… Be willingly dependent upon each other in the holy fear of Christ Himself.
Wives [being subject] to their own husbands as to the Lord because a man as head is so in the same way that Christ is head of the church, Himself the Saviour of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ [a distinct creaturely domain in which God is to be honoured] so also wives are to be subject to their husbands in all kinds of ways.
And husbands are to love their own wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up on its behalf surrendering Himself in order that He might make it holy, cleansing her by the washing of water and the word in order that He might present her [the church] to Himself in glorious array before Him that she not have any blemish or imperfection of any kind – so that it be perfect and unspoiled.
So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. Actually, he that cherishes his wife is loving himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh but nourishes it and takes care of it, even as the Lord nourishes and takes care of the church. For members we are of His body. And it is in this context that a man leaves his father and his mother to cleave to his wife and the two shall be of one kind.
A great mystery this is, and I have related it [here] to Christ and the church. Nevertheless, it is also the case that each one of you should love his wife as he loves himself and the wife should give due reverence to her husband.
We have referred to the pertinent observations of N T Wright about attempts to change the definition of important terms by legislation. His comments not only warn of the problems that will accrue for encouraging clear and logical thinking. But this is not just a serious “category mistake”. It is likely to increasingly politicised language. And he specifically warns about the implied idolatrous reliance upon the state to change not just the law, but reality itself.
The world-wide clamour for “marriage equality” is now joined by politicians of left and right who formerly held a contrary view. Previously, whatever homosexual relations are they were not considered to be of a marital in kind. We’ve explored some of the assumptions of the appeal to “compassion” by such politicians. We’ve also noted the political tendency to avoid too much discussion of the twists and turns of this debate as it has unfolded over the last decade.
But this clamour, and the attendant u-turns that many politicians seem to want us to forget, did not arise in an historical vacuum. In fact it is worth reflecting upon the ways in which what is being debated is also in some sense reliant upon what has happened to our language. Some governments around the world seem to suggest that the matter is finally resolved in their political communities because they have legislated to adjust the meaning of the term “marriage” in their legal codes to what they imply is a publicly endorsed definition. But there is more at work here than merely a legislative adjustment to a prevailing and mistaken view held by the citizenry. After all, what we see with “marriage equality” legislation around the world presupposes significant changes in the way people use terms to explain themselves and their marriages.
Consider how, over these same decades, married people have changed the way they typically refer to themselves. Has there not been a marked change over the last 40 years in the language used to refer to one’s marital relationship. “Husband” and “wife” though still in use is not the common usage it once was. Then the generic term “spouse” re-emerged and at the same time said couple may have referred to themselves by saying: “We are spliced”. That was followed by “s/he is my partner”, then it became “we are living together”, “yes I am actually in a meaningful relationship”, “we are an item” and so on.
We should not forget that meanwhile in everyday parlance “marriage” has also, at the same time, come to mean not only the relationship but the “door” through which one entered this relationship. In that sense “No, we are not married” has often meant a de facto couple saying “No, we have not had a wedding.” Of course one of that couple might dissent and say “Yes are married but we have not had a wedding” “We do not have a piece of paper to prove it.”
Alongside these changes to everyday speech, there are other deeper changes that we might designate as changes to world-view, or coming from an alternative philosophical perspective. We have previously drawn attention to the appeal that is made in this matter to a distinctly neo-pagan anthropology. This involves a rationale for “marriage equality” that goes something like the following: whatever human identity is, it has to position itself on an underlying homo-hetero spectrum. This spectrum is presumed (religiously) to be an underlying personal reality for all of us on this planet. And from this standpoint, our task in life is to face up to this and with passive acceptance of our own identity assert our own place on the spectrum. Of course an attitude of passive acceptance will sometimes also require an intense personal struggle and this indicates the need for a community’s compassion. The traditional way of expressing this compassion (often in religious ceremonies) must be changed to facilitate such positioning. Further, this view implies that a large part of the struggle of so many with their sexual identity, older and younger, has to do with the older tradition about sexual identity that is not inclusive but exclusive and now has to be overcome. Whatever benefits and entitlements accrued from the older binary view of humanity as “male and female created in the image of God”, this view can no longer be held. Besides, there is now new insight given to humanity by the evolution of civil rights, so that with a concerted effort to reform how our laws shape us we can ensure the appropriate distribution of such benefits and entitlements in a truly inclusive way. Indeed, in this view, male and female are no longer locked into each other as each other’s binary opposites. The terms “male” and “female” have to be flexibly redefined on an individual case-by-case basis by a caring and compassionate society that encourages all persons to find their own peculiar place on this underlying identity spectrum.
It is not difficult to imagine how adherents to this anthropology will interpret the passage from Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus with which this post began. Some Christian citizens might feel provoked to go all out to expose this neo-pagan anthropology as they oppose neo-liberalism’s world-wide attempt to turn marriage into a civil right.
But the true challenge for disciples of Jesus Christ (Matthew 7:1-5) is to look again at this bed-rock teaching about the way in which God continues His creative and redemptive work in His male and female image bearers, forming a community of faith that will be the Bride to His Son Jesus Christ. The mystery of marriage, male and female united as one, gains divine endorsement from the Gospel itself. Without reference to marriage the intense relevance of the mystery of Christ and His church can not be adequately reflected; without Jesus coming for His Bride, the church, marriage would itself lose its true bearings; the character chosen for it by God “before the foundation of the world [PRO KATABOLES KOSMOU] in order that we should be set apart and without imperfection [AGIOUS KAI AMÕMOUS] before Him in love” (1:4). This is the near identical phrase used by Paul of the husband’s loving care for his wife in 5:27 [AGIA KAI AMÕMOS].
Yes, by embracing the “marriage equality” movement, Christian churches the world over are aligning themselves with the commitment to human autonomy that is presupposed by neo-liberal politics. They may even be accommodating a neo-pagan view that makes “male” and “female” moveable and adjustable spectral positions. But more importantly they are departing from the Biblical teaching without which their entry into the world would have been thwarted.