative – affirmation of whatever sexual relationships seem mutual and loving.

Jesus and Paul both pointed their hearers not to the bare, isolated commands of Scripture, removed from their context (a tactic too often followed by all three groups identified above), but to the norms of creation as revealed in Genesis 1-2. Thus Jesus overturns Deuteronomy’s permissive approach to divorce by declaring that Moses permitted this “because of your hardness of heart,” but “in the beginning it was not so”:

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 they shall become one flesh’? (Matthew 19:4-5; Cf. 19:1-12)

Paul likewise characterizes marriage as something more than simply a means for procreation by appealing to the same text in Genesis. Marriage, he says, is a mysterious (sacramental!) representation of the complementary love between Jesus and his church, expressed in the complementarity of the male-female sexual bond.

‘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. (Ephesians 5:31-32; Cf. 5:22-33)

What is striking about both of these prominent examples is that they emphasize the unconditional, comprehensive, and complementary nature of marriage without reducing the purpose of that unconditionality, comprehensiveness, or complementarity, to procreation. God made them male and female in the beginning because “it is not good for man to be alone,” and a woman serves as a breathtakingly satisfying partner in part because even as she is so similar (unlike the animals), she is also so happily different! Moderns detect here the misogyny and exploitation of women that has characterized millennia gone by, but the text is clear that the woman was created to be an equal helper (the Hebrew word for ‘helper’ is often used in Scripture to describe God), and that both the desire for domination and coercive rule represent the curse of the fall:

To the woman he said … Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you. (Genesis 3:16)

To be sure, procreation is one of the two important tasks given to human beings, created in the image of God as male and female. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth …” But the other important task, to be equally fulfilled by male and female working together, is to “subdue it [the earth] and have dominion.” (Genesis 1:28) Needless to say, this is not exactly the picture of the late Victorian nuclear family with its separation of spheres, though we do see such a potential separation in the proclamation of the curse due to sin (Genesis 3:16-19).

The point here is not to debate gender roles or the expression they have taken at various points in American history. The point, rather, is to demonstrate that the story of marriage to which both Jesus and Paul point Christians is a story that affirms the comprehensive, unconditional, complementary sexual bond not simply for the purpose of procreation, but for the purposes of solidarity in work and cooperation in life, as well, presumably, as companionship.

What this tells us is not that the non-procreative purposes ought to be used to leverage a view of marriage that abandons its foundation in gender difference. What it tells us, rather, is that gender difference, unconditional love, and comprehensive commitment serve fundamental purposes far beyond simply the biology of procreation. The most lofty of these reasons is that the unique bond of male and female, expressed in sex, life, and work, beautifully portrays the love between God and his people, between Christ and the church. Even more mundane, if less distinctly Christian, is that this bond is central to human flourishing, or to the good life, both of individuals and of society. If marriage is, as Aristotle says, the first human institution, it is because it brings men and women together in wholehearted solidarity and mutual support in all the endeavors and trials of life, bonding them through the mutual satisfaction of sexual desire as well as the procreation and loving nurture of children.

That’s not to say there aren’t other social bonds that can’t be equally deep (i.e., same-gender friendship) or even more important (i.e., the church). It does suggest that marriage is something worth defending.


Should American courts recognize the legitimacy of Shari’a law?

In a thought-provoking article at Christianity Today my professor and dissertation adviser John Witte, Jr., defends the intent of the Oklahoma legislation that prohibited the use of Shari’a law in state courts, legislation that has thus far been rejected on religious liberty grounds by federal courts. Witte describes three arguments generally used to defend the limited legitimacy of Shari’a law in the United States, rejecting each in turn.

The first reason has to do with religious liberty:

Both Western constitutional laws and international human rights norms give robust protection to the religious freedom of individuals and groups. Why deny peaceful Muslim citizens the freedom to opt out of state laws on sex, marriage, and family that run afoul of central faith commandments?

Witte responds,

This argument, however, falsely assumes that claims of conscience and religious free exercise must always trump. But this is hardly the case in modern democracies, even though religious freedom is cherished… Even the most devout religious believer enjoys no immunity from criminal laws against activities like polygamy, child marriage, female genital mutilation, or corporal discipline of wives. Religious freedom is not a license to engage in crime…. Most Western democracies readily allow religious officials to officiate at weddings, testify in divorce cases, assist in the adoption of a child, facilitate the rescue of a distressed family member, and the like. Some democracies also will uphold religious arbitration awards and mediation settlements over domestic issues. But that is a long way from delegating full legal power to religious bodies for governing the domestic affairs of their voluntary faithful

The second argument is essentially libertarian. It follows John Locke in asserting that marriage and the family are pre-political institutions that the state is bound to recognize but not meddle with. Why not, as some conservatives have suggested in response to the spreading phenomena of same-sex marriage, simply privatize the whole institution?

Witte’s response to this argument is an excellent explanation of why the state must be involved in the institution of marriage, both in terms of protection and regulation:

A comprehensive system of marriage and family law—let alone the many related legal systems of inheritance, trusts, family property, children’s rights, education, social welfare, and more—cannot long operate without coercive power. It needs police, prosecutors, and prisons; subpoenas, fines, and contempt orders; material, physical, and corporal sanctions. Moral suasion and example, coupled with communal approbation and censure, can certainly do part of the work. But a properly functioning marriage and family law system requires all these coercive instruments of government. And no religious authority can wield coercive power.

The third argument is based on the value of religious equality. As Witte affirms, federal and state courts permit deference to religious rules and tribunals on various points when it comes to Judaism and Christianity. Why should Islam be any different? Witte acknowledges that this argument is the most difficult to overcome. His basic response is to appeal to history. The exceptions granted to Jews and Christians have come about over a long process and for valid, particular reasons. Islam has not yet worked through that process. What’s more, by virtue of their embrace of democratic rights and freedoms Christians and Jews have earned a certain degree of deference that is not yet clearly due to Muslim communities:

[R]eligious communities, in turn, have to accommodate—or at least tolerate—the core constitutional and cultural values of their secular host nations. No Western nation will readily grant concessions to a religious community that rejects liberty, equality, and fraternity, or human rights, democracy, and rule of law.

Witte’s argument is spot-on in many respects, but Matthew Schmitz is not convinced. In a post at First Thoughts entitled “Christianity Today’s Dead-Wrong Defence of Anti-Sharia Laws” he argues that the Oklahoma law was less a rejection of special accommodation to Shari’a law than it was a restriction of religious freedom currently enjoyed by all religious groups.

If a marriage contract doesn’t run afoul of our laws or our Constitution, what does it matter whether or not it references Sharia? Should it be ruled out? If so, what about an otherwise identical contract that doesn’t reference reference Sharia? Witte’s argument is, at its best, an argument for inaction—not for the measures passed by states like Oklahoma and Kansas.

In a fuller statement of his argument in National Review, back in June, Schmitz made a persuasive case that laws targeted at Muslims accomplish nothing in the way of preserving the sovereignty of American law, and that, in fact, they do much to weaken religious liberty, alienate Muslims, and even threaten national security. His most important point is that there is no need for the sort of law Oklahoma wants, or that Witte defends.

Sharia, of course, does not grant all the rights that the U.S. Constitution does; neither does Christian canon law or Jewish Halakhic law (or English or French law, for that matter). But why should this fact prevent a court from honoring a contract made under the provisions of one of these “foreign” legal systems if the contract does not itself violate any U.S. or state regulations, laws, or constitutional provisions? Under one reading of the Kansas law, a contract that makes reference to canon law or sharia — but is otherwise perfectly legal — would be thrown out, while an identical one that makes no such reference would be upheld. The other possible reading of the law is that it only bars rulings based on foreign legal systems when the rulings themselves would violate constitutional rights. But in that case, as Professor Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia Law School has argued, the law is meaningless, for courts will not tolerate or enforce violations of constitutional rights in any case.

In short, even if courts were to recognize the limited relevance of Shari’a law for members of Muslim communities, that would not prevent any particular individual from claiming and receiving the full protection of the rights and freedoms all Americans are afforded under the Constitution and the law of the land.

Of course, Witte knows this. As he writes in his article, the current accommodations made to Jewish courts do not offer the latter any form of coercion. Constitutional rights and freedoms always trump religious authority full stop. Thus Jewish courts “do not claim authority over all of Jewish sex, marriage, and family life. Having abandoned physical coercion and sanctions, they claim no authority beyond persuasion to stop a disputant from walking out of court and out of the Jewish community altogether.”

But the issue is complex. In theory an individual may be able to walk out of her religious community at any time, but in reality the threat of social and religious ostracism is far too great, especially for ethnic and religious communities not well integrated into American society. This seems to be the assumption underlying Witte’s reference to history. So while Schmitz thinks the fears of “creeping Shari’a” are overblown and worries about the more fundamental cause of religious liberty, a valid fear given the events of the last few years, Witte fears that the Islamic community has not yet clearly embraced American values with sufficient enthusiasm to warrant the sort of deference given to other communities, a seemingly equally valid fear given the reality on the ground.

It’s a difficult tension, and it’s by no means clear to me that there is an easy answer. I’ll be paying close attention to how it all plays out.

Why people are ambivalent about Biblical Law: and why we should be too

In a recent article for the Huffington Post Esther J. Hamori, an associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Union Theological Seminary, makes an excellent case for why the Bible cannot simplistically be applied to American politics (or any civil politics, for that matter). As Hamori points out, the Bible relays so many different instructions regarding marriage and related cultural issues that it is simply impossible to be dogmatic on the application of these instructions to modern society.

Hamori describes a number of laws and marital arrangements in the Old Testament, noting especially the seeming approval of polygamy among the patriarchs. I do not agree with everything Hamori says her, but I do take her overall point seriously:

Each of these biblical standards for marriage — polygamy, marriage within the family, reproduction with a late husband’s closest kin, prohibitions against intermarriage — were seen as vital in some historical contexts as reflected in the Bible, and not in others. In times and places where marriage to a first cousin was the ideal, the Bible says such marriages are blessed by God. When polygamy was the cultural norm, that too is said to be blessed (as God blesses Jacob’s marriages with the sisters Rachel and Leah, as well as with their slaves; Genesis 30). Kinship and property are important factors in many biblical marriages; one element that rarely figures into biblical standards for marriage, however, is love.

Marriage in the Bible is also not restricted to couples who can reproduce together biologically. Some biblical couples do not have children; others use a surrogate, such as Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 16), Jacob and Rachel, and Jacob and Leah (Genesis 30). In the latter two cases, each sister explicitly claims her surrogate’s babies as her own, and all are presented as given by God.

To be sure, conservatives might quibble that the Bible tolerates polygamy but does not approve it, somewhat like divorce. But that’s the whole problem. If God tolerated and even blessed polygamy among the patriarchs and kings of Israel, is it really such a disaster if America tolerates certain practices that are fundamentally immoral? The issue of divorce is even more problematic for those who want to see the direct application of biblical morality to American politics. Jesus makes it quite clear that divorce is immoral except in cases of adultery, and yet the Mosaic Law allowed divorce for much less significant reasons. If Israel’s law had to be relaxed because of the “hardness” of human hearts, how much more that of America?

That said, Hamori stretches her case somewhat when she argues that marriage in the Bible is not necessarily between one man and one woman. As she concludes her article,

Marriage in the Bible is not restricted to one man and one woman. The biblical models for marriage include a range of relationships and combinations, and these evolve with the culture.

But this characterization is misleading. Presumably when Hamori makes this claim she is thinking of polygamy. But polygamy, say in the case of Jacob, does not refer to the marriage of one man and four women, as if Leah, Rachel et. al. were also married to one another. Rather, what polygamy means is that Jacob had four different marriages at one time. He was married to four different women. Yet he married each woman at a different time, and each marriage was still that of one man and one woman. Any other interpretation leads to absurdity.

Similarly, Hamori is misleading insofar as she implies that marriage in the Bible is ever anything other than something between a man and a woman, as if it can be between two women, or two men. The spectrum of toleration in Scripture is simply not that broad.

That said, I actually agree with Hamori’s overall point. As I have argued repeatedly on this blog, Christians should not base their case for traditional marriage primarily on the Bible. Hamori writes,

This does not mean that anything goes; it’s simply what we see in the biblical texts themselves. It does not mean that there are no standards; there were always incest taboos, for example, but what counts as incest is culturally dictated, and our society does not embrace many biblical perspectives on this (e.g., the ideal of marrying one’s first cousin). It does not mean that God is a pushover; it shows, if anything, a God who will engage people in the world in which they live.

I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. Yet that is precisely why I think marriage cannot be redefined to include homosexual relationships. There are certain standards to which human beings should always hold (i.e., rape is wrong and should be prohibited by public law) no matter how much culture changes. One such standard is the idea that marriage is of concern to civil government primarily because it involves the procreation and raising of children, and this means that marriage should never be redefined so as to take the government’s focus off that purpose. As Hamori points out, the Bible does not talk about marriage primarily as an institution regulating mutual affirmations of love. At least as far as the state is concerned, marriage is much more practical than that.

It would be a great tragedy if our country transformed the institution of marriage in a way that caused harm to our own social fabric simply because we want to be affirming of particular loving relationships. It would be just as tragic if we abandoned traditional marriage simply because we want to avoid legislating the revelation of one religion. Thankfully, there is no need to take either of these steps, because the purpose of marriage is not primarily about either love or the Bible. Hamori does us a service by reminding us of this point.

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