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In Defense of Marriage

by Phil Thrailkill

“God made them male and female.”
Jesus affirms the Genesis story as divine revelation.

M A R K 1 0 : 6 b

A fierce debate going on in and outside the church.  It is not about sideline issues but central ones.  How it turns out will effect us all, our children and our children’s children for generations to come.  The debate is deeply philosophical and involves fundamentally differing first principles and visions of what kind of society we will be.  It is an important moral debate because it concerns deep divides over what is right and wrong, what is to be legally allowed and disallowed, what is to be labeled normal and what abnormal, and, in the special language of the church, what is blessable and what is unblessable.  It is also about the tension between individual liberties and communal goods.  Do we have a collective vision about the good that is embodied in our laws and our customs, or is everyone free to seek their own good without any constraints in the hope that all turns out well in the end?

In the political arena the debate is often cast in terms of natural law, which is an understanding of how the world presents itself to us apart from the claims of any particular religious tradition.  We read the book of nature and learn what it teaches.   Science is our handmaid in this venture, and reason is our means of exploration.  On this reading, the categories of male and female are as basic as you can get.  Sexual polarity and complementarity are built into the hardware of the animal kingdom of which we are a part.  A man and a woman come together in community rituals and in a physical union for their common happiness and for the rearing of children.  It’s called marriage, and some form of it stands as a stable foundation of all known cultures.  The argument can be made from a realistic reading of human biology and cultural history.  It’s everywhere presumed; it’s the way life works.  To argue against this seems unreasonable and to experiment with other forms positively reckless.

In the church, however, the terms of the debate are shifted.  Whereas others speak of nature as a self-governing system, we in the church speak of creation which presumes a personal Creator, the one we call God who constantly upholds all things.  Nature and creation are two differing perspectives on the same world.  Further, we make the bold claim that in the history of God with creation, as witnessed to in Scripture, we have access to the mind and will of the one who made it all.  We have access to divine revelation.  In addition to reason, God has shown us what cannot be reached by reason alone.  We know the will of God because God has shown it to us.  Even in this fallen world with our partial and distorted view of things, we cannot surrender the bedrock claim that the One, True and Living God is self-revealed in the creation, in history as a whole, and more particularly in the collection of books known as the Bible, the central character of which is Jesus Christ.  In him we claim that God has come in person.  His words are God’s words, his life God’s life in our midst.

The resurrection of Jesus and him alone is the final seal of approval that in this particular life we have reliable access to the truth about God’s person and God’s intent for creation.  In Jesus we meet the God who loves us and has come to rescue us now and for the future.   In Jesus God pays the highest cost to get our attention and offers us a way forward to life and a way out of bondage.  In relationship with this God we know the truth about the way things are and the way things are going to be.  We stake our life on these realities, and the name for that calculated risk is faith, which is itself a way of knowing that is beyond reason alone.  And so on those key issues where natural law, the Christian understanding of creation, the  flow of the whole of Scripture, the explicit teaching of Jesus Christ, and the tradition of church teaching all agree, we are on the firmest possible grounds to make a bold claim and to announce it to the world without apology.

In the midst of a debate on divorce, Jesus turned to Genesis and quoted from God’s fundamental intent before the fall of Adam and Eve into sin. “God,” he said, “made them male and female.”  One humanity, two distinctive forms.  He then went on to announce that one male and one female in marriage is God’s ordained structure for the intergenerational passing on of life, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”  This joining together is the work of God and ought therefore to be respected by all, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”  Marriage is a one flesh union of two complementary gendered persons who come together as equals.  Not a same-sex union, which is a crude parody of the real thing, but a union of creation differences.  Anything else is against the God of nature and the nature of God.  It is bad for the culture, and it is a disaster for the church.

The opening paragraph of the United Methodist Service Of Christian Marriage summarizes classical church teaching in simple and elegant language. It begins with the presence of a Christian congregation, “Friends, we are gathered together in the sight of God.”  It then announces the names of the bride and the groom for all to hear, “to witness and bless the joining together of (let’s call them John and Jane) in Christian marriage.”  There are then three references to Scriptural teaching, first from Genesis, “The covenant of marriage was established by God, who created us male and female for each other;” then from John’s Gospel, “With his presence and power Jesus graced a wedding at Cana of Galilee;” and finally a reference to the cross and to teaching found in multiple places in the Epistles, most especially in Ephesians, “and in his sacrificial love gave us the example for the love of husband and wife.”  It closes by reminding everyone that the groom and bride are here to enter into this glorious mystery created by God, “Jane and John come to give themselves to one another in this holy covenant.”[1]  That is an elegant summary of church teaching based on divine revelation.  I used to rush over those words because we all agreed that heterosexual marriage was the norm.  I now savor every word as a witness to truth and a hedge against the impending chaos of a hedonistic and morally confused culture.

Marriage is not just a contract but a covenant, not merely a negotiated exchange of goods and services but an unqualified binding together both enabled and witnessed by the God who promises to always be present.  When meeting with conflicted and angry couples I often read aloud the marriage vows and ask, “How are you doing at keeping your promises?”  A second question is, “When is the last time you asked God for help?”  It changes the whole atmosphere when it is acknowledged that God has a stake in the relationship.  It’s not just a social contract but a divine covenant.[2]  And, sad to say, the third party to the marriage is often forgotten as soon as they recess out of the church on the way to the reception and the rest of their life.  God says, “I was there at the wedding, why not invite me back into to the marriage?”

Why then the furor over homosexual marriages?  The simplest answer is that people want what they want and don’t care about church teaching or the accumulated wisdom of the generations.  This is the secular and pagan option.  You see it on TV every evening. Others within the church believe that they can creatively re-read Scripture and church teaching and find a way to bless same-sex unions.  They are the revisionists.  I am not one of them, and I find their tortured arguments unconvincing.  Underneath their program is a spirit of rebellion and a desire to accommodate to the trends of the culture which they value above all else.  The choice of the liberated individual to seek fulfillment with whomever and however is very dear to them, and the thought that the church would say a firm No to much of anything galls them deeply.  Underneath their calls for compassion and accusations of bigotry is a deep resistance to the boundaries God has set in creation.  The goal of the church for them is to liberate oppressed minorities rather than calling all persons to be conformed to Jesus Christ and his deep demands for holiness in the forms of love and justice.

The Bible and the church are not prudish.  We affirm male and female in all their capacities for pleasure and love as the gift of a loving Creator, but we can never be casual about sex because we know that the use of our bodies with others involves the deepest gift of the self, and that it not something about which we can be indifferent.  For good or evil, in line with God’s will or outside it, the truth holds that we do with our bodies we do with our very selves.  The right and wrong use of sex is a weighty moral issue on which the church as a whole has a distinct and life giving perspective.  You become what you do.  There is nothing casual about it.  The consequences are real and permanent.  The two do become one flesh; a bond is created that is not easily undone.

So the issue before us as a culture and a church is this: Shall marriage be between a man and a woman, or shall we drop these boundaries in civil and ecclesiastical law and allow for a broader definition?  Revisionists say Yes; Traditionalists say No.  In June the Canadian  Supreme Court declared the exclusivity of marriage between one man and one woman as unconstitutional.[3]  There is the distinct possibility that if certain pending laws are passed that reading portions of the Bible in church or over the public airways in Canada could soon qualify as hate speech and be prosecuted.[4]  In the same month the U.S. Supreme Count effectively ruled out questions of morality and decency in the Lawrence vs. Texas case which said that  privacy and consent were the only two important criteria, thus logically opening the law in the near future to all sorts of other arrangements becoming approved or at least decriminalized.[5] 

Are we really ready to return to polygamy, to group marriages, to consensual incest between adults, even to bestiality if it can be demonstrated that the animal consents?  Once the boundaries are gone, then why not adults and children?  Once marriage is no longer legally defined as one man and one woman, where do you stop?  Two men or two women which is now the issue.  How about three women and two men?  A father, his wife, and their adult daughter?  How would you like as an employer to be forced to pay the health insurance of four or five domestic partners in a new form of group marriage?  Once it’s no longer God’s way, one man and one woman, where do you stop, and why?  Do you really want to slide down the slippery slope from marriage traditionally defined to the public approval of the grossest and most degrading of practices?  And if the culture decides to go that way, do you really want to the church to go with them sprinkling holy water and spouting blessings?  Some on the lifestyle left are even arguing for the complete disentangling of government from marriage.  Make all intimate liaisons a purely private affair with no common definition or social privileges.[6]  Let the unhindered individual reign supreme.  No permanently binding connections.  What would that mean for children?  This is the deconstruction of the human family. The primal vision of Genesis and the ancient prohibitions of Leviticus have renewed meaning in our day.

On August 4 the United Nations began considering a proposal that would support same-sex marriages around the world. On August 5 the Episcopal General Convention elected a practicing homosexual as Bishop and two days later gave local  option for same-sex marriage liturgies.  The future of the Anglican communion, our mother in the faith, rests on how this is worked out through church discipline.  Meanwhile, United Methodists prepare for a battle of a General Conference in Pittsburgh and the silence of our bishops on the problems of the Episcopalians is deafening.  I ask myself, Where are the leaders?  Where are those who will speak a clear word of hope and direction to the church?  The laity are waiting, and the remaining credibility of our episcopal leaders is slowly leaching away.  And in spite of its own crisis concerning homosexual priests and pedophilia, I am glad  that the Vatican courageously stood up for church teaching and instructed Catholic politicians that to vote for same-sex unions was sin.  Hurray for John Paul II!

It is now an entertainment imperative for every sit-com to promote the homosexual agenda and to desensitize us all to the meaning of what we are being sold.  Michael Medved, the Jewish media critic, has commented, “A Martian gathering evidence about American society, simply by monitoring our television, would certainly assume that there were more gay people in America than there are evangelical Christians.”[7]

Marriage as we have known it has been under assault for decades.  No-fault divorce laws, the sexual revolution, and the rise in cohabitation have all chipped away at the stability of this social building block.   Children are the primary casualties, but also the men and women whose bedposts are filled with notches but who have lost the capacity to love one another faithfully.  But this most recent challenge, the demand for same-sex unions, is of a wholly different order.  It is not a variation within the heterosexual model but an assault on the model itself.  In popular culture what becomes legal is soon thought moral, and what is thought moral becomes part of the ethos of the nation and is eventually taught in its public schools. Those who dissent will be labeled not just homophobic and bigoted as we are now, but marked out as dangerous persons who will not go along with the new social order.  What has happened to the Boy Scouts in certain communities might one day happen to the churches.  Mocked and ridiculed.  Would we be ready for such a shift of public opinion?  Wake up, church.  If it happened in Canada, it can happen here; and if it happened to the Episcopalians, then it can happen to the Methodists; and if it happens in California and New York, then it can happen in Georgetown.  This is not bigotry.  This is not narrow mindedness.  This is not reactionary conservatism.  This is not hatred.  This is a point of faithful Christian witness to a sinful world about to plunge into a wrong-headed social experiment with terrible consequences.  It would take a long time to find our way back to social and moral sanity.  The world class German theologian Dr. Wolfhart Pannenberg has issued this warning:

“If the church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm and recognize homosexual unions as personal partnerships of love equal to marriage, such a church would no longer stand on biblical grounds and would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”[8]

There will be no marriage in the kingdom of God, so it is not technically of ultimate import.  I gladly admit that.  But until the kingdom comes, marriage between one man and one woman is a category of creation worth defending in the church and in the culture.

Now why have I taken this Sunday to speak about these matters?  The simplest answer is that my conscience was pricked by the Holy Spirit.  I could have continued with the series on Christian conversion, but that would not have been faithful. You would not have known I was a coward, but I would.  A second reason is that a number of Christian leaders called for this past week, October 12 through 18, to be set aside as the first Marriage Protection Week.[9]  Our President issued a supportive proclamation that begins with these strong words, “Marriage is a sacred institution, and its protection is essential to the continued strength of our society.”  And then the key sentence, “Marriage is a union between a man and woman....”  A third reason is that I believe that this issue, as distasteful as it is, and as much of a distraction as it is from other issues like evangelism and mission, is the issue of our day, and that if we are found unfaithful here not much else will matter.  And finally, I recently reread a quote from Martin Luther and from Dante I first read years ago.  That sealed it.  Here is what Luther said:

“If I declare with loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of God’s truth except for that one little bit which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ no matter how boldly I am professing Christ.  For the soldier to be steady on all the battlefield besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that single point.”

Dante put it more concisely, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in time of great moral crisis maintain their neutrality.”

Some of you are likely asking the same question I asked myself, What does this have to do with Jesus’ teaching from Mark 10 on divorce?  Just this.  In his day the Jews were clear on the homosexual issues.  They knew about it; it was common among the pagans, but it was clearly out of bounds for God’s people.  What was not so clear was divorce.  The debate was about the proper grounds.  Could a man divorce his wife for a silly reason like burning the toast or putting on a few pounds, or only for a serious one like adultery?   That a man had power to divorce his wife was simply assumed.  It was a man’s world, and women were more or less disposable.  It was one of the dark sides of patriarchy.  The law of Moses concerning the certificate of divorce was a way of giving divorced women legal status so they could remarry.  It did not remove male privilege, but it did modify some of the devastating effects on divorced women.  It was a move in the direction of justice, and laws which deal with issues of equality before the law are still of concern to Christians.

We cannot stop the fact of divorce, but we can regulate some of the consequences in the direction of fairness.  The fact is that Jesus did not mount a large scale campaign to do away with divorce.  Instead, he went back to God’s original intention for marriage and lifted up lifelong, loving marriage s a real possibility for those who were his followers and who lived by the power of the kingdom.  The issue is and will always be hard hearts, “For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.” Divorce and its legal regulation is a concession to the hard hearts of men and women who are no longer willing to keep their promises.  It is a concession to sin and an adaptation to the perversities of human freedom.  Divorce is always a tragedy, a failure, a sign of sin, but it is not unforgivable and it does not make persons second class citizens in the eyes of God or in the eyes of the church.  Some divorces are absolutely necessary, but many could be prevented and marriages restored with early intervention.  On this side we do everything we can to prevent divorce, and on the other side everything to heal its painful effects.

In his argument against male privilege and a casual attitude towards divorce Jesus went back to the beginning of creation.  “But from the beginning of creation,” is the way he put it.  He then linked two passages from Genesis 1 and 2 in an argument for why marriage is the work of God and not merely a human arrangement.  Male and female is not an accident but the very design of God written into our flesh.  It is this bipolar, complementary sexuality that is the basis for marriage and the family.  God made us this way; our anatomy is a witness, and this is the reason that children leave their parents and set up homes of their own through social rituals, sexual intercourse, and the conception of children.  No longer two but one flesh.  And since this is the work of God, Jesus warns that those who mess with it are in danger of punishment from God, “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder,” and in our day he would add, “let no woman put asunder.”  Whatever else it is, those words are a somber warning.  Deliberately destroy the art, and you will have to face the artist!  Don’t mess with God’s masterpiece.  Don’t mess with marriage.

My argument is that the same texts Jesus appealed to on the issue of divorce also address the issue of same-sex marriages, though that was not the precise issue before him.  Here the Son of God is commenting authoritatively on the work which he shared at creation with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  This is not one more human opinion but the Word of God applied by the Son of God to a human problem about men and women.  This is binding divine revelation, and so to go against it is not just to go against human teaching but against God who graciously demonstrates his will in creating us male and female and then reconfirms that structure through the words of Jesus the Son.

Where persons do not have a sexual orientation that matches their biology, or where transsexual persons do not have a gender identity that matches their biology, we should see this as one of the tragic results of the disease of sin in which we all share and which manifests itself in our bodies and minds in different ways.  It is often more the result of being sinned against in broken and dysfunctional families than of deliberate choice. But to cooperate with those impulses by acting out in same sex relationships remains sin and is profoundly destructive.  So are all forms of heterosexual promiscuity including sex before marriage and adultery afterwards.

It is only in marriage that God blesses the union of male and female.  The casual use of another’s body without a lifelong covenant commitment to their welfare as sealed in a public marriage is sin, and we only have to look around at the horror of abortion, the spread of STD’s, the continuance of prostitution and pornography, not to mention the trail of broken hearts, in order to see that God was right and wise when he gave us proper boundaries for the expression of sexual energies.  Celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage is the briefest summary of this counter-cultural biblical truth.  People are not cars to be test driven and compared.  In a world like ours that has thrown off all restraints in the search for pleasure and freedom, the church needs to lift high its humane and life-giving understanding of human sexuality against all the other readings of our condition.  We know what we are teaching and why.  We deal with the casualties.

Jesus did not directly address the issue of homosexuality because it was already settled in his thoroughly Jewish theology.  It was not up for discussion.  It was a pagan vice.  But if he had been asked, Jesus would likely have responded with the same texts and interpretation as when asked about divorce, which is his day was the point of attack on God’s  original creation intention.  “God made them male and female.  For this reason....”  Which means that without the male and female, there is no marriage.

So what am I doing about this issue, and how can you join me?

  1. I am teaching a nine week class on homosexuality and church teaching  and am frankly disappointed at the attendance.  What does it take to wake you up?  What do you really care about enough to study and to think?

  2. I speak up and do not remain silent when the issue is raised in conversation and in public settings.  I challenge popular myths about being born this way and I can’t help it and You Christians are so mean.

  3. I stood before the Annual Conference and advocated for legislation to strengthen and clarify our church’s position.

  4. I do all I know to help couples in crisis and to offer quality pre-marital counseling.

  5. I intend to work politically for the passage of the Federal Marriage Amendment to the Constitution, which reads:

    “Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman.  Neither this constitution for the constitution of any state, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups.”

  6. I will work for the rebuilding of a pro-marriage culture that respects singles and makes it easier, especially for Christians, to find partners and build strong marriages.  Lori and I will offer a two evening marriage enrichment class in November and possibly an eight week follow up with a guest teacher early in 2004.

  7. I will stand up for the civil rights of homosexual persons but I will not ever agree to make marriage and adoption new civil rights.  Marriage must not be redefined, and children need both a father and mother.

  8. I will speak out against clergy and bishops who wish to change or weaken church teaching on this issue.  I will not be silent, and I will get over my petty fears of being marginalized and punished.

  9. I will show kindness and understanding to anyone who struggles with homosexuality or any other form of sexual sin and brokenness. I will give them time, resources, and pray to help them come to terms with what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, just as friends did for me when I was a new Christian.  I have buried gay friends who died of AIDs and held them in my arms. To be clear about the immorality of this practice is not to be without compassion or pastoral care for those afflicted by it.

  10. I will pray for my children that by the grace of God they find a Christian partner as wonderful and faithful as my own.  How different my life would be  without Lori.

  11. I will speak to this issue as often as I think necessary to keep you informed of what is at stake.  I don’t want our church during my lifetime to march over the same cliff as the Episcopalians who decided that cultural relevance was more important than biblical faithfulness.  Just this past week their Primates sent a very clear warning that if Robinson is consecrated, schism will result.[10]  Thank God for the African and Asian archbishops, the fruit of mission, who are now called to the job of correcting the mother church and her rebellious American offspring.  Missionaries took them the Bible, and now they don’t want to give it back!  It is increasingly United Methodist delegates outside the United States that are helping us stay faithful at General Conference.  Mission saves the church in more than one way.

  12. I will continually examine my own position, and in the midst of this very real battle acknowledge that those on the other side feel as strongly about their convictions as I do about mine.  They are brothers and sisters in Christ.  Next week I serve on a panel discussion on homosexuality before all the clergy of our conference.  I think I know why I was chosen.  I ask your prayer that I be both clear and humble, a tough combination to maintain when the stakes are this high and everyone is looking.  I am a little scared.  This is hardball with velvet gloves.

  13. And finally, I will work to make my own marriage as lively and joyful and loving and faithful as it can be, in hopes that some young person, some divorced person, some single person might have a reliable model and be encouraged to trust God for something good in their own life.

You don’t have to agree with everything I’ve said today.  It’s not a requirement for mutual respect or fellowship with one another.  This is what I believe and what I am  doing.  What do you believe, and what are you doing?  Marriage and all that goes along with it is worth defending.  We tamper with God’s basic design at our peril.

Phil Thrailkill
Duncan Memorial UMC
October 19, 2003

[1]  The United Methodist Hymnal, 864.

[2]  Charles Colson, “Marriage and the Language of the Market,” Breakpoint Radio Commentary, July 22, 2003.

[3]  Information in the following two paragraphs is cited from the September 2003 “Family News From Dr. James Dobson” newsletter.  Sources are cited there.

[4]  Allie Martin and Jenni Parker, “Publisher Fears Canadian Law Could Label Holy Scriptures ‘Hate Speech,’” www.agapepress.org, October 16, 2003.

[5]  Stanley Kurtz, “Beyond Gay Marriage: The Road to Polyamory,” The Weekly Standard, Aug. 11, 2003.

[6]  Judith Levine, “Stop The Wedding,” Village Voice, July 29, 2003, 40; Michael Kinsley, “Abolish Marriage....” Washington Post, July 3, 2003, A23.

[7]  Kim Campbell, “Gays on Prime Time,” Christian Science Monitor, 6, April 2001, 13.

[8]  Quoted in a personal letter from John Ed Mathison, pastor of Frazier Memorial UMC in Montgomery, Alabama.

[9]  “Christians, Traditionalists Urged to Continue Battle for Marriage,” www.agapepress.org, October 17, 2003.

[10]  “A Brief Analysis of the Primates’ Statement: Warning, Clarity, and Calling,” www.communionparishes.org, October 17, 2003.  

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