“What God Hath Ordained: A Theological Look at Marriage – Same-sex and Other”

This essay is by CRCDS faculty member Dr. Melanie Duguid-May, originally published on April 12, 2011.  

One spring day in the late 1990s Virginia Davidson and I were sitting in what was then my small corner study up on the third floor of Strong Hall at the Divinity School.  During that conversation with Ginny—then well up in her seventies, but not a day diminished in vitality—this lecture series was conceived.  Significantly for this lecture in the series, during that conversation I heard Ginny state in her inimitable way: “I’ve been lay-ed for the last time.”  I must confess I was startled, simply.  She went on: “Why is my ordination as a layperson not recognized to be as valid as the ordination of clergy?  We are all ordained!”  When I came to my senses—theologically speaking—I got it: she was indeed ordained, both by virtue of her baptism (ok, that’s the Anabaptist/baptist in me) and as Elder in the Presbyterian Church, in her case by the Downtown United Presbyterian Church where she was a lifelong member.  “We are all ordained!”

I remembered this meeting and Ginny’s comment as I was preparing this evening’s lecture.  And I tell the story of this meeting not only as remembrance, but as anamnesis—an efficacious remembrance—to invoke here and now the presence of Virginia Davidson, without whose sheer stubbornness and vigor in the cause of justice for LGBT persons we would likely not be here.  I also tell the story as anamnesis in order to state my own manifesto, indeed, my own credo, for on this I stake my heart: I have been partner-ed for the last time.  I am married!  I am married legally, constitutionally, in the sight of God and the company of those who witnessed the evening of Sunday, December 25, 2009, at our home atop Redhill overlooking the Indian Ocean in Durban, South Africa.  And I give thanks to God for my amazing wife Deborah with each and every breath I breathe.

I am married.  Why do these words make many if not most people uncomfortable?  I see it. I sense it when I speak these words.  Why were these words that heard but often not responded to when they proclaimed good news in the weeks and months after we were married?  Why do I still feel like a fake when I tick the box on forms in the doctor’s office: married?

Many reasons, no doubt.  But here’s my hypothesis: these words coming from my mouth—I am married to my wife Deborah—make people uncomfortable (I have also experienced the derisive laughter they can evoke.) because marriage is still seen as a heterosexual affair.  More than this: marriage, assumed to be heterosexual marriage, is not simply the union of two persons—woman and man—who love one another.  Marriage is simply and surely also assumed to be a publically witnessed union between a man and a woman that is the very cornerstone of the vast edifice of society as we know it.  As cornerstone of society, marriage confers “a legal status and a place in society, including access to a well-defined structure of benefits and obligations” (Johnson, 29).  Marriage binds the legal, the emotional, the sexual, economic, cultural, spiritual, and religious aspects of social life.  Same-sex marriage, even if legal—in five states and the District of Columbia (now six states)—is not only still deprived of the rights and privileges (most of which are federal)  afforded heterosexual marriage as societal cornerstone; same-sex marriage subverts the binary gender system—one man/one woman; man dominant, woman subordinate—same-sex marriage subverts the binary gender system foundational to the structure of heterosexual marriage.  For even if and when heterosexual marriage is a model of equality and mutuality in practice, its structural template is the dominant/subordinate binary gender system.

Why is same-sex marriage a threat?  There’s more.  A theological look at marriage—same-sex and other—locates marriage in relation to Christianity’s living legacy of ambiguity about sex and marriage in general—a legacy evident in earliest texts and traditions. Indeed, Dale Martin, Yale University religious scholar, has spoken of Jesus as “a figure of ambiguous sexuality.” Even without turning to early texts and traditions, there is the figure of Jesus in contemporary popular novels and films: The Last Temptation of Christ; Jesus Christ Superstar; Godspell; Jesus of Montreal; The DaVinci Code. To name only the blockbusters. Our own imaginations run wild: was he married? Did he choose to be unmarried because of being about his Father’s business?  And if he was unmarried was he celibate?  Did he still experience sexual desire?  Or were the objects of his sexual desire men not women?  John the Beloved disciple who leaned on his breast not loose-haired Mary of Magdala?  Jesus is indeed “a figure of ambiguous sexuality.”

But earlier texts and traditions are brimming with similar questions. For example, the writings of the early church fathers—writings dating from the 2nd to the 4th or early 5th centuries—also articulate this ambiguity.  For example, there was widespread agreement that Jesus was celibate, unmarried.  But even so the early church fathers were notably reluctant to take Jesus as a model for celibate life.  For example, when Cyril of Jerusalem cited Jesus as a model for Christians to imitate, it was Jesus as a model of one who suffered. When Cyril cited a model for celibacy and virginity he chose certain early Christians.  Likewise, Basil the Great talked about the imitation of Christ, but named gentleness, lowliness, long-suffering endurance, not celibacy.  This ambiguity about Jesus as a model for celibate life was exemplified most of all by Tertullian, the Latin church father from north Africa. Tertullian used Jesus Christ as a model both for virgins and for married persons, for monogamous marriage. Jesus as virgin and as monogamist: Jesus Christ as “having one Church as his bride, according to the figure of Adam and Eve.”  Jesus as a virgin Christ who is a model for virgins. Celibate virgin or faithful husband.  Jesus was “a figure of ambiguous sexuality” in the early centuries of the Christian church as surely as he is “a figure of ambiguous sexuality” today.

Celibacy? Marriage? Presenting Jesus as “a figure of ambiguous sexuality” at the outset, I want to posit that “what God hath ordained” is far more a question than a declaration to be pronounced.  This theologians’ look at centuries of Christian texts and traditions leads me to say “what God hath ordained” is itself as ambiguous as the figure of Jesus has been and is.

Acknowledging this ambiguity inherent to the Christian tradition—evident in early texts and alive in contemporary imagination—indeed amid this ambiguity, this evening I offer two simple affirmation about “what God hath ordained,” affirmations as related to marriage—same-sex and other.  I offer these affirmations to deepened our appreciation of Christianity’s living legacy of ambiguity about sex as well as marriage.  More importantly, I offer these affirmations to open new ways of thinking about marriage—same-sex and other—for the living of these contentious days.

My affirmations, all-too-briefly stated, are these: first, God hath ordained that we human beings, together with all creation, are to be in communion.  Having created the earth and sky, every living thing, both plants and animals, God “created humankind in [God’s] image, in the image of God God created them.” Just as God is a relational God, we who are created in God’s image are not to be alone, but in communion. A second affirmation follows: a look at centuries of Christian tradition finds therein many, many ways of being in communion, of being in relationship, only one of which is marriage.  I invite us to survey some of these many ways of being in communion, of being in relationship, because I think they may offer a way to think and live beyond the impasse in today’s debates about marriage—same-sex and other.  I think a survey of some of these ways of being in communion may also be a reality-check.  Sharply put, I agree with Yale religious scholar Dale Martin who argues: “. . . there are more resources in Scripture and tradition to critique marriage and family than to support it.”

A look at the centuries of Christian tradition finds therein many ways of being in communion, of being in committed relationship, one of which is marriage—same-sex and other.  And as the late pioneering scholar John Boswell stated, marriage viewed in virtually any historical context is a “lively uncertainty” (1994, xxi).  But let me be clear at the outset: even as I acknowledge the ambiguity of marriage in Christian tradition, not to mention its tattered reality today, I still do not agree with LGBT persons who dismiss same-sex marriage as a hopelessly flawed institution.  At the same time, I am also not so naïve as to assume that gaining full marriage rights and privileges for LGBTi persons will be a solution to the interpersonal and structural homophobia and injustice.  Rather, as I have already celebrated, I am married: happily and subversively so.  And I speak this evening because of my commitment to new visions of committed relationship and of community—new visions of communion for couples, same-sex and other, new visions of communion for single persons, children, older adults.  I speak because of my commitment ot many new forms of communion publically recognized and respected, with all the rights and privileges and obligations conferred upon and assumed by on ly one form—one flawed form—heterosexual marriage.  For we—all of us created in the image of God—are created to be in communion.

Let me now reflect a bit more fully on what I mean as I affirm: what God hath ordained at creation is communion, communion for all human beings created in God’s image as for the whole creation. For Christians, this affirmation is founded in the affirmation that God is three Persons in One.  So saying, Christians affirm God is a personal God.  More than this, Christians affirm God is love.  God is a God who originates in love and is ever expressing herself in love by stretching out to other persons.  God is not a lonely God.  God is not a God who acts alone.  God is in himself communion: three Persons who mutually indwell each other.  God is three Persons whose being are so integrally and lovingly related they do not exist apart from one another.  Therefore God is one in a communion of Persons.  And we who are created in God’s image are created to be in communion, one with another.  To be human is to-be-a-person-in-communion.

Let me be clear: this talk about communion is not new.  It is talk that has resounded through centuries of Christian tradition. But many of us know that real life in Christian churches—in places where the communion ideal is supposed to become real—realized—has too often, too truly been hell for LGBTi persons. Hell, says the OED, is “a place in a tailor’s shop into which shreds or off cuts of material are thrown.”  Too true!  For many LGBTi persons the church has been the place of not being in relationship, of not being-a-person-in-communion.  The church has been the place where LGBTi persons are shredded, offcut, our God-given gifts and graces refused, rejected.  I recognize the reality of heel in our churches.  I know the hell of church in my own flesh and blood.

But this evening I choose to be a ragrug weaver.  Here’s the image, borrowed from a poem “Creatioex Nihilo:” “She is the ragrug woman/Gatherer of good for nothing/Weaver of worth/Expert in creatio ex nihilo/. . .Whatever is worn out she receives/Just dump it reight here on the kitchen table/Where her hands hover over the chaos/where fingers dance with scissors, thread and needle/Making strands of life emerge.”  So this evening I invite we who are created in God’s image to be-persons-in-communion, to rise up and realize this new way of living, living in communion in the church and in the world.

What does this new way of living in the church and the world look like?  Here we come to my second affirmation: there is no template for this new way of living, for being-persons-in-communion.  A look at centuries of Christian tradition finds, as I have said, many ways of being in communion, one of which is marriage.  But again, as John Boswell stated, marriage viewed in virtually any historical context is a “lively uncertainty” (1994, xxi).  A quick historical survey confirms Boswell’s comment.  Marriage has changed and changed and changed again.  It is a most dynamic institution. For example, marriage in Roman Egypt perhaps most closely resembles the contemporary ideal of affectionate, egalitarian marriage—scholars surmise this because the terms “brother” and “sister” were often used for “husband” and “wife”—while in most of the Greco-Roman world, marriage was chiefly a business proposition.  Marriage was about securing power, property, and progeny, on the basis of a binary gender order: men dominant, women subordinate.

Jesus was born into this Greco-Roman world, albeit in a remote province–ancient Palestine—living under the harsh rule of forces of occupation, just as Palestine today lives under the harsh rule of forces of occupation.  And, as already noted, Jesus as “a figure of ambiguous sexuality” has sparked more speculation than certainty.  Married? Unmarried?  We will never know. But the glimpses we get from Gospel texts confirm the “lively uncertainty” of marriage.

Think for example of Jesus, responding to his mother and brothers who wanted to see him: “Who is my mother and who are my brothers? . . . Whoever does the will of God, that one is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:33-35).  Here and in other Gospel texts Jesus refused to identify himself with his biological family. His focus is instead on the eschatological community, i.e., he focused on those who gathered around him because they shared his vision of a new community, a new social order based on new transformed values: the reign of God.

Think about it: those who gathered around Jesus, who followed after Jesus, were already living within an alternate community.  This band of followers was an alternate community to the traditional, male-headed household—a wandering group of women and men who were unrelated to one another by blood or marriage, and who, from the scant information we have, had separated from their families to follow Jesus.  Jesus called his disciples not only away from their occupations but away from their households, including their marriages.  Recall the harsh—to our ears—saying passed on in Luke’s Gospel: “If anyone comes to me and does not despise [or hate: miseo, as in the earlier Aramaic text] his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, and yes his own life, he is not able to be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Jesus called his followers away from traditional ties of family and marriage, away from traditional households, and into a new community, a new social order, the reign of God.

A most gripping glimpse of this new social order is in the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles. The narrator tells about the disciples, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, meeting in different houses.  The narrator tells us how disciples sold what they owned, gave the proceeds to the apostles for distribution to those in need, held all things in common and took common meals.  Here we get a glimpse of a new social order in the shape of a new household.  No longer the traditional household headed by a paterfamilias.  But a household molded by mutuality among all persons.

Among the persons in this new household are Ananias and Sapphira.  In chapter four of the Acts of the Apostles we have learned that in the community that was gathered those who owned “lands and houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.  They laid it at the apostles’ feet and it was distributed to each as had any need” (4:34-35).  But Ananias and his wife Sapphira sold a piece of property and “kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (5:1-2).  When accused by the apostle Peter, Ananias, followed by Sapphira, “fell down and died” (5:5, 10).  The “young men” carried them out and buried them.

Dale Martin reads this story as the story of a traditionally married coupel—representing the old, self-serving order of family and family solidarity, with concerns for economic stability, inheritance, continuity—being buried by “young men,” i.e., by the new, growing, communal, eschatological non-household household.  This new household was a based on assurance of the gifts of God, on solidarity with sisters and brothers, not on husbands, wife, mothers and fathers.  The married couple, says Martine, is juxtaposed to the church as the new being, the new social order that transcends traditional marriage and family of the Greco-Roman world.  The church as a new household without the constraints of the paterfamilias household.

But reading the writings of Paul we are back again to mixed messages.  On one hand, Paul clearly preferred that Christians follow his example and not marry.  Nonetheless, Paul thought some Christians were too weak to avoid sexual desire without sexual activity in marriage—“It is better to marry than to burn” (I Cor.7:9). Still the sustained tenor of Paul’s thinking is that sexual desire is part of the world Christians are called to leave behind.  The only possible reason to marry is to have sex to avoid desire. In short and in sum, Paul could hardly be enlisted as a supporter of contemporary understandings of marriage, same-sex or other, whether a love-marriage, an arranged marriage, marriage for the purpose of propagation or as a business deal.

Still in the name of Paul the gendered social system—men dominant; women subordinate—of the traditional household was reinforced in the texts scholars refer to as Deutero-Pauline.  For example, in the so-called “household code,” wives are told to submit to their husbands “as is fitting in the lord,” while husbands are told to love their wives (Col. 3:18-4:1). So we see that in time the social hierarchy of the Greco-Roman world was blessed by Christians in search of a public place to stand: God, then male head-of-household, then wives, children, and slaves. Deutero-Pauline texts go to greater and greater lengths to reinforce in the early church the familial structure found in the world around them, as Christians are enjoined to pray for “kings and all in authority” (I Tim. 2:2).

The Christian trajectory had moved from Jesus’ Gospel of liberation to the traditional male-headed household, from Jesus’ call to resurrection living in an alternate community to a concern to maintain the gender-stratified social order of things.  But this trajectory was not a straight line, as we will see; a mixed message continued through the centuries.  It is increasing clear “what God hath ordained” is far from a declaration; it is a relentless question.

And yet in the centuries that followed, mixed messages about marriage, and family, continued to characterize the Christian tradition.  So while some Deutero-Pauline texts promoted what we might call ancient “family values” lived in a traditional marriage in a patriarchal household, in the medieval era, both early and late, Christian texts and traditions mostly attest to the higher value of celibacy over marriage.  Virginity was affirmed as the original state willed by God.  Sexual intercourse came after the Fall.  In the hierarchy of virtue, sex in marriage, which may be allowed for procreation and procreation alone, was subordinate to celibacy and also to abstinence in marriage.

This presumption of the ideal of Christian celibacy began to change only with the  late medieval/early modern reform movements in Europe and in England. As the  authority of Roman ecclesiastical power and authority was thrown off, marriage slowly became the norm for virtuous Christians For example, early English divines regarded marriage as a “domestic commonwealth,” within “the interlocking commonwealths of state, church, and family as something of an earthly form of heavenly government.”  A few years later across the north Atlantic in New England, some Puritan writing referred to the household rather than the church as the primary locus of religious activity.  One Puritan cleric, Thomas Taylor preached, “Let every Master of Family see to what he is called; namely, to make his house a little Church, to instruct every one of his Family in the feare of God, to contain every one of them under holy discipline, to pray with them, and for them: that there may be a draught or Modell of a Church in his House.”

Earlier, on the European continent, the reformer Martin Luther had set the course for this shift from presumption of celibacy to marriage. Luther affirmed sex and marriage as part of God’s good creation, not as consequence of the Fall.  And for Luther marriage was a bond between two persons, publically assumed and attested, marked by love, sexual intercourse, children, obligations, and a shared life.  Luther had more to say about marriage.  He was clear that marriage was not an institution wherein the husband owned the wife as through she were a slave. Wives had rights, he declared, including sexual rights.  So if a husband was impotent he was still obligated to give nature its due, by supplying a sexual partner for his wife.  Luther’s rationale was the same rationale he used for infant baptism: in the absence of explicit prohibition, a practice was permitted.  This is to say, there is nothing in scripture to prohibit a woman who is married to an impotent husband from taking another man; therefore, it is permitted.  Luther’s rationale is well worth bearing in mind in the current debates about marriage—same-sex and other.  In the absence of explicit prohibition, a practice is permitted.

But even as the traditional household, marriage and family—most often headed by a paterfamilias—reasserted itself and was baptized once again by Christians for the sake of a public and privileged place to stand, some Christians still regarded marriage as at best a compromise for procreative purpose alone.  And some Christians continued to move along alternate paths.  Here three brief examples: one alternate path was the path of those Christians who chose priestly celibacy, voluntary cirginity, or monastic community life as authorized by the church hierarchy.  There were also communities of women—unmarried, widowed, marriage—who chose to live lives of chastity, evangelical poverty, and contemplation, but not in authorized religious houses or orders or under permanent vows.  And there were many voluntary, committed communities of men and women, for whom communal ties were stronger than those of marriage or family.

Another example was the alternate path trodden by Christians who chose “spiritual” marriage. These Christians were influenced by the force of early rhetoric that applied marital imagery to other relationships and institutions.  In Ephesians 5:22-23, for example, Christ’s relationship to the church is compared to the relationship of husband and wife.  This imagery—the marriage of Christ to the church or its people—was widely written about and depicted in early Christian art.  One early bishop, Paulinus of Nola, referred to this marriage as “the great sacrament in which the church married Christ,” and invoked it at earthly weddings.  Marriage between a man and a woman was also often spiritualized.  Partly because of the force of the rhetoric, but also because of the force of teaching about celibacy.

Men and women also chose “spiritual” marriage because of Roman law and custom, according to which it was consent and “marital affection” that constituted the essence of marriage, not cohabitation or sexual intercourse or procreation.  A number of early Christian bishops agreed.  Ambrose, 4th century bishop of Milan, insisted “that marriage consisted in the mutual agreement of the couple, not in their carnal copulation.”  Soon thereafter, the great theologian and North African bishop, Augustine, posited that marriage established an “order of love” between partners, and that a decision to refrain from bodily contact would only render this basis for union “firmer, . . . more loving, and more harmonious.”  A “spouse,” he continued, is “so called from the faithfulness of the . . . promise to marry, and need not have or have ever intended to sleep with the partner.” Also in the 4th century, in Antioch at the eastern end of the empire, John called Chrysostom taught that “it is not coitus that makes marriage, but intention.”  Consent. Not coitus but intention constituted a marriage.

There is in Christian tradition another example of alternatives traditional heterosexual marriage and family: same-sex unions.  In his magisterial study by that title, John Boswell collected liturgies for same-sex unions—translated into English for the first time—liturgies he argued were performed from Plato’s Greece until modern times, and which bear striking resemblance to heterosexual marriage liturgies.  As he presents these liturgies, Boswell noted that for the first thousand or so years the church’s blessing of marriage—same-sex or other—was sporadic at best.  Not being obligatory, blessings or offices were most often localized affairs.  But even as ambivalence about sexuality of any kind persisted, it is clear there were, from the earliest centuries of the Christian church, liturgies to bless loving same-sex unions.

Another scholar, Bernadette Brooten—1999 lecturer in this series—both critiques Boswell for his lack of gender analysis—this is to say, for commenting on love between women only as a minor subcategory of male homoeroticism rather than on its own—and confirms his basic thesis: that same-sex love and marriage were well known in the early church by early Christian theologians.  But Brooten’s assessment of same-sex unions in the early church and thereafter is more sobering than Boswell’s.  Yes, she says, there was widespread awareness of sexual love between women and, yes, there is evidence of marriages between women.  But love and marriage between women were uniformly condemned by early Christian theologians, from Paul in his Letter to the Romans to apocalyptic visions of God’s punishment for sexual relations between women to the early church fathers of the 2nd to the 5th centuries.

So what now? Amid all the mixed messages.  In view of all the alternatives.  This theologian’s look finds scant support in Christian scripture or tradition for marriage—same-sex or other.  Instead I find the affirmation that all persons are created in God’s image for being-persons-in-communion.  And I find many ways in which Christians have lived out this affirmation, all tangled with ambiguity about sexuality, about celibacy—the original state and highest virture?—and about marriage—for procreation only?  A bonds of affection between two persons? Two women? Two men? A woman and a man?

Affirmation, alternatives, and ambiguity.  So what now?  Here I want to wrap up with a recap of a couple of affirmations: I support marriage equality for LGBT persons, at state and federal levels.  This is a matter of justice. Marriage is a civil institution and it is governed by secular legal principles that apply to all citizens regardless.  Period.  This union carries with it mutual obligations of fidelity and support.  It establishes a new legal status, and bestows certain symbolic social capital.  This symbolic capital is in addition to the over 1000 rights and privileges guaranteed to married heterosexual couples by the federal government.  Access to Social Security after a spouse’s death.  Access to health insurance through a spouse’s workplace.  The right to custody of children after divorce.  Visitation rights for non-biological children. Access to adoption of children. Bereavement leave after death of a spouse.  Automatic inheritance of retirement savings tax-free after spouse’s death.  Automatic inheritance of shared assets after spouse’s death.  Ability to file joint tax returns.  Access to tax breaks for married couples.  Automatic next-of-kin status for emergency medical decisions and hospital visitation status.  Immigration and residency priority for spouses from other countries.  And so on and on.  Same-sex couples—even if legally married in the states where it is now possible, have none of the rights and privileges.  In fact, same-sex couples are not only denied equal rights and privileges; same-sex couples are actively, pro-actively penalized. Not only denied equal rights and privileges, but penalized. One particularly awful case-in-point is the separation of bi-national same-sex couples.  Debs and I receive regular updates from several Facebook sites detailing couples inability to get visas because of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).   In the name of defending marriage, in the name of family values, same-sex spouses are deported away from husbands or wives, even in times of illness and death.

Yes, I fully support marriage equality for LGBT persons—at state and federal levels.  It is long since time that same-sex marriage be recognized publically as interweaving the legal, emotional, sexual, economic, cultural, spiritual, social, and religious aspects of life.  But I worry that even if LGBT persons get equal rights and privileges, same-sex marriages will still be second-class marriage. I worry that we will have instead a caste system of first and second class marriages. I worry because marriage as we know and recognize it today is marriage as cornerstone of the binary gender system: male dominant; woman subordinate.   Same-sex marriage will still threaten this fundament of the social order of things.

Still, those of us living with the legacy of the Christian tradition have rich resources for rethinking marriage—same-sex and other—in the context of affirmation for loving, committed relationship.  We have a rich resource in the lost, if often condemned and contested, tradition of the blessing of same-sex unions.  In other words, securing fully legal, publically-recognized rights and privileges for same-sex marriage can be an opportunity to rethink marriage for everyone who chooses to be married.

In fact, this is precisely what I want to argue: a rethinking of marriage is imperative, even as we continue the struggle for equal marriage rights and privileges for all persons.  Why a rethinking? Marriage has been and is a dynamic institution.  The meanings and models of marriage have changed and changed again.  It has shifted from a focus on transfer of property or procreation to more romantic meanings.  And there have been, as we have noted, “spiritual” marriages. The meanings and models of marriages have changed and are changing.  But the binary gender system, of which marriage as we know it today is the cornerstone, has remained intact.

And this is the key point: what opponents of same-sex marriage fear most is that equal rights and privileges for same-sex couples will crack open this binary gender system.  Here I take my clue from Bernadette Brooten in her discussion of the early church fathers’ condemnation of love and marriage between women.  For these early church fathers, argues Brooten, love and marriage between women was “unnatural” (Paul’s term in the oft-cited passage from the first chapter of his letter to the Romans).  Why was it “unnatural”?  Because women loving women was women being insubordinate.  What is“unnatural”? Women’s insubordination.  Women’s insubordination to the headship of men. Sexually speaking, this meant women reversed roles with men.  “Naturally,” men “do” or “act,” while women “suffer” or “are passive.”  Men penetrate, while women are penetrated.  Love between women confounds this set up.  Women take an active role, assume a privilege women ought never to have.  Women loving women are women being insubordinate.

Likewise, men who do not play their part in the binary gender system are equally disruptive, “unnatural.” Men who are passive not active, penetrated not penetrator, subvert not only the sexual order but the social order.  These men not only break with the strict gender differentiation on which the social order is based; they fail to procreate and secure the continuance of the social order. So men who love men, along with women who love women, transgress nature as they transgress the gender stratified system.  Brooten argues that the early church fathers themselves argued not about sexual intercourse per se.  Instead, the early church fathers decisive point was this: the natural order was based on strict gender differentiation in appearance and role. This is why gendered dress codes were as important to the 2nd century Latin theologian Tertullian as were sexual mores.  And this is why John Chrysostom, among other church fathers, could say prostitution is better than homoeroticism because prostitution—although lawless—is at least natural. All the church fathers agreed: man is head of woman, man is ruler of the woman, and woman is helper to the man, submissive to the man, and receptacle to the male seed.

I suspect opposition to equal rights and privileges for same-sex married couples is as vigorous and vitriolic as it is because of this fear: that this gender system will crack wide open.  Or, as a student in my class this spring put it: fear that “some heretofore sure foundation is shaken.”  But imagine if we could clear the rubble of this gender system and open a space in which the full humanity of all persons created in the image of God could flourish.  Imagine if women were no longer persons in the image of God, under the headship of man, as centuries of Christian theologians have judged.  Imagine if men were no longer socialized to be the actors and heads who dominate and control.  Imagine if traditional heterosexual marriage—so ladened by centuries of constraint and custom that it is itself cracking—were not the only publically recognized model of loving, committed relationship. Imagine communities—Christian and other—in which all persons find a place to be home, honored for who each is: a bearer of the image of God who is being in communion.

I think a community in which all persons find a place to be home—home as a place where each is honored for who each is—is what, honored for who each is, is what Ginny Davidson longed for when she said she’d been “lay-ed” for the last time, when she affirmed “we are all ordained.”  I know it is what I long for when I say “I am married” and enthusiastically effervesce about my amazing wife Deborah.  Ginny and I—along with so many other persons, LGBT and other—seek public recognition and respect for our full humanity, long to be honored in loving, committed relationships—whether ecclesial or marital—that are rooted in God’s being in communion not in gender stratified social orders of constraint and custom.

I have lived fully enough to know—in my flesh and bones and blood–the frailty and the failure of human models of community as well as of institutions.  But created in the image of God who is not a lonely God, created in the image of God who creates us to be in communion with God and one another, I imagine.  This is to say, I look to the past, not for precedent regarding marriage, same-sex or other, but I search the past for glimpses of new models and meanings of marriage—with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereunto—in the context of loving, committed relationships for all persons. This is what God hath ordained.  Thanks be to God.

 

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