Monday 14 July 2008

Ten propositions on marriage

by Kim Fabricius

1. Marriage, Edward Schillebeeckx writes, is “a reality secular by origin”; yet, as he continues, it “has acquired a deeper meaning in the order of salvation in which we live.” Because creation is in and for Christ, and because the apocalyptic shockwaves of the resurrection of Christ radiate both backwards and forwards, marriage must finally be understood Christologically. Although Jesus relativised marriage (e.g. Luke 18:29, Matthew 19:12), and although in the consummation there will be no marriage (Matthew 22:30), in his patience and grace God gives us marriage between-the-times as an intimate space for two people to be good and let be, and, for Christians, to bear witness to the new creation. At the marriage in Cana, Jesus turned water to wine – lots of wine! – his first and programmatic sign of the dawning new age (John 2:1-11). In the imagery of Ephesians 5:31-33, Christian marriage reflects the eschatological marriage of Christ and his church (cf. Revelation 19:7). With Bonhoeffer, the ultimate frames but does not negate the penultimate. It is therefore appropriate to speak of marriage as a covenant. To call it a sacrament, however, begs too many questions.

2. A marriage is not to be confused with a wedding. “A wedding is only the regulative confirmation and legitimation of a marriage before and by society. It does not constitute a marriage” (Karl Barth). A ceremony does not make a marriage, consent makes a marriage. And even in the ceremony, and even in the Roman Catholic Church, the ministers of the marriage are the bride and bridegroom, not the minister. Indeed it was only with the Council of Trent in 1563 that the Roman Catholic Church insisted on an ecclesial occasion, and mainly to ensure, through the presence of witnesses, that the marriage was, in fact, consensual. In short, a church wedding does not create a marriage, it recognises and blesses a marriage that already exists. Nor should consent itself be taken as a punctiliar act but as part of an ongoing project of mutual discovery and affirmation. It is always sad to hear a couple say that their wedding day was the happiest day of their lives.

3. If the heart of faith is friendship with God through Christ, active in the love of neighbour, the heart of marriage is maxima amicitia humana, the most intimate form of neighbour-love. This pre-eminent human friendship is normally both expressed and confirmed as a sexual relationship. While eros and agape are certainly to be distinguished (as Beethoven to Mozart, according to Barth – though, as Eberhard Jüngel winks, “We won’t ask what Mozart would say about that”), they must not be opposed (as Anders Nygren argued); nor is sex to be ruefully indulged (as Augustine held) but enthusiastically enjoyed (as Solomon sang). By the way, we should exercise word-care when we speak of “pre-marital sex”: what we usually mean is pre-ceremonial sex.

4. Yet corruptio optimi pessima: sex as the sphere of supreme tenderness and joy is also the sphere of desire at its most distorted (concupiscentia), indeed an arena of violence, as eros morphs into thanatos. In fact the libido dominandi is the regnant Pauline “principality and power” in contemporary western culture. Sex and the City is the iconic text of an age in which sex is everything – there are even parodic Virgilian tours of its virtual Manhattan Inferno – as we amuse ourselves to death-by-serial-fucking. Yet while we must speak of the body’s abuse, we may, in Christ, speak of “the body’s grace”. “The moral question,” writes Rowan Williams, “ought to be how much we want our sexual activity to communicate, how much we want it to display a breadth of human possibility and a sense of the body’s capacity to heal and enlarge the life of other subjects.” If there is the civitas diaboli of Carrie and company, there is also the civitas Dei of Jesus and his friends.

5. Although marriage is complete without procreation (Genesis 2:24) and remains complete after the kids have left home, marriage is the God-given unit for the birth and nurture of children (Genesis 1:28). There is, however, a teleology to raising children, namely that they may grow up to experience the joy and freedom of faith. “This means,” as Bonhoeffer says, “that marriage is not only a matter of producing children, but also of educating them to be obedient to Jesus Christ,” so that they too might become friends of God. The obedience course begins by telling your children that Jesus loves them – even when they are disobedient. As for the learning curve (or slider!), I recommend a Hauerwasian pedagogy: “Start with baseball and also teach them to read. Don’t teach kids a bunch of rules. Help them submit their lives to something that they find to be a wonderful activity that transforms them.”

6. What about divorce? And remarriage? Reviewing the New Testament texts, Richard B. Hays concludes that “the fundamental concern in all of them is to affirm marriage as a permanently binding commitment in which man and woman become one…. At the same time, there are complex differences…. Mark and Luke categorically prohibit divorce, but Matthew and Paul both entertain the necessity of exceptions to the rule, situations in which pastoral discernment is required.” To be sure, mired as they are in the cult of feelings, the myth of sexual fulfilment, and the language of rights, the modern motives for divorce are usually hopelessly un-Christian. However the notion of “indissolubility” smuggles in a metaphysic quite alien to the Bible; divorce is not an ontological impossibility. Nor can or should remarriage be rejected tout court. “Indeed, ”with Hays, “if one purpose of marriage is to serve as a sign of God’s love in the world …, how can we reject the possibility that a second marriage after a divorce could serve as a sign of grace and redemption from the sin and brokenness of the past?”

7. Tina Turner puts the problem – and the question I always put to dumfounded couples whom I prepare for marriage: “What’s love got to do with it?” Stanley Hauerwas: “Christians have far too readily underwritten the romantic assumption that people ‘fall’ in love and then get married. We would be much better advised to suggest that love does not create marriage; rather, marriage provides a good training ground to teach us what love involves.” Thus, most provocatively, to disabuse us of conventional notions of Mr or Miss Right, Hauerwas’s Law: “You always marry the wrong person.” (As Henny Youngman jested: I married Miss Right. I just didn’t know her first name was Always.) Thus does marriage become Luther’s “school of character”, or, better, a “class of character” in the school of the church. Of course a relationship begins with the chemistry of attraction, but unless it does graduate work in the art of loving, it shouldn’t be surprising if it ends in an explosion.

8. Colin Gunton observed that marriage “is at once the most private and the most public of our institutions,” and we may expect marriage to contribute to the enrichment of society and the strengthening of community. The church, after all, exists for the world. Yet in much Protestant thought that takes marriage to belong to an “order of nature”, the conclusion has been drawn that marriage is a purely civil affair, a matter of state for which the church provides the altar. This Constantinian understanding of marriage is a disaster, the collateral damage of which includes the apotheosis of “family values” and the raising of children to be loyal citizens, not faithful Christians. Divorce itself becomes, not a personal tragedy or a failure of witness, but a threat to the “fabric of society”, i.e. the status quo. The church must certainly cease to be Caesar’s chaplain, but not by abandoning its ceremonies, rather by reclaiming them for Christ. Follow the trajectory to a status confessionis and the state would not sanction and regulate church weddings but declare them to be illegal.

9. Am I suggesting that the church restrict weddings only to committed Christians, or to “nominal” Christians only after thorough catechesis? That would seem to be the drift of the argument – except for one thing. John Wesley spoke of the eucharist as a “converting ordinance”, as a means of grace that may bring the baptised (back) to Christ. In my own experience as a minister, church weddings, on a not insignificant number of occasions, have performed a similar function – and not only for the couple but for members of the congregation. In fact, they have been, indirectly, evangelistic events through which some people have been drawn into the body of Christ. They may even be prophetic events. Of course marriage preparation is essential, and that will include catechesis as well as counsel, but I have always seen it fundamentally as an act of hospitality and care. Some may chastise me with Matthew 7:6. I take consolation in Matthew 5:45.

10. Finally, if the heart of marriage is friendship, if marriage is for procreation in a gratuitous rather than an instrumental sense, as overflow rather than essence, then do we not open the way for the blessing of same-sex relationships? I think we do, though I think the term “marriage” is unhelpful. (And by the way, whatever the social and legal conventions, homosexual Christians, like heterosexual Christians, may have a vocation as parents in the church.) This view presupposes that natural law arguments against same-sex relationships are otiose – but then I think that the concept of natural law is otiose in a theology of marriage too! The point is this: if Luke Timothy Johnson is right to suggest that “If sexual virtue and vice are defined covenantally rather than biologically, then it is possible to place homosexual and heterosexual activity in the same context,” it is also possible to see same-sex relationships, blessed by the church, as an analogue of the relationship between God and his people, and a model of the church’s own proper economy of grace. In short, nihil obstat.

Postscript: two clean jokes and a dirty one

  • Why did Adam and Eve have the perfect marriage? He didn’t have to listen to her talk about all the other men she could have married, and she didn’t have to put up with his mother.
  • A minister sent a tele-message to his goddaughter for her wedding day: “I John 4:18. Love, Uncle Jack”. Unfortunately, the telephonist omitted the “I”, so that the reference was to John’s Gospel. Check it out!
  • Finally, as an illustration that (pace von Clausewitz) marriage is the continuation of war by other means, an “order of militarisation”: Reviewing their marriage vows on the eve of their thirtieth anniversary, a couple had a furious row when they came to “as long as we both shall live”. He was so angry that in the morning he went out and bought her a tombstone bearing the inscription: “Here lies my wife – cold as ever.” In retaliation she went out and bought him a tombstone too. The inscription? “Here lies my husband – stiff at last.”


Teresita said...

It is therefore appropriate to speak of marriage as a covenant. To call it a sacrament, however, begs too many questions.

The covenant is the wedding with its vows, the sacrament is the marriage. where the infinite God is manifested to finite man by the couples' lifelong bond. But this makes it like any other sacrament. Baptism isn't just a one-time ceremony. We are called to renew our baptism every day, at least every Sunday, and sometimes formally in that rite where we renounce Satan and all his works.

David W. Congdon said...

Wonderful, Kim! There are many gems in this post. In addition to the discussion of "Sex and the City," the "Hauerwasian pedagogy" and propositions 7 and 8 were the highlights for me. And the jokes were very funny!

As a side note, I'm inclined to take your eighth proposition over Ben's now-controversial proposal. I'd be interested in hearing a follow-up from Ben in dialogue with you.

Anonymous said...

Indeed, this is very good stuff. Thanks for the post, Kim.

Everytime I read discussions of sexuality and marriage, I am always left wondering if gender has any theological significance. I raise this not as an attempt to generate (useless) discussion on "headship and submission", but because the difference between male and female strikes me as deep, significant, and beautiful--perhaps even a testimony to the Creator/creature distinction, though I haven't thought through that very much. Also, addressing this might also help in discussing same sex unions.

One more question, Kim. If you are tentative to call marriage a sacrament do you think marriage has any ontological status? Or do you think discussion in that direction is more distracting than helpful in the end?



Mykel G. Larson said...

Oh boy, here we go again. Definitions. Systematics. Propositions.

I'm going to stay in line with being a formal theological "outsider" and proposition the following:

Marriage is not 50/50; It's 100/100.


Have fun.

Anonymous said...

Fabricius says: "However the notion of 'indissolubility' smuggles in a metaphysic quite alien to the Bible; divorce is not an ontological impossibility."

Cryptic, and woefully inadequate. So many assumptions in this line, and Fabricius does not spell them out (of course, not perhaps in this "ten propositions" mode), nor buttress the assertion, which seems gratuitous, with arguments (smuggling in a metaphysic, and an alien one at that?).

Perhaps a consideration of marriage in a theology of creation and covenant and in Christology would be a useful pointer to its ultimate meaning and significance for the Christian life and witness. For Catholics of course marriage is a sacrament; it mediates the grace of Jesus Christ in the Spirit. But then again, it is this "mediation" thing that is controversial in reformed and evangelical theology.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Kim. Wonderful!

Bruce Yabsley said...

Kim, these really are very good; thank you. Two requests for clarification:

Re 2: The general point is well-taken, but I wasn't sure of the sense in which you meant the final statement, "It is always sad to hear a couple say that their wedding day was the happiest day of their lives." Do you mean, it is an unhelpful trope and it is sad to hear it reinforced yet again when a couple rehearses it; or, it is sad to hear a couple say this tout court? Because I think I'm with you on the first sense, but if you mean the second sense then I wish to abuse you for not making reasonable allowance.

Re 10: I am sympathetic to the attempt, here, but I'm not sure I've seen a good attempt yet ... and I'm pretty sure this isn't it. "Natural law" is easy to diss, but what you need to do is provide an argument for setting the general Scriptural injunctions aside, or relativising them; and if you say natural law is a bad way of systematising those injunctions, well maybe it's so, but the Scripture is still there.

This is a kind of Windsor Anglican request: "please convince me", with emphasis on the second word.

Anonymous said...

Something you don't touch on much is the way that marriage is seen as a blessing and necessity for fallen humanity. In an unfallen world, what you say about pre-marital sex as merely being 'pre-ceremonial' would be fine. But with the fall comes lust and self-delusion - and therefore sexually, using and discarding. Doesn't the marriage ceremony fulfil a function as a vital 'cut-off point' in defining a relationship, to take it out of self-delusion?

Evan said...

Great propositions; even points that I can't entirely advocate are well addressed.

I would second Bruce's call for a more convincing argument on #10. What's interesting to me is how you move from dismissing natural law as an argument against homosexuality to a suggestion that "it is also possible to see same-sex relationships, blessed by the church, as an analogue of the relationship between God and his people, and a model..." I'm wondering how you see this analogue functioning and how you would distinguish it from a natural law argument against same-sex marriage that advocates for the exclusivity of a heterosexual analogue.

#9 is interesting because I think that those who would understand marriage as sacramental would want to do the same thing that you're doing here... legitimizing marriage beyond the realm of committed Christians on the basis of the missional purpose of the institution. Both of you could use Matthew 5:45 for the case you make, actually. Ironically, however, your proposition seems more tied to ecclesiastical trappings than the sacramental model, as you cite Wesley and the need to bring the "baptised (back) to Christ." Assuming eucharist is a converting ordinance for what we might call the "baptized unbeliever", how would you justify the application of this idea to a marriage between two unbaptized unbelievers?

Of course the criticisms I'm picking at here shouldn't detract from the more mundane fact that I think this was a great set of propositions offering a lot of edifying reflections.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, all, for your comments so far.

On marriage as a "sacrament" ...
Many moons ago someone asked me, through Ben, if I might do a "Ten Propositions on the Sacraments". I have often doodled about with the idea, but my "raids on the inarticulate" (Eliot) have produced only frustration. I have always been uneasy about Augustine's "visible signs of an invisible grace" (it is misleading to say that grace is "hidden", and it certainly isn't a thing). During the eighties I wrestled inconclusively with the ecumenical idea of "the church as sacrament". But the big elephant (or is it whale?) in the room is the later Barth - Jesus Christ himself as the only sacrament. Amidst my uncertainty, and given my Reformed pedigree, one thing for sure is that (Occam's razor) I don't want to be "multiplying" sacraments. But sacrament or not, I do not accept Teresita's claim that the wedding, not the marriage, is the "covenant".

As for "indissolubility", according to scripture divorce is possible. Ergo marriage cannot be ontologically indissoluble. My relation to my brother is ontologically indissoluble; my relation to my wife is not. As I am in a second marriage, if I am wrong I have been committing adultery for over twenty-five years. Do even Roman Catholics really believe this?

As for Bruce's two queries ...
On the wedding day being the happiest day of a couple's life together (in #2), my point is simply the hope that the best is yet to come ...
And as for same-sex relationships (#10), I refer you to my "Ten Propositions on Same-Sex Relationships and the Church". If they don't convince you, then a comment certainly won't.

And, EE, for the state a wedding may be a "cut-off point", but then what do you make of "common law" marriages? In any case, such a view seems to me to be theologically thin. As for self-delusion, many a wedding day turns out to be the most self-delusional of all.

Anonymous said...

Kim, great post! I especially like 4 & 7.

Could you expand a bit on your view toward pre-marital sex in general, especially in regards to pre-marital sex that is not pre-ceremonial?

Anonymous said...

Hi Danny,

Sex is a powerful, complex, risky, and potentially destructive activity, certainly outside of a relationship of deep commitment, trust, and tenderness. Biblically speaking, (in an essay entitled "Forbidden Fruit"), Rowan Williams writes: "I can't see that the New Testament easily allows any straightforwardly positive evaluation of sexual intimacy outside a relationship that is publicly committed [in marriage]." And that is surely an accurate observation. However, Williams goes on to say: "but it does not suggest that the essential test of Christian orthodoxy lies in a willingness to treat all other relationships as incapable of sharing in the love of God." And I believe that is a wise codicil.

I certainly think that the church, which has such a bad record on pontificating about sex, needs to revisit the practice of cohabitation (which is now the norm in the western world) without its knee all set to jerk. Experience tells me that cohabitation is not always and inevitably a sign of irresponsibility and hedonism; and some serious-minded theologians suggest that it may represent a kind of betrothal. In any case, as we think through a contemporary theology of marriage, it would be foolish to ignore our contemporary social context.

Anonymous said...

The celibate single person dedicated to the reign of God is the primary sacrament of the new creation. A Christian theology of marriage can only be developed in that context (not the other way around) (1 Cor 7). Heterosexual marriage is a sacrament of the first creation, which is need of apocalyptic deliverance from the powers of this age. It may then also become a sacrament of the new creation, i.e., when husband and wife are faithful to their covenant, and servants of one another after the pattern of Christ (Eph. 5). I cannot think of any scriptural indication that homosexual partnerships are either a sacrament of the first creation, or of the new creation -- only of the first creation in bondage to disorder and decay.

For another perspective on such matters, check out the article, "The Vindication of Humanae Vitae" by Mary Eberstadt in the August number of First Things (this is also available online at the First Things site:

Anonymous said...

Hi Douglas,

Many thanks for stopping by. My eyes lit up when I saw your name. And what a great gambit. Your very first sentence describes Jesus of Nazareth, so who would want to disagree? As I say in #1, Jesus both relativised marriage and described the kingdom as a weddingless zone. I Corinthians 7, which you cite, strenghtens the argument (while it also shows Paul to have a high view of mutual sexual self-giving in marriage). So I'm really grateful for the perspective of your incisive "proposition".

As for your last comment, however, I think your reference to the lack of any "scriptural indication" apart from "disorder and decay" regarding the possible sign-ificance of same-sex relationships begs a host of hermeneutical and experiential questions. Nor am I referring to the take of theological liberals on the matter, but to a range of more sophisticated proposals, like those of Rowan Williams, certain RO theologians, and RCs like James Allison and the late Gareth Moore, while Ben has recently pointed me to some interesting suggestions of Zizek (which I must follow up). Needless to say, I will certainly add your dependable voice to my own mix.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your response. I was a bit confused by your advice to exercise "word-care" with regards to pre-marital sex. I agree that the church should be careful to avoid demonizing cohabitators, but in my (very limited) experience, cohabitation among younger couples (in the early 20s range) often serves as a means to avoid genuine commitment. Since moving in together is not seen as as big of a step as marriage is, couples often make the move without going through the mental preparation that they possibly would if they were going to get married. Plus, if something bad happens to their partner, or they meet somebody else, it's much easier to get out.

My question is: is there a way to theologically distinguish the latter type of blatantly selfish relationship from the type cautiously endorsed by the likes of Rowan Williams? With ee, I'm skeptical of claims to genuine love that aren't willing to "go public." Of course marriage is not a sufficient condition for genuine commitment, and I certainly don't claim that cohabitators are "incapable of sharing in the love of God." (but who is?) For now I'm inclined to think that marriage is a necessary condition for the type of genuine commitment called for in marriage.

Anonymous said...

Danny makes a good point regarding the way cohabitation eludes responsibility rather than prepares for it. In his essay "Creative Fidelity," Gabriel Marcel discusses the question of how it is possible to ground one's own fidelity, since this seems to lead into a vicious circle:

"In principle, to commit myself I must first know myself; the fact is, however, that I really know myself only when I have committed myself. That dilatory attitude which involves sparing myself any trouble, keeping myself aloof (and thereby inwardly dissipating myself), is incompatible with any self-knowledge worthy of the name. Nothing is more puerile than the efforts made by some to resolve the problem by compromise: I allude in this case to the idea of a pre-marital trial whereby the future spouses begin by surrendering to an experience which commits them to nothing, but which is supposed to enlighten them about themselves; it is all too clear that such an experiment is immediately nullified by the very conditions under which it is performed."

Anonymous said...

You say: "Reviewing the New Testament texts, Richard B. Hays concludes that '...Mark and Luke categorically prohibit divorce, but Matthew and Paul both entertain the necessity of exceptions to the rule, situations in which pastoral discernment is required.'"
And then you say: "As for 'indissolubility', according to scripture divorce is possible".
So we pick and choose then which Scripture passage buttresses our point... I thought proof-texting had gone out of style, even for fundamentalist Christians!

byron smith said...

Kim, as always, much to mull upon here. However, the line that really confused me was "A ceremony does not make a marriage, consent makes a marriage." I was expecting not consent, but promise. A one night stand has mutual consent. Isn't it mutual commitment to a shared future that makes a marriage?

Anonymous said...

Hi Byron,

Great to hear from you. And I won't quarrel with you. And "promise" is a theological category with real depth and pedigree. With the term "consent", I am simply using the classical term one finds in the (theological) literature as to what constitutes a marriage. In this usage the "promises" are the public form of consent (mutual and exclusive commitment to each in your "shared future"): "John, will you take Jane to be your wife in Christian marriage? Will you love her, comfort her, honour and protect her ...?" So thanks for your excellent point.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for another wonderful posting Kim. I know the notion of practical theology is a nonsense - after all what good theology isn't practical - but you should publish these propositions in a book. After all I know no one who engages more sharply with culture out of the experience of relating to a wide range of people. This and Ben's posting on marriage the other day have challenged me deeply even though I don't buy every detail. Thanks from another servant of word and sacrament.

Bruce Yabsley said...

Kim: this is a belated "thank you" for directing me to the earlier twelve propositions. While I'm not convinced --- as with many discussions on this topic, whatever their perspective, I find myself (largely) agreeing with (most) of the points, but not really buying the conclusion --- I have, as you said, a much better idea of where you're coming from than I would from a brief remark.

I glanced at the 103 comments ad loc, but don't propose to add to them. I hope that's not a cop-out.

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