Living in the World - Issues that Christians face

Marriage and Relationships

Pastoral note:  Because our thinking about marriage in particular and relationships in general is so well established and for most of us has been consistently held for a long time, this housegroup session deliberately pushes and challenges some of our assumptions.  As we did last week with the session of human sexualty, we hope that in pushing at the boundaries of our comfort zone, we might discover something that enriches us.  This is not to say that that we're arguing for a change of mind, rather that whatever views we hold we may hold thoughtfully and for good reason.

For many this session, like the last session, will be uncomfortable, but we hope that it will be useful.  The likelihood is that everyone at some point or another will be uncomfortable with something that is suggested in dealing with topics such as sexuality, relationships, and marriage.  

My request is simply that the notes are taken as a starting point for discussion, engaged with seriously and that the variety of views within any given group are respected.  This session, like last weeks is an exercise in discerning and applying a Christian ethic to an important area of life. 

Simon Butler


1.Bold typed sections indicate questions for discussion in house groups. These are also publised separately with a summary of the main points of the paper

2.I’m aware that many house-group leaders may not have the time to wade through this long and quite complex paper. I’ve left it as is, though, because the issues are so many and complex. However, I have offered a summary at the end which leaders can use to take them to particular points in the paper.

3.I realize that much of what I have said will be contrary to conventional Christian teaching. I hope that you’ll remember that we’ve intended this series to be an exploration of issues rather than a dogmatic statement of any kind.

It is a commonplace today that marriage is in trouble, not only because too high a proportion of marriages end in divorce but also because an increasing number of young people seem to think that marriage is an outdated institution, replaceable by an endless number of temporary relationships or by “partnership”, often with children and thus with an apparent intention of permanence. It is worth noting, in relation to the debate on same-sex marriage, that heterosexual marriage is not under any threat from gay marriage, but it is under threat from the disillusionment with the institution in our highly-secularized society as a whole. If anything, perhaps ironically, the issue of same-sex marriage has focused society’s attention on the importance of marriage as a social institution.

Marriage may also be in trouble for another reason, namely that its meaning has changed so that whereas in earlier times and still in many cultures marriage has little to do with romantic love or self-fulfilment and so is less vulnerable to divorce. Rather, it is a contract between families, designed to carry wealth, in goods and children, into the next generation. Typically, men have enjoyed the right to extra-marital sex while women have been tightly controlled: Demosthenes summed up this conception of marriage, for example, in the aphorism: “Mistresses we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of our persons, but wives to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households”. Today, marriage has come to be the relationship for self-fulfilment which makes it extremely vulnerable to relationship difficulties. Further, now that divorce is no longer difficult or socially disapproved, society gives couples little support when their relationship is under strain.

If we are going to recommend marriage intelligently (as distinct from merely making the dogmatic claim that, “It’s God’s Will for sexual relationships”) we need to understand how complex a relationship marriage is and has been, in the Bible and in human experience; and we need to understand the great variety of forms it has taken and still takes, forms which are culturally determined; and we need to examine more closely than we may have done, just what the Bible says about marriage.

We are going to explore a number of other questions in this paper: why we believe marriage is a unique and necessary relationship; whether marriage is the only relationship in which sex is permissable, and whether heterosexual marriage is the only form of marriage(like) relationship permissable. Finally, in answering these questions we need to clarify the basis for ethical decisions associated with marriage and sex.

What does the Bible say about marriage?

The ‘official’ teaching of the church is that God’s “design for marriage” is tied to Creation and therefore no other kind of sexual relationship or marriage than between a man and a woman is permissable. This view has liturgical support from our marriage liturgy. It picks up from Gen 2.24 the language of physical intimacy and undoubtedly provides a powerful and fitting image of the uniqueness of the marriage relationship in the context of talking to people about the meaning of marriage who are thinking of getting married or are already married.

However, as “the biblical view of marriage”, which thereby excludes any other view, it is a radical over-simplification of what the Bible has to say about marriage. For a start it would be odd to say the least for the biblical story of salvation to begin by focusing on sexual intercourse and marriage, a practice and state which doesn’t include the whole human community, and which plays almost no part in the thought of other biblical writers – only Jesus at Mark 10.1-12 (with parallels in Matt and Luke) and Paul at Ephesians 5. refer to Gen 2.24. Rather, I suggest, Gen 2.23-24 begins the biblical story of salvation with a poetic image of the entire human community, man and woman, inextricably united, in a covenant relationship, by a common origin in ha-adamah, the earth, and their relationship with their Creator. In short, it is an idealized portrait of the saved community at one with one another and with God, which will be the focus of God’s work in the entire biblical story. The Bible begins, in other words, with a portrait of the goal to which God aims to return us. Put differently, we would expect the biblical story to be “headlined” by its central subject matter, the salvation of the entire human community. Is the biblical story of salvation about sex and marriage or about the kind of community that is a saved community?

What I have offered as the best reading of Gen 2.23-24 is, I suggest, the best explanation of the meaning Jesus finds in the Gen text in Mark 10.1-12 where he answers a question about divorce. Mark 10.1-12 has to be understood in the context of Mark’s narrative as a whole which is concerned to expound in word and deed the meaning of Jesus’ claim at 1.15, The kingdom of God has come near. It is difficult to see how sex and marriage fit this concern in themselves. Rather, Jesus redefines marriage to protect the woman and turn marriage from the punishment it has been for the woman since Gen 3.16 into a new relationship in which she is equal to her man in every way. Thus, he makes her the equal of man at creation (10.6), uses Gen 1.27 with 2.24 to present marriage as an illustration of the covenant community, which is an irreversible state, humanity having been put into covenant with God at Creation (10.7-8);  and finally protects the woman from the easy divorce available to men but entirely denied to her under the Law. His view of marriage relates then, to his concern to lift up the humble and meek which fits with his whole agenda in Mark’s narrative. For the oppressed – and women in the ancient world were a category of the oppressed – Jesus’ view of marriage offers a new creation.

In addition, to maintain that Gen 2.23-24 is God’s design for marriage would be odd given that Jesus actually does not prioritize marriage for the covenant community of his followers (Mark 3.31-35 & parallels in Matt 12.46-50; Luke 8.19-21)). Rather, for him, the biological family is secondary to the covenant family of faith, which is the primary community. Similarly, when questioned about marriage in the resurrection-life, Jesus teaches that marriage will not be necessary in that life (Mark 12.25-26; Matt 22.30; Luke 20.35). Neither in this life nor the next is marriage high on Jesus’ list of priorities: his teaching equates ‘family’ with discipleship, and in Matt 19.11-12 Jesus similarly raises the celibate life to the highest spiritual value in his kingdom when he seems to praise the eunuch state. This teaching was taken so seriously by early Christians that the Fourth Lateran Council of 325 had to issue a ban on the practice of voluntary castration. In short, Jesus’ view of marriage sits very uneasily with the priority at Creation given it by the traditional reading of that text – rather like a headline which has no reference to the article it is supposed to describe.

Jesus, then, does not see marriage as God’s purpose for men and women. Rather, he sees faith as that purpose, and calls for a faith that is unencumbered by biological attachments. The Roman Catholic Church continues to base its requirement of celibacy for its clergy on this biblical teaching; and if we find this rather strange and forbidding, it is the clear teaching of Jesus, and highlights the strange figure he presents to us who live in later times. It shows as clearly as can be that we have to interpret Jesus for our lives; we can’t imitate him literally.

In light of this rejection of the priority of the biological family it is difficult to see why Jesus would suddenly present a teaching that God’s primary purpose for men and women at creation is intercourse and marriage. The truth is that Christians have read into Mark 10 and Gen 2 an emphasis which reflects what they wanted to see rather than what is there. Well, what is there? The answer is a teaching that creates a new understanding of marriage (Jesus doesn’t deny or criticize the presence of marriage as a social institution) through responding to a question about divorce, so his teaching concerns those who are already married. In other words, Jesus is not saying that marriage is “God’s design” for human relationships.

Further, the picture of marriage argued as the biblical definition from Gen 2 doesn’t find any support from the teaching or practice of the Jewish Law. If we examine how marriage is presented in the Sinai covenant codes embedded in Exodus (21.1-11; 22.16-17) and Deuteronomy (21.10-14; 22.13-30; 24.1-4; 25.5-10)  we will see that marriage is a legal arrangement “guaranteeing the rights of fathers, husbands, and masters over Israelite women, children and slaves. Marriage does not unite one man and one woman in one flesh for the purposes of procreation and sexual enjoyment. Instead, marriage unites free Israelite men with as many women and slaves as they can reasonably support” [Knust, ebook loc. 1206]. In other words, marriage practice in these Mosaic law codes ensures Israelite men full control over their possessions, be these in the shape of their unmarried daughters, their wives or their slaves and their wives. There is nothing of the utopian vision of Gen 2.23-24 in its traditional interpretation: marriage is about possession of women by men. Furthermore, it is not monogamous either.

Paul shares Jesus’ preference for the celibate life in 1 Cor 7, as we’ve seen, though in Ephesians 5.21-33, he presents an altogether more exalted view, quoting Gen 2.24 to make intercourse in marriage a return to a paradisal state and an illustration of Christ’s love for the Church. Why the extreme difference from what he says in 1 Cor 7? One possibility is that someone else was the author of Ephesians (which many historically-minded scholars believe); but it is likely in my view that Paul quotes Gen 2.24 precisely because for him marriage is an illustration of the covenant community portrayed in Gen 2.24 and thus a symbolic image of the unity of the covenant people of God which is a major theme of Ephesians as a whole. Hence, the key verse is 5.21: Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ; marriage is the human relationship, par excellence, that embodies the kind of mutual subjugation of believers to one another which overcomes divisions and ensures unity of spirit (and of body in the case of marriage), whatever differences may exist (such as between Jew and Gentile). Interpreted in this way, we can see a clear connection in Ephesians with how I (and many others) have interpreted Gen 2.24 and Mark 10.6-8. Interpreted in this way, it is also incorrect to use this text to justify male headship in marriage. Although the text tells wives to be subject to their husbands (5.24) it goes on to describe the husband’s headship as an incarnation of Christ’s sacrificial love for the church. Headship, in other words, is about sacrificial service, about raising up the other, not about being boss (the way it is always interpreted, in my experience, through the lens of 1 Tim 2.12 which ensures the silence of women).
Why is all this important? Well, because of truth. It is simply untrue to claim that the Bible teaches monogamous marriage between a man and a woman on the basis of Gen texts, as if there were no other texts on marriage. It is true, however, to claim that of all the different understandings of marriage in the Bible, and all the different practices associated with intimate relationships, the church has discovered a potential in Gen 2.24 to articulate the way it believes marriage should be understood. To say this is to be honest about an interpretative decision; to say the other is to simplify the Bible quite unjustifiably and to then prepare the way for simplistic articulations of “what the Bible says…” in order to shut down different understandings. Put differently, we can say legitimately that the Bible allows us to see marriage as the human relationship closest to the particular nature of God’s love for us, but we have no biblical warrant for arguing that sexual intercourse between male and female in monogamous marriage is God’s one and only plan for marriage or that such a view is based on “God’s design”.

What makes marriage?

Let me turn now to how the church has wrestled through many centuries to understand and define marriage. And it has taken the church a long time to articulate its understanding of marriage, which has changed regularly through history. It is of interest to note that for the first four centuries of the Christian Era the church had almost nothing to do with marriage, very little until the ninth century, and it was only after the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century that the church took control of marriage. During this time, the church was thinking constantly about marriage, however; and what I offer below is a summary of the dynamic process of exploration during these centuries.
Historically, it has been difficult to define marriage which has enjoyed six different definitions. First, it has been defined as consent. This means that a marriage is made by the mutual consent of the couple and nothing else is necessary. Today we accept that consent makes a marriage, which is why we say that the Church ceremony “solemnizes” the consent of the couple which is the foundational requirement for a marriage. The church service or registry office ceremony does not make a marriage; it ratifies what the couple have already consented to together. If consent makes the marriage, it may be unclear when a couple’s sexual relationship is “pre-marital” (see below for more on this).
A long debate in the late Middle Ages occurred within the church about whether consent required something else. From this debate the church came to the position that consent needed the second feature of marriage, namely a public ceremony, and such is the position of our church today, and even of society which offers the registration of marriages by an appointed official.

There is a variety of reasons for claiming that a public ceremony is a necessary part of marriage. First, it says that marriage is not merely a private matter but has social significance and therefore needs to be witnessed and acknowledged by the wider society. Public recognition is also tied to marriage’s legal aspects.

Next, a public ceremony, especially in our church ceremony, requires the couple to make some rather remarkable promises publically. It is these promises, made in the Presence of God and human witnesses, that are the real contribution religion offers to the definition of marriage because they tie this human relationship specifically to the way God has loved us (see below for more on the significance of making promises). Christian marriage is the relationship which incarnates God’s love for us by having all the essential features of God’s love, especially its total commitment which transcends momentary feelings or events and has the toughness to carry one through moments which may be difficult or even impossible to bear.

In this connection it may be helpful to know that there is a recent theory of how language works called “speech-act theory” which argues that language doesn’t primarily carry ideas; rather it is an action. When we use words we bring a new reality into being: language doesn’t merely reproduce; it creates. We all know this to be true in the sense that we’ve all had the experience of saying something from which it is impossible to retreat, something which changes a relationship permanently. Thus, when a couple makes their marriage vows publically, something new in their relationship is created which wasn’t there before, even though they’ve expressed their love for each other privately on many occasions. It is interesting that this contemporary and very influential theory of language can be found also in the ancient Hebrew language where the word for a “word”, dabhar, can also mean “a thing”, something with an existence in the world beyond the speaker.

So for these two reasons, not only is marriage a unique relationship but Christian marriage adds something specific and profound to our understanding of marriage (as would, I believe, marriage in some other religious traditions).

If consent makes marriage, is a sexual relationship between people who have “consented” (but are not formally married) wrong?
What is the meaning of a public ceremony, and why is it necessary?

The third aspect of marriage that is probably less important now in Western marriage but still central in most of the world is that marriage involves the exchange of goods between families. Where this is central marriage is usually an arrangement, using the couple, between families for their mutual benefit, materially and in terms of children who carry the family name and status into the next generation. Thus in South Africa, for example, a man’s family has to pay a “bride-price” called “lobola” to the woman’s family who set their price. Representatives of the families make all the arrangements and a contract is signed, after which the couple are “engaged” and sometimes may move in together and have children. Usually, they will only be married once the lobola has been paid, which may take as long as ten to twenty years.
This form of marriage, between families rather than individuals, used to be the norm in the West, as well, where the rise of individualism broke it down and turned marriage into the deeply-personal relationship we know it as. However, in Britain right through the Victorian era, the contractual element continued to be strong among people who enjoyed social status they wanted preserved and who owned  property they wanted to keep in the family.

Was exchange of goods involved in your marriages or those of anyone you know? Is there  a remnant of this aspect of marriage today in the UK?

The fourth dimension to marriage is first sexual intercourse. You may be surprised to know that this has historically by no means been regarded as defining marriage; and where it has the motivation has been to protect valued goods or to acknowledge final possession of the bride by the man, thus sealing the contract into which the two families had entered. It is really only in the Victorian era that first intercourse acquires a specifically moral dimension. In the teaching of Gratian’s Decretium (circa 1140), one of the church’s most influential documents on this subject in the High Middle Ages, first intercourse merely completed what already existed through consent.

Through history the church’s attitude to sex even within marriage has been distinctly ambiguous, with a marked degree of negativity, in fact. Marriage was regarded as an inferior state to celibacy, tolerated only to have children, which was the only legitimate purpose of sex within marriage. Partly this was Paul’s influence in 1 Cor 7 and partly the consequence of a pervasive patriarchal view of women as devilish impediments to male purity and spirituality. Thus Tertullian’s sadly representative comment: “Woman is the gate of hell”.
Essentially, in the view of Augustine, sex was evil because it caused men to lose their faculty of reason, though Augustine in fact did much to uphold marriage: he it was who gave the church a threefold purpose for marriage which has been a cornerstone of the church’s teaching: for procreation, to control sin, and a symbol of the unity of Christ and the church. Because of this attitude the church pushed the virtues of “chaste marriage” where people committed themselves to an asexual marriage relationship. This was regarded as being the highest, most spiritual form of marriage.

So, for the church sexual intercourse was tolerated only for its procreative function. The Counter Reformation Catholic Church summed this up in drawing a distinction between sexual acts “in accordance with nature”, that is, for procreation, and “contrary to nature”, that is, for some other purpose, like pleasure or intimacy. It was only in the Protestant church that there began to be an awareness that sex within marriage had other purposes and values than procreation. In England Bishop Jeremy Taylor was far ahead of his times in saying that sex would “lighten and ease the cares and sadnesses of household affairs”. However, no less a figure than Martin Luther maintained the negativity he had inherited when we described marriage as “An emergency hospital for the illness of human needs”. Today, we would in the church have a good notion of the value of sex in building intimacy, though its procreative function still becomes a priority when it comes to the issue of gay sexual relationships, especially marriage.

What is the purpose and value of sex to human well-being? Do you think marriage should be defined by first sexual intercourse, or do you think that intercourse outside marriage may, in some circumstance, be morally OK?

Traditionally, the fifth aspect of marriage has been its indissolubility. Today, in the West only the Roman Catholic church maintains this position absolutely. We in the Anglican Communion take a more flexible position: though our marriage liturgy affirms a lifelong commitment “for better, for worse”, we do recognize that marriages break down irretrievably and we even remarry divorcees.

The biblical teaching is complex and equivocal with regard to divorce. In Mark 10.2-12 Jesus connects marriage with creation by conflating Gen 1.27 (v.6) with Gen 2.24 (v.7), as we’ve seen, making the marriage relationship as indissoluble as creation is irreversible.He also critiques the patriarchal viewpoint assumed by the Pharisees in their initial question and taught in Deut 24.1-4, which gives the man alone the right of divorce.

However, Matthew 19.1-9 allows an exception which, in itself, tells us that early Christians didn’t understand Jesus’ teaching in an absolute way. In Mark it may be seen as countering the misuse of patriarchal power illustrated most graphically in JBapt’s critique of Herod in 6.14-29. As we have seen, however, Jesus’ chief intention was to change marriage into a just relationship for the woman and so for the man. Augustine reluctantly followed Matthew  in allowing divorce for sexual sin, though neither he nor anyone else in the Christian tradition until recently would allow remarriage.

The earliest document on marriage we have is in 1 Cor 7.1-15 in which Paul underlines Jesus’ teaching that divorce is contrary to God’s command (vv.10-11);  but his teaching on marriage is substantively different from that of Jesus, a relationship not reflective of creation but a “concession” to those who aren’t able to live celibately, the form of life Paul regards as the highest calling. This rather lower view of marriage allows Paul to make space for divorce but for a different reason from Matthew: if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. Much ink has been spilled on Paul’s use of different words for “separate” (chorizesthai) and “divorce” (aphiemi). Some think it is because the wife had no right of divorce under Jewish Law, but Paul uses “divorce” to refer to the wife at v.13, so the two words probably stand for the same thing. Thus, the general thrust of Paul’s teaching is quite pragmatic: divorce is not God’s plan but it may be necessary, though best to avoid, not because it betrays creation but because it may result in a lost opportunity to save one’s spouse (v.16). So in Paul we have a different understanding of marriage and a different reason for divorce.

The Bible thus offers different bases for marriage and different teaching about whether or not divorce is ever permissable and on what grounds. Generally, the church has taken the clear teaching in the Bible that God’s intention for marriage is that it shouldn’t end in divorce, but has also opened the way for divorce to be allowed in most Protestant denominations. The Roman Catholic church maintains the position that we used to hold, namely that marriages may end in “separation” but not in “divorce”, playing on the different words used in the Pauline text. Many today who have written on marriage talk about marriages “becoming sacramental” rather than taking the very juridical position that the marriage vows create an unbreakable contract. Such a position recognizes that God’s intention is that the couple should experience in their relationship the meaning of calling marriage a sacrament without making marriage a prison from which those who are being damaged in their marriage can’t ever escape. It is a creative response to the new type of marriage of the modern era in which marriage is about romantic love and the fulfilment of personal aspirations. It is also based on a different notion of ethics from the juridical ethics of the Western world which separates law from practice and therefore creates laws that are often abstract (see below).
A related issue is remarriage, the introduction of which is without precedent in the earlier tradition and which Jesus in Mark 10 calls “adultery”. However, it has been a truly bold response to the deep human needs which marriage is now understood as serving – a pastoral rather than directly-biblical response in other words.This doesn’t mean it is without biblical support but merely that we can’t find a verse or passage which recommends or allows it. It is supported, rather, by biblical doctrines of forgiveness and new beginnings, as well as by the different notion of ethics which we will explore later.

Arguably, the notion of a relationship that is “forever” is scary in today’s world, for reasons we perhaps don’t fully understand. However, one influential factor may be the general sense of impermanence in almost every facet of our culture in the West. I am thinking of the fact that no one any longer expects anything to last long, including relationships: impermanence and frequent change seem to inhabit the very core of contemporary human life, and this arguably makes it very difficult to conceive of a life-commitment such as marriage has been traditionally. This is why pre-nuptual agreements are fast becoming common practice according to a popular women’s magazine.
In this context the theologian Robert Jenson has some important things to say about faithfulness. Jenson argues that the central characteristic of God is he is “not eternal in that he is immune to time…but that he has time, in that he is able to be faithful, in that he makes promises and keeps them”. From this he concludes that “the freedom of the believer is rightly understood as freedom to make and keep human promises”. Applied to marriage, “The couple who determine to stay together as long as their ‘love’ survives, have thereby left the question of how long love will survive to happenstance, and so made no actual commitment at all…[faithfulness] “create[s] the possibility that love will last – or rather, we create the possibility of the endless beginning of what the Bible calls ‘love’”. “… His reflection is a powerful commentary on the ‘pre-nup’ culture: “…to reckon in advance with the breaking of promise, is in all human mutuality the very deepest betrayal”. He ends: “…making and not making promises is wisdom, evading the risk is cowardice, knowing to what we are and are not committed is moral judgement, and faithfulness where committed is good works”.

Do you think divorce should be allowed? For what reasons? What about remarriage?

What about sex outside marriage?

I’ve already indicated that if we see marriage in terms of consent it may be difficult to know precisely when a marriage begins. The church’s opposition to sex outside marriage has been more a Western emphasis than one you would find in say, Africa, because in the West marriage has developed into an event rather than a process. As event, marriage begins with a public ceremony after which comes first intercourse; there is a clear, defined beginning to the marriage, in other words. This is the way most of us who are older have been taught to think of marriage, and this is the view of marriage underlying our marriage liturgy.

As process, however, marriage may have no such definite beginning and even where it does, the ceremony usually completes the process by which the couple is married, coming after cohabitation and the arrival of children. I have already provided an example from South Africa of how this can work, but in a similar way, especially among the peasantry in the UK and Europe in the Middle Ages, marriage was quite a casual affair. In earlier times in the UK – up to the Hardwicke Marriage Act of 1753, in fact, and still in the Third World, marriage is understood as a process, not an event. Especially among the peasantry it most often had no ceremony: records for the court of Ely, for example, show that more than four fifths of the marriages were what were called “clandestine” unions.

Some contemporary theologians have suggested that in this notion of marriage-as-process the church may find a way to preserve its own values relating to marriage while acknowledging society’s return to more casual cohabitation. Thus Adrian Thatcher points out, for a start, that marriage-as-event is actually a product of middle-class Victorian England with little secular or Christian traditional practice behind it. He argues that a process understanding gives space to the idea that relationships develop and change, and pleads for a reintroduction of a betrothal ceremony, which would signal a clear commitment to marriage while allowing the couple space to develop their relationship to that consummation.

Thatcher also suggests that we detach the notion of “consummation” from first intercourse and replace it with a notion of consummation-as-intimacy which allows for the sexual relationship of a couple to be integrated into a process of developing a committed relationship towards marriage. According to Thatcher this would actually be a recovery of a more traditional Christian understanding of consummation as “joint consents which form a societas of the couple and which…were expected to be expressed in the Maritalis affectio, that is in treating the spouse as a loved partner”. In short, Thatcher is saying that the church can make theological provision for contemporary practices which are actually not new practices but a return, in contemporary form, of pre-modern practices. He also uses evidence from earlier periods to suggest acceptable forms of pre-marital sexual practice which fall short of full intercourse but allow the sexual pleasure which is taken as a right today.

Ethical perspectives

However, I want to look at this from an ethical perspective also. Monica Furlong, a Roman Catholic lay theologian, points out that English has no word between “promiscuous” and “chaste” (chastity including marriage, somewhat strangely as the word means “virgin” or “abstaining from sexual intercourse”). She points out, though, the inaccuracy of including a person who sleeps around with multiple partners under the same umbrella as an unmarried partnership of many years.

In addition, if it is true that an ethics of sexual morality can no longer be based on “the biblical view of marriage” based on Gen 2 (because such a thing doesn’t exist), we need another basis for a Christian sexual ethics. A compelling one is provided by the American ethicist, Stanley Hauerwas who bases his ethics on virtue rather than on law (the traditional Christian basis). This means that ethical living is not based on abstract definitions of what is right or wrong so much as on virtuous (or right, good) action, the heart of which is friendship which is “not just a necessity for living well, but necessary if we are to be people of practical wisdom. Through character-friendships we actually acquire the wisdom necessary, and in particular the self-knowledge, to be people of virtue. We literally cannot do good without our friends, not simply because need friends to do good but because the self-knowledge necessary to be good comes from seeing ourselves through our friendships…The activity of friendship – and it is crucial that we understand it as an activity – is what trains us to be virtuous”. Its opposite is promiscuity, which Hauerwas calls “industrial sexuality” which “Like any other industrial enterprise…seeks to conquer nature by exploiting it and ignoring the consequences, by denying any connection between nature and spirit or body and soul, and by evading social responsibility”.
Effectively, what Hauerwas means (if I can put the matter in biblical terms) is that love-in-action is the basis of ethics generally, which fits nicely with what the Lutheran theologian, Robert Jenson, has had to say about faithfulness. For us as Christians, the meaning of love comes from the character of God who makes and keeps promises to us. Promise, as Jenson argues, is what keeps love alive through dark and difficult times; and our calling is to live with love towards God and one another, that is, to make and keep promises to others. This requires commitment to whatever promises we make. Marriage, of course, is a particularly powerful, institutionalized example of friendship-promise; but similar promises are made in all sorts of other relationships, including partnerships. If friendship and promise-making are a good basis for a sexual ethics, it follows that a wide variety of relationships may be ethical from a Christian perspective, including same-sex relationships (because marriage can be defined from the Bible no longer solely in male/female terms). Hauerwas’s virtue-ethics doesn’t undermine the special way marriage demonstrates promise-commitment, but the central place he gives to friendship allows for a biblically-based ethic which takes in the large variety of ways human beings express friendship, including marriage, virtuous relationships single people have, both sexual and not, and virtuous same-sex relationships.

We could summarize by saying that Jenson and Hauerwas call for a sexual ethics of justice, for sexual relationships and practices which offer justice to all human beings, men, women, heterosexuals and homosexuals. Hauerwas’s ethics of virtuous action is especially important for overcoming the chief weakness of the juridical approach to ethics upon which the traditional teaching  that heterosexual marriage is the only basis for sexual relationships, which is that what is regarded as right does not offer justice to those excluded from the definition of rightness, that is, there is no justice for single or homosexual people.

Do you think a process understanding of marriage would help the church’s ministry today?
Explore the idea of friendship and the ways its can be expressed in an endless variety of human relationships

The sixth and final way marriage has been defined that I want to point to is that it is between a man and a woman. Of course, this is no longer the case in that same-sex marriage is now legal in the UK and in many other societies in the world, though the church does not recognize such marriages.
The question at issue is whether the church should change its traditional understanding of this aspect of marriage. Against such a change is the undoubted reality that marriage in the Bible, whatever form it takes, is only between male and female, and our marriage liturgy asserts this as an absolute truth. One the other hand, if it is simplistic to extrapolate from the Bible a design for marriage, as I have argued, if some people are gay by orientation, not by choice, if the primary purpose of the sexual relationship within marriage is to build intimate love so that reproduction is a frequent but not essential aspect of marriage, and if celibacy is a gift of God not attached to sexual orientation, the way is opened for our understanding of marriage as necessarily between a man and a woman to change without our being untrue to the Bible. Further, if sexual ethics finds a biblical basis in notions of faithfulness to promises made, and in virtuous action, as I have argued, there is no reason to doubt that same-sex relationships can demonstrate the central features of marriage.

Do you think my assertion has merit that same-sex relationships can demonstrate the essential features of an ethical relationship?
Has this section on marriage in the Bible surprised you at all? How would you articulate “a biblical view of marriage”?

Being single

A consideration of the meaning and purposes of marriage can’t ignore the meaning of being single for if marriage is held to complete the individual in ways we have looked at, what about those who, whether by choice or circumstance, live without marriage? Are they necessarily incomplete in some way? Society often regards them as such and Christians frequently treat them as such, but we shall see that this can’t be true.

You will recall that in my paper on “Sexuality” I argued that sexual desire is but one manifestation of that multi-headed thing called “desire” which drives us to reach out beyond ourselves to the Other. This being so, those who are unmarried are not deprived of desire for the Other because they are not in a sexual relationship, but complete themselves in many other ways – through friendship, for example.

Having said this, we should recognize that singleness is a state people find themselves in for different reasons. There are those who choose the single state as their preferred way of living. For Christians this has traditionally been the option chosen by those who have the gift of celibacy which is not just about not having sex but is the gift of being complete without the need for an intimate relationship of the sexual kind.

However, many find themselves in the single state through circumstances not of their choosing – through divorce or widowhood most commonly. Singleness is actually a common state. Such people may well not have the gift of celibacy so that their unchosen single state may be sexually frustrating as well as deeply lonely; and these sorts of feelings may drive people into subsequent marriages which they come to regret – in South Africa 90% of second and subsequent marriages end in divorce, a truly sad statistic. Clearly people who have not chosen singleness need to be supported lovingly by the church, but also need to realize the  potential of a wide variety of social relationships to help them live creatively and as happily as possible in a state they haven’t chosen.

We in the church ought, in fact, to be able to support single people very effectively considering the high regard for the single state in Jesus’ own teaching, as well as in church tradition. We’ve seen that Jesus clearly regarded his followers as forming not only a family but the primary family (Matt 12.48-50). In one passage. It is clear from Scripture and Tradition that singleness can be a blessed state for those called to it, and that the church should help those who find themselves in it reluctantly to discover its opportunities for a full life.

What about the matter of sex for single people who do not have the gift of celibacy? The church would say, traditionally, that if you are not married you should not have sex; but many people who have been divorced or widowed in their mature years find themselves falling in love but feel that formal marriage is a step too far, for a variety of reasons such as opposition from children, estate complications etc. In my experience such relationships can’t be labelled as “immoral” for they are frequently deeply-committed. Further, within the ethical framework I have proposed, there is a place for faithful sexual relationships.

If the church emphasizes the blessings of marriage, what blessings are there for single people? What valid place does sex have for single people?


Our brief consideration of marriage in history and in the Bible has revealed the many forms it has taken and the variety of ways it has been understood and defined – and I haven’t even gone into polygamy or concubinage, two forms of relationship practised and approved in the Bible. The Bible and experience would seem to enable us to examine relationship practices common in our society today with an open-minded attitude which has the aim of seeing how the essentials of marriage can be preserved and accommodated in creatively new ways (which, as I’ve tried to show, may not in fact be as new as we think). Further, we have seen the need to understand singleness, usually ignored in discussions of sexuality, even though it is a common human state.
In summary, what are these essentials?

1.    I have questioned the popular idea that there is a particular view of marriage in the Bible (you will need to read the section called “Marriage and the Bible”)
2.    I have tried to explore a different, but biblical, ethical basis for sexual behaviour in the notions of faithfulness, friendship and virtue (in the section “Sex outside marriage” and the final paragraph of the section preceding).
3.    I have explored different understandings of marriage in the history of Christianity to show how complex a relationship it is,
4.    I have argued that we cannot hold a sexual ethical position that excludes single people, so that we have to explore the demands of the single life, including the place of sexual activity within the single state (“Sex outside marriage” and “Being single”), including the place of sexual activity within the single state (“Sex outside marriage” and “Being single”).
5.    My central argument in all this has been that marriage and singleness have ethical demands that are similar in important ways.
6.    Further, I have argued that if there is no single biblical view of marriage as between a man and a woman exclusively, the way is open to recognize that the central features of an ethics based in faithfulness, friendship, and virtue may be just as much in evidence in same-sex relationships as in heterosexual ones.
7.    This means that marriage and heterosexuality are no longer to be held up as ethical norms, controlling and defining what is acceptable sexual behaviour. 

Tim Long, 27/10/2013