Jim’s sermon on marriage

A ‘Biblical’ view of Marriage??
Matt 22.23-33 Ephesians 5.21-33

A momentous decision is facing our society – ‘marriage equality’/same sex marriage. The Government has decided to seek a plebiscite.Opinion polls suggest the plebiscite is likely to be carried. The very path forward is contentious: Many people would prefer Parliament to make the decision. Will the plebiscite unleash a torrent of abusive language and socially divisive  tensions? Even the terms we use to describe it are loaded: advocates prefer “marriage equality” and opponents prefer to talk handout “same-sex marriage”.

Many in the churches remain firmly opposed to any change in the law to enable same sex marriage and some support it. But we are going to have to face up to the question:

each of us on the electoral role will have to vote if the plebiscite goes ahead, so we have to decide personally what our view is.
if the law does change next year, or the year after, our Church and our Ministers will have to decide where we stand on the issue and what our decision is going to be. Our denomination has never faced a change in the law like this so we don’t know how we will respond to it. Will the Connexion (through the Gymanfa) make the decision for all of us and decide ‘Yes’ or ‘No’? Will we involve the church meeting and give the local churches a say on what happens in their chapel? Will we leave room for the conscience of the Ministers? Will we do nothing and just let the State determine where we stand on marriage?

These are big questions. We need to be preparing ourselves and thinking and praying through what our attitude is. I am going to preach today and next Sunday on this issue to give you some perspectives on the theological issues involved. This week: marriage. Next week: same sex relationships.

Obviously I have a view and I think most of you will know I am for a change in the marriage law and I would be quite comfortable with leading a same-sex marriage. The irony is that I can’t, even if the law changes, because the Baptist Union of Australia won’t permit any Baptist minister to conduct such a service and my registration to conduct weddings is with the Baptist churches.

Now, and this is the most important thing I am going to say today or next week, so if you hear nothing else hear this:

It’s OK to be in agreement with same-sex marriage and it’s OK to be against it.

People can hold different views with integrity and fairness and honesty. You can still be a Christian and celebrate gay marriages and you can still be Christian and say “I’m sorry but that is just not right. I don’t agree with it”. What matters is HOW you hold your view: If you are FOR same-sex marriage because these days anything goes and there’s nothing special about marriage anyway? Then your position doesn’t have integrity. If you are AGAINST marriage because you are frightened of homosexuals and hate anything to do with gay culture, then your position doesn’t have integrity.

The second thing to say is this: I don’t necessarily want you to agree with me. The One you need to agree with is Jesus Christ and you need to ground your view on the Word of God. And if you believe that the Word of God and the Spirit of Christ call you to oppose gay marriage then you must oppose it. But you should think about it and pray about it and find out what the Scripture really says. Be Biblical in your thinking, but bring your thinking to the Bible.

That’s where were going – I am taking you on a tour of some of the Biblical material.  Printed copies of this sermon are available for you to take home and read and reflect on the Biblical passages yourself.  Today I’m presenting an overview of Marriage and next week a look at Biblical teaching on same-sex relationships.

The Marriage Act of this country defines marriage as “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”.

It is this definition of marriage that conservative forces, including the churches, are seeking to defend:

a man and a woman
to the exclusion of all others  – cf. polygamy, polyandry, polyamory
voluntarily entered into – cf. arranged marriage, forced marriage as still happens in some parts of the world
for life –  cf. old ideas of marriage being indissoluble (“what God has joined together …”)

Many people think that this view of marriage is that of the Bible. Let’s have a look at what the Bible actually says:

Genesis 38: Levirate marriage: involuntary marriage of man to his brother’s widow in order to continue the family line (still theoretically current in Jesus day – question from the Sadducees (Matt 22.23-32

Deuteronomy 22.28-29 — a virgin woman who is not engaged automatically becomes the wife of her rapist, who is then required to pay the victim’s father 50 shekels for the loss of his property rights. This marriage is indissoluble.

Numbers 31.17-18  A male soldier is entitled to take as many virgins as he likes to be his wives from among his booty but he must kill the other prisoners.

Deuteronomy 21.11-14 marriage is made by selecting a beautiful  woman from among the spoils of war, shaving her head and trimming her fingernails. These marriages are dissoluble if she fails to please, but you can’t then sell her as a slave.

the marriage of the prophet Hosea to Gomer, “Go and take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord”. So Hosea married her, she engaged in adultery and then gave birth to children that Hosea named “Not Mine” and “Unloved/Unpitied”. (Hosea 1.2-9)

Concubinage, taking women in long term relationships that are less than marriage: Abraham had a wife and two concubines. Solomon: among his wives were 700 princesses and 300 concubines ( I Kings 11.3)

Marriage: “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”.  Does that sound like what I have just described from the Old Testament? And I am not being selective. The variety of marriage customs, the convoluted personal histories of the heroes of the Bible in their marriages and their personal lives just goes on and on.

We can see this in the opening words of the New Testament – the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1: there are four ‘mothers’ among the long list of ‘fathers’ of Jesus right back to Abraham:

Tamar: married to two of Judah sons. (Genesis 38) Both died and Judah refused to give her to his youngest son. (If she’s seen off two of your boys it sounds like a precautionary thing to do). So Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute, seduced her father in law, got pregnant with twins and then publicly exposed him as the incestuous father of her unborn children before all the elders of the town.

Boaz’s mother was Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho, who had a child by Salmon. (Joshua 2.1-21)

Ruth the Moabitess went out the threshing floor and ‘slept at Boaz’ feet’.(Ruth 3.1-18). I have always heard that preached as a kind of chaste gesture of self-control. In fact its a euphemism for the exact opposite: she slipped down to the workplace and showed him a good time.

Then there’s Bathsheba, the mother of Solomon, but Matthew emphasises that this marriage grew out of an adulterous relationship by naming her “the wife of Uriah” (2 Sam 11-12).

And this isn’t a collection of lurid failures and reprobates: it’s how Matthew chooses to present the family tree of Jesus!

“The union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”?

Where does this leave us?

Marriage customs have changed enormously over the time that the Bible was compiled. Views and laws of marriage changed, to reflect social circumstances just as the Marriage Act was changed ten years ago Australia, and may be changed again in the future. There is nothing unchanging in marriage as we see it in the Bible.  All of those stories and laws point to two great truths about marriage in the Bible:

1. Marriage is there to manage and stabilise the vagaries of human desire. The Bible has many romantic stories – Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel – but also tales of adultery, rape and betrayal that have also been woven into the tapestry of redemption that is the story of the people of God.

2. Marriage is there to stabilise the social order and provide security and justice for those who are vulnerable – mainly (in the Bible) women. In a world of violence and war in which women had little independence or legal power the OT laws of marriage are there to protect women taken as wives: a woman you have taken through rape cannot be discarded; a woman taken as a wife through capture in war can be divorced, but is not then a slave to be sold, she is a free woman.

Far from there being one pattern of marriage in the Bible there is a patchwork of rules and structures and family patterns than reflect the unpredictabilities of human desire and the need for stabilisation of the social order and the protection of the weak. That patchwork reflects the social realities and pressures of the day.

Now it is true that over the history of the Bible there is a gradual emergence of an ideal of marriage. The element of marriage being voluntary is important and this has only come about gradually. Arranged marriages were common in Europe hundreds of years ago and are still common in many parts of the world. Forced marriages of young girls against their will still occur in some places. Our ideals of marriage say this is not right. Marriage should be something that both parties enter into freely and voluntarily.

Marriage should be between two people only. So-called polyamory (established relationships between three or more people) have been around for millennia – there’s plenty of evidence of that in the Bible but our ideal now is that it should be between two people, to the exclusion of all others. The current debate is not about challenging or changing that ideal.

Marriage should be for life. The ideal is an enduring, life-long partnership. That is an abiding, established, defined element of marriage. Now we know it doesn’t always work out that way, and we have liberalised divorce laws in living memory. Whether you are for or against liberalisation of divorce, we all acknowledge that it changed marriage in our society. In some ways the principles of ‘for life’ and ‘voluntarily’ can be opposed to each other. What if you no longer want to be in a marriage? Is the ‘for life’ principle more important than the ‘wanting to be married’ principle? Different people will have different answers to that, but our family courts have been empowered to manage the dissolution of marriage in a way that serves justice, protects the vulnerable and reserves as much as possible the fabric of the social order.

I close by engaging the two readings in our service this morning. A full exploration of the NT theology of marriage would take us in great detail into the teaching of Jesus and Paul, and other New Testament writers, but I point only to these two passages.

In Matt 22 Jesus is faced with a trick question about marriage – a question aimed at disproving the Resurrection. The Sadducees invoke the law of Levirate marriage (the obligations of six brothers-in-law to marry in turn a childless, widowed sister-in-law). Jesus answers the question by separating marriage from our heavenly destiny: in the Resurrection we neither marry nor are given in marriage. In Resurrection we move into another realm which transcends marriage. This doesn’t mean that we are not reunited with our loved ones, but we move into another order of being in which marriage as we know it is no more. Jesus says that marriage is very important but it is not ultimate, not a part of the deep structure of spiritual reality that is the destiny of the world. It is part of the human ordering of things. Contrary to the popular metaphor, marriages are NOT made in heaven! They are made on earth and are part and parcel of our human struggle to order this earth for justice and wholeness and human flourishing. Marriage is important, and sublime and deeply fulfilling, but it always a temporary thing, “ ‘til death us do part”.

In Ephesians 5.21-33 we have one of the best known Bible passages about marriage, usually invoked to metaphorically beat wives into submission to their husbands. You can tell this reading because to usually starts with vs. 22 (“Wives submit to your husbands…”) But the reading should start with vs 21 (“Submit yourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ”). In the social world of Ephesians everyone knew that wives had to submit to their husbands – that was commonly accepted. What was new and radical was that submission was mutual, that couples should submit to one another, that husbands should love their wives, deeply and sacrificially and in a way that makes them holy and splendid. The love of a husband should be modelled on Christ and his love for the church. The writer ends his teaching with a quote from Genesis about a man leaving his father and mother and clinging to his wife and the two become one flesh. He then says “This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church”. If Jesus says that marriage is an earthly thing that does not carry over into heaven, Ephesians says it is a profoundly mystical thing that points us towards the mystery of the love of Christ for his church. At its most profound level marriage is not about men and women leaving their parents, becoming ‘one flesh’ and starting new families: it is a model for the love that Jesus Christ has for his church. It’s about everything Jesus taught and did. It’s about the Cross and the deep meaning of love and commitment that is found in the Cross. It’s not about sex, of having children, or “a man and a woman”, it’s about Christ’s self-giving for the world and his sacrificial, life-giving love for the church, for you and me.

These two passages reverse the usual way we think about marriage from a spiritual perspective: we tend to take marriage and project it into the spiritual world. But Jesus warns against this. And Ephesians suggests that the meaning works the other way – that marriage is actually a reflection of the relationship between Jesus and the Church.

As we think about marriage and who it is for, we dare not romanticise our own experience, or be sloppy in pointing to a modern definition of marriage and saying this is what the Bible holds to be marriage. We need to reflect on Christ’s love for the church, His love for us, and ask what does this mean for every human being whom Jesus Christ loves, and for whom Jesus Christ died, and whom he longs to bring into relationship with God and membership of the Church?

Revd Jim Barr
Melbourne Welsh Church
18th September 2016

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