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Is love enough?

Colin Gibson

A sermon preached at the Mornington and Glenaven
Methodist Churches on 26 September 2004


Some times one picture does say it all.  Yesterday’s Otago Daily Times printed a picture taken at the Presbyterian General Assembly.  Beneath an enormous banner showing a Christ with welcoming open arms — ‘come unto me all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest', he seemed to say — sat the leaders of a Church whose representatives had just voted to close out from any position of leadership in their Church every unmarried person engaging in sexual activity.  We do live in stirring and disturbing times!  Jack–booted black–shirted Destiny Church members march through the streets of Wellington chanting ‘Enough is enough!’  A local Anglican vicar organises a moving ecumenical service supporting the gay community, its counter–theme is Love is Enough.’  While tertiary students march in support of the Civil Unions Bill now before Parliament, letters to the editor declare that the passage of the bill will bring about the end of marriage and the collapse of our society.

What the present turbulent situation spells out for me is the poverty of the Church’s thinking about personal relationships; its failure to keep pace with the enormous social changes which have overtaken modern life; and its inability to think beyond the institution of marriage as a one–stop shop for everyone.

In the real world there are many stable and lifelong relationships, most dignified with the name of marriage, others not; but there are many other kinds of relationships.  When it comes to intense non–sexual companionships, single sex relationships, single lives, solo parentage, divorce, unions crossing the boundaries of race or faith, let alone the modern habit of a whole series of short–term relationships, the church has not been able to think outside the square other than threatening moral disaster and damnation as a deterrent.  Little wonder that the state has had to step in to create a structure of law — and that essentially is what the proposed Civil Unions Bill is — where religion has left a vacuum and the church stands helplessly wringing its hands at modern wickedness.

Opponents of the proposed Civil Unions bill — both Christians and non–Christians
claim divine authority as expressed in the Bible for their position.  Theirs is a scriptural view of marriage, they say.  The Pope, at a recent meeting with the assembled leaders of the Catholic Church in New Zealand, went even further.  'Marriage is God's will for humanity', he announced, making it clear that by marriage he meant only the lifetime union of a man and a woman.  (Of course it's more than a little ironic that this spokesman for God is himself unmarried, and has steadfastly refused to allow his own priests to marry.)

Better informed Christians understand that 'the Bible' seldom speaks with one voice, since it is a collection of writings from many cultures over many centuries.  They also understand that however much we claim to be guided absolutely by biblical teaching or divine inspiration we actually pick and choose what we believe and practice in the sacred texts.  What's more, as David Lange noted in his famous peace lecture given recently at Otago University, religious belief and practice is often coloured (and sometime totally captured) by deep–seated cultural attitudes and practices.

So we want a biblically–based marriage for everyone do we?

Well that would mean going back to the ancient cultural and religious practices of Middle Eastern desert tribes, as they are set out in the Bible.

Strictly following that model — as some conservative churches would have us do — marriage would be arranged by parents with little consideration for the wishes of children — preferably to a first cousin (see the divine arrangements for Isaac and Jacob to marry — though what a mess God’s plan for Jacob turned out to be! (Gen 24 and 28)

Authentic scriptural marriage is a union between one man — and one or more wives (never the other way around).  Jacob marries Leah and Rebekah; and when those women pass child–bearing age they send in their maidservants to marry and bear children;  David fathers sons on six wives; Solomon takes 700 wives;  his son (obviously a weakling) takes a mere 18 wives.

Marriage as set out in the Old Testament doesn’t prevent a male from enjoying any number of other sexual relationships (again, never the other way around).  Just read about the extensive harems of David, Solomon and other rulers.

A biblical marriage is considered to be valid only if the woman is a virgin: if she isn't, she is to be stoned to death (see Deuteronomy 22).  On the other hand, God has nothing to say about any pre–marital sex the husband may have enjoyed.

According to the Bible, God ordains that where a husband dies without begetting children, the widow must be re–married within the family — by his brother.  The punishment for the brother who refuses to marry the widow or have sex with her is no more than a ritual public humiliation.

Marriage between a believer and a non–believer, or a person of any other faith or culture is strictly forbidden in the interests of ethnic and religious purity.  Numbers 25 has an edifying little story about how with God's approval Moses stamped out an outbreak of inter–racial relationships between Hebrews and Moabites by having the Moabite leaders impaled and couples speared to death.  'So the plague was stopped among the people of Israel' (Numbers 25).

Divorce?  Well, according to ancient Hebrew law a husband might write a certificate of divorce, give it to a wife he disliked and send her out of his house.  (Once again, no such right was extended to the woman.)  The only limitation on such behaviour was that the same husband might not remarry her, if she had in the mean time taken a second husband (Deuteronomy 24).  As recorded in Mark’s gospel, Jesus was even stricter on this point.  He famously declared that ‘what God has joined together let no one separate’, and pronounced either party guilty of adultery if they remarried after a divorce (Mark 10: 1–12).  [This was obviously controversial in the young Christian Church: both the letters to Romans (7) and 1 Corinthians try to soften this absolute position.]

Some of the New Testament writings betray an even more disturbing fear, disgust and repudiation of human sexuality, leading to the attitude that marriage is just a desperate remedy for sexual desire.  The influential opinion of Paul was that it was better to marry than to burn with desire but best to stay unmarried and celibate (like himself). 

None of these laws and practices leave any room for what we might call love or compassion; and It has taken centuries of anguish, oppression and struggle for women to escape from such supposedly divinely ordained social structures; which condemned them to lifetime male domination, while allowing the husband a large measure of sexual freedom.

More importantly, society has changed and changed utterly since those biblical and tribal practices and codes were established.  Whatever conservative Christians may preach or wish for, they will neither persuade or frighten a modern world into accepting that sexual relations are permissible only within a conventional marriage.

In the real world parents will continue to have little control over their children’s choice of partner or their private behaviour.  Secular celebrants or registry officials conduct marriage ceremonies.  Modern couples now rarely choose lifetime partnerships; and both women and men assume freedom to engage into one or more relationships.  Shocking as the fact may be to older generations, many youngsters engage in pre–marital sex and few couples enter marriage in the state symbolised by the traditional white bridal gown.  Solo parentage is commonplace and is no longer an extreme or terrifyingly difficult matter.  Inter–racial or inter–faith marriages have ceased to be exceptional; there is an increasing acceptance of single–sex relations and sexuality itself is no longer considered to be a base surrender to our lower nature or an unwelcome activity practised only to produce children.

If the Christian faith is to hold credibility or exercise any influence in such a world it will not be by denying this reality or by upholding pre–historic marriage codes.  Here is what I believe must be done, and done urgently.

Broaden and extend the Church’s idea of what constitutes sanctified relationships; and create new liturgies for new occasions.  My Christian faith leads me to respect the primacy of loving relationships, whatever form they take.  I firmly believe with many others that wherever there is love, there is God also.

Get real about the fallibilities and tensions that erode and destroy human relationships within marriage as well as outside it.  We should no longer be preaching impossible ideals and improbable virtues.  Let us frankly acknowledge instead the ordinary goodness and ordinary faults in all of us.

Demonstrate the comprehensive and inclusive love of God by welcoming into its full fellowship all who want to enter, without stigma or judgement.

Abandon public condemnation and exclusion as instruments to bring outsiders into line with our own moral and religious codes.  (Exclusion from the membership of the Church terr ifies no one these days, anymore than does the threat of final judgement and the pains of hell!). Adopt a positive mode of affirmation and praise for what is good and of value in the Church and in the secular world.

Get over the Church’s historical fear of sexuality and replace the old regime of guilt, fear and repression with a rational theology of the basic goodness of our full humanity.

Practice and support the values of justice, equality, trust and compassion for everyone.

What such principles would imply for the way the Church should order its own life in the 21st century, and its stance as an active participant in contemporary society, I leave you to think about for yourself.


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