If you asked, ‘What is marriage?’ of the majority of Christian denominations the answer would be that it is a God-ordained covenant between a man and woman. Further, most Western societies base their view of marriage on Christian ethos and morals and the Christian concept of marriage is accepted as the norm. This is certainly the backstory around marriage that I grew up with.
However, in the last two decades, the push for marriage equality has been more firmly on the agenda in many countries and in so doing has challenged us to consider what marriage actually is.
Australia has resisted a concerted effort by a growing number of groups for marriage equality to be granted. The argument put forward against marriage equality is that it is the beginning of a slippery slope to either polygamy or polyamory, forced gender transfer in children, and the destruction of family life.
Same-sex marriage is firmly on the political agenda and the upcoming postal vote ensures that it remains so. In looking to the future, it is important that Christians look at our own history of marriage and see what the way forward is.
You only have to spend a little time in Wikipedia to see that marriage has many forms: monogamy, polygamy, plural marriage, child marriage, same-sex marriage, temporary marriages and cohabitation are the options listed there. Different faiths and different cultures have different norms for marriage.
If we look at Christian heritage, is marriage as between one man and one woman the only example of marriage that God has accepted? A cursory look at the Old Testament would indicate not.
The patriarchs were men who had more than one wife or mother of their children. Abraham had Sarah as his wife and mother of Isaac, as well as Hagar as mother of his son Ishmael. Jacob had two wives, Rachel and Leah and two other women who bore him sons, Zilpah and Bilhah—and all the children borne to these four women were considered legitimate. David had more than one wife and Solomon even more so.
None of these men were condemned for having more than one wife or for having concubines. However, their choices of wives were questioned when they married women who brought foreign gods into the national worship, as was their wisdom in trying to circumvent or hasten God’s plan (aka Hagar).
One of the tempting things to do with the Bible is to read back into these ancient words our 21st century understandings. I have heard Christians say that the issues Abraham and Sarah had with Hagar were the result of the sin of polygamy. Yes, there were problems in this relationship, but these stemmed more from natural tensions around jealousy and favouritism, as well as the desire to make God’s promise come to pass in a natural way, than with polygamy per se.
It is interesting to note that what is our ‘normal’—companionate marriage and romantic love—has only operated since the rise of capitalism in Western societies. As industrialisation weakened the ties between extended families, the nuclear family became the norm. Up until the turn of the twentieth century, marriage was seen as one of the most significant fiscal decisions of a person’s life, determined in the majority of cases by property transfers—such as dowry—whilst romantic love was viewed as a disturbance of the sensible economic decision-making that was essential.
Bodies such as the Australian Christian Lobby are active in arguing for man-woman marriage to be retained as the legal norm in Australian society. But, given that what we consider as ‘normal’ reasons for marriage are quite recent developments, the question remains about what marriage actually is.
Although the definition of marriage differs according to various cultures, it is chiefly an institution in which interpersonal relationships, usually sexual, are accepted. ‘When defined broadly, marriage is considered a cultural universal. Individuals may marry for several reasons, including legal, social, libidinal, emotional, financial, spiritual, and religious purposes. Who they marry may be influenced by socially determined rules of incest, prescriptive marriage rules, parental choice and individual desire.’
Throw into this mix the reality of same-sex love and attraction, both within the church and outside it, then the church must have more nuanced responses to questions around same-sex marriage than ‘don’t do it’, ‘it’s wrong’ and ‘no’.
I have come to the conclusion that, as a follower of Jesus, I must deal with people in love. I do not feel I can honestly condemn another person’s love or sexual union, if it is one in which the people involved are faithful to each other, are not solely giving into lust, and are not taking advantage of each other.
Here I would call upon Paul, when he writes in 1 Thessalonians 4: 3–6. He says that avoiding sexual immorality involves learning to control your body. This includes not giving way to passionate lusts, where sexual needs and desires are met in ways that do not honour the body. It also involves ensuring that we do not take advantage of others in our relationships with them—we cannot use people for our own ends.
I know these are broad strokes, and that these verses are often seen as only applying to man-woman marriage—not even to civil partnerships or de-facto relationships. However, I think there is enough in these words for Christians to use as a basis for healthy ‘marital’ relationships, whatever form they take.
In the end, Jesus says that it will be the love we show to others that will set us apart as his disciples (John 13:35). As we all must deal with the push towards marriage equality, let us deal with others in love—especially those who see things differently to ourselves.
I work with people to help them uncover the unconscious factors which drive their lives and find power in past experiences for future growth. It is imperative that as I do this with others, I also continue my own journey – to look at what I believe and why. And it has been my own backstory work, of critiquing my faith and worldview, that has brought me to this place.
It is also my understanding of the place of privilege I inhabit that has challenged me not to be silent in this marriage debate and to stand with those who have for so long been discriminated against – because I can and because I must.