Marriage and the Grace of God

Last week, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that bans on gay marriage are unconstitutional, legalizing gay marriage throughout the US. I live in Canada, and have only a handful of friends from the US, but even so my Facebook feed was very polarized over the weekend: most of it was rainbow-coloured, thanks to Facebook’s feature that enabled users to put a rainbow filter over their profile picture in celebration of the ruling, and using the message “love wins”; but there seemed to be almost as many people posting articles and memes featuring various conservative Christian leaders decrying the SCOTUS decision and its popular support, or even writing their own comments reminding their Christian friends that as Christians they “cannot support this.”

This leads me to two thoughts. The first thought is “we don’t need to support this.” This was a Supreme Court decision about constitutionality, not the result of a referendum (as happened recently in Ireland). Many of the comments and memes make it seem like people believe that this signals a shift in public opinion, as if suddenly US citizens became much more gay-friendly overnight. In reality, most of those people with rainbow-coloured profile pics were already gay-friendly. I think many people were surprised to see just how much support for this there actually was, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is not a reflection of that support, this is a ruling on constitutionality. (It has also been noted elsewhere that many people don’t seem to realize that Canada has had legal gay marriages for a decade already.)

The second thought, far more important than the first, is that we should support this. We should support this because Jesus would support this. Allow me to explain.

So far as I can tell, marriage has always been idealized. Most of the debate coming from Christians against gay marriage has been about the definition of marriage (I know the arguments well, as I used to make them frequently). But the idealized Christian notion of marriage has always been tainted: patriarchy, divorce, abuse, adultery, childlessness and infertility, etc., have always undermined the ideal. It does not logically follow that the imperfection of marriage in general means that we should endorse marriages that are obviously imperfect from the outset, but oddly enough, that’s what Jesus does.

In Jesus’ day, marriage was largely a financial transaction in which one man would pay another man for his daughter, so that she could produce children for him. Some dowry systems required that the groom paid the father; other dowry systems required that the father pay the groom for taking his daughter off of his hands. This all had to do with the economics of poor agricultural societies in which families were the primary unit of work and productivity, but in a heavily patriarchal society, it’s still just thinly veiled slavery. A daughter received no education, no birthright or inheritance (unless she had absolutely no brothers), no say in matters of the community (unless she was a prophetess), no share in the priesthood and a lesser space in worship, no control over her own sexuality or fertility or body in any meaningful sense, and no choice over who she married. Legally, an unmarried woman who was raped was supposed to be married to her rapist; this was even an act of mercy, because an unmarried woman who was not a virgin would never find a husband willing to pay to marry her, which would leave her destitute, probably working as a beggar or prostitute (for a look at how desperate this situation was, read Ruth). Polygamy was surprisingly common, too. Women were unable to initiate a divorce from their husbands, but a man could divorce his wife for any reason he wanted; some rabbis in Jesus’ day insisted that burnt dinner was sufficient cause for divorce. While the law said that both the man and woman caught in adultery should be stoned to death, in practice the man could often get away with it while the woman would still be killed (unless Jesus was there to draw a line in the sand and say “he who is without sin, cast the first stone”). And women were often married off to much older men: some scholars believe that Jesus’ mother Mary was probably about 13, while Joseph was probably in his thirties or older.

This kind of marriage is far from our ideal today, in which marriage is a result and expression of love and personal devotion. This kind of marriage seems gross, barbaric, even a form of domination. Our society has outlawed almost every aspect of this kind of marriage, and I don’t think that it’s a stretch to say that this wasn’t what God had in mind when he created Adam and Eve and said they’d be one flesh together.

Even so, a wedding was one of the greatest celebrations in Jewish culture. It would often go on for days, include the whole community and as many family as could attend, and involved drinking a lot of wine in celebration. Love was not the purpose of weddings back then, but it was a blessing bestowed on the couple, that they would love one another and be fruitful and multiply and find rest and peace together. The marriage ideal that we hold now as a pre-requisite for marriage, back then was just a wish and a blessing, the ideal that people hoped marriage would turn into over time. There was an understanding that marriage wasn’t a perfect thing, but that it could become perfect if the people involved in it devoted themselves to each other. Marriage was not the zenith of a perfect society, it was a means of God’s grace in a broken one.

We can see this in the way that marriage is used as a metaphor for God and his people. Much is often made of the Christological interpretation of Song of Songs, which is essentially erotic poetry about enjoying love, but the main place that the Bible uses marriage as a metaphor for God and his people is in Hosea. God tells the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute who repeatedly runs away from him and continues to ply her trade, and says that this is the way that God was married to Israel. Hosea always takes her back, and pursues her, even as she runs away. All he wants is for her to remain in the security and providence of their family, and finally to love him and their children. Hosea’s persistence in following his prostitute-bride is God’s grace on his people Israel. Marriage is not a perfect union, but rather an image of God’s grace, and a means by which we can experience that grace and understand God’s providence.

In the New Testament, the marriage metaphor continues – except that now the metaphor is that Christ is the bridegroom and the church is the bride; and Christ is the exemplar for husbands, who should give themselves up for their wives (rather than dominate them, as they had every legal right to do). Wives who become Christians are urged to stay with their unbelieving husbands (who continue to have almost total control over them, by the way), so that their good example might win their husbands over, i.e., so that their marriage might redeem their family, and their presence within that marriage might function as a vessel for God’s grace on an unbelieving spouse in an imperfect society. Paul says that being married is a wonderful burden, but if you can be like Christ without getting married, you’re even better off.

When Jesus performed miracles, it was expressly to lend the authority of God to his teachings and actions. Jesus’ first miracle in the Gospel of John was to create extra wine for a wedding he was attending (yes, even after everyone was already drunk). His presence at a wedding could be seen as an endorsement of the practice, but his catering of it by divine miracle can be read no other way. And the wedding that Jesus endorsed was just like any other in his day: an economic transaction, an imperfect institution of a patriarchal culture that gave one person license to dominate another, license for an old man to have sex with a young girl…and a way that God shows grace to his people, an incubator in which people can show grace to one another and become more like Christ, and a way by which, we hope, people can love each other more.

So if we’re concerned that a gay marriage is incorrect, imperfect, even sinful – well, it fits right in with marriage through the ages. It’s a way for gay and lesbian people to foster deeper love and grace for one another within a broken world, in spite of any imperfections and sins they may have and will continue to have. It is not a sacralization of sin – it’s not about sin at all; rather, it is an opportunity for love and family to grow in the midst of and despite a sinful world, and therefore a means of God’s grace to the world.

So if we ask the perennial Evangelical question of What Would Jesus Do in response to the legalization of gay marriage, I’d say he’d probably bring the wine.

The Wedding at Cana by Paolo Veronese


7 thoughts on “Marriage and the Grace of God

  1. I realize this comment will seem troll-ish, since I haven’t commented on anything here in ages, but this topic happens to be on my mind and all over social media and I’m wrestling with it, so I thought I’d comment. You know me and will know that this is not meant with any antagonism, but in the spirit of discussion and wrestling with the issue (like the good ol’ days in the Prov hallways).

    I will also say right off the top that I have no issue with legalized gay unions. I think the church and state should be separate on this one. Unfortunately, the church has gotten itself a little too entangled with the government on this one and it’s going to cause some churches grief.


    You said early in your post that “It does not logically follow that the imperfection of marriage in general means that we should endorse marriages that are obviously imperfect from the outset, but oddly enough, that’s what Jesus does.”

    The first part of what you said is what I was thinking; the second part (about Jesus) I don’t think you’ve shown in your post. It seems to me that there are a couple of faulty assumptions in your argument.

    As you say, we know that marriage was very different back then, with patriarchal and oppressive (at least by our standards or understanding) laws relating to the husband-wife relationship, and presumably with cases of abusive husbands. However, we can’t assume, because of the inequality built into the system, that every marriage was also one of inequality and abuse. One might argue that the systems and laws themselves are abusive, but I think that’s a different thing than what actual husband-wife relationships were like. There are still societies today that practice arranged marriages and while we in the west recoil at the idea, have seen at least in the media (that is, movies) what it *might* look like for those who don’t want an arranged marriage or have a bad experience, we also know that in many (most?) cases it turns out well *in terms of the relationship between husband and wife*.

    By making the leap to the conclusion that “the wedding that Jesus endorsed was just like any other in his day: an economic transaction, an imperfect institution of a patriarchal culture that gave one person license to dominate another, license for an old man to have sex with a young girl…” you assume that this marriage would be an abusive one and that Jesus endorsed that system simply because he was there. But again there’s no logical line between the two.

    Not all marriage in that context were bad or abusive or unloving, and even if the *system* is broken Jesus’ presence at the celebration is not an endorsement of the system.

    Our denomination has received some media attention recently because (according to the article; I don’t know the on-the-ground facts) the denomination pulled funding for a church plant because the pastors were fully affirming (and presiding over?) same-sex weddings, which goes against our denomination’s expectations for pastors. I see that pastor is in the news again with a column about his participation in a gay pride parade. In the article he makes reference to the “incident” and refers to being afraid of his picture being taken at gay events for fear of losing his job. I assume this to be mostly self-perception and otherwise nonsense, because the standards and expectations for pastors in our denomination explicitly allow us to be present at a gay wedding (e.g. if a friend is getting married)—we just aren’t allowed to participate in the ceremony. My point being this: presence does not equal endorsement. Is Jesus making wine more than simple presence? I’m not sure it is, partly because the wine was ultimately about him giving a sign (about himself) rather than about the wedding itself and partly because me bringing a gift to a gay friend’s wedding is not (I don’t think) an endorsement. It’s a fine line, I suppose, but fine enough not to make it carry the weight of a theological argument.

    If you look at Paul’s writing on marriage and relationship, which I would guess is based on Jesus’ Gospel, he’s turning the cultural expectations on its head (but then I’m an egalitarian rather than a complimentarian/hierarchicalist), moving towards equality and mutual submission, not endorsing things as they are.

    I’m not sure we can make a one-to-one comparison here anyway, as there is some degree of cultural accommodation happening all the way through scripture, is there not? Paul does it in his slow and steady approach to change in gender expectations; Moses did it because of “hardness of heart”; does Jesus do it too?

    Well, that turned into a longer post that I had imagined… thanks for providing a forum for discussion, Jeff!

    • Thanks Marc, great thoughts that bring some further clarity to my point!

      I did not mean to imply that all ancient marriages were depraved, but only that the institution of marriage itself is far from perfect. And I also didn’t meant to imply that Jesus endorsed patriarchy or spousal abuse by his presence and catering of a wedding in that patriarchal tradition. I only meant that Jesus saw the marriage as a reason to celebrate, regardless of the sin that was built into it. While it may be fairly argued that sin is more inherently built into a gay marriage (if homosexuality or gay sex is inherently sinful), while it is only highly likely in a highly patriarchal marriage in which the parties involved have vastly different ages and levels of power (you’re correct in saying we should not assume that all marriages were abusive, even if predisposed to be), I think that the point still stands that it’s possible to celebrate the goodness of marriage even if it involves sinful people.

      I also did not mean to imply that Christian pastors should perform gay marriages, particularly if their conscience is bothered by it or their theology prohibits it. Jesus attended and brought wine to a wedding, and I think he would do the same for a gay wedding today, but that’s different from upholding it as an ideal – rather, it shows support for the people involved and the action that they’re taking, rather than commenting on the fittingness of the observance itself. Jesus didn’t engage directly in any worship ceremonies, except preaching; he was a rabbi, not a priest. But he was always careful to celebrate the power and purpose of religious ritual or observance in spite of its imperfection (I’m thinking here of his Sabbath breaking). I think (at least tentatively) that he would look on a gay marriage that exemplifies the committed love that marriage was intended for as far better than an unfaithful or unloving straight marriage. What that means for performing weddings, I can’t say – but I think it’s a strong endorsement of rejoicing with gay couples who have waited 50 years to be properly married. I’ll leave the rest to the consciences of pastors.

      I miss you, Marc. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Hi jeff, while i imagine you are trying to put forth a new perspective, there are several points which i want to address.

    the article is incorrect in its statement that this decision doesnt reflect a major change in general public opinion in the us. its been generally agreed that that in historical terms, no social movment has gained traction as fast as gay marriage:

    secondly, the author states that christians dont have to ‘support this’, becuase its a simple legal decision. but is is a question that all churchs are going to have to now wrestle with – will their pastor marry gay couples or will they risk judicial action for refusing. also, there are increasing social and professional ramifications for individuals for not ‘supporting this’ as well:
    living in canada (my fiancee is also canadian, so i think i have some insite into this) I dont think its possible for you to feel how polarizing and antagonistic (on both sides) this debate has become in the US. its not just a casual personal belief – one has to support gay marriage or is considered a bigot on the level of a blaten racist.

    finally, your conclusion that there is bibile evidence that becuase marriage falls short of the ‘ideal’ means automatically that jesus would support it seems like a stretch of logic, and fairly simplistic. that would be like saying becuase jesus allowed the ‘sinful woman’ to annoint him, he was celebrating her sin. there are many other more rational arguments supporting gay marriage, which are examined by Tim Keller here:

    • Thanks Joy, but I think you may have misread me.

      1) I mentioned that this decision doesn’t reflect a big change in public opinion not because there hasn’t been a change (even in Canada, when I was a kid there’s no way gay marriage would have been legal – that’s a huge cultural change in about 20 years), but that the change in public opinion not only did not happen overnight, but mostly that public opinion has nothing to do with a Supreme Court decision on the issue of constitutionality.

      2) I meant only that we don’t have to support this because we have no say in whether or not the law is constitutional. I agree that churches have to wrestle with it, I only meant to highlight that the widespread sentiment of “disappointment” in the Supreme Court is a little foolish. The Supreme Court does not, and should not, care if anyone is disappointed in their decision – their decision should only be based on interpretation of the law and the constitution to ensure they are compatible. They weren’t, and all the disappointment in the world won’t change that.

      I don’t doubt for a moment that there will be charges of discrimination against pastors who refuse to perform gay marriages. If the pastor is performing a civil ceremony this may have some teeth (because they are functioning as a representative of the state in addition to being a representative of God in that case), but the pastor should still be covered by his or her religious rights and freedoms. This happened in Canada too. I know it’s not as big of an issue here as it is in the US, but we went through this a decade ago, and to some extent it still carries on. I expect that there will be thousands of charges of discrimination, and it’ll be up to the courts to decide what constitutes discrimination and what constitutes religious rights. If the courts decide that all pastors must perform gay marriages in spite of their consciences, it will be up to pastors to engage in civil disobedience. But we’re a long way off from that yet – cross that bridge when you come to it. We’re 10 years in, here, and there’s no sign of this yet.

      3) I was careful to say that the decidedly non-ideal nature of marriage does NOT mean that Jesus would support gay marriage – it doesn’t logically follow that just because the institution in general is less than ideal that we should celebrate any form or instance of it. What I did say is that Jesus, in spite of the systemic imperfection of the institution of marriage in his day, celebrated a wedding anyway. That he participated in a joyous occasion, and even chose it as a place to reveal himself as a bringer of grace to humanity. I think that’s a big deal. What I never intended to say, though some have read it this way, is that Jesus was celebrating sin; rather, Jesus was celebrating goodness in the midst of sin.

      Grace does not mean that sin does not matter. It means that sin and its consequences can no longer get in the way of the love of God. If my concern about a gay person’s sin keeps me from celebrating their successes and mourning their sorrows with them, then I am not showing the grace of God. I have put their sin ahead of their humanity, and in so doing have made myself a gatekeeper who limits access to the love of God. That’s not my job.

  3. I’ll push you a bit farther on the patriarchal marriage point. You wrote: “In Jesus’ day, marriage was largely a financial transaction in which one man would pay another man for his daughter, so that she could produce children for him. Some dowry systems required that the groom paid the father; other dowry systems required that the father pay the groom for taking his daughter off of his hands. This all had to do with the economics of poor agricultural societies in which families were the primary unit of work and productivity, but in a heavily patriarchal society, it’s still just thinly veiled slavery.”

    If we (in our society) practiced such a marriage today, your point might make sense. As a comment on people in other cultures, it is as imperialist as can be (however unintentionally). Greek islanders in the Mediterranean practiced such marriages within living memory. To say that they engaged in a veiled form of slavery is inaccurate. African ethnic groups such as the Ndebele people of Zimbabwe still practice such customs. It is not our place to critique them so sharply. Besides, your whole argument stands independently of a total condemnation of other peoples’ marriage customs.

    I suspect we are quite close together on your comments as a whole, but this particular area (critiquing other cultures for not being like ours) is one that I react to. More my problem than yours perhaps, but there you are.

    Thanks for the column, Jeff.

    • Thanks Daryl, I appreciate your sensitivity to this! I am humbled. I certainly did not intend comparison to any culture today.

      At the same time, I wonder if the definition of slavery can really be on a sliding cultural scale. Calling something slavery does not mean that it was not accepted as normal, or even positive, or that it did not have benefits for all involved. Even so, I recognize that my comments at least implied a strong judgment.

      Something that I am convinced of is that patriarchy (whether it constituted slavery or not) was never part of God’s intention for humanity living in harmony. It may well be that gay marriage is not part of his final intention either. Yet that does not keep him from rejoicing when it brings peace and love and freedom, which I believe he values more than strict adherence to any of the laws he wrote to try to promote those things. God plays the long game, and puts up with an awful lot of sin on the long road to perfection.

  4. Agreed that patriarchy is a limited human effort — which is a basic part of your argument. Patriarchy is (I believe) a consequence of the Fall, and for Christians a part of what is set behind us “in Christ”. My point is simply that others who practice “dowry” (lobola in my part of Zimbabwe) would not recognize any idea of slavery in the practice. It is an economic transaction binding two families together. In the transition to an industrial modernist (and therefore individualistic) society, such practices do become oppressive. But we must be careful not to read oppression back into every such form of marriage.

    I couldn’t live with the system myself, but then I’m not asked to! As I said, this piece does not affect the validity of your larger argument. Your point stands — that God does not abandon us just because we are fallen humans.

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