New Zealand has recently allowed marriage between same-sex couples. This has led to the national body of my Christian denomination, the Baptist Union, to establish a working party to determine whether or not Baptist pastors should be permitted to perform such marriages. Our church has also been running a sermon series on relationships recently, with last Sunday's sermon being on marriage.
The debate I've heard has mainly centred on who Christians/churches believe should be permitted to marry. However, a blog post by Tim Bulkeley made me think about the broader question of 'what is marriage for'.
Tim is an Old Testament theologian and former lecturer at Carey College, the institution that trains most Kiwi Baptist pastors. His blog post explores his concern that we 'lack a theology of marriage and sex' and thus fall back to tradition when questions (such as the current ones on gay marriage) arise.
I don't feel equipped to contribute much to such a theology, but it's got me thinking. I've decided that our current 'Christian' concept of marriage is deeply influenced by two strong threads we've adopted from our surrounding culture.
Firstly, I believe that the dominant Pakeha Kiwi culture is strongly hedonistic: many people live by 'if it feels good, do it'. We've adopted this value in our concept of marriage: the purpose of marriage is seen as providing the various pleasures of marriage. Whilst I'm sure marriage has always been enjoyable for many (and sex is certainly designed that way!) other cultures and eras haven't always seen this as its primary purpose: the focus has instead been on things like procreation or family advancement.
God desires good things for his children, so I'm sure that he desires people to enjoy being married (and I know that I do), but the primary goal of Christian life isn't having fun. It's things like worshipping/enjoying God, getting to know him better, increasing the prevalence of his way of living (his 'Kingdom') in the world and so on. So shouldn't the primary purpose of Christian marriage have something to do with those things?
Secondly, I see the dominant Pakeha Kiwi culture as deeply individualistic. My school's motto was even Individuality with Responsibility. I see this value in our common concept of marriage, too. The small unit of a married couple, along with any children that may come, is encouraged to value itself very highly. We seek what is best for ourselves, our spouse and our children and only then are willing to look beyond that unit to what is good for those around us.
And yet God calls us to love our neighbour as ourselves, so is it right to privilege the well-being of our spouse and children over that of other people?
I have come to see this as one of the great temptations of parenthood: to provide the best for your own children and so unwittingly hurt other children or people you simply haven't noticed. Just one example. It's back-to-school season in the Northern Hemisphere and a Canadian blogging friend was reflecting how it hurts her to see people spend thousands on their own kids at this time when so many other children are in dire need.
These two strands in our conception of marriage (hedonism and individualism) are probably at the root of of the Western world's astonishing divorce rate, from which the church has been only somewhat protected). But they also lead, in my opinion, to one of the greatest temptations to sin that marriage presents: an over-inflated desire to protect those you love.
You see, in my experience, the life that God calls us to is not 'safe'. God calls all Christians to worship him and to work with him to advance his Kingdom on Earth. That can seriously get in the way of enjoying time with your spouse and family and showering them with the best of everything that is accessible to you!
But, if marriage isn't about enjoying its pleasures and seeking the best for yourself and your immediate family, what is it about?
Tertiary Students Christian Fellowship (of which Martin and I were a part whilst at university) has recently held its annual student leaders conference, Summit. The plenary talks from the conference are up on Youtube. I was deeply struck by the fourth talk by John Stackhouse on 'Why God didn't make you more beautiful than you are'.
In it, he spoke about how we each have a calling from God, and God will give us what we need for that calling. Our relationships, amongst other things, will be guided by that calling.
It occurred to me that, for many callings, being married is helpful; for others it is not.
For most Christians (although, it seems, not for us), a significant part of their calling is bearing and raising children. This is certainly most easily done in the context of marriage. And a significant calling to hospitality, for example, is quite likely to go with a calling to marriage.
For me, being married has enabled me to fulfil my calling to reflect on life and faith and to encourage and mentor other women in following Christ. Without significant support, I can't even take care of my basic needs. Through marriage to a man who sees supporting me as a significant part of his own calling, I've been able to fulfil mine.
However, for some callings, marriage is distinctly unhelpful. If your calling involves a highly peripatetic lifestyle (as was the case for the apostle Paul), that'll be easier to fulfil without a spouse and kids in tow. If your calling is primarily to intercession, singleness again seems an advantage. In common with others, I've found it's easier to find time to pray without a spouse around: I guess that's why monks and nuns are traditionally celibate :-)
So, alongside speaking in church about the joys of marriage (and the importance of protecting it by avoiding pornography etc.), I'd like us to speak about the work God calls us to, and about how some kinds of work are easier to carry out in the context of marriage and others in the context of singleness.
That framing returns the emphasis to the issues at the centre of Christian living and, as a bonus, doesn't exclude single people the way so much of discussion of Christian marriage tends to do :-)
PS I've really appreciated all of Prof. Stackhouse's talks from TSCF's Summit. If you'd like to check them out yourself, here are links to talks 1, 2 and 3. Prof. Stackhouse is a systematic theologian and church historian who has recently retired from Regent College and he was one of Martin's favourite lecturers during his studies there.