Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Adiaphora Extended I: Some General Thoughts

The initial reaction to my post yesterday, in which I suggested that it is possible to consider the matter of marriage - straight or gay - as a matter of little consequence (one can support either "traditional" marriage or same-sex marriage as a matter of no consequence relative to matters central to the faith) - has been positive. By and large, however, I think the main thrust has been misunderstood, so I thought I would take a couple posts to clarify my position.

A naive biblicism seems to rule the church's attitude toward this single institution, over and above others - the state, the family - that have been reimagined in light of contemporary and modern reality. Few, I think, would begin any consideration of the relationship between the church and the state with Romans 13:1. One cannot and should not avoid this verse. I should, however, be approached via other Biblical passages, placing it in a set of assumptions that make any literal appropriation of this particular passage problematic. Consider Barth's classic "Justice and Justification" (or "The Church in its Relations to the State", depending). He begins his consideration of the question with Jesus' trial before Pilate. Liberation Theology, of course, begins with the reality of political violence as the context for any appropriation of the faith, using it as the hermeneutic through which "forgiveness of sins" is understood, in the relevant phrase, from below.

On the one hand, the Hebrew Scriptures contain the commandment to honor one's parents. On the other, in the Gospel of St. Mark, Jesus insists "family" be reinterpreted in light of his own life and ministry, and starts with his own family - whoever does his will is his brother and sister. He claims not to have "a mother" when his mother comes to bring him home to Nazareth, fearing for his sanity. The church understands the family as the heart of our social life, yet is certainly not dogmatic in defining "family" outside the lived reality of the variety of ways that reality exists.

Any discussion of marriage, at least in North American churches, seems to me to be muddled. We support a simplistic biblicism that would be denied in other contexts, and we do not acknowledge the dual role a clergyperson has when performing a marriage ritual as both a representative of the Body of Christ as well as an agent of the state. A minister performs a state function, with the ad extra of a spiritual definition of marriage that is too often placed front and center of the ceremony itself, even as most churches perform marriages in which the couples usually have little investment in such an understanding. In the United Methodist Church, there is little to no requirement for a wedding performed within any particular local church, although most churches do have some minimum requirements. Yet, if marriage is indeed an institution inaugurated by God that serves as an allegory for the relationship between Christ and the Church, it seems to me three one hour meetings talking about finances and setting up the ceremony itself hardly qualify as a serious attempt to teach people about deeper significance of marriage.

We need a wholesale rethinking of the way churches understand their role in performing marriage. If, indeed, marriage is a vital expression of God's love, then we need to be serious, more thoughtful, in our approach. The matter of performing a function easily done by a state representative - a judge, a magistrate - should be set to one side.

It seems to me that the reality of gay marriage offers churches the opportunity to think more seriously, more prayerfully, more honestly about what it is we believe marriage is, and what the church's relationship to this institution is, and can, and should be. Rejecting gay marriage with a combination of proof-texting (and bad proof-texting at that) and bigotry is just not an answer. Neither is adding same-sex marriage to a list of pro forma rituals - graduation benedictions; prayers at Memorial Day ceremonies - that clergy perform as representatives equally of the both state and church. We should get our exegetical, doctrinal, and pastoral houses in order on this matter in order to serve the people of God with integrity and faith.

Virtual Tin Cup

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