Someone asked me for a more fully fleshed out account of my views on marriage and sexuality, from a theological perspective.
“Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”
This not so brief piece is my response.
Before the piece proper, here is an outline of the argument I make in favour of marriage equality within the Church, on theological grounds:
First: marriage itself isn’t that important within the Christian tradition, and so our view of marriage should be determined by other theological commitments.
Second: our theological commitments should be built primarily upon Scripture and Doctrine, which are intrinsically linked, and mutually inform each other.
(i) Scripture is not first and foremost a “big book of facts about God,” but is rather a record of how the living God has intervened throughout events in history, and the lives of faithful people and communities. Scripture points to the presence of God in the world, and records where God intervened in the past, in this sense it is a guide for how we might discern the living God’s intervention in our own present.
(ii) Doctrine is the connective tissue of language, ideas, practices, etc., that enable people and communities of faith to articulate and communicate their faith with others. This communication is both about speaking and listening.
Fourth: the two most important doctrines are Christology (who is Jesus?) and Trinity (who is God in light of Jesus?), taken together these form the substance of the Gospel proclamation itself, which I summarise in this way:
God, in Christ, sent by the power of the Spirit, has reconciled the world and established as true what is true, and as real what is real: that God reigns over the world, and, by the power of the same Spirit of God, enables our participation in the fruitfulness of this reconciliation and reign.
The Gospel proclamation calls us to reinterpret the world in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and so participate in transforming the world to this end. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ finds it centrepoint in the crucifixion and resurrection, where Jesus stands with those who suffer being cursed by religion, and convicted by politics. Jesus’ death and resurrection upholds these vulnerable people, while critiquing the religious and political systems that led to their suffering and oppression. Jesus thus offers a way back for those complicit in systems of oppression, and a new way forward for all together in reconciliation.
Fifth: our practices of marriage should manifest the reconciliation offered by Jesus in his crucifixion and resurrection: upholding queer people who have suffered under religious and political power, and offering a way forward together for queer people and those of us complicit in their suffering. Marriage equality is but one aspect of this larger journey of repentance and reconciliation.
First, I actually don’t think marriage is that important within the Christian tradition, nor has it been. The first clear evidence of a Christian wedding comes from the 9th century. Priests only began presiding over marriages in the 12th century. The Roman Catholic Church declared marriage a sacrament in the 13th century, and this understanding of marriage was later rejected by the Reformation churches (including those that formed the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA)). So there has never been a stable understanding and practice of marriage throughout Christian history.
Further, if we include Biblical examples of marriage, and cross-cultural understandings of marriage, then we see even more change. Polygamy is now rejected (a point lamented by the ex-President in his last statement to Assembly, which I’ve seen little comment on). Arranged marriage is rejected – the 1997 statement requiring “freely given consent.” And the appropriate age for marriage has risen.
It is true that these many iterations of marriage have assumed men and women, but it’s not clear why this is the determining factor. That claim requires arguments separate from the validity of the received tradition, given that the received tradition has already been subject to significant change.
(This history is detailed in the Doctrine Working Group marriage report, pp. 39-40. Notably, none of this history has been challenged by any of the conservative responses to the report collated by the Assembly of Confessing Congregations.)
Further to this history, marriage is not a prominent theme within the Biblical canon, is not mentioned in the great ecumenical creeds of the Church, and receives only passing mention in a handful of confessional documents. (In particular, in Wesley’s 18th Sermon, within the ‘Forty-Four,’ in the ‘Westminster Confession,’ and the ‘Heidelberg Catechism.’)
Second, we need to be clear about what loci of authority we should draw on to inform our view of what marriage should look like. Given we’re talking theology I tend to look kindly upon Scripture and Doctrine.
Scripture and Doctrine are irrevocably linked. The texts that became authoritative (canonised) within the Christian tradition did so because they conformed to the doctrinal commitments the early church developed. At the same time, these doctrinal commitments were informed by the witness of certain texts that had already gained wider readership and informal authority. The Bible was canonised to include orthodox texts, but orthodoxy itself was developed on the basis of texts that ended up in the Biblical canon.
Third, having identified Scripture and Doctrine as key we need to understand what we mean by each of these terms.
Scripture — taking the lead from what’s above, I don’t see Scripture simply as a “Big Book of Facts About God.” Scripture is always a partner within a conversation, particularly with doctrine, but more broadly with the life of faith. Scripture witnesses to the intervention of the living God: (i) in the events it points to (or purports to report), (ii) in the lives of its authors and the communities the texts were written for, and (iii) in the events, lives and communities of that same faith which we experience.
(i) When we read the Bible we always need to understand that these texts are already interpreting the events they recall. The Bible never provides a neutral window into the past. It always aims at highlighting the significance of the events it records, the Bible is always discerning where the activity of God is within the events of history. And so what we get is never history, but an interpretation of history. We never get to see the exact effects of God’s intervention in the world, we only see how those effects are interpreted and made sense of as affects (I will prefer the language of ‘affect’ over ‘effect’ throughout the rest of this piece).
In its approach to history the Bible does not have a competitive notion of human and divine agency: just because something is done by a person and has a natural explanation doesn’t mean God wasn’t acting through that event; and just because something is ascribed to God’s activity doesn’t mean humans aren’t called to participate in that action. God and humanity don’t “compete” in terms of who does what. (The best example of this is baptism into the way of Christ: we participate “in Christ,” not because Christ’s work isn’t definitive and we need to help out, but because Christ’s work calls us to live the way of Christ as well.)
(ii) When we look at the texts themselves, the question I always want to ask isn’t, “what happened?” But rather, “how did God intervene in the reality of the author?” While not all of the Bible is poetry, poetry is a good analogy. When we read poetry the point isn’t that we get a window into the exact experiences of the author, but we get an insight into the affect of those experiences on the author. The same is true with Scripture. The question is always: what affect did God’s activity have on the writer of this text, and the community the text was written for? We can’t always get perfectly accurate answers to this question, but I think it’s the right question to ask.
To provide a worked example we can look at three approaches to reading the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2.
A fairly blunt account might suggest that these accounts are simple descriptions of literal events in the past. The problem with this reading isn’t simply that it runs counter to scientific knowledge, but it also fails to acknowledge the theological points being made by these accounts. For all a simple literal reading of Genesis claims, it actually misses saying anything about who God is, it simply says some things God did. It prompts the important question: so what? What is the significance of God making the world in that way? We don’t need to hold onto a particular account of what happened to answer the latter question: and that’s the question that matters.
A common corrective to the first approach is to read Genesis as a metaphor, or read it figuratively. The challenge with this approach is that it is at risk of being a bit arbitrary, and disconnecting the accounts in Genesis from the communities and tradition of faith that we find ourselves in. (There are some interesting ways of opening up Genesis to creative readings that connect with different cultural traditions, and minority traditions within Judaism and Christianity, but we need to be self-conscious when we’re doing that.)
A reading I would take for Genesis is to situate it within the context in which it appeared. The best historical work suggests that Genesis in the form we have it came to be during the Babylonian exile. Probably drawing off oral tradition, some written material, and external cultural influences, these were collated to give us the creation narratives we have in the canon. What affect did these texts have in that context? In the context of exile the Jewish people suffered under foreign rule, were in exile from their homeland, the world seemed chaotic, and it didn’t seem like God was in control and peace was possible. Into that context the creation accounts of Genesis challenges those experiences and reaffirm that there is a reality that is greater than our experience. God is in control, peace ispossible, order is possible in the world, home can be found. Genesis is thus a text of resistance. While the Babylonian rulers said the God of Israel had lost, the Jewish people reminded themselves of the reign of God over creation; while the Babylonian rulers inflicted violence, the Jewish people reminded themselves of the peace God intended for the world.
This last approach to Genesis is an approach I take across the different texts of the Bible. It’s not easy. But the question is the same: what affect did God’s activity have on the writer of this text, and the community the text was written for? As different texts speak into different contexts their affects change. Over time different texts within the Bible reinterpret other texts within the canon to make sense of the new activity of God in the world.
Example #1. Given what I’ve said about the creation accounts in Genesis, I don’t think those texts first and foremost were about describing how the world ought to be ordered in terms of gender and species. This order responded to a particular context, namely, the experience of exile. And yet Jesus seems to pick up these same stories in the context of a discussion of divorce (Mark 10 / Matt 19). In that context Jesus isn’t engaging the issues of exile, he’s engaging the question of divorce. In particular Jesus uses the account in Genesis to contradict the Mosaic law about divorce (it’s not often commented that Jesus in fact contradicts the existing religious law in this teaching). The law said divorce was permissible as long as the husband wrote a letter to his wife. Jesus says that, no, divorce is not permissible on those grounds, because the commitment made between husband and wife is too deep to be so easily separated. Genesis becomes a means of arguing for the equality of men and women in divorce, Jesus uses Genesis to counter the privileged position men had within marriage, in that only men could initiate divorce easily. Reading that text as simply setting up a norm for marriage misses the affect that text actually had within its original context. I want to reject, on the one hand, the blunt reading that sees Jesus’ reference to Genesis as a simple commandment; and, on the other hand, I want to reject a naive liberal view that just ignores what Jesus says, and so misses that this text intervenes in its context to uphold women.
(To take this example further, I could see how Mark 10 could be an argument for divorce in the case of abuse. For Jesus, Genesis informs his view of divorce, because it establishes a view of the good that upholds women as well as men. By the same token, abuse within marriage breaks the covenant – as the original sin does – and introduces the signs of a fallen relationship: suffering and pain. In so blaspheming the shalom (peace) of marriage, taken from Genesis, divorce is for the good in the case of abuse.)
Example #2. If you sit John 1 next to Proverbs 8 (particular vv. 22-31) you notice some striking similarities. The writer of John has appropriated language from Proverbs 8, in reference to Hochma (Woman Wisdom), and used it to connect Jesus’ identity to God as Creator. The same language gets taken from Proverbs and used, in a different context, to say something new about God’s intervention in the world: namely, that in Jesus God has begun a new creation that stands in continuity with the original creation of God.
These two examples show how the same language or ideas can be reinterpreted to refer to the new activity of God in the world, in different contexts. This is also the entry point for how the Bible becomes useful for us, in radically different contexts to those of the Bible. The point is that we have to read the Bible in dialogue with the context it originally intervened in, as well as the context in which we find ourselves.
(iii) I have grown fond of thinking about our approach to the Bible not simply in terms of readingthe Bible, but also in terms of using the Bible. Because my focus on the Bible is how it witnesses to God doing something, and intervening in the world, I think how we approach the Bible is also about how we use the Bible to do something. The Bible changes us, it shapes how we act, it informs and shapes our communities of faith, it influences how we relate to others, and how we think about the world. So the question, inevitably, is: how do we use the Bible faithfully?
The first thing we need to realise is that, in fact, it’s not the Bible itself doing anything, but God as witnessed in the Bible, and God in our own lives of faith. This is why it’s important that the Basis of Union (the foundational theological document of the UCA) makes clear that Jesus, and not the Bible, is the Word of God. The Bible is only ever a witness to, or a conduit for, the activity of God, and cannot be confused with God’s activity itself. God works through the Bible, even today, but it is God who works, and not the ink on a page. As noted above, what makes the Bible particular is that it is the authoritative witness to God’s activity in the world within the Christian tradition. This doesn’t mean that God hasn’t acted elsewhere in the world – certainly not! This is why we also recognise the importance of other confessional documents, which are still being written today. But the Bible is, basically, universally authoritative, while some other confessional documents aren’t quite as universally accepted. And, importantly, the Bible is therefore an authoritative witness that says where God has acted, not necessarily where God is acting or where God will act (though it can help us to discern and point the way).
The Bible is normative, or authoritative, or controlling for how we understand the activity of God because it establishes clear precedent for where God has acted in the past. The Bible gives us a range of examples that say: “God’s intervention in the world might look something like this.”
The significant challenge in using the Bible to discern the activity of God today is that we inhabit a significantly different context, where the terms the Bible use don’t always apply directly across vast distances of time and culture. This further entrenches my view that we can’t simply read the Bible as a set of clear commands about how to live, we have to look, indirectly, at the affect of these commands in their context to find the points of connection. To be blunt, slavery today doesn’t look like what slavery looked like in the ancient world. The way people organise their family and home lives is different from the household codes Paul draws on in books like Ephesians. In general it is difficult to apply ancient categories and words to modern categories.
On top of the difficulty raised by interpreting the Bible in our new context there is the significant problem of which parts of the Bible take precedence over others. For example, do we give the Mosaic law a central role, and so criticise Jesus’ answer to the question of divorce as wrong? Or do we privilege the words of Jesus – even when Jesus misquotes other parts of the Bible, as he does in Mark 4.12, misquoting Isaiah 6.10? The Bible is filled with tensions, contradictions, and reinterpretations. So the task of interpretation has to deal with the immensely complex question of which parts of the Bible play a more central role than others. This also complicates assumptions about the activity of God in our own time: Jesus (the fullest revelation of God) was happy to contradict and misquote his own Scriptures (in particular the Mosaic law), so it doesn’t necessarily follow that God would never contradict the explicit teachings of the Bible.
My resolution to this problem, ultimately, is to refer back to doctrine. But before presenting that resolution I should quickly note that a knee-jerk preference for the Gospels, as the “actual” words of Jesus, needs a little bit more reflection. As noted earlier, the Bible doesn’t provide us with a clear window into the past, but always retells history through an interpretive lens. So the Gospels, while very important, are already shaped by the texts that were written earlier: the letters collected in the New Testament (particular Paul’s letters); at the same time, Luke and Matthew take much of their material from Mark, and so represent some of the first interpretations of Mark’s Gospel. So the Gospels, and the direct teachings of Jesus, don’t necessarily solve the problem. To solve the problem we need to turn to doctrine (not in order to disregard Scripture, but to better understand it).
Doctrine — the problems raised by Scripture are not neatly solved by an appeal to doctrine, as if the teachings of the Church wrap everything up nicely. As stated above, Scripture and doctrine are two voices within a complex, and ongoing conversation about Christian faith and the living God, which continues today. I don’t want to make strong claims about the content of specific doctrines, let alone the complex histories of any given doctrine. Here I want to simply offer one understanding of what doctrine is, as such. There is significant dispute about what doctrine actually is, and much smarter people than me have offered accounts of doctrine. This is intended as an introduction to how I think about doctrine, to try and put the pieces in place for my final constructive theological account of how we might approach sexuality, and incidentally the question of marriage.
Doctrine is the connective tissue that makes possible communication of Christian faith beyond the particular context in which it is experienced. That’s a fairly abstract and dense definition. What I mean is that doctrine is whatever allows us to meaningfully communicate Christian faith with others. Whether those others are Christians from different periods in history, or Christians from different cultural or geographical contexts, or Christians from different traditions within Christianity. Or even more broadly, the others which doctrine allows us to communicate with may be non-Christian philosophers, people from other religions, cultures, social or political positions. Or even more abstractly, the others may be other institutions within society, or Christianity – I think particularly about how the Basis of Union, or the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification are doctrinal statements that have allowed different Christian denominations (and therefore institutions) to come together and work collaboratively in new ways.
This very open-ended account of doctrine doesn’t necessitate that doctrine has any particular form. While historically we associate doctrine with creeds, confessions, catechisms, or treatises, it’s also true that doctrines have been encoded in spiritual practices, liturgical habits, Church polity, art, music, and on and on. Practices can be doctrinal, eating a meal together can be doctrinal, sitting in silence can be doctrinal. The question of whether something is doctrinal or not is whether it makes possible communication of the Christian faith with another. This goes both ways. On the one hand, this communication is about sending information to the person we are communicating with; on the other hand, this communication is about receiving an understanding of what we actually believe. Indeed, without first understanding what we are trying to communicate we will find it difficult to communicate anything meaningful at all.
To take the example of the Basis of Union. The Basis, on the one hand, made it possible for people from across the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist churches to share a common understanding of Christian faith, that then enabled their deep cooperation, to the point of creating a new church, with its own institutions and practices. The Basis of Union continues to create a common language within the UCA with which we can talk to each other, and as we see frequently, disagree with each other. Even while the Basis of Union does this within the UCA, the Basis of Unionalso provides clarity, for those outside, as to what the UCA believes, and seeks to be (whether those outside are other Christians, or non-Christians, or future Church historians looking back). The point is not that the Basis of Union answers everything, but that it creates a common referent, a common language that enables an ongoing conversation about Christian faith to occur with others.
Within this overarching understanding of doctrine there are often specific doctrines identified. There is a sense in which identifying isolated doctrines needs be done cautiously. As with any communication it’s never entirely clear where the conversation might go. We might begin thinking we’re just talking about the doctrine of creation, and then all of a sudden we’re talking about the doctrine of salvation; and, depending on our interlocutor, we may end up finding new categories that make possible new avenues of conversation: perhaps a doctrine of meditation might open up fruitful dialogue with a Buddhist about the nature of salvation and the human person. Nevertheless, there are common specific doctrines that have themselves become touchstones of communication between Christians from across various traditions, and various points in history.
Some of these common doctrines include: creation, salvation, Christology (who is Jesus?), election, justification, bibliology (what is the Bible?), theology proper (who is God?), theological anthropology (who are we?), pneumatology (who is the Spirit?), ecclesiology (what is the church?), and many others. Within each of these are various sub-topics, and many of the issues we try to find answers to traverse different doctrinal conversations. The issue of marriage, for example, is going to be shaped by what you think the Bible is (hence my long introductory section on Scripture), it will probably reflect on what you think human persons are, it might reflect on who God is, what the work of the Spirit continues to be, and so on. (This reaffirms the claim that identifying different isolated doctrines is, at one level, a series of false distinctions – but helpful distinctions nonetheless.)
The question that is prompted by this ever increasingly doctrinal complexity is: which doctrines are the most important, where do we start? There is, in a sense, no right (or wrong) answer to where to start. But, just as the Bible takes on prominence because of its basically universal authority, the two doctrines that tend to stand out as basically universally authoritative are: Christology (who is Jesus?), and the Trinity (who is God in light of Jesus?). While significant disagreement exists as to how to make sense of who Jesus is, and who God is in light of Jesus, these two doctrines have formed the basis for communicating the Christian faith for the entire Christian tradition: from the New Testament period, the early Church, the canonisation of Scripture, and throughout the long history of the Church, until today. I should be clear, I don’t mean any particular formulation of these doctrines, there remains significant dispute, but a focus on who Jesus is, and who God is in light of Jesus, has been a central means of communicating Christian faith. To these two doctrines we now turn.
Fourth, a full account of the doctrines of who Jesus is (Christology), and who God is in light of Jesus (Trinity) would require far more space, time, and knowledge than I have available. The central point I want to sketch is how I think Jesus plays a central role in Christian theology. In a sense I will blur Christology and Trinity, and try to provide a brief sketch of what I think the Gospel is. The Gospel is the central proclamation of the Christian faith, and in this proclamation we affirm that in Jesus God acts definitively to reconcile the world to God and the world to itself.
This central proclamation shaped the writing of Scripture itself, and continues to provide the key for our interpretation of Scripture. There is, ideally, a feedback loop going on here: we understand and proclaim the Gospel, which informs our interpretation of Scripture; and in Scripture we find a witness to this same proclamation that aids us in better understanding the Gospel proclamation itself; and so we better understand and proclaim the Gospel, which further informs our interpretation of Scripture; and so on. Of course at times we find in Scripture things that challenge how we’ve understood the Gospel proclamation, which then allows us to understand the Gospel better through correction rather than affirmation. But the hope of a feedback loop, or in technical language a “hermeneutic circle” remains. (This is also not a closed circle that simply moves between Scripture and the Gospel: we can better understand Scripture through historical study, study of language, study of interpretation; and we can better understand the Gospel through the lived experience of faith, discipleship, spirituality and spiritual practices, the work of the Spirit, the presence of the living God, the ongoing work of the resurrected Christ, and on, and on.)
So, what is the Gospel? Everything hinges on the answer to this question.
My short summary of the Gospel would be something like this:
God, in Christ, sent by the power of the Spirit, has reconciled the world and established as true what is true, and as real what is real: that God reigns over the world, and, by the power of the same Spirit of God, enables our participation in the fruitfulness of this reconciliation and reign.
There are a lot of moving parts in this very dense account of the Gospel. There are, I think, three key elements to this account of the Gospel: (a) the activity of God is rooted in the activity of Christ, (b) the activity of God establishes a reality that critiques our own reality, and (c) the activity of God invites and enables our participation and transformation. Because this account of the Gospel is rooted in Christ it is Christological, and because it understands Christ’s activity as the definitive activity of God it is connected more broadly to how we know what God is like (and so leads to the doctrine of the Trinity). I’ll take each of these elements of the Gospel in turn:
(a) The purpose of laying out my understanding of the Gospel is to find an entry point into how we might begin to understand and interpret the Bible. We must therefore see whether this account of the Gospel is demonstrated in the Bible, or whether the Bible reproves this account.
One my pet peeves is John 3.16. It is probably the most well known Bible verse, and yet it is so often misinterpreted, and the way it’s misinterpreted misses the true genius of this passage.
“For God so [gk. ὁυτος / houtos] loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3.16 NRSV)
Following the well-worn paths of English translation, most contemporary English translations of John 3.16 follow the King James Version (KJV) formulation: “For God so loved the world …” (emphasis added) When the KJV was written it was fairly well understood that “so” in that context meant “thus,” or had the sense of, “like so”; the Greek word ὁυτος (houtos) carries this sense: ὁυτος (houtos) means “in this way,” “thus,” etc. Most common interpretation of John 3.16, however, read the “so” in the sense of “very” or “sooo much.” This way of interpreting this verse misses the much more significant point that the verse is trying to make. John 3.16 isn’t about how much God loves us, but quite directly about how God loves us. The broader context of the John 3 makes this even clearer. Jesus is asked by Nicodemus (a Pharisee) how to know when miraculous signs are from God or not. Jesus’ response is to say that you can’t really know, because the activity of the Spirit of God is free. But, in order that people might know, God sent the Son, to save the world, and make it possible for people to be “born of the Spirit.” The point is that if you want to know what’s God’s activity in the world looks like, then you have to look at what Jesus’ activity in the world looks like.
This same point is re-affirmed again and again in Paul’s writings, where Paul places an emphasis on our being “in Christ.” Only by referring to being “in Christ,” can we understand and experience the ways of God. Paul even goes so far as to say that Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1.15). The point is that if you want to know what God is like, then you have to look at what Jesus is like.
So what is Jesus like? The Gospel narratives themselves provide us with four perspectives on what Jesus is like. In their own way the Gospels each admit that they cannot provide a completely exhaustive account of what Jesus is like. The very last verse of John’s Gospel says explicitly that Jesus did far more than could be contained in one text; Luke felt it necessary to write a second volume that only begins to explore the implications of who Jesus is; Matthew ends by commissioning the disciples to go out with the presence of Christ still with them; and Mark’s abrupt ending challenges us to continue the Good News of Jesus the Messiah (the opening line of Mark’s Gospel is revealed, in the end, to be its title).
The inexhaustibility of who Jesus is to one side, we can say a few things about Jesus – I hope. The most important thing to say about Jesus is that he was crucified and resurrected.
In the crucifixion Jesus was rejected by religious leaders and deemed cursed, and rejected by political leaders and deemed a criminal. Jesus chose to take on the status and death of those who were rejected by the religious and political system of his day, and through taking on that status redeemed humanity. The crucifixion brings to its fullness Jesus’ life of standing with those who religious leaders deemed unclean and sinful, and declaring them clean and forgiven: the sick, the possessed, lepers, adulterers, suffering women and children. The crucifixion also brings to its fullness Jesus’ life of standing with those who the political system had compromised and oppressed, and providing an offer of a way back: centurions, tax collectors, criminals, religious leaders complicit in Rome’s occupation. In the crucifixion Jesus, the Son of God, becomes the victim of the religiously and politically powerful, and stands with the other victims of those religious and political systems. In this he takes on the sin of the world: the God-forsaken-ness of those that suffer, and the God-less-ness of those that inflict that suffering. In his death Jesus recalls the covenant God made with God’s people, to be their God and lead them into life and peace; and Jesus fulfills the law that sets the terms, and which gives shape to, this covenant of promise.
In the resurrection the crucifixion is vindicated. The proclamation that the reign of God (the Kingdom of God) had arrived in Jesus is demonstrated in the resurrection. The resurrection affirms the new reality of God’s activity in the world that Christ begins, and it establishes this reality of God’s activity once and for all.
In the crucifixion Christ pours out the love that the Father has for the Son, and shares this love with all people: those who are victims of religious and political systems, and those who are compromised and lose their humanity in those systems. This leads to death. In the resurrection the love that the Father has for the Son is shown to be so very deep that it overcomes any possible separation between the Son and the Father. This leads to life. And because Christ takes on our status, we are able to take on his: because Jesus stands in our place, we are able to be drawn into his place. Jesus pours out the love God has for the Son onto us, and this love is so very deep that it overcomes any possible separation between us and the Father.
Rooting the activity of God in the activity of Christ thus roots the activity of God in the cross and resurrection, which demonstrate most full the reality of God’s love for us, and God’s deep desire to reconcile us to God and to each other. We now need to look more closely at what this reality means.
(b) The activity of God establishes a reality that critiques our own, because the reality of God is more real than our own reality. This is where we begin to broach the issue of ethics, finally. The premise of ethics is that it refers to the way the world ought to be, and not the ways the world is. Ethics inherently refers to a world that does not (yet) fully exist, or that is not (yet) full apparent. In this sense the Christian understanding that we live in the space between Jesus’ saving work, and the final consummation of God’s reign (and Christ’s return), is a helpful entry point into questions of ethics.
The reality of God’s rule which Christ proclaims and establishes through crucifixion and resurrection stands against much in our current world, and places the world under judgement. (Just as the life and teaching of Jesus placed much of the world under judgement.) We can see this critique of the world in examples from throughout the New Testament: (i) the language of “Gospel”; (ii) the confession “Jesus is Lord”; and (iii) the relationship between Jesus and the temple. Throughout the New Testament, the message of Christianity challenges the existing religious and political order by drawing on its own language and satirising it – turning the language of the powerful against itself.
(i) The most obvious example is the very language of “the Gospel.” The Greek term ἐυαγγελιον (euangelion) referred to the proclamation of “Good News,” particularly that of military conquest. This Gospel referred to the proclamation of the King or Emperor’s return from war, proclaiming military conquest and victory. This is the term Christians appropriated to refer to their message – our message – about a saviour that was executed by the military regime of Rome. The Good News is now the message of what seems like defeat, the message of pacifism, the message of a victim of military power, not the message of a victor at all. The language of the Gospel challenges the existing understanding of what victory looks like, and instead suggests that true victory, and true peace comes through the way of Jesus: the way of standing in the place of the victims of religious and political power, and the of offering a way back to those compromised by being a part of those violent systems. This is only made possible because it draws on the reality of God’s love being expressed in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, where Jesus establishes this reality as truly real. Jesus establishes what “Good News” ought to be, and so casts under judgement the failings of what “Good News” is currently.
(ii) The second obvious example is the confession that, “Jesus is Lord (Gk. κυριος / kyrios).” The language of “Lord,” draws on two sources: first, the political claim that Caesar is Lord; the second, the religious claims that the God of Israel is Lord (which will be our focus briefly). When the Jewish Scriptures were translated into Greek (a translation known as the Septuagint or LXX) the Hebrew word often rendered “LORD” in English translations was translated with κυριος (kyrios). The New Testament takes this language which referred to God and uses it to make sense of Jesus. In this the received understanding of what God was like was used to make sense of who Jesus is, and who Jesus is was used to reinterpret what God was like. Received religious understandings of God were thus critiqued and clarified in light of how Jesus was understood. Jesus establishes how we ought to understand the “Lord,” and so casts under judgement how the “Lord” is currently understood.
(iii) The third, less obvious, example is the connection between Jesus and the temple in the Gospels, and a few other texts in the New Testament. Throughout the Gospels Jesus talks cryptically about his own death by referencing the destruction and rebuilding of the temple. (This becomes such a prominent parallel that Luke’s Gospel is bookended by scenes that happen in the temple, and this becomes replaced by house scenes in the book of Acts – which reflects the changing location and practices of the early Church.) In drawing out this parallel there is a subtle reference to the fact that the temple did get destroyed by the Romans in 70CE. At the same time, talking about the destruction of the centre of Jewish religious life and practice is not a resounding endorsement of Jewish religious life and practice. Jesus doesn’t offer a wholesale rejection of Judaism, obviously, but by connecting references to the temple to his own death and resurrection the point is to reinterpret Jewish religious life in the light of Jesus himself. The presence of God isn’t first and foremost found in the temple, the presence of God is found first and foremost in Jesus.
The reality that God establishes in Christ critiques our own by reinterpreting the religious and political ideas that shape our understanding of the world, and refocusing them in the light of Christ. (I don’t, as it turns out, think that this is limited just to politics and religion, but these are the clear examples that we are pointed to in Scripture.) The reality of God seeks to transform religion and politics to conform to the way of Jesus’ love: standing with those that are victims of these systems, offering a way back for those that are complicit, and seeking reconciliation among people.
(c) The final piece of the Gospel is to look at how we participate in this new reality which Jesus has established as more real than our apparent reality. At one level this has been answered in terms of Christ giving the love of the Father to us, this love (as St. Augustine taught) is the Spirit. As we receive the love / Spirit that God offers us in Christ we are drawn into the life and love of God, and through that process are transformed. We need, however, to move beyond this fairly abstract account of our participation in Christ, and move to something a little bit more concrete.
Essentially we need to ask: how do we know if we have indeed received the Spirit? In fact, that sounds a lot like the question Nicodemus asked Jesus in John 3, which led to the answer Jesus provides in John 3.16. Namely, we know when we have received the Spirit when we ourselves conform to Christ. How then do we know if we conform to Christ?
This is where there are divergent ethical views.
For some, we know we conform to Christ when we abide by the clear commands of Jesus, and the Bible more broadly. The challenge with this notion is that we simply don’t do that, and for good reason. We don’t tell slaves to obey their masters, we don’t tell women to be silent in the Church, we grant other valid reasons for divorce apart from adultery. And even if we did broadly follow the clear commands of Scripture, it’s not clear that we can simply applies these commands across vast distances of time, place, and culture (as mentioned earlier). And as was noted earlier, there are tensions within Scripture that might give us pause about some of these clear commands. Paul talks about the breaking down of divisions between men and women in Galatians, and yet women are commanded to be submissive in other texts. Which of these commands do we lean on?
For some others, we know we conform to Christ we we live out the virtues that the Bible enumerates at different points. In particular the fruits of the Spirit, and the Spiritual virtues of faith, hope, and love. The challenge here is that these virtues need to be defined in some way. What is love? People on both sides of the sexuality debates within the Church, for example, claim to be loving: on the one hand, claiming acceptance and embrace as love; and on the other hand, claiming truth and transformation as love. Which of these claims to love is, in fact, truly loving?
For myself I don’t want to completely reject either of these approaches, but I want to situate them within the account of Scripture, Doctrine, and the Gospel which I’ve laid out here.
Conformity to the way of Christ means, for me, taking seriously the affect of the, supposedly, clear commands of Scripture within their original context, and trying to see how we might enact that same affect in our own.
Conformity to the way of Christ also means, for me, reinterpreting virtues in the light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. (Just as John 3.16 points us to Jesus in order to understand God’s love.)
Fifth, we are now well placed to provide an account of how we might move forward on the issue of marriage from a theological standpoint.
As I noted in the beginning, I don’t actually think marriage is that important within the Christian tradition. Our view of marriage, then, is going to depend on how we outwork other more fundamental theological commitments. To put it bluntly: marriage need not be a fixed point within our theology.
For me, at this point, the argument becomes fairly straightforward. Who are the people that have suffered because of religious and political oppression and discrimination? How might these religious and political systems be critiqued? What transformation might uphold those who have suffered, and offer a way back for those who have been complicit in that suffering?
My answer to those questions is what leads me to affirm marriage equality within the Church.
In this conclusion I try to make good on Jesus’ teaching on marriage in Mark 10. Jesus leverages Genesis, against the law, to uphold women, who had suffered under existing religious law. I seek to leverage the event of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, against existing marriage practices, to uphold queer people, who have suffered under existing religious practices. It is the affect of Christ’s command that I aim to be faithful to. And at the same time, I see in my conclusion (I hope) an attempt to live out the form of love Jesus models through his life, death, and resurrection: standing with those who are deemed unclean and sinful, and offering a way back for those who have been complicit in the suffering caused by practices shaped by that claim.
I seek in my view of marriage to reflect in the practices of the Church the proclamation of Paul:
“[God] chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before God in love.”Eph. 1.4
This is but one part of a broad vision of a new and reconciled creation which we are called to live out.