Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Christian Marriage 2

"I have no desire whatsoever to dislodge you from the exclusive homage you pay to Jesus. But I would like you to understand and appreciate the other inclusive position." So wrote M.K. Gandhi in one of his letters to Esther Fearing, a Danish missionary. Gandhi is, of course, writing about his inability to perceive the uniqueness of Jesus. As he put it, "I can pay equal homage to Jesus, Mohammed, Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, and others that may be named. This is not a matter of argument. It is a matter for each one's deep and sacred commitment." Gandhi's comments, although made in a completely different context (the revelation of Jesus as God), are a relevant reminder in the context of discussions about same sex marriage. Today, I conclude my comments on The General Assembly Marriage Study session at Big Tent 2013.

My table/small group's early discussion focused on the word "perfect" used to describe the helper God created for the man in the second creation story in Genesis 2: 18-23. Here's the whole Scripture section first.

18 Then the Lord God said,“It’s not good that the human is alone. I will make him a helper that is perfect for him.” 19 So the Lord God formed from the fertile land all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky and brought them to the human to see what he would name them. The human gave each living being its name. 20 The human named all the livestock, all the birds in the sky, and all the wild animals. But a helper perfect for him was nowhere to be found.
21 So the Lord God put the human into a deep and heavy sleep, and took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh over it. 22 With the rib taken from the human, the Lord God fashioned a woman and brought her to the human being. 23 The human said,
“This one finally is bone from my bones
        and flesh from my flesh.
She will be called a woman
        because from a man she was taken.”
24 This is the reason that a man leaves his father and mother and embraces his wife, and they become one flesh. 25 The two of them were naked, the man and his wife, but they weren’t embarrassed.

The word perfect occurs twice and God says it the first time in verse 18: I will make him a helper that is perfect for him. It is used for the second time in verse 20 after the man had named all the living creatures: But a helper perfect for him was nowhere to be found. The version used in the Study is the Common English Bible. We looked at the different versions of the Bible and we found some differences. None of the others use the word "perfect."

 18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”   
20 The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.  

 18 The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”  
20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable helper was found.

We didn't have time in my group to discuss this a lot, apart from what I've reported earlier already, that Christian marriage as a covenant with God himself as a gift in the marriage is no longer an understanding that is present in today's culture. The prevailing predominant view is that Christian marriage is a ceremony in the church. It is a civil contract, yes, a binding agreement but one that can be broken if the parties so desire. God's presence in the marriage has been forgotten (besides our obligation of faith and obedience). What I share below are mostly personal thoughts.
Among all of God's creations none was suitable to be a helper for man. To help man (perfectly or not), and despite having created so many other living creatures, God created anew, another living being, "woman." This time God creates after putting man into a deep sleep and taking a rib from him to help him to do so.The deep sleep fascinates me. Why did God have to put man to sleep to create woman?

Jesus quotes this Genesis passage not in the context of marriage as is more often used, but in the context of divorce, why a man should not leave his wife. However, he added an interesting twist and caveat: "So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” His message is clear: God brought woman into being as a helper for man and they became one flesh. The "one flesh" bond should not be broken ("one flesh" implying both the sexual act and a monogamous relationship). So, what is the purpose of a "one flesh" marriage? Is it to be fruitful, multiply, and be able to care for God's creation? Is it to keep our evil and greedy lusts and passions under control? Is it to protect the weaker sex? It is for all this. Marriage is one of God's instruments for an ordered civil society. But, when we look at what people actually did, we also see that Jesus (and Paul) remained single. They were chaste and they practiced celibacy. Yet, celibacy, instead of being celebrated, is almost an unknown word in our society! Furthermore, there is no marriage after the Second Coming of Jesus. Is celibacy a preferred or admirable state?  (This begs the question preferred (or admired) by whom though?) It is certainly preferred and admired by some Christians which is why the Roman Catholic priests practice celibacy staunchly to this day (religious orders who practice celibacy, however, have been declining). Reformation understanding though differs on this point. The Protestant reformer, Luther recognized that the whole body of believers are priests (I Peter 2: 9) and the married state is fitting for priests too. Luther, in fact, called the family the "little church."

[Incidentally, the Apostle Paul warned in I Timothy 4: 1-5 that forbidding marriage is not a good thing to do: Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron. They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer.

I've also been thinking about the phrase "male and female he created them" in the first creation story in Genesis 1: 27. With typical dualistic thinking we've traditionally understood this to mean God created man and woman, as distinct, separate beings. I'm not aware of any orthodox attempts to reconcile God himself or his creation (made in His image) as simultaneously man and woman. But the phrase reminds me of a sculpture I once saw in the documentary film India: Empire of the Spirit. It is the figure of the Hindu God Shiva shown as half-man and half woman. According to one of the myths, the god Shiva became thus - Ardhanarishvara - as he embraced the goddess, his consort Parvati, "limb to limb." Androgeny has been presented in the literature of many cultures and societies, not just Indian, but also Western, Greek.

What does all this have to do with marriage and the current conversations about same sex marriage? The short answer is: Its complicated and I'm still processing :)

Christian marriage today is dominated more by tradition and cultural practice than what God ordained in the creation stories in Genesis (helper, one flesh). Heterosexual licentiousness has made divorce very common with no difference in the statistics of Christians vs non-Christians. In this situation and in our society (as in any other), the role of religion is to increase trust so that there can be mutual respect between those who are not alike and perhaps one day full acceptance and love too. The role of marriage is to help us experience and build a society modeled on divine love. Acceptance, respect, and truth are all critical components of a Christian marriage and family. Christian marriage is both a civil contract and a covenant that helps us love God, walk with Jesus more closely and keep in step with the Spirit. Perhaps you now understand the relevance of my opening quote by Gandhi. "This is not a matter of argument. It is a matter for each one's deep and sacred commitment." Elsewhere, one Christmas Day, Gandhi gave a talk on The Jesus I Love. He said, "As the miraculous birth is an eternal event, so is the Cross an eternal event in this stormy life. Therefore, we dare not think of birth without death on the cross. Living Christ means a living cross, without it life is a living death." What do you think?


  1. Thanks, I liked this post, it considers various viewpoints.

    > "Jesus (and Paul) remained single. ... Is celibacy a preferred or admirable state?"

    Augustine wrote: "In the present times, however, those to whom it is said, If they are unable to be continent, they should marry ... do not need our encouragement, but our sympathy. (virg. 1 tr. WSA I/9:68).

    Quoted from chapter 5 of

    > "to help us experience and build a society modeled on divine love"

    I imagine that is the role of the Christian community (church)?

  2. John, I am delighted by your response, thank you! You are moving the conversation to whole new level and I love it! Celibate marriages, what a concept :).

    Not sure I've understood what you're asking but yes, church community too should model divine love and try to build a society where people can experience it, especially since they may not be getting it in any of their relationships in life. Most evangelicals I know believe that the best experience of divine love is in the Christian marriage first, followed by the nuclear, biological family second. Community (church) is tertiary, perhaps close but still comes in third. Since our understanding of Christian marriage is now flawed, what happens is that community identification with a church/denomination is not as strong either and severely limited. It becomes easier to leave when the leadership, policies, new members, etc.. are disagreeable, disliked. The real tragedy is also that we may fail to live in community with "others" who are different from us and become unable to show the disbelieving world Christ or His new society based on divine love.

    I checked out chapter 5 of your thesis and this quote by Augustine is particularly relevant: Nor should you count yourselves barren because you remain virgins; since this very integrity of the flesh, chosen for love, contributes to the fruitfulness of the mind. Do what the apostle says: since you are not thinking of the affairs of the world, how to please husbands, think of the affairs of God, how to please him in all things, so that instead of wombs fruitful with offspring, you may have minds fruitful with all the virtues.(serm.191.4 tr. WSA III/6:44)


Thank you for taking the time to encourage me with your feedback. Blessings.