Thoughts on Christian marriage, I

Over the next four days, the Daily Episcopalian will feature a two-part essay by the Rev. George Clifford on the history of Christian understandings of marriage. Part two will appear on Sunday/Monday.

By George Clifford

In general, the Biblical witness about marriage appears to progress toward monogamy. Yet the Biblical basis for confidently declaring that marriage is uniquely between one man and one woman seems somewhat tenuous at best. Even a cursory reading of the Old Testament reveals multiple acceptable patterns for marriage: polygamy, concubinage, Levirate, etc. The status of those teachings today is unclear. For example, Scripture nowhere teaches that the practice of Levirate marriage – a widow marrying a brother of her deceased husband in order to keep the husband’s property in the family – is obsolete.

By the time of Jesus’ birth, the dominant cultural pattern for marriage among Jews was clearly that of one man married to one woman. However, nothing in Jesus’ teachings excludes other patterns, e.g., he never explicitly teaches that a person shall have only one spouse at any given time. Only when read with a presumption of monogamy do gospel passages appear to teach monogamy. For example, Mark 10:12 records Jesus teaching that if a woman divorces her husband she commits adultery. Read with the presumption of polygamy, the passage neither implicitly nor explicitly forbids the husband from having multiple wives.

Similarly, the NRSV translates 1 Timothy 3:2 as “married only once” instead of the more traditional “husband of one wife.” Yet both versions arguably presume that many people marry more than once; neither translation actually precludes the possibility that some Christians then practiced polygamy.

Only in the Pauline writings is the case for heterosexual monogamy stated directly (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:2). Even then, the teaching’s applicability may be problematic. Why elevate the authority of the Pauline corpus above that of the rest of Scripture? Perhaps culture rather than God shaped Paul’s thoughts about marriage as happened with his thoughts about slavery and women.

From a theological perspective, the Christian Church followed Paul, prevailing cultural mores, or both, and from its early centuries taught that the sacrament of marriage was the indissoluble union of one man and one woman. Then the Church began to modify that narrow approach – thankfully!

First, the Church recognized that in some instances a purported marriage was just that, only a facsimile and not the substance of a marriage. Reasons the Church might declare a marriage invalid included the legal encumbrance of one party preventing him or her from being legally free to marry (perhaps because he/she was already married) or one party not intending a faithful marriage. The Roman Catholic Church’s annulment process still operates on this basis, emotionally scarring many. Senator Ted Kennedy’s first wife, Joan, notoriously refused to cooperate with her husband when he sought to have their marriage annulled. She contended that their progeny constituted living proof of a valid marriage; additionally, she argued, annulment would tacitly declare their children illegitimate.

Second, the Church improved its theology, shifting from supporting arranged marriages and considering women as chattel to promoting marriages based on mutual, consensual love and viewing women as equal partners with men. The Book of Common Prayer’s option for the Officiant at a marriage to inquire, “Who gives this woman to this man?” is an anachronistic, liturgical residue of the erroneous notion that women are property.

Third, by the beginning of the twenty-first century the Christian Church recognized that imperfect humans make imperfect choices with respect to marriage partners and sometimes destroy reasonably good marriages. In other words, the Church finally discerned that grace abounds more if marriages that have died or become destructive end in divorce with the possibility of healing and remarriage rather than legalistically condemning the parties in such marriages to remain in hellish bondage or celibate. Sadly, the Church of England is among the limited number of ecclesiastical bodies retaining a more legalistic rather than grace-filled understanding of marriage and divorce. The Episcopal Church seeks a healthy middle ground between casual, serial monogamy and legalism with our process focused on healing those whose marriage has ended as an integral element of preparing for remarriage.

Let me be clear. I am an unabashed and wholehearted proponent of faithful monogamy. My brief review of marital practices described in the Bible and our evolving theological understanding of marriage simply emphasizes that concepts of Christian marriage have not remained static over the millennia. The history of Christian marriage is an unfolding narrative of increasing grace, albeit a history of slow and uneven progress.

The Rev. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He blogs at Ethical Musings.

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