The Christian Case Against Marriage: “Family Idolatry”

Possibly the most egregious argument used by the religious right to oppose homoerotic relationships and LGBT equality or inclusion in Church, is that they are in contravention of Christian family values, “as found in the Bible”. This claim is entirely without any valid foundation.

For example, consider this extract from the Church of Ireland’s Canon 31.1, currently the subject of  a resolution before the General Synod of the Church seeking to re-affirm it, and resist pressure for change:

‘The Church of Ireland affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching that marriage is in its purpose a union permanent and life-long, for better or worse, till death do them part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity’.

- Church of Ireland, Constitution

WOW! “According to our Lord’s teaching”? What a whopper.

The resolution that quotes from the canon above is offensive in it’s procedure, as well as its content. Instead of being submitted in good time, allowing adequate time for synod members to prepare and debate rationally, it was snuck in by the back door, as a late resolution.  (See  Gyronny Herald for more). But I’m not going to get into the details of the C of Ireland discussion – I leave that to those with better knowledge of it than I. Instead, I want to look at the substance of the claim – and with help from Dale B Martin’sSex and the Single Savior, test it against what really was “Our Lord’s teaching“.

Martin describes claims such as these, in which claims that the privileged status of the nuclear family are based on the Bible, as “familiar idolatry”, or the idolatry of the family, which the book analyses in chapter 8, “Familiar Idolatry and the Christian Case Against Marriage” .  Yes, that’s right. The Christian case against marriage – NOT against gay marriage.

Not only is contemporary Christianity idolatrous in its focus on the family and marriage, it is hypocritical. It either explicitly states or assumes that its current values are the obvious expression of Christian scripture and tradition. Though most Christians assume the current centrality of marriage and family represents a long tradition in Christianity, it is actually only about 150 years old. One could even make the argument that the current focus on the modern nuclear family dates back only to the 1950’s……..Contrary to most contemporary opinion, there are many more resources in Christian Scripture and tradition to criticize the modern family than to oppose it.

- Sex and the Single Savior 

This hypocrisy in neatly illustrated by Canon 31 itself, which almost immediately after the insistence on marriage as a lifelong union, for better or for worse, continues in 31.3 with the acknowledgement that remarriage after divorce is possible, but that clergy should not be compelled to officiate them, where they disagree in conscience. But the sponsors of the offensive resolution before Synod are obviously blind to their own hypocrisy: they are happy to apply Canon 31 to oppose extending any olive branch to queer Christians, but not to rescind the Church provision for divorce.

Let’s begin by breaking down Canon 31.1 into its several component parts

marriage is

  • a union permanent and life-long, 
  • for better or worse, till death do them part,
  • of one man with one woman,
  • to the exclusion of all others on either side,
  • (in its purpose) for the procreation and nurture of children,
  • for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections,
  • and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other,
  • both in prosperity and adversity’
In all of the above, the only bit that can legitimately claimed as based on the Lord’s teaching, is the first. Christ was clear in his opposition to divorce. All the rest are embellishments, not found in the Gospels, but added by later writers.
In his analysis, Martin takes us through several versions of the Christian teaching  on marriage and sex, from the example and teaching of Christ himself as found in the Gospels, through the Acts of the Apostles, other New Testament and related writings, and those of the early church, to the Reformation and its aftermath. Right up until the end, he finds that the weight of evidence opposes marriage and family as an inherently  morally superior condition.
I’ve written previously on how the Gospels’ queer values contradict the popular perception. Martin adds to the familiar evidence the reminder that Jesus advised one young man to forget about burying his father, and instead to follow him. Jesus, he observes, not only avoided marriage, but actively spoke against it, and instead created and lived amongst an itinerant band of men and women, without ties of kinship or marriage, not one of whom is recorded as accompanied by a spouse (precisely in accordance with Jesus’ instruction to them to leave their homes and families, to follow him).
In the Acts of the Apostles, we have the well – known feature that the disciples lived in egalitarian communities, sharing possessions and “holding all things in common”. What is less familiar, is that in the whole of the Acts, there are only two married couples (and none in the Gospels, among the disciples). Neither of these two can be seen as role models for the modern advocates of “family values”. One couple, Ananias and Sapphira, are presented as a negative counterpart to the community of disciples: instead of sharing all their possessions with the church community, they bring only a portion. They conspire together to deceive the church, and avoid its communalism. They are said to have been deceived by Satan, and to have lied to the Holy Spirit.(Acts 5: 1 – 11; 5: 2-9; 5:3). They end by being buried together, and on hearing of these events, “a great fear fell on the whole Church” (5:11). The other couple, Prisca (or Priscilla) are admired – but do not conform to the “traditional” family stereotype. They have no children, Priscilla appears to have higher status than her husband (she is always mentioned first), and their household is permeable – Paul moves win with them, works with them and relocates with them.
The Book of Revelations is distinctly “queer” – in the literal sense of strange (and difficult to decipher), so I have no intention of wading in too deeply. It is worth noting with Martin, however, that the almost the entire book appears to be populated exclusively by males, as elders, prophets, angels, slaves, brothers and kings. Even the four beasts are male animals. The only females are Jezebel, the woman who gives birth to the male child, the Whore of Babylon, and finally the Bride of the Lamb. But, the terminology of “Bride” notwithstanding, there is nothing in Revelations to support notions of “traditional” marriage against gay marriage – quite the reverse:
“…although the Horned Lamb marries a female figure, her body and clothing are actually composed of male deeds and bodies, the population of the divine household, the eschatological city, the finally victorious kingdom and empire”.
We see here that although actual sexual intercourse is supposed to be absent from the eschatological  community, desire and the erotic, especially the erotic of the eye, is everywhere. …….. The seduction they have not been able to avoid is a certain erotic of homosocial male bonding that pervades the vision….. It is hard to avoid the image, once we actually picture it, of a bunch of men scrambling all over one another and sitting on one another’s laps on a huge throne in the sky;… it is curious that although there is a marriage in Revelations between a male and a female, the female’s body and clothing are made up of male bodies. John and his brothers, in the person of the Bride herself, actually in the end do get to marry the Horned Lamb.
It is as if, for the author of Revelations, there is no room for “normal” marriage and family in this world. …… Christians are slave brothers who serve in the household of God and have no contact with women. In fact, they must not do so since they constitute themselves the body of the bride of the Horned Lamb. They keep themselves pure,,so they can be properly clean for their copulation with the Horned Lamb.
The apostle Paul quite clearly encouraged celibacy, not marriage, as we know from Corinthians  1: 7- 9. Even within marriage, he urged that sexual passion should be controlled (1 Thess 4:3-8). There is no indication in Paul that he saw the purpose of marriage as procreation.

The Church fathers generally followed Paul in valuing celibacy more highly than the married state. Martin gives the example of the Jovinian controversy to illustrate this.  Sometime around the end of the fourth century Jovinian began teaching what today would be regarded as unexceptional: that those who were married, and had sex in marriage, were no worse than those who were celibate. For this, he was labelled a heretic and excommunicated by synods called first by the bishop of Rome, Pope Siricius, and by the Bishop of Milan, Ambrose.  The strongest critic of Jovinian was Jerome, who had his own very clear mental hierarchy of moral states. Top of the tree were those who had never married, followed by widows, then those were married but avoided sex, and  only then, those who were married and engaged in sex (and thence procreation). By this reasoning, with celibate marriage more highly valued than the sexual kind, procreation can hardly be viewed as the “purpose” of marriage. Augustine too, opposed Jovinian. Although he insisted that the purpose of sex was to produce children, and so sex within marriage is a good, the higher good is to avoide marriage altogether.

“For this reason it is a good to marry, since it is a good to beget children to be the mother of a family; but it is better not to marry, since it is better for human society itself not to have need of marriage”.

Martin notes that Augustine’s view would prevail in the Church, until the Reformation – and that the modern promoters of “family values” in opposition to family and marriage  equality would have been considered heretics by the orthodox church fathers.
Many other writers have pointed out, like Martin, that the history of the Church and marriage is diametrically opposed to the view promoted by the modern defenders of what they fondly but erroneously describe as “traditional” family values. Where Martin is more radical than most, is in his conclusions.
First, he argues against giving the state any power to recognize or regulate marriage.
When we give the state the right to legitimize one kind of sexual relationship or social formation, we give it the right to render all others illegitimate. ….. To agree to marriage is to agree that the modern violent, bureaucratic state has the right to control your life in its most intimate realms, public and private, personal and sexual, individual and collective. Not to put too fine a point on it, marriage cedes your genitals to the government
 He continues, by arguing against any role for the Church in marriage.
I believe the church should also get out of the marriage business. Marriage is an exclusive and exclusionary technology for control. Modern churches legitimate on kind of social and intimate bonding and therefore declare illegitimate all others. This relationship is good – in fact “divine”, All others are bad or at best inferior.
This is a particular problem for children. It is fundamental that all children are equal, and that children not be penalised for any supposed sins of their parents. But by privileging one kind of relationship, we automatically do penalize the children born from the “wrong” relationships (out of wedlock), or raised by them (by single parents, or same- sex couples).
Marriage legitimates childbirth. But it necessarily therefore declares other births illegitimate.  Why should the church want to allow any of its children to be thought “illegitimate”? Our cry, rather should be “no bastard children”. Bastard children are not created by being born outside of marriage, but by marriage itself. Marriage makes bastards possible by creating the categories.
But his third purpose in this chapter, one which goes way beyond a critique of received ideas about marriage and family, is to focus attention on new ways of using Christian Scripture and tradition.
Queer Christians should use their imaginations to  allow Scripture and tradition to inspire new visions of Christian community free from the constraints of the modern, heterosexual, nuclear family. We could imagine travelling bands of erotic followers of Jesus…..We could imagine “households” of new construction, representing in their own adventuresome together hopes for new communities for the future.
Rather than looking to Scripture and tradition to justify the recognition of same – sex unions and marriage, we should attempt to recover and revise resources from a forgotten Christianity vouchsafed to us in Scripture and pre-modern traditions: the long and valuable history of the Christian case against marriage.
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3 comments for “The Christian Case Against Marriage: “Family Idolatry”

  1. Advocatus Diaboli
    May 8, 2012 at 2:11 am

    Great post. this was the section that i thought that you would find the most valuable. 

    I have to admit that I myself have a bit of trouble “letting go” of the image of  the family that the culture I grew up in has instilled in me; just goes to show that humans are primarily products of their surroundings and background (makes you wonder how much is us is ‘us’ and how much is inculturation, though i am NOT talking about sexuality). 

    In Inquisitions class, we discussed the drastic re-imagination of marriage that the Protestant reformation brought to us. the protestants rejected celibacy, and forced all monks, priests, and nuns in their area to abandon celebacy and marry. This rejection of celibacy as the ideal, combined with the embracement of recreational sex in the 1960’s, is the source of why so many people have difficulty interpreting the Church’s current teaching as anything other than ‘illogical’. It starts with a fundamentally different world-view. The Church’s teachings, despite the conceptualization of the current hierarchy, are actually derived from the assumption that marriage is a secondarily less preferable state. So the Church teaching that people who are not interested in reproductive sex remain celibate is not such a ‘far out’ teaching in this view, because all it is doing is advocating that such people maintain the state that is preferable to begin with. This is the exact same as in buddhism; marriage is actually looked down upon by traditional buddhists. In the 1950’s the Dalai Lama began encouraging Tibetans to marry to help ensure that their traditions would live on through family units, which might seem normal to westerners but was just as strange as Pope Benedict XVI suddenly encouraging “everyone get divorced for the good of the church”. People were shocked to hear the Dalai Lama encouraging lay people to get married. 

    Personally, I am not against the Church’s teaching entirely, especially when it  is understood from its original view and not from a 21st century retro-imposition view. I would actually like to see the Church start encouraging less marriages for those who are capable for a number of reasons, but I dont have time/space to explain here. 

  2. Parasum
    May 8, 2012 at 3:23 am

    “Right up until the end, he finds that the weight of evidence opposes marriage and family as an inherently  morally superior condition.

    I’ve written previously on how the Gospels’ queer values contradict the popular perception.”

    ## It would be too funny for words if we “homos” are actually less distant from the meaning of the Gospel than the idolatry of the family is. If Jesus were on earth today, He would be harshly criticised for his cultish anti-family values.

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