• • •
UPDATE: In light of Eeyore’s insightful comment, I have added another point to my remarks.
First Things has published a statement by Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) called The Two Shall Become One Flesh: Reclaiming Marriage.
Catholic and Evangelical members of ECT are listed after the article, and then there is a list of people endorsing the statement. At the same link, First Things also includes a podcast in which members of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, Fr. Thomas Guarino and Professor Timothy George, sit down with First Things to discuss the statement—its origins, content, and purpose.
I would like for us to take some time to think through this statement together here on Internet Monk. Without even reading it, you know that it contains what conservative Christians call the “traditional” position on marriage, and that they claim this comports with the biblical witness and the tradition of the Church. But I urge you to go to First Things and read through the statement carefully. Save it to your computer for reference if you like so that you can go back to it easily. Because this statement comes from both Roman Catholic and Evangelical spokespersons (albeit from the conservative ranks of each respective tradition), in my view it carries a certain ecumenical weight and deserves our consideration.
Today we will look at the preamble and section one, “Marriage, Christianly Considered.”
In the Gospel of St. Mark, the Lord Jesus teaches that “from the beginning of creation ‘God made them male and female.’” He then declares a great and beautiful truth inscribed in creation: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh” (Mark 10:6–8).
For centuries, Christians have proclaimed these words at weddings, for they express the gift of marriage long recognized by all humanity and acknowledged by men and women of faith: Marriage is the union of a man and a woman. This truth is being obscured, even denied, today. Because of that, the institution of marriage, which is essential to the well-being of society, is being undermined.
Building upon this foundation, the preamble goes on to say:
- It is our Christian responsibility to bear witness to the truth about marriage as taught by both reason and revelation.
- Marriage is the foundation of a just and stable society, and where the decline of marriage culture is evident, the common good is imperiled.
- Christians must speak the truths about sex, marriage, and family life.
- There can be no compromise on marriage. Our witness cannot be allowed to be obscured by the confusions into which our world has fallen.
The first section, “Marriage, Christianly Considered,” takes four scriptures and extracts lessons from them on the subject.
1. Genesis 1:27-18 — God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply.”
2. Genesis 2:24 — Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.
3. Mark 10:9 — What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.
4. Ephesians 5:32 — This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.
The first text teaches us that “maleness, femaleness, and their complementarity are among the central organizing principles of creation.” These are essential components of our human dignity. It is in the union of male and female that we participate in the divine creativity and its fruitfulness, and therefore sexual union must be approached with reverence and in recognition of its procreative potential. Furthermore sexual acts have spiritual and moral dimensions and should be exercised with self-discipline, as these acts “either honor or dishonor the imprint of the divine that is uniquely borne by human beings.”
The second scripture shows that marriage creates the new reality of “one body” that signifies a common life that promotes the good of the couple, the family as a whole, and the community at large.
Passage three addresses divorce. It first affirms that the human act of being joined together is also God’s work. God’s grace is at work in marriage, making possible a lifelong union characterized by faithfulness and participation in the power of God’s everlasting love. Though divorce may have been permitted and churches today take different views when dealing with its reality, God ordained marriage to be indissoluble.
The final biblical citation, from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, reveals that marriage is a sign of the union between Christ and the Church. It is an incarnate illustration of the “bond of peace” by which God has reconciled humanity to himself. Marriage can only serve as that sign when a man and woman are joined together permanently.
• • •
I will make a few remarks, and then open this up for discussion.
1. I agree that the full exhibition of the image of God in humanity requires both male and female. Furthermore, the union of male and female together in marriage is a unique and special gift of God for the blessing of the world. Men and women who marry are meant to be full partners in the work of representing God and his wise and loving rule in the world.
2. I think it’s a big stretch to say that “the gift of marriage” has been “long recognized by all humanity.” Certainly humans have always figured out that “male + female = baby” and have sought ways of organizing that in their societies. However, to imply that humankind in general has always welcomed marriage as a gift and has universally recognized the one man/one woman for life formula is a curious reading of history.
3. Is the institution of marriage being “undermined” in our day? If so, by what? The statement cites the sexual revolution, widespread divorce, dramatic increases in out-of-wedlock births, the casual acceptance of premarital sex and cohabitation, and a “contraceptive mentality” that separates sex from procreation. I am astounded that no mention is made of homosexuality, for the statement hammers the male/female point repeatedly, and it seems to me that this statement was drafted at this point in time in response to the “gay marriage” issue primarily. Be that as it may, I don’t think changes in our sexual or familial behavior has stemmed merely from human decisions to abandon morality. As I have argued elsewhere, technology, freedom, and affluence have made the world a much different place and have changed the dynamics with regard to all manner of human behavior and institutions. There is a cognitive dissonance between life in today’s world and many aspects of “traditional” morality and it’s not simply because people have consciously jettisoned that morality. If we Christians want to speak to these people in this world in these days, we will have to go beyond simply insisting on traditional morality and bear witness to an entirely different way of life that can come to terms with the vast forces bearing down upon all of us.
4. This statement expresses sublime theology, and its authors say plainly, “In this statement we speak as Christians to Christians, using the language of the faith.” To be sure, Christians do not all agree about everything said here, but still, generally speaking the statement stands as representative of a rather broad consensus of traditional Church teaching. What it does not do, at least at this point, is talk about what it means to live as people of wisdom and love among our neighbors and in our society. Is it possible that one might be able to separate one’s convictions about moral ideals from accepting that we live in a free and diverse society in which people who do not act the way we think they should still deserve equal protection under the law and should be spared the indignities of discrimination? If, broadly speaking, Christians agree on the point that “the crucial and fundamental truth that marriage is a stable union based on the complementarity of male and female,” how does that belief actually affect the way I relate to my divorced neighbors, my gay son, the couple in the church who are living together and unmarried, the single folks who never marry, or the genuine Christians who honestly disagree with my interpretation of Scripture on these matters?
5. The statement lacks eschatological perspective. As one commenter has noted, it only looks backward and deals with the present age and not forward to the new creation, when issues of sex, marriage, and family as we know them will have passed away. Certainly, because we live in the “now” and not the “not yet” we must face life in the present age. But the statement lacks proper Christian balance. God’s people are to witness not only to God’s moral standards for this age, we are to witness to the reality of the age to come. Jesus altered the very definition of “family” when he told his mother, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” And Paul commended singleness as a sign of the eschaton. The Church is not called to “focus on the family” to the degree that she forgets the temporal nature of all institutions in this age.
That’s enough for now. Discuss.
We’ll return and look at more of the statement another time. Read it. Think about it. Talk about it.