An Address to the 2013 Covenant Conference
November 1, 2013Amy Plantinga Pauw

A friend of mine was asked a while back to give a talk on personal sexual ethics. When she reported this to her husband, he said, “Couldn’t they find anyone else?” Now you know how I felt when the Covenant Network board asked me to speak on the issue of marriage equality. My day job is teaching doctrinal theology. I don’t teach about marriage, I don’t write about marriage. Unlike many of you in this room, I have no expertise in marital counseling. Couldn’t they find anyone else? Well, obviously the board could have found someone else, but here I am. Why?

Because it’s time. It’s time that I give public support to my gay and lesbian sisters and brothers who believe in marriage enough that they are willing to enter into it without anything like the social approval, familial support, and financial incentives that I have mostly taken for granted in my own marriage. It’s time that I think theologically about an issue that has become a centerpiece of cultural conversation and political legislation around the world. It’s time that I acknowledge my scholarly gratitude to my queer colleagues in history, theology, and biblical studies who have already done some great work around the issues of same-sex marriage. And it’s time that I help my church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), think about marriage in a way that aligns with our ordination standards.  We’re all here this weekend because it’s time that Christians gather and think this thing through.

We have a lot of company in thinking marriage through, because Christians have been doing this repeatedly from the beginning. Both theologically and practically, marriage has always been a work in progress for Christians. Marriage sits at the intersection of lots of human concerns—religious, political, economic, legal, familial. As those concerns shift, so do Christian reflections on marriage.

Likewise, there is no single, unchanging biblical view of marriage. This is clear as soon as we start reading the Bible. Biological procreation was of supreme importance for ancient Israel because their very survival as a people depended on it—which is why you get biblical teachings about marriage and human sexuality that seem very odd to both contemporary Christians and contemporary Jews—the acceptance of polygamy, the insistence that a man marry his brother’s widow, an extreme worry about “wasting” male seed. Those are biblical ways of thinking about marriage and sexual activity that Jews and Christians don’t regard as normative anymore.

But things don’t get a whole lot clearer in the New Testament. Who are the New Testament role models for happily married couples? At the center of the gospels is Jesus, an unmarried man creating around himself an alternative to the traditional household: an itinerant group of men and women mostly unrelated to each other by blood or marriage, called away from their own households to follow him. “What would Jesus do?,” scholar Mark Jordan asks. “Not marry.”[1] Sure, Jesus helps out at a wedding in John 2, but he can also say some surprisingly casual and dismissive things about marriage. According to Luke, Jesus says those who follow him have to be prepared to hate their own parents and spouses and children (Luke 14:26). When Jesus tells a parable about being invited to a great dinner, and one of the guests says, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come” (Luke 14:20), Jesus considers that a lousy excuse. That’s because in Jesus’ teachings marriage is not a sign of the Kingdom—it’s a sign of belonging to this age, to the old order of things. In all three synoptic gospels, the New Testament equivalent of the Presbytery asks Jesus a ridiculous question about a woman who was successively married to seven brothers, wondering whose wife she would be in the resurrection. It’s the kind of question that my students who go up before church judicatories have nightmares about. Jesus replies that marriage is only for this age (Luke 20:34). It’s an earthly thing. It’s not where we’re headed. It’s not a feature of resurrection life, though reunion with loved ones is part of the hope of eternal life for many of us. Marriage, according to Jesus, belongs to this age, not to the age to come. So much for those Christian dating sites that promise help in finding “your eternal partner.”

So should Christians who are living in anticipation of the age to come get married at all? For centuries, the church thought marriage was at best a second choice for faithful Christians. This was in keeping with the advice of the apostle Paul, who urged, “Don’t get married unless you absolutely can’t help it” (see 1 Cor. 7:9). As Paul tells his followers at Corinth, “those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this” (1 Cor. 7:28 NIV). Hardly a ringing endorsement. Given what Jesus and Paul say, it’s puzzling that contemporary Protestants often seem to view married life as the paradigm for Christians, making divorced and never-married people feel left out or “less than” others.

All this to say that our conference this weekend is continuing a Christian conversation that has been going on for a long time. Marriage has meant different things over centuries of biblical and Christian tradition, but marriage matters. It is a source of comfort, strength, and stability for individuals and families. For Christians, it is a school for learning how to love our neighbor, one way of living out our baptismal vocations to be Christ’s disciples.

We all know that traditional heterosexual marriage is in trouble. Fewer young people are eager to sign up for it, and that’s especially true for those with less money and less education. About 40% of U.S. children are being raised without their fathers. Rates of marital domestic violence are horrifying and rates of divorce are discouraging. We can’t pretend that all is in order in the House of Straight.  So the movement for marriage equality is not a matter of the straight majority inviting LGBT people into a healthy and well-functioning institution. Instead, it’s an opportunity for all of us to think through marriage again together. How does marriage matter? What does a healthy marriage look like? It’s time we think this thing through.

It’s especially important that LGBT Christians be at the table for this discussion. Because when it comes to marriage equality, the church has a big image problem. In the popular imagination, David Gushee notes, Christians have “become identified with actively pursuing the denial of rights and benefits to others that they themselves enjoy.”[2] To what extent this popular perception of the church is true is a matter of debate. But anyone who follows the news knows that there is some truth to it, especially around the issue of marriage. It sends a terrible message to those outside the church, and it sends even a worse message to all the LGBT people within the church—it is a wounding statement about how the church views them and what they are worthy of. Why should Christians support marriage equality? It’s time.

I’m going to talk about marriage equality as a Reformed Christian theologian, paying special attention to the doctrine of creation. It is certainly possible to make an argument for marriage equality from within other confessional traditions, and other theologians have done so very well. But I’m interested in making a Reformed case. Reformed Christians have not seen marriage as a sacrament. It is not an alternative to priestly ordination. It’s not an anticipation of our eschatological union with God. Reformed Christians have often described marriage instead as a covenant. Now, covenant is a utility-infielder word in Reformed theology, a word used to describe all sorts of relationships. The primary referent of covenant is God’s relation to us as individuals and as a people; in a derivative way, the word covenant has also been used to describe human relationships–among other things, the bond among people who form a church community and the relation between political leaders and citizens. So it is a word used in many human social contexts, and it usually has nothing to do with gender or sexuality. The emphasis instead is on faithfulness. In God’s dealings with us, God plays for keeps, and we follow at a distance in our own earthly relationships—as church members, as parents, as trustees, and as marriage partners. John Calvin uses an even less exalted term: marriage is an earthly ordinance, and he puts it alongside other human traditions like farming, building, cobbling, and barbering.[3] Marriage, like barbering, is a cooperative human activity that aims at creaturely flourishing. Marriage is part of creaturely life.

Some might object that treating marriage as an earthly ordinance makes it sub-Christian. It reduces marriage to something “merely” physical or creaturely. Shouldn’t Christian marriage be something more exalted, more “spiritual”? But nothing is “merely” physical, if that means being outside of God’s purview. Earthly life matters to God, and it should matter also to us. That is why Reformed Christians have invested so much effort in things like education, social reform, and alleviating human suffering. God relates to us not only as sinners in need of redemption, not only as those heading for eternal life in God’s realm. God relates to us also as creatures seeking faithful ways of living in God’s presence. God is our creator as well as our redeemer and consummator.

God’s ever-present creative blessing is the pedal point of our communal life and vocation as Christians. There is a “gifted worthiness”[4] that all human creatures share in, even in the midst of sin. We are called as a community of human creatures, to respond to God’s wise agency as Creator with trust and praise, and to pursue creaturely wisdom in our own lives, including, for some of us, our lives as married people. If you think the world is going to end tomorrow, there is no point in getting married. Marriage only makes sense in the “long and meaningful middle” [5] of God’s providence. Earthly life won’t last forever, but in the meantime, Christians are called to seek their own creaturely flourishing and that of their fellow creatures. For some people, this vocation on behalf of creaturely flourishing includes marriage. Marriage is an earthly ordinance that aims at the flourishing of creaturely life.

The problem with taking this Reformed “earthly ordinance” approach to marriage is that appealing to the doctrine of creation so predictably gets theologians in trouble. Christian theologians over the centuries have made all kinds of claims about the created order, about what God has ordained for creaturely life. The sorry fact of the matter is that Christian appeals to creation have often been used to argue that some people are inferior to others. The church has some bad history here. Christian theologians have appealed to the created order to legitimize the subordination of women, to support the institution of slavery, to defend the purity of the Aryan race, to establish apartheid between black people and white people. So a Reformed view of marriage as part of creaturely life has its work cut out for it.

I want to linger for a little while on appeals to creation that have resulted in damaging views of marriage, because they have been so pervasive and influential in Christian tradition. I want to make clear at the outset that these views of marriage have been destructive for all people, not just LGBT folks. The movement for marriage equality is an opportunity for Christians to go back and articulate a better theology of marriage for everyone. Why should Christians support marriage equality? It’s time.

Appeals to creation in traditional marriage theologies typically yield two principles: complementarity and fruitfulness, and these two principles reinforce each other. Marriage is founded on the sexual complementarity of a man and a woman, and has as its highest purpose biological procreation. We’ll look at these principles one at a time.

The principle of complementarity sees a man and a woman as two halves of a whole. Some theologians have even read Gen. 1:27 that way. When Genesis says that God created all humankind in God’s image, and created them male and female, some theologians have concluded that only male and female together are in the image of God. Man without woman or woman without man are incomplete images of God. It is a short step to concluding that the bond of heterosexual marriage is the clearest image of what it looks like to be created in God’s image. Does this mean that people who for whatever reason are not part of a heterosexual couple–Jesus for example–are somehow less in God’s image?

Complementarian understandings of marriage insist that God has given men and women not only complementary reproductive organs, but also strictly-defined complementary roles in family and society: God has ordained the fixity of these roles based on essential created differences between men and women. When women and men deviate from these, they are going against God’s intentions for human life. Now I have to tell you that whenever theologians make the difference between men and women the most radical and most significant of all human differences, women know they’re in trouble. When differences of race, class, culture, personal gifts, and so on are all considered negligible compared to the foundational, irrevocable distinction between male and female, women know they’re going to get the short end of the stick. So it’s no surprise that according to complementarian understandings of marriage, God gives men the authority to lead and make decisions both at home and in the church. God’s created design for women is to submit to this male leadership and to please God by accepting their subordinate role. This general understanding of male-female complementarity is most clearly and permanently instantiated in heterosexual marriage. Marriage is a hierarchical relationship in which gender roles are non-negotiable.

You can find versions of this view of marriage in many classic Catholic and Protestant theologies. Listen to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached in a wedding sermon for his niece:

God establishes an order, within which you are able to live together in marriage. “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives” (Col.3:18-19). Thus God gives to husband and wife the honor that belongs to each of them. It is the wife’s honor to serve the husband, to be his helpmate, as the creation story puts it. Likewise, it is the husband’s honor to sincerely love his wife. A wife who seeks to rule over her husband dishonors herself and her husband, just as a husband who lacks in love for his wife dishonors himself and his wife. Both despise the honor of God that is to rest on marriage. The place to which God has assigned the wife is the home of the husband… In the midst of the world, the home is a realm of its own, a fortress amid the storms of time, a refuge, indeed, a sanctuary…. It is established by God in the world—despite what may happen there—as a place of peace, quietness, joy, love, purity, discipline, reverence, obedience, tradition, and, in all of these, happiness. It is the wife’s vocation and happiness to build this world within the world for the husband and to be active there. Blessed is she if she recognizes the greatness and richness of this her vocation and task.[6]

This is from Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer! One of the stars in my theological firmament!

It’s probably clear to you that the more complementarian your view of marriage is, the harder it will be to support same-sex marriage. Same-gender marriage poses a quandary to creation-order complementarians: if both members of the couple are of the same sex, who will lead? Who will submit? Who will work on creating a home? Who will support the household? You may have seen advertisements paid for by supporters of traditional marriage in which a young girl asks, “Don’t I need both a mother and a father? Which one don’t I need?” If mothers and fathers play strictly-defined, mutually exclusive roles, those questions make some sense.

But what if they don’t? What if marriage is about a covenanted partnership in which roles are improvised over time, according to personal gifts and the circumstances of the household? What if a Christian marriage is defined not by one spouse ruling over another, but by the peace of Christ ruling in both their hearts, as Paul says in Col. 3:15? What if there are many faithful ways for spouses to complement each other? As one of my friends puts it, it’s obvious that complementarians have not spent much time with gay couples. There all kinds of ways in which couples complement each other, push and pull each other into being more well-rounded people. One of the joys of a good marriage is the discovery that the partners are better together, each able to realize more of what God has created him or her to be. The more mutual, the more egalitarian, the more flexible one’s view of what it means for marriage partners to be complementary, the more room one has to embrace same sex marriage. Even today, heterosexual couples who marry inherit a boatload of traditional expectations about gender roles in marriage. But there is no static blueprint for marriage, especially one that is dictated by gender. There’s reason to hope that same-gender marriage partners can model for the straight majority some of the freedom of what being faithful to God’s creative intentions for earthly life looks like. Why should Christians support marriage equality? It’s time.

As I’ve said, appeals to creation in traditional marriage theologies typically yield two principles. We’ve considered complementarity, and now we will take a look at fruitfulness. Fruitfulness in heterosexual marriage has traditionally been understood in terms of biological procreation. Isn’t that God’s commandment to Adam and Eve: “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28)? I want to affirm that it’s a wonderful thing when married people who love each other and are committed to each other bring a baby into the world by their sexual union and together undertake to nurture and protect that new human life. But is that the only way marriage can be fruitful? Is the capacity for biological procreation the defining attribute of marriage?

Three Christian scholars, Sherif Girgis, Robert George, and Ryan Anderson, have recently renewed this line of thinking in explicit opposition to same-sex marriage, arguing that true marriage requires a sexual union that is inherently ordered to procreation and thus “the wide sharing of family life.”[7] “What is Marriage?,” they ask. Their answer is “Man and Woman,” and it all boils down to procreation. Marriage by definition for them requires the sexual complementarity and generativity of a heterosexual union. Same-sex couples need not apply.

However, in trying to define marriage in a way that excludes same-sex couples, Girgis and company have produced a view of marriage that is too narrow and confining for all couples. For straight couples, their view places a stigma on infertility and childlessness, and calls into question the legitimacy of artificial contraception. Are marriages that do not produce biological children truly marriages in the full sense? Should middle-aged and elderly people get married? Is the meaning and purpose of the lifelong union of two people reducible to procreation? For all couples, both same-sex and other-sex, the view of Girgis and company ignores that fact that what they call “the wide sharing of family life” is something that happens in many different ways in marriage. Raising biological, adopted, and foster children, caring for one’s spouse and for other family members, reaching out to other troubled and vulnerable people—all this is part of “the wide sharing of family life” that marriage creates space for. It is certainly not the exclusive domain of fertile heterosexual couples. In fact there are many same-gender couples who are already doing this very well.

Mercy Amba Oduyoye, a theologian who has no biological children, has provided a broader Christian understanding of fruitfulness, echoing the language of Gen. 1:

Increase in humanity. Multiply the likeness to God for which you have the potential. Multiply the fullness of humanity that is found in Christ. Fill the earth with the glory of God. Increase in creativity. Bring into being that which God can look upon and pronounce ‘good,’ even ‘very good.’ [8]

Here is a vision of fruitfulness that all marriages can aspire to. Indeed, it is a vision of fruitfulness that all Christians can aim for, regardless of their marital status.

We have looked at the two creaturely principles of complementarity and fruitfulness, and have seen that understanding them in a more expansive way provides a vision of marriage that is better for everyone. The strange arithmetic of marriage, that 1 + 1 > 2, holds true for all good marriages, both same-sex and other-sex. The complementarity of gifts and temperaments and interests of the partners in a healthy marriage continues to yield fruit for the duration of their lives together. Marriage provides a sounding board, a staging area, an anchor, that allows both people in it to venture out, to take risks, to reach out, to nurture the lives of others. Their love creates space for more love to flourish. As Oduyoye says, a fruitful relationship is a way of multiplying the fullness of humanity that is found in Christ. How silly to think that this multiplying is somehow the preserve of straight Christians. Why should Christians support marriage equality? It’s time.

But what about Adam and Eve? Doesn’t the story of creation in Genesis 1 put forward as central to the human story the enduring companionship of man and woman and the procreative results of their sexual union? Certainly this woman-man companionship has been a central part of the human story, and it will go on being that way. But it is what Paul Lehmann, in his book The Decalogue and the Human Future, calls a “foundational instance,” rather than a “limiting instance.” A foundational instance provides a center, whereas a limiting instance draws a boundary. Following Patrick Miller’s use of Lehmann’s distinction, Genesis describes a created order in which a generative, enduring sexual relationship between a man and a woman plays a central role. But the centrality of one kind of relationship does not require the exclusion of every other kind of relationship. The woman-man relationship does not have to be read as a limiting instance that prevents other kinds of relationships from making a contribution to creaturely flourishing.[9]

The sense of threat in some contemporary Christian opposition to same-sex marriage is puzzling to me. Looking just at the U.S. context for a minute, some day same-sex marriage is going to be legal in all fifty states—it’s going to happen. And at the rate it’s already happening, I hope to live to see it. It will be a day of jubilation for many people. But even when that happens, you know what? The vast majority of marriages in this country are still going to be heterosexual. And lots of those heterosexual couples are going to have biological children. A generative, enduring sexual relationship between a man and a woman will still play a central role in society. But this relationship has never been the only one that contributes to human flourishing and it won’t be in the future either. Why is that a threatening thing? Here is the gay journalist Andrew Sullivan reflecting on this paradox of conservative resistance to same-sex marriage:

It has been such a tragedy that conservatives decided this was a battle they were determined to fight against, an advance they were dedicated to reversing. It made no sense to me. Here was a minority asking for responsibility and commitment and integration. And conservatives were determined to keep them in isolation, stigmatized and kept on an embarrassing, unmentionable margin, where gays could be used to buttress the primacy of heterosexuality. We were for them merely a drop shadow for heterosexuality. What they could not see was that the conservative tradition of reform and inclusion, of social change through existing institutions, of the family and personal responsibility, all led inexorably toward civil marriage for gays.[10]

The push for same-gender marriage, as Sullivan points out, represents a desire within the LGBT community for responsibility and commitment and integration into existing institutions of society. All those who care about the flourishing of earthly human life in all its dimensions, and about the reform of the institution of marriage, should be eager to get on board. Why should Christians support marriage equality? It’s time.

There is a phrase that sums up the Reformed understanding of marriage that I’ve been developing. And it may surprise you that it comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It comes in a letter to his fiancée Maria von Wedemeyer. As many of you know, Maria and Dietrich were never married, because Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis at the very end of WWII. But in this letter he is thinking about what their marriage will be like. He writes, “Our marriage shall be a yes to God’s earth; it shall strengthen our courage to act and accomplish something on the earth.”[11] Marriage is “a yes to God’s earth.” It is an affirmation of the richness and potential of creaturely life. It is an embrace of the joy of human sexuality, and the struggle of enduring intimate human relationships. Marriage is a bond that strengthens both partners to act and accomplish things that make for creaturely flourishing. The comfort and courage a marriage generates radiate far beyond itself. Marriage can give people courage to do what they couldn’t afford to do, wouldn’t dare to do, couldn’t imagine doing, on their own. Marriage is a joyful “yes” to God’s gift of creaturely life.

Marriage is a matter of our life here, on God’s earth. Marriage matters now, not in the hereafter. That’s why it’s time for us to think it through. For Christians, marriage, like other earthly ordinances, can be a school of discipleship, a space where we practice loving our closest neighbor, through thick and thin, in sickness and in health. It’s the same way with raising children. It’s not that raising children is essential to Christian life in general or marriage in particular. But it can be true, as many same-sex couples have already found out, that parenting children through the seemingly endless stretch of runny noses and soccer games and school science projects can provide fertile ground for cultivating fruits of the spirit. I’m thinking especially here of patience, kindness, and self-control. Raising children, tending the earth, attending to the marginalized and vulnerable–there are all kinds of earthly activities that God can turn towards our spiritual growth, and marriage provides an ideal staging ground for many of them. A good marriage serves as a kind of intensive curriculum in the love of neighbor. It is a yes to God’s earth, a yes to our lives as creatures. Why should Christians support marriage equality? It’s time.

I want to close, though, by reminding us of the rest of the Christian story. I’ve been arguing that marriage is a pillar of the earthly city. It’s a pillar, in the sense that it supports and creates space for other good things on earth to flourish. But it’s a pillar of the earthly city. It’s not where we’re headed. Marriage is for some of us an important way station in our earthly pilgrimage. But it is not what ultimately defines us. We are all still on the way to fullness of life with God. Our hearts are restless, Augustine says, until they rest in God. No spouse, no fellow creature can be my all in all. We are all on a journey of love that ends, not in marriage, but in perfect communion with God, and with everything else in God.

We are made for relationship, but we will all eventually leave marriage behind. As Craig Barnes has noted, 50% of marriages end in divorce and the other 50% end in death.[12] Marriage is a provisional state. Life in Christ lasts forever. We remind ourselves of this every time we celebrate communion. They will come from east and west and north and south, gay, straight and transgender, young and old, those with children and those without, the miserably married and the happily single and everyone else, and they will all sit at table together. Sexual identity, marital status–all that is irrelevant at Christ’s table. Everyone is there as Christ’s guest. Marriage matters for Christians, but fellowship with Christ matters more. Let all our lives, in whatever form our discipleship takes, be “a yes to God’s earth.”

[1] Mark Jordan, Blessing Same-Sex Unions: The Perils of Queer Romance and the Confusions of Christian Marriage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 101.

[2] David P. Gushee, “Christians vs Gays: the Damage Done,” Religion Dispatches, June 26, 2013.

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.19.34.

[4] John E. Thiel, “Methodological Choices in Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence,” Modern Theology 27:1 (January 2011), 6.

[5] Joe R. Jones, A Grammar of Christian Faith: Systematic Explorations in Christian Life and Doctrine, 2 vols. (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002) vol. 1, 259.

[6] “Wedding Sermon from a Prison Cell,” for the wedding of Renate and Eberhard Bethge on May 15, 1943, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 8 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 84-85.

[7] Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George,What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (Encounter Books, 2012), 1.

[8] Mercy Amba Oduyoye, “A Coming Home to Myself,” in Margaret Farley and Serene Jones, ed., Liberating Eschatology: Essays in Honor of Letty M. Russell (Louisville: WJK, 1999), 118.

[9] See Patrick Miller, “What does Genesis 1-3 teach about sexuality, and how should we live in response?,” in Ted Smith, ed., Sexuality, the Bible, and the Church (Covenant Network, 2006).

[10] Andrew Sullivan, “Why Gay Marriage is Good for Straight America,”

[11]Letter to Maria von Wedemeyer of August 12, 1943, in Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, eds., A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (San Francisco:  HarperCollins, 1990), 488.

[12] M. Craig Barnes, “Dangerous Vows,” Christian Century, Sept. 14, 2012.