Rethinking the sacredness of marriage

It is not unusual for a celebrity’s short-term “hook up” to be considered a marriage, while a 35-year committed relationship between two persons of the same gender is not.

By Colin Harris

The closing days of 2013 saw two more states gaining approval for marriage equality, bringing the total to 18, suggesting a clear political momentum that will not likely be reversed.

Around and beneath this legal process has been a thoughtful and often contentious atmosphere of reflection and discussion about the institution of marriage. Traditional assumptions long relatively unquestioned have been analyzed and debated on legal, social and moral grounds; and all indications suggest that significant changes in the way marriage has been understood are taking place.

These changes have not been without strong resistance, often dressed in theological clothing.

Responses to the issue often make a theological appeal to God’s intention that marriage be between one man and one woman, noting the Adam and Eve narrative of Genesis and the practice of monogamous marriage in the context of the New Testament, reflected in the reported teachings of Jesus and the letters of Paul.

We don’t see in such appeals quite as much notice of the family structure of the patriarchs or the marital arrangements of a Solomon.

Most “defense of marriage” suggestions focus on the form of marriage more than its meaning, and given our history and social practice, it is an understandable stretch for many to consider marriage in a different form from the traditional one.

It is easy to assume that what is customary and generally accepted as the norm is the way God intended it. It is not unusual for a celebrity’s short-term “hook up” to be considered a marriage, while a 35-year committed relationship between two persons of the same gender is not.

I have wondered if debates focused on the form of marriage and the sexual orientation of the partners might reflect a misplaced emphasis that distorts the nature of marriage and its sacredness, when seen through a lens of covenant faith.

In our over-sexualized world, it is not surprising that marriage gets defined in terms of sexuality. But from a covenant faith perspective, marriage might need to be defined more in terms of the profound level of intimate and committed relationship that it can find and nurture.

Can a theology of marriage and reflections on its sacredness, based on the relationship of a covenant faith, help us refine the focus of our understanding of marriage in a way that does not exclude significant numbers of people from its blessing?

Theologically, marriage is an image of the covenant bond between God and God’s people — the analogy often chosen to point to the nature of covenant faith. It is the nature and character of the relationship that makes it so, not the particular sexual orientation of the participants.

If marriage is sacred, as we have so long affirmed that it is, is its sacredness identified by the sexual orientation of the partners or by the quality and the depth of the relationship it embodies?

The biblical narrative reflects an interesting evolution in the understanding of marriage. From early concerns for procreation and family survival, to a basis for economic stability and division of labor, to political alliance, to evidence of prosperity, to the kind of domestic partnership and meaningful personal relationship we associate with “traditional” marriage, the understanding of the form and purpose of marriage has changed over time along the human journey.

Is it reasonable to expect that such an evolution of understanding might continue as new discoveries and insights are found about human experience?

We have learned that one’s sexual orientation is a “given” and not a choice, and we have gradually grown in acceptance of the full humanity of persons once thought abnormal or defective.

Like the racial attitudes of a half-century ago, these fading understandings will likely be the subject of future contrition and explanation to our succeeding generations.

I suspect that an emerging understanding of the sacredness of marriage will be in terms of its relational, rather than its sexual, dimensions. If this is the case, then another area of life will have been redeemed from its bondage to a limited understanding based on what we have seen “through a glass darkly.”

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.