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Posted by on Jul 15, 2013 | 13 comments

The Christian Tradition and the Defense of Marriage

800px-AuthorityOfLawOn June 26, 2013 the Supreme Court of the United States declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, paving the way for the further advancement of gay marriage.[1] This isn’t news to you. Responses have been everything from jubilation to apocalyptic proclamations. Among the latter has been the conviction that gay marriage will spoil heterosexual marriage, which many claim to be a cornerstone of civilization. Spoil marriage and everything falls.

The notion that marriage and family (however that may be constructed) forms a cornerstone of civilization isn’t anything new. At least as far back as Aristotle family has been claimed as the fundamental building block of society.[2] Nor is this a crazy notion. Given human mortality and the vulnerability of human infants, the nuclear family is arguably the lowest self-sustaining unit of human social organization.

Whether gay marriage would somehow undo heterosexual marriage, or whether it would do so any more so than heterosexual divorce and infidelity, is another question entirely and not one I intend to deal with here. Rather, I want to talk about the underlying fear itself.

This fear comes up almost exclusively in conservative Christian circles (full disclosure: my circles). These same circles are the ones which pride themselves, probably accurately, on being the most historically orthodox. That very historical orthodoxy, however, makes the fear expressed in the pro-DOMA conservativism rather strange, because historical Christianity at its best has never been entirely on the side of civilization.

The axiom that marriage is the cornerstone of civilization was much more poignant in the world in which Christianity grew up. Cities in the Classical and Late Classical Greco-Roman world were places where death ruled. Mortality governed the reproductive lives of the citizens of the ancient city.[3] St. Chrysostom described their world as one “grazed thin by death.”[4] As a result, marriage was utterly necessary in order to support the reproduction required to even maintain the population. Humanity literally had to breed themselves out of extinction. Death and sex stood hand in hand in the ancient mind. Huge legal penalties were levied against bachelors, and women were married off at an early age.[5] This latter fact also contributed to the oppression and the mortality of women. It was pagan Roman philosophers who idealized marriage as the furnace of (male) virtue.[6]

Into this world Christianity came with a new message. It declared that this present age, this age in which death ruled, was wicked, and, more importantly, was defeated. Jesus, through his death and resurrection, had ended the reign of death. Humankind no longer had to fight death through the mad scrabble of marriage and sexuality. As a powerful symbol of this new age, multitudes of Christians left the tyranny of the city to live in anticipation of the coming age. These communities were celibate and acetic, but this was not a morbid asceticism. Rather, it was the declaration of a new thing—humanity no longer had to live under the yoke of death.[7]

This did, of course, mean another sort of morbidity. Christians could never entirely be for the city, never entirely pro-civilization, because civilization was of the age of death’s reign. Christians would, of course, seek the good of the city out of Christian love, but the relationship was necessarily ambivalent. Even Christian monastics declared marriage a good gift of God, but they always affirmed that there was something better. Marriage was a gift for this age, but there was a greater love, the love of the chaste, which was a foretaste of the world to come.

This orthodox notion that sees the present age as ruled by death, and so evil, rings very true. No civilization is without great evil. Even the best civilizations, and I still believe America to be one of the best, are wracked by wickedness. From drone strikes, to racism, to sexual immorality, our hands are bloody.

Loyalty to God, I truly believe, is a virtue, but given these facts, and given the historical Christian ambivalence towards civilization and the marriages which uphold it, there is something deeply ironic and unsettling about Christians opposing gay marriage because it might undermine civilization. St. Anthony of the desert would undoubtedly have opposed gay marriage (it doesn’t help to be revisionist), but what would he have thought of those opposing it for the sake of the polis? There are legitimate questions to be asked about gay marriage, but Christians who oppose it on these grounds do well to ask themselves just what tradition they stand in, and just what kingdom it is which they defend.


[1] Bill Mears, “Supreme Court Strikes Down Federal Provision on Same-sex Marriage Benefits,” CNN, June 27, 2013, accessed July 9, 2013, http://edition.cnn.com/2013/06/26/politics/scotus-same-sex-doma/index.html.

[2] Although Aristotle also believes that society, the polis, is necessary for the family. Aristotle, Politics I, trans. Benjamin Jowett (The Internet Classics Archive), accessed July 9, 2013, http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.html.

[3] Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 6.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.; Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996), 115.

[6] Brown, 12-25.

[7] Brown, 213-240.

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Kevin G.

I was born in Kenya and lived there for nearly four years. After returning to the states I moved to California, where I remained through to the end of college. I graduated from UCLA with a BA in philosophy in 2011, and recently completed a masters program in doctrinal theology in Vancouver, BC. I hope to eventually become a professor. I have an amazing family, incredible friends and a wonderful church community. Throughout my interests can be found an intense attraction to issues of human nature, be they in drawing people, philosophizing about human ethics or any number of other subjects. People fascinate me. My faith is, and always will be the central hub of my life, and more than just faith, my relationship to God and my place in His Kingdom.
  • Quite interesting. So you’re rejecting the possibility of a Christian accepting a secular reasoning for traditional marriage?

    • Kevin G.

      Thanks for the comment Rod. I’m not sure I’d entirely reject it, but I would question it, and I’d certainly wonder why, given our history, that’s seemingly being made the main point of contention. Christians might accept that as an argument for the social value of traditional marriage, and might even hold it up to a certain extent, but fighting for it tooth and nail as if it were God’s final eschatalogical trajectory is troubling.

      • Then, what is at stake in this debate? What about the church’s role in the sacrament of marriage? Ordination? I have some ideas of my own, but I’d like to read yours. 🙂

        Also, the DOMA ruling while it has moral implications, was also about the morality of our political economy, and who gets economic benefits. For now, I am seeing who does not, and that being single persons.

      • Kevin G.

        I think what’s at stake is the system of values that our preference for these secular arguments betrays. It shows, or at least may show, a preference for the earthly kingdom of America over and above the kingdom of God. I said earlier that I still think we might be able to still use those arguments (if we even think they hold water), but I’m not even totally sure about that. If they are used, those who use them should consider how, and why, they use them.

        As for the sacramental nature of marriage, I think that’s an interesting question. I haven’t read enough to know the attitude of the monastics towards marriage-as-sacrament, though I personally believe that the development in doctrine that made marriage a sacrament served as a counterbalance to the extremes of monasticism, just as monasticism serves as a counterbalance to an over-worldly preference for marriage.

        However, I think that when we speak of marriage-as-sacrament, and marriage-as-civil-bulwark, we’re in some ways talking about two different things, even if the same institution might be encompassed by both. Certainly, as J.W. points out, the civil state neither should have, nor indeed can have, power over the sacrament, so thinking that any sort of state institution could somehow undermine the divine sacrament is questionable. Christian sacramental marriages have existed alongside all sorts of pagan civil arrangements, and indeed existed within them (the Roman household is quite a different thing from the modern western nuclear family).

        Moreover, Christian sacramental marriage surely does not exist for the support of the state. The Christian sacramental marriage is a manifestation of the joining of heaven and earth in the eschaton, and as such is in its own way just as much a symbol of the downfall of the powers of this age as monasticism. It is also, as a sacrament, while crucial to the life of the church in this age, something which will itself pass away.

        Since the sacrament of marriage is distinct from civil marriage in some sense, with its own nature and ends, and is not *possibly* endangered by anything the state might do, then surely we have no business trying to defend it through law, and therefore the downfall of DOMA may indeed be a good thing, whatever you might believe about homosexual unions.

        Which brings us to your comment about singles. I think your comment about political economy is an interesting one, though somewhat a matter for another time, but the marginalization of single people is, I believe, another symptom of the same skewed system of values manifested in the Christian secularized defenses of marriage–we see marriage, and the socio-political system it supports, as ultimate goods. Though a defender of DOMA, Wesley Hill over at first things has some good thoughts on this point (http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/07/01/what-does-same-sex-marriage-mean-for-the-single-straight-christian)

  • Thanks for the article Kevin. I find the history of Christian against-the-grain-ness a interesting approach to the discussion.

    It also seems to be the case that when one engages in the realm of political discourse he or she attributes to that discourse a certain power and authority- Why would we engage in a debate over something that has no authority? So when the church does so in the instance of marriage it is in fact attributing to the political arena the authority of managing the sacrament of marriage. It is this attribution of authority over a sacrament that I find unChristian. I certainly don’t like having to go to the Courthouse to get a wedding license for my own wedding! On whose authority does the state manage the churches in such a fashion?

    • Kevin G.

      You’re welcome J.W., glad you enjoyed it, and thank you for your comment. I think you’re absolutely right about the false attribution of authority to the state (see my second reply to Rod). Indeed, with more time and research one could probably write a pretty good paper connecting the historical Christian “against-the-grain-ness” and the current Christian attribution of power over her sacraments to the state.

  • What do you mean by “historically orthodox” and that conservative Christians consider themselves, probably accurately, to be this? Because, while I agree your way of looking at it is interesting, I don’t really see the language of marriage being a sacrament connecting to the actual conversations going on within the conservative evangelical church. I add evangelical because I know you’re coming from a sacramental viewpoint, but it seems to be that most North American churches don’t even consider baptism and eucharist/communion a sacrament, much less marriage. Now, this could open up the gates for a debate on whether or not American churches should be more sacramental in the first place, but that’s a whole other topic…

    The other thing is on the separation of church and state. It also seems to me that America follows two streams for its origin (or DNA): that of the founding fathers and that of the Puritans. The Christians most concerned about legalizing gay marriage do seem to lean more towards the Puritan dream of America being a city on a hill. Ironically, they often do this while invoking the founding fathers…but there is the fundamental view that America was founded to be Christian nation that is a light to all other nations. To switch to seeing Christianity as being distinct and even subversive to the state goes against some pretty deep roots.

    On the other hand, your invoking the subversiveness of the pre-Constintinian church as a shining example is positively anabaptist of you, Kevin. 😉

    • Kevin G.

      Anabaptists are gross :-P.

      As far as your question goes, while I do think marriage is a sacrament, I didn’t really discuss it as such until the comments. I said conservatives consider themselves part of “historical orthodoxy” as a way of acknowledging their (our) standing without calling liberal Christianity heresy (because I think that would be in many cases unfair). I didn’t mean to imply they saw themselves as bound to follow the great Tradition, or anything like that, but they do see themselves as holding the same faith as most Christians since Christ, and so those early Christians provide an interesting, and perhaps telling, mirror.

      Catholics, though, are also a big force in this debate alongside Evangelicals, and for them the direct force of the great Tradition should be more potent (as well as any discussion of sacraments). That demographic, however, wasn’t really my audience.

      I think your probably right about the different streams in American thinking.

      Thanks for your comment.

  • Lance

    Many of the angry Christians crying fowl should reevaluate their view of government. Wars, drone assassinations, and various forms of rendition are antithetical to the gospel. Instead of viewing the government as an arm of the church, I feel it best to view government as a pagan power that the church must exists along side with, for better or for worse.

    As for monasticism: it had a time and place, but is theologically inappropriate. To affirm the body, I think, is to affirm marriage, sex, and procreation. I’ve no issue with Christians standing firm that gay marriage cannot be considered ‘Christian’ marriage, or that it is irredeemable in conversion; but if one thinks gay marriage to be the sole or largest issue undermining these affirmations, a second glance is necessary.

    great post Kevin.

    • Kevin G.

      I think your basically right about the way we should view government (much as I’m loathe to admit it, for it sounds far too Lutheran :-P).

      One could, as far as that goes, argue that the Church should view the government as a pagan power, but that the job of the gospel is the redemption of all such systems.

      Re: Monasticism, I do agree that the Resurrection demands respect for the body, and this includes things the monastics were uncomfortable with, but I do also believe that their symbolic understanding of their discomfort mitigates that at least somewhat. I also think it’s possible to become over-enthusiastic about some features of the body, seeing them mistakenly as ultimate goods.

      I still think monasticism can provide a counterbalance to that tendency in the Church, just as the sacrament of marriage can provide a counterbalance to the excesses of monasticism (which their surely are).

      • Lance

        Lutheran doctrine would call government part of the left hand kingdom, and that our fight against the state only comes about is certain kinds of tyranny because it’s inherently a structure from God. This view of government as pagan is far more early church. The 2 kingdoms model isn’t super helpful for me.

        I agree with everything else you said, however.

    • Kevin G.

      Also: Thank you for the props, and for commenting.

    • Watch out that you do not overemphasize the sexual aspects of the body. There is more to embodiement than that- for instance, can the sinlge not be appropriately embodied? Doesn’t Paul say that singleness is the better way? I am certainly sympathetic to that position.

      There is a big part of me that would like to be a monk- out on the fringes, with a garden….

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