When Parliament finished debating the Marriage Equality bill, my Facebook friends were interestingly divided.
Some felt that a small, significant step had been taken along the road to justice; others, that an undesirable but hopefully retractable step had been taken along a road to national chaos and generally poor definitions of things. There was no communication between the two groups, at least on my Facebook feed; no mutual friends either to stir debate or exchange views reasonably; a communicatory abyss which, like so many situations, left me wishing for a better and wiser understanding of the Bible.
(The rest of my Facebook friends were just posting the usual jokes, anecdotes and photos of Elvis, and there was much rejoicing.)
In certain moods, it seems inconvenient of God to have spoken the way He did. Supposing one needs to gain a detailed knowledge of ancient Hebrew language, literature and culture, the better to understand a couple of verses in Leviticus, before forming an opinion on a parliamentary bill and related social circumstances including many people’s confusion, anger and hurt, then informed contributions will be lacking from those of us who have no mental energy in our leisure moments for anything more challenging than reading Mansfield Park for the umpteenth time. Surely God is too sane and kind and practical (borrowing words from Adrian Plass) to insist on such a situation. Also, hanging around feeling ignorant could easily be an abdication of responsibility.
But having made this memo-to-self, I still feel it should be recognized that the Bible is complicated—perhaps we shouldn’t have expected anything less of God—and it seems to me that those who wish to uphold the Bible’s teachings about marriage could possibly be in danger of distorting those teachings in applying them.
The Evangelical Christian straw man I seem to be setting up here would insist on the sacred importance of marriage as a life-long covenant of love and fidelity, prophetically representing the union of Christ and his church. In this I cannot wish to disagree with Mr Evangelical Christian Straw Man. “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church,” and so on.
Such an emphasis potentially puts the unmarried Christian in an odd position. If you get married, the fact that you are a woman or man suddenly becomes prophetically relevant: there is a covenant to celebrate, a picture of God’s love on earth. If not, one might feel at times that being a woman makes a difference only insofar as the church will assume that you’d prefer a continental breakfast and a massage to a hike in the mountains – vice versa if you are a man. More frustratingly, one might feel at times that the capacity of other relationships to prophetically reflect the love of Christ had been overlooked. This feeling would not, of course, be entirely fair, given the emphasis placed at other times on community, family, friendship and brotherly-sisterly union within the church. But I have heard a preacher assert that marriage is God’s greatest gift to humanity, and I hope the fact that nobody in the congregation leapt up to say “what about Jesus?” simply indicates an ability to allow for a preacher’s enthusiasm.
Marriage provides obvious opportunities for celebration, as singleness does not: engagements, weddings, anniversaries. I love these celebrations, and I think they are important. And yet if you follow the procedure of plucking “proof texts” out of the Bible, I think one could easily argue that singleness is more holy than marriage. Begin with 1 Corinthians 7, skip to a few words in the middle of Matthew 19:12, and round off with Jesus’ remark that greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. The moral of this sermon, however, would be a warning about the overly selective use of Bible verses.
Particular attachment to certain Bible verses, particular readings of certain verses, can make us forgetful of other verses and readings thereof. Particular ideas about the beauty and significance of certain relationships can make us—make us seem, perhaps—not wholly mindful of the significance of others. Limited experience of human diversity could give us skewed ideas about what is the norm. Hence, I would suggest, the situation in which Christian speakers pray that all members of the youth group will find the right life partner—an all which seems statistically improbable, and rather tactless. Hence, I would also suggest, a need for Christians to carefully consider whether we’re sure that we believe in the best definition of marriage, have the right sense of exactly how marriage fits into the grand scheme of things.
Anyone still reading this who thought the MPs were idiots has probably now concluded that I myself have wandered off the evangelical path into idiocy. Those who think that those who thought the MPs are idiots are idiots—if that makes sense—are probably cross with me for not taking an immediate, definite and determined stance against prejudice and bigotry.
The fact is that all this time I should have been marking my Intermediate students’ tests. This is my excuse for not reaching any definite conclusion.
Also, I quite like all my Facebook friends, and am not sure that any of them are idiots or bigots. Perhaps I’d just like to see them graciously, courteously, thoughtfully talking to each other.