Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Redefining marriage

Icon of wedding in Cana 

The recent vote on the decision to redefine marriage raises a number of serious issues for those Christians who wish to uphold the biblical teaching that the right place for sexual intimacy is between a man and a woman who are in a committed, life-long relationship.

Civil society does have the authority to 'redefine' marriage, if marriage is purely a question of legitimacy for a particular set of relationships, placing those relationships in the context of the wider society. Different societies have legitimated different practices (including polygamy and polyandry). If parliament wishes to place same sex relationships on the same footage as heterosexual relationships, then it can do so. However, in passing such legislation, there needs to be a recognition that it is representative of all people. One of my major fears is that redefining marriage introduces a significant social change which tramples over the deeply held views of an older generation in our country who have been brought up to believe that marriage is between male and female, without bringing substantial gains to those in committed gay relationships. For the sake of graciousness I wonder whether there should be a moratorium for several years.

The last millennium in the West has been quite exceptional: civil society has been strongly shaped by the Christian tradition. Elsewhere, Christians have lived in societies which have practiced different 'versions' of marriage. They have lived in polygamous and polyandrous societies, and in societies where homosexual relationships were considered quite normal.

And yet, whether living in a society which is shaped by Christian tradition, or living in a society which has been shaped by other traditions, the practice of believers has always been to seek to remain faithful to the biblical teaching:

1. Where a believer is called to be single and celibate, they can receive it as a gift (Matthew 19:11-12). It releases them to live with a single-minded focus on the things of God (1 Corinthians 7:32,34). Paul urges the Christians in Corinth to truly consider celibacy as the higher calling.  Some of the most outstanding Christian leaders have been single. It is also important to remember that celibacy does not necessarily mean isolation. Many of the earliest Christians lived in communities or extended families where deep platonic friendships could develop, and perhaps some will hear the call to live in community. It is one reason why I am so committed to the idea of the development of small groups in our churches.

2. Where a person is called to marriage, they are called to be faithful and committed to their husband or wife. The bible gives several reason for the gift of marriage: It is THE most faithful reflection of the divine/human relationship (Ephesians 5:21-33); it offers companionship: at the deepest level men need women and women need men (Genesis 2:23-24); and it is the place for the expression of sexual intimacy (1 Corinthians 7:2)

While civil society was broadly Christian, it was expected that non-believers would live as believers. Sexual intimacy outside of marriage was morally unacceptable. There was also a great deal of hypocrisy. But the vote has shown us that society has changed. Today we cannot and should not expect non-believers to live as believers. Why should they? If it is all about this life, if we live and then die and that is it, then why should we not be controlled by our hormones and our more immediate desires - even if those desires are self destructive - particularly if others share the same desire? The role of civil society becomes that of mediating the conflicting desires of citizens.

So our task as believers is not to try and enforce a system of morality which rests now on a residual memory of Christianity. When we do that it makes us look taliban-esque, bigoted and out of touch. Rather it is to place existence in the light of the final authority and victory of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, and in the light of eternity. It is to pray for his Kingdom to come. It is to point people to him and to urge them (and ourselves) to realise that there is a higher goal than the satisfaction of our (often twisted) immediate desires. It is to urge people to realise that the desire for eternal well-being (to be happy for eternity) is not a dream, but made really possible by Jesus, and that we can experience glimpses of that here and now. Peter, one of the early Christian leaders, writes of moments of 'inexpressible and glorious joy' (1 Peter 1:8).

So where does that leave us a church? I pray that we remain faithful to the biblical teaching on relationships, and I would expect all those who have authority as teachers in our church to teach that; but I also hope that we can be a place which joyfully welcomes people irrespective of the sort of relationship that they are in (whether single, bereaved, living together, divorced, bringing up children on their own, in a gay relationship or married). We are a community of very flawed and mixed up people, who rely on Jesus' mercy and forgiveness daily, and we are all in the same boat. We are all trying to work out how we express our sexuality, and sexual expression, in the light of Jesus incredibly high standards, and in the light of his kingdom, love, power, forgiveness and eternity. 

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