“Marriage Matters … Why?” – Brian D. Ellison

A Sermon Preached at the Covenant Network Conference
November 2, 2013

Photo by Leslie Scanlon of the Presbyterian Outlook

Photo by Leslie Scanlon of the Presbyterian Outlook

Text: 1 Corinthians 7:1-11, 25-38 (read in worship from the Common English Bible)

Paul, Paul, Paul, Paul… You hopeless romantic.

Here, at the culmination of a conference on marriage, we lift up this beautiful gift of God, this essential institution of humanity that has inspired poetry and music, transformed lives and given stability to the world, this framework for faithfulness, this metaphor for relationship between God and humanity, Christ and the Church—here, we celebrate it with words for the ages, slogans inspired by the apostle:

“Marriage—Better Than Being on Fire”

“Marriage—Not So Bad (Since the World’s Ending Soon Anyway)”

Yes, get your bumper stickers printed up now…

“Marriage—Like a Course of Antibiotics, You Should Finish If You’ve Already Started”

“Marriage—If You Must”

***

Frank Yamada introduced his scripture lesson Thursday night by saying that we as preachers had agreed to preach on traditional texts about marriage, texts that we ministers might be asked to preach on at weddings. Well, obviously, I changed my text.

One can’t really deny that this text is about marriage. It says so, right there in the bold print above the paragraph in our study Bibles: “On Marriage.” But in some ways this is the anti-wedding text. It talks about all the things we don’t talk about in church, much less at a wedding. It addresses the indelicacies and, no surprise here, it reflects a different time and place and church and society pretty disconnected from what’s happening when two young or not-so-young people today put on a tux and a gown, or two tuxes, or two gowns, and walk down the aisle.

So we’ve mostly paid little attention to 1 Corinthians 7. We’ve marginalized this text and understandably so. We’ve caricatured this text, which is easy enough to do.

It would be easy to miss some things that are tantalizingly clear in it. It would be easy to dismiss the ancient words because of the patriarchal history that is no doubt embedded in so much of Paul’s worldview, but then fail to notice how surprisingly egalitarian this text is, repeatedly asking the same things of women and men.

And it might also be easy to let our views on same-sex marriage overpower our honest reading of this text and the context it addressed: Opponents citing these gender-specific words as though Paul were writing a position paper for a 21st-century debate, have missed the mark. But so, too, have supporters who in laughing off the apostle as hopelessly out of touch with reality might forget that the faith community of Corinth—like another faith community we know—was one where sexual ethics and family arrangements were but one battleground in a rapidly evolving new world, where the church had no choice but to make up its answers on the fly because the questions were changing so fast.

Does any of that sound familiar?

So now it seems right that we would take one last chance at this conference to ask the question seemingly behind all these questions—the questions that Paul, and the Corinthians, and the Presbyterians and the Americans all have been called to answer in their time: Marriage matters … why?

***

Pete (that’s what I’ll call him)[1] came to see me shortly after I began my first call as a pastor 14 years ago, and it was very shortly after—it was my second week on the job. I thought I knew Pete pretty well: A widower, Pete had been married to Sarah for more than 30 years—I heard a lot about Sarah, even before I started. She had been a pillar of the church and the life of every party, the undisputed leader of the children’s Sunday School and a busy beaver in the church kitchen at every potluck. When she had died a couple of years before—too young—the church grieved deeply and also worried rather explicitly about Pete, because he was not much one for self-care or emotional engagement—those things had been his wife’s job.

But Pete was coming to meet with me now because he had been talking with a lady friend, also widowed, whom I had met only briefly, and they had decided they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. But there was a problem, and most of you here who have served as pastors already know what it was: Were they to marry, she would lose her survivor benefits from her deceased husband’s pension, a significant financial blow. Would I marry them, he asked, in God’s eyes, in their friends’ eyes, in the community’s eyes, but not the eyes of the state? Could we have a wedding at the church to which everyone would come and which would look to all the world like a wedding, but just not send in the license? No one needed to know but them. And me.

Now this is a great topic for a workshop at a conference like this, not a sermon, and I don’t mean to dissect it here. But suffice it to say, in my 26 wise years of life at that time, my three years of totally comprehensive seminary training, and my two excellent weeks of pastoral experience, in my careful reading of the fine print on the back of the marriage license and consultation with colleagues whose advice was as thoughtful as it was contradictory, it became clear to me that what I needed to do was say to Pete, No. It would be inappropriate, and perhaps illegal, for me to perform a marriage that is not reported to the state. We could do some kind of blessing or prayer. But not a full-on wedding, even a small one. Pete said he was disappointed. But he said he understood. In time, his lady friend—Barb—moved in. They lived life together. She came occasionally to church with him, though not so often. Actually, I saw less of Pete, too, over time. Mostly, I just saw him on Sundays. Our conversation about marriage had been the start of our pastoral relationship. It wasn’t until much later that I would come to see it had also been the end.

***

Perhaps you saw it in The New York Times, this week’s Sunday Styles section. “Choosing to Say ‘I Don’t’”[2] was the headline on a story about same-sex couples who, though they support marriage equality, are choosing for themselves not to be married. They give many reasons—they don’t think it’s necessary, it wouldn’t change anything, they’d have to pay higher taxes. I admit that my partner Troy and I have thought some of those same things, though in truth none of the couples in the article gave the reason that we would have given if The New York Times had asked us: “We’re waiting for the church—the church we love and the church I serve—to fully stand with us. And it doesn’t yet.”

It’s okay not to be married, of course, but I have to say I found myself oddly depressed by the tone of comments in the article—the answers the couples were unwittingly giving to the questions we have been asking: What is marriage?

One said:  “It’s this oppressive Christian model that says ‘Pick a person that’s going to be everything to you, they have to be perfect, then get a house, and have kids, and then you’ll be happy and whole.’”

One said he thinks marriage is “a risky venture, emotionally and financially,” so risky that marriages should instead be like cellphone contracts, “renewable every two years with an option to upgrade.”

Another couple told the reporter: “We love each other and have lived together for 30 years; why do we need to get married?”

Why indeed. Marriage matters … why? What is marriage really for?

These are questions that in one way or another every speaker, every preacher, most every workshop leader and panelist has addressed. Perhaps the takeaway is that, like that most convenient way of describing relationships on Facebook says, “It’s complicated.”

But might I suggest that Paul has a response that is rather simple. Disarmingly simple. And actually it’s not really an answer to the question so much as a critique of it.

It’s not that the text suggests something simple in the sense of something sentimental, that “all you need is love.” No mention of love here in this chapter “on marriage” at all, in fact, not even from the man behind 1 Corinthians 13.

No, the simple summary of Paul’s response to the swirling questions about marriage here, about celibacy and abstinence, about mutuality and submission, about complementarity and about sex, we might actually say, is: All you need … is God. Marry if it keeps you from sin; don’t marry if that leads you to serve. Have sex if it gives you joy; abstain if it’s time to pray. Regard one another always, and remember no matter what that eternity–the topsy-turvy transformation that awaits–is what really matters. All you need … is God.

Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions.

Wherever the question is asked about how to be right and pure, to protect one’s dignity or God’s honor, the retort is to clarify that the right approach is not to limit, but to increase. Not to prevent, but to empower. “I’m saying this for your own advantage. It’s not to restrict you but rather to promote effective and consistent service to the Lord …”

So just stop it, church! Paul says. Stop trying to get me to lay out for you something about marriage you can use to restrict or restrain; stop trying to get me to turn sexuality into something dirty or for that matter exceptionally sacred; stop trying to get me to tell you if you should or shouldn’t marry – how would I know? – Marriage matters because you matter. Your life. Your discipleship. Your faith. You matter to God. And if God matters to you, well then you already have the thing that matters most.

If 1 Corinthians 7 is to be our chapter “On Marriage,” then it seems the thing we would most easily do wrong with this marriage business would be to start wielding the spiritual tools, the list of dos and don’ts, the cudgel of sin and shaming, to hurt God’s people. Paul’s unspoken conclusion might really be, “Are we still talking about this?” Go, you single person; go, you married couple, you unmarried couple, you man and woman, you two women, you two men: Stop being preoccupied with the world’s concerns. Do what you need to do to best serve God without distraction. The question isn’t “Why does marriage matter?”  The question is: “How is God calling us, through our marriage or our singleness, to live out our faith?”

***

On a Sunday morning, 11 years after Pete had first come to see me, he swore at me in the handshake line after church. I really can’t remember what brought it on, but there was a flash of anger about something minor that led me to know something was wrong. I called him on Monday. And this time when Pete came in to talk with me, it became clear what that had really been about, what everything had been about for a long time. It was our conversation a decade before, in which he and Barb heard me tell him that the church would not honor his relationship—of sacrifice and mutual commitment, of devotion and shared discipleship, of the full expression of love between two people and all that entails… that his faith community, which had sustained him and loved him through great suffering and great joy, could not be a place where he could stand honestly before God and make promises… that his pastor, his new young pastor, would instead follow the rules, read the fine print, protect his position and standing. Ever since, church meant something different to him. His relationship with Barb—otherwise a model of faithfulness and mutual care and affection–had carried an asterisk, a taint. That rather minor explosion that day in the narthex was only the first time he had let show through to me what had been a simmering, painful, festering wound that I had inflicted long ago, a wound that had never healed.

Here is what is true: I may or may not have been right in my ecclesiastical and secular legal interpretation, my professional and ethical decision, but I do know for certain that as a Christian, I was just plain wrong.

Sisters and brothers, why does marriage matter? What is marriage for? There can be but one answer. Why does anything matter? To glorify God and enjoy God forever.[3]

The reason we marry is to glorify God. And that may also be the reason we don’t.

The reason we open the doors of marriage to all to enjoy its blessings is to glorify God, not daring to keep any away from what God might do—will do.

The reason we, in our faith and practice of marriage embody abundance and not asceticism, embody faithful embrace and not fearful resistance; the reason we marry is that in this “earthly ordinance”[4] and in every other whether we are married or not, we all fulfill our vocation, and so live into the life that is ours in Jesus Christ.

So let us tear off the bumper stickers and strip away the restrictions that diminish or demean God’s calling to all. And let us in humility pray that all our living as individuals and as the Church would glorify God. May it be so. Amen.


[1] I’ve purposely changed the names and a couple details of this story.

[2] Cara Buckley, “Choosing to Say ‘I Don’t’,” The New York Times, October 27, 2013, Page ST1. Available online at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/27/style/gay-couples-choosing-to-say-i-dont.html?smid=pl-share.

[3] As the Westminster Shorter Catechism begins, “What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy God forever.”

[4] Calvin calls marriage “an earthly ordinance,” a phrase used during the conference in the keynote address of Amy Plantinga Pauw.

Comments

  1. Thomas L. Fultz, Ruling Elder says:

    As I have read the news articles on the various sermons and presentations at the Covenant Network’s conference I am amazed at the extreme differences there are among the advocates of revising the definition of marriage which the PC(USA) currently uses. Some revisionists demand “marriage equality”, by which they mean marriage is restricted to couples, and the couple could be either same- or different-gendered. Princeton’s professor of systematic theology, William Stacy Johnson, presented that view. The PCUSA News website reported he said, “Marriage is the most important relationship in life and we’re going to deprive same-gender couples of that?” Those who advocate the status quo definition ask, “Isn’t it rather, that Scripture (in particular Genesis, Matthew, and Mark) restricts marriages to different-gendered couples?”

    Others like Brian Ellison seem to suggest there be no restrictions on the numbers or genders involved as that would be “…daring to keep any away from what God might do.” Ellison issues a call to the Westminster Catechism’s masterfully constructed answer “glorify God” in all things, which along with 1 Corinthians 7; offers from Ellison’s view an open approach that defines marriage as to whatever folks have a calling. Now that means marriage matters so much that it must not be defined with any limits but to glorify God. Then I wonder why the teaching on marriage in the Westminster Confession and from Jesus himself have no bearing on what behavior glorifies God? In the historic perspective on marriage these do have bearing, and therefore expectations on behavior might be restrictive by the Church on doctrinal or polity terms.

    Other revisionists, like Amy Plantinga Pauw, suggest defining marriage as you and your “favorite person.” As a pastor friend of mine discussed after some reflection on the conference reports: “Sex has been disconnected from reproduction. Marriage has been disconnected from both sex and reproduction. Now it is not about children, society, or anything larger than myself. Marriage is only about making me happy.” He concluded that from his reading of scripture and pastoral experience, he was pretty sure a union based on selfishness is destined to fail. How ironic that same-gendered couples are fighting to get married at the same time different-gendered couples are rejecting marriage in increasing numbers. After all, if it is about making each other happy, how does marriage help except to provide a few legal protections that could easily be established by the civil authorities?

    Another revisionist approach outlined by Sharon K. Youngs, at first seems to suggest couples only for marriage, but as she never offers a definition, using her reading of the Book of Ruth, perhaps Youngs’ point is that Ruth could have been married to Naomi in one coupled relationship; and to Boaz in another. Others have offered that marriage is an earthly matter, which easily distracts Jesus’ followers from Kingdom building, and therefore all the effort being expended on its definition is not glorifying God. These folks might suggest that marriage does NOT matter enough for a few hundred Presbyterians to gather and explain why it matters enough to redefine it, even though as a group we offer wide-ranging and divergent rationale and definitions.

    In all the conference reports, I find that among marriage revisionists there are those who are “restrictive” (demanding “equality” for couples) and there are those who preach for “no restrictions” (any grouping of persons seeking to glorify God is potentially a marriage); with variations along the way. How will these vastly divergent approaches find common ground to revise marriage’s definition in the culturally relevant sense Professor Johnson indicates is required?

    In what ways might the PC(USA) offer worship liturgy to celebrate both restrictive and fully open definitions, and still affirm the current PC(USA) marriage definition developed from Scripture, affirmed in our Confessions, based upon physical complimentary aspects, and is the historic, normative definition for most every culture and religion until this generation?

    Does all this really matter?

  2. Mr. Fultz: I was a participant of the recent “Marriage Matters” Conference, and I attended three of the four specific presentations you mention in your comment (I missed Sharon Youngs’ sermon, as I met up with some local friends the evening that she spoke). Without getting into a dissection of every concern that you raise, I will say that at no point in any of the presentations that I heard – including a number of which you didn’t mention – did I ever hear a statement advocating a “no restrictions” approach to marriage, or even remotely hinting at that. While actually attending and listening intently to the various presentations, sermons, and workshops of the conference, I found none of the “extreme differences” or “vastly different approaches” that you seem to have gleaned from the media reports.

    I understand your deep concern regarding changing views regarding marriage, and regarding the broader issue of the role of LGBTQ Christians within the church. For some time, I struggled with these questions as well, holding to the traditional views for most of my adult life. However, I have changed those views – and not by ignoring the scriptures or holding them in less esteem, but rather, by studying them even more intently, and in the process, actually coming to hold them in even higher regard.

    And in this process, I am clearly not alone. The recent PCUSA constitutional revisions were not approved by only a few hundred individuals who had the ability to attend this conference, but by the majority of the GA, and by the majority of individual commissioners to the majority of presbyteries nationwide. And while the vote in the most recent GA to revise the constitutional definition of marriage was defeated, it was only by the slightest of margins, and I suspect that another overture to do so will receive a majority of votes at the next GA. In other words, a large number of Christians within the PCUSA (and, frankly, elsewhere) have studied this issue with the same level of interest, dedication, valuation of scripture and love of God as I did, and they have reached the same conclusion – that the church has been in error in its understanding of human sexuality and marriage issues, to the great harm of many throughout history, and that the position most aligned with Christ and the intent of the scriptures are positions of inclusivity and marriage equality.

    I do not minimize the tension and upset that these issues undoubtedly cause you. They caused me much the same. However, I – and many, many, many other serious, committed, scripture-loving Christians – have simply reached a different position. This position neither requires, nor does it advocate, a no-holds-barred approach to marriage. And in this revised understanding, whether marriage is between two people of different or same sex, it is not “only about making me happy,” as your pastor friend phrased it. In either case, it is about covenantal, self-giving, sacrificial love for the other person; and by extension, a reflection of the same kind of self-giving love that Christ has for all of us, and we are to have for him. Any claims that same-sex marriage is somehow more self-centered than other-centered, or that people advocating marriage equality are advocating for no limitations to marriage, are simply wrong.

    I wish you well in your ongoing journey of faithfully trying to discern God’s will in these and all other matters of faith, and in pursuing unity within the faith even in the midst of diversity of interpretations of that common faith.

  3. Mr. Fultz regularly attempts to post comments here (and on other sites) that suggest advocates of marriage equality support polygamy, incest, and the like. Though it hardly needs to be said, let me be clear about it lest anyone be confused: That is not what is meant by either by my sermon or the broader work of the Covenant Network. And the suggestion is insulting to LGBTQ people and marriage equality advocates of all orientations. The sermon obviously did not advocate for “no restrictions,” and the assertion (together with similarly inaccurate critiques of other presentations at the conference) reflects not only a failure to read carefully the sermon (and other presentations), but a deep-seated antipathy for sisters and brothers in Christ who see the issue differently than Mr. Fultz. That is unfortunate, and not a helpful way to have dialogue on these issues.

  4. Thank you for your comments Pastor Ellison. I am glad someone is finally responding to Mr. Fultz. I am so glad that his views do not represent the majority in the Presbyterian Church USA.

  5. Thomas L. Fultz, Ruling Elder says:

    I greatly appreciate Dwain Lee’s posting. It was informing, respectful, and hopeful. He provided a clear statement of his positions and how he came to them and where they differed in my analysis of the conference. As to the posting by the Covenant Network’s Executive Director, Rev Ellison, I offer that we can agree that often in discussions, questions asked for clarity may by their nature suggest a point of view not held by either questioner or the person asked to answer the question. Can we agree the distractions of suggestions of other points of view is just part of the discussion process? The question of numerics in marriage is one I have asked because few advocates of same-gender marriage will address it; and in these inquiries, there is been no coherent approach offered on a marriage restriction to couples-only, except for the current definition of marriage. In my questions and discussions, I do not recall ever suggesting that advocates of same-gender marriage also support “incest and the like”. If I have, then I was extremely off-base; as that has not been among the issues at stake in the same-gender marriage discussions I have entered. If I have made such suggestions, I apologize to any and all, for I agree that would be an insult to LGBTQ folks and persons of all orientations advocating revisions to the definition of marriage. I mean no insult to anyone.

    I disagree with Rev Ellison as to whether I read the sermon carefully. I may have failed to comprehend what Rev. Ellison was attempting to convey, as I found a central point to be the discussion of “daring to keep away any from what God might do; and “the right approach is not to limit, but to increase. Not to prevent, but to empower.” In reading the sermon, I heard: “It’s not to restrict you….” I understood the meaning of “opening the doors of marriage to all” to be a non-restrictive position. In your comment responding to my comment, you have reframed my understanding from the focus on “No Restrictions” to a broader perspective on what is the question of the day? You conclude the question is not “Why does marriage matter?” but rather, “How is God calling us, through our marriage or singleness, to live out our faith.”

    I would appreciate any opportunity to discuss, by direct communication, ways Rev Ellison finds are helpful in dialogue about same-gender marriage. I do not have aversion nor ill-will toward fellow followers of Jesus Christ, nor to any not-yet followers; and I regret my writings on these matters led Rev Ellison to conclude any antipathy on my part, deep-seated or shallow.

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