A Comprehensive View of Marriage

““The last few years have seen considerable debate about same-sex marriage, especially between evangelical Christians and non-Christians. This debate is evidence of vastly different understandings of marriage between the two groups. Or so you would think.”

In his recent book, Mere Sexuality: Rediscovering the Christian Vision of Sexuality, Todd Wilson argues that we actually face a very different problem: Christians and non-Christians do not have vastly different views on marriage; they are actually sharing the same view of marriage, and that is a precarious position for the Christian who believes that the Bible restricts marriage to opposite sex couples.

The above excerpt is the beginning of an important article on how Christians and contemporary culture view marriage. I urge you to read the full article (which is actually a short review of the aforementioned book) because it is one of the most astute and relevant observations on marriage I have ever read and I am going to refer to it in this article.

Apart from the “comprehensive view” representing the biblical understanding of marriage I think he correctly identified the inadequate understanding of marriage, the “companionate” view, which I think is also relevant in the Ghanaian context.

Though not on the scale and scope of Western societies, our own society has also been wrestling with the issue of homosexuality. In Ghana there is a near unanimous rejection of it and we are no where near decriminalizing sodomy laws that have existed since the colonial era. Christians have been at the forefront of resisting homosexual culture washing up on our shores. However, surveying the state of public discourse I find the arguments we have against homosexuality are not as strong as our zealous resistance to it. We tend to use the tradition and nature arguments but we fail to recognise they are not fool proof. I do think they are powerful arguments but they are not impenetrable especially if they are singularly deployed.

The problem with the case from tradition is tradition always changes. You can also easily demonstrate that traditional understandings of sexuality have significantly changed, even within our lifetimes. So the question then is, what stops it from changing to include homosexuality? Also tradition is not infallible and you can always point out things in hindsight we can clearly see our traditions got wrong so you can argue that homosexuality could be one of those issues. When it comes to nature I already have a post on how tricky it is to define what natural is. In our society we do recognize some people have homosexual tendencies right from young childhood and one could argue that homosexuality is natural to them.

There are responses to the counter arguments above but my general point is our usual arguments are not above scrutiny. Christians have tended to use arguments from nature and tradition in addition to the argument from scripture. The “God says so” argument may not mean much to non-Christians but for believers it is perhaps the most powerful reason. However our theology of marriage is not robustly biblical. We know a few proof texts here and there but we do not have a grand biblical vision of sexuality which coordinates other reasons like the traditional, natural, social etc.

People in the global conversation on sexuality talk about it in very detached terms, theorising about it in all sorts of directions. To talk effectively about sexuality we have to anchor it to something concrete, to marriage. I think like in the West, but not with the same intensity, we have fallen for a flat companionate view of marriage. Ever since I was a child I was taught from the class room to hearing it in sermons as an adult that that the point of marriage is companionship. The other reason was procreation but it seems to be coming in second place to companionship.

As the article points out, if companionship is your primary view then there is really no reason why a gay couple cannot marry. If as Christians we want to safeguard our view of marriage we need to recover a comprehensive view of it. That recovery is not only in terms of doctrine but in praxis as well, that is putting it into practice by the way we live.

The other thing I noticed about the companionate view is that it is pretty gnostic and dualistic. Not all dualities are bad but gnostic dualism is a very old heresy which claims everything exists in opposing pairs, the spiritual which is good and the material which is evil. So physical bodies are bad or inferior and the immortal soul is good and superior. The gnostic part comes from the Greek word for knowledge. The gnostics believed there was secret knowledge, only available to the initiated, which once you gained you became enlightened and enjoyed a higher spiritual existence.

The article points out that the companionate view relegates the body to secondary importance effectively dividing the person dualistically into body and whatever feelings a person has which are of paramount importance. This is very dualistic. Marriage then becomes about a non-physical connection and not fully embodied lives in union. This “connection” is particularly gnostic because it is something so powerful and overwhelming that only the two people experiencing it know what it is about and if privately validates the lives they live. Love is detached from bodies, freely floating wherever the emotions blow. You can fall as easily in love as out of it because it is reduced to a mood.

A comprehensive view of marriage is the union of two as one flesh, a fully embodied unity of persons. If we are going to save our conception of marriage from an incipient gnostic dualism we need to recover the resurrection. I say recover because the resurrection is not a load bearing part of our theology. Our hope is commonly mistaken as heaven instead of resurrection. It is in the resurrection that the significance of the body is fully reaffirmed and exalted. Also the body is reinstated as integral to being a whole person. Furthermore, it is through the resurrection that the goodness of the created order, including marriage, is powerfully restored.

2 thoughts on “A Comprehensive View of Marriage

    1. Thanks for the important question you have asked, especially considering polygamy still goes on in our society today.

      Without explicitly stating it the OT clearly endorses heterosexual monogamy as the only God approved kind of marriage. It does this by showing the pairing of man and wife is as much part of the created order as heaven and earth, land and sea, and other pairings in Genesis that God created to belong to one another.

      Polygamy does still happen in the OT but if you notice there are no positive stories about polygamous marriages. The OT assumes monogamy as standard and grudgingly tolerates polygamy. By the time of the NT polygamy is nonexistent among Jewish people according to scholars. So Jesus and the New Testament in general simply assumes monogamy.

      I would also like to point out that monogamy has been the overwhelming norm throughout most of human history according to scholars and only very few people, usually the wealthy and the powerful, practised polygamy and even then it was not widespread.


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