Marriage and sexual morality is the “stand or fall” issue for orthodox Christians in the contemporary world. Once a church formally accepts deviation from the clear Biblical teaching reserving sexual intercourse for opposite sex marriage, and the implied standard of monogamy, other doctrines seem optional, and the church proceeds on by inertia, without a compelling reason for existence.
Darrin W. Snyder Belousek, a Mennonite author currently Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Ohio Northern University, has authored a new contribution to the debate, which of course affects Christianity at large. His Marriage, Scripture, and the Church is solidly grounded in Scripture, offering an excellent and detailed assessment of the issue of same-sex marriage, addressing both sides of the debate, and attempts to go beyond the citation of proof texts to an overall consistent understanding of Christian marriage.
The Mennonite Church, U.S.A. appears now to be in a similar situation to what the mainline denominations once were in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Namely, continuing to maintain a traditional sexual standard of opposite sex monogamy as the only venue for sexual intercourse, while much dissent from this traditional morality exists, especially among clergy. Snyder Belousek first analyzes what Biblical marriage is, and then assesses justifications for proposed innovations.
He holds that Christian sexual morality must derive from the doctrine of Christian marriage. What is needed is a clear assessment of the doctrine of marriage based on Scripture. He takes Vincent of Lerins rule of orthodoxy as his standard for orthodoxy: “That faith which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.” He compares, throughout the book, what he labels the “traditionalist” interpretation of Christian sexual morality (sexual intercourse only permitted in a monogamous male/female marriage, which meets Vincent’s standard) with the “innovationist” viewpoint. The latter viewpoint entertains various radical departures from traditionalism, mainly same-sex marriage, but also polygamous and polyamorous marriages.
Snyder Belousek observes that, in tandem with the sexual revolution, certain theologians from the 1960s on advanced the idea that sexual activity be limited only by self-actualization, not marriage or the sex of the partners. Others proposed maintaining the restriction of sex to marriage for persons with heterosexual orientation, but not homosexual orientation.
He then analyzes the possibility of same-sex marriage as a part of Christian doctrine and morality, primarily on the basis of Scripture, and secondarily on tradition, science and experience. He uses Thomas Aquinas’s three-fold depiction of marriage as form, function, and figure. This is the union of man and woman (form), to begat offspring (function), representing Christ and the church (figure). This is recognized by all three branches of Christendom (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox). The form of marriage (male/female union) is fit to function and figure. The ecumenical consensus is thus that marriage was designed by God to be “both unitive and generative.” Snyder Belousek observes that major figures advocating an innovationist approach to marriage agree that they are contradicting Scripture in their teachings, but justify their teachings by appeal to science, reason, or experience (with the last item especially prominent). But he points out what traditionalists stress, that our reason and experience are corrupted by sin.
Snyder Belousek well defines the Biblical understanding of marriage: “unitive of the sexes, mutual between spouses, exclusive of all others, and enduring throughout life.” Against the claim that marriage can be separated from the sexual union of man and woman, with only the social and spiritual aspects of the relation of Christ and the church reflected in marriage (and of course, with whatever sexual aspects the partners wish to add to the marriage relationship) Snyder Belousek notes that Paul emphasized (I Cor. 6:16-17, Eph. 5:31-32, I Cor. 7:4) precisely the “one flesh” sexual aspect of marriage, which reflects the spiritual union of Christ and the believer. The covenant of marriage is inscribed in the very creation of male and female as the two sexes of humanity, capable of procreation. To separate the covenant of marriage from creational form, he points out, “could suggest that God’s purpose in blessing ‘one flesh’ marriage is divorced from God’s purpose in creating humankind ‘male and female’ – or even that the God who blesses marriage is different from the God who forms humankind.” This, he says, “is suggestive of a theological testimony more Gnostic than Christian.” Biblical and Christian marriage cannot be defined by “interior goods” (i.e., personal relationship, although this is increasingly what is important in modern societies), but by its “exterior goods” (procreation to form a family, and reflection of Christ and the church).
In considering arguments for marriage innovation (i.e., acceptance of same-sex union), Snyder Belousek dismisses claims that the fact that the church has changed before and reinterpreted Scripture in accordance with such changes justifies a change in the doctrine of marriage. He reviews several previous changes.
In science, the claim that traditional Christians resisted Galileo’s cosmological theories, and then accepted them, reinterpreting Scripture to mean that the sun only seems to move across the sky, is not an adequate justification to change marriage doctrine in light of modern testimony. He notes that Galileo distinguished between faith and morals, on the one hand, and science and nature on the other. This writer would point out that Galileo’s separation cannot be fully effective, particularly on the question of the ultimate origin and destiny of the cosmos, and the miracles reported in the Bible. Change on those items would alter Christian orthodoxy, but those are not changes orthodox Christians have accepted. But the motion of the sun across the sky can indeed be reinterpreted phenomenologically, as what only appears to be the case. Additionally, Snyder Belousek points out, modern science has moved beyond Galileo, to hold that the sun is not the center of the universe, but revolving around a galaxy in a centerless universe. Reinterpreting Scripture to get beyond an understanding bound by culture and history to the real truth God communicated in light of some other authority (such as science) cannot be done, he observes. It is only an admission that the previous interpretation of Scripture was not reliable. The new interpretation may be found to be similarly bound, and have to be reinterpreted.
The question of slavery is another area where the church is said to have changed its views. Snyder Belousek points out that both the antislavery argument from the Bible and the traditionalist argument for man/woman marriage rely on the “big picture” of Scripture, rather than a few texts. The “big picture” of slavery was the Biblical message of justice for the oppressed (along, this writer would add, with a few texts condemning specific aspects of American slavery, such as kidnapping and the return of fugitive slaves). The big picture of marriage is its uniform (opposite sex) definition and prominent place in salvation history from Genesis to Revelation. Additionally, Scripture may be cited for both pro-slavery and anti-slavery positions, whereas there is uniform and severe condemnation of same-sex intercourse.
On the question of women’s ministry in the church, Snyder Belousek, who favors women’s ordination, notes that again one can cite texts restricting the activity of women in the church (indeed, requiring their silence in church), and texts which highlight the prominent role of women in the church. Again, there is a contrast between these texts and the uniform definition of opposite-sex marriage and uniform condemnation of same-sex intercourse throughout the Bible.
The nature of marriage is thus clear in Scripture, and has been maintained despite other significant changes in Christian societies over the centuries. A subsequent article will review Snyder Belousek’s analysis of proposals for change which appeal to Biblical ideals of inclusion, justice, and love.
(Read part 2.)