Thoughts on Christian marriage

I want to write a post about Christian marriage. The point will be this: Christian marriage is a counter-cultural act.

It is to intentionally promise something that you cannot possibly understand — to live a life with another person come what may — and to stand by that promise because doing so shapes who you are and teaches what it means to love.

Marriage is cruciform. It is dying to self. It is learning to love as perfectly as Jesus Christ loves us.

You see, we get love all wrong. Hollywood has trained us poorly. Or perhaps it has trained us all too well.

Love is not about raging glands and sweaty hormones. It is not the final scene of You’ve Got Mail when Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks finally embrace in the park while the golden retriever cavorts at their feet.

That is all a beginning. But it is not love fully realized.

Love is long-term. It works slowly because the human heart is a stone that resists change. Like water, love works patiently.

And so marriage is the binding together of a man and a woman to give love time to do its work on them and between them and with them.

Marriage, therefore, is often hard. Often it is so hard you don’t think you can do it any more. And in our culture the message more often than not is to give up trying, search for greener pastures, take care of you first.

I’m not trying to romanticize anything here. There are marriages that are a perversion and abomination. People abuse the one they are supposed to love or neglect them or bleed them dry. If marriage is a school for love, some of us fail horribly at the test. Some marriages are a mockery of the name marriage and should be broken. The church should help those battered by such false marriages in every way it can.

But every marriage has its hard and terrible places where two sinners, two broken and incomplete people, crash against each other like wild animals caught in a cage. It can be terrifying at times.

This is why we need the church around us to love us and remind us who we are and whose we are. This is why we need gray-headed veterans of marriage to remind us that this is for life and that it does last and does give life.

An old navy veteran turned turkey farmer and I were talking one day about his wife who was dying of cancer. I said it must be difficult to have the one he’d spent a life with in such pain and to see her slipping away. He looked at me with both a gleam and a tear in his eye, and said, “When we got married, I signed a life-time contract.” I took him to mean, this is what love does.

I was not a Christian when I got married. I did not understand any of this at the time. And I’m sure I understand it incompletely even now. Don’t read this post as a dogmatic pronouncement.

But my belief is that God calls men and women into marriage to teach us how to love each other. We are often very bad students, and so require time. We are often very bad students, and so must learn how to forgive each other. We are often very bad students, and so our children are hurt by the living with those who still are figuring out how to love.

I think God wants us to keep sex inside of marriage because sex without love is a dangerous and destructive thing. It damages our soul and crushes our spirits. Even among the married — as we often do not really know how to love each other that well — sex can be destructive. Sex can be a flame that invigorates and warms a bond of love, or it can be a consuming fire that destroys.

I don’t think the thought and opinion shapers in our culture would disagree with most of this. But they do not really believe it, as best as I can tell. The idea that “I just gotta do what’s best for me” always hovers beneath the surface.

Christian marriage says that we do not know what is best for me outside of a life defined by love. Of course, not everyone marries. Some souls learn to love outside the bonds of marriage. Singleness is a holy vocation to learn to love as Jesus did. St. Francis lived among us. His disciples remain, although we often fail to appreciate their witness.

Those of us not called to singleness, however, find we need to learn to love in growing circles. We learn to love one other. We learn to love the children that God brings into our lives. And, if we are good students, we learn to love our neighbors and enemies. We learn to love as Jesus Christ loves us.

My seminary professors like to remind me from time to time that blogging and serious theological writing are different things. So I have no illusions that this post is complete or systematically sound. But it is my understanding of what we mean when we speak of Christian marriage.

I don’t think what I describe here is what our federal courts mean by “marriage.” I certainly don’t think it is what Kim Kardashian or other popular culture icons mean by the word.

I do think it is at least close to what the church means by marriage, which I hope and trust is close to what God desires and designs for us.

Do you love God?

Do you love God?

That is the first great commandment, yes?

Love God.

Do you love God?

Please note, this question is not “Do you think highly of God?” or “Do you admire God?” or “Do you like it when God does good stuff for you?” or even “Do you sing a good praise song and lift your hands in worship?”

Do you love God?

Of course, if you do not know God, the answer must be “no.” We cannot love the idea of God or the rumor of God. We must know God to love him.

Too many Christians spend their spiritual might trying love a God they neither know nor experience. They try. They say all the right words. They do all the right things. But they, as John Wesley put it once, have no more love of God than a stone.

And as a stone our hearts will remain until our eyes of faith are opened to the great truth that we tell during Holy Week. Jesus Christ loved you, loved me, so much that he died to free us from sin and death. He knelt in the garden that night — when he could have run — because he loved us. He bore the lash because he loves us. He took the nails because he loves us. He died humiliated, tortured, and mocked because he loves us.

Do you know how much God loves you?

Do you know?

Do you know?

A woman, her husband, and her boyfriend

So, I don’t know if this is a quirk of my web browser or cookie settings, but as I was scrolling through Salon.com looking for the link to an excerpt from Adam Hamilton’s new book on the Bible, I stumbled on this defense of polyamory two stories before Hamilton’s.

The article, “Polyamory works for us,” tells of a woman with a husband of 17 years and an ongoing boyfriend of 2 years all living together.

My path here was a long one. As far back as I can remember, I felt that loving one person romantically did not preclude the possibility of loving another at the same time. It seemed natural and intuitive to me. But I had no models for that way of living, so I assumed there was something wrong with me.

I married my husband and remained in a monogamous relationship with him for many years. I knew I wanted to be with him for the long haul. But I was never entirely fulfilled. I couldn’t shake the feeling that some part of me was repressed.

The article ends this way:

When my daughter talks about same-sex marriage or polyamorous relationships, she always looks perplexed and says, “I don’t understand why anyone is angry about people being in love and not hurting anyone.” And I long for a world where everyone is able to see it so simply.

What I’d like someone to do for me is explain what basis the church has to disagree with this woman in a world in which we are rushing as fast as we can to declare that the Bible has little to say to us about God’s will for human sexuality that we would not already say if we had never had a Bible in the first place.

(For those who are interested, the excerpt from Hamilton’s book chapter is at this link: Stop twisting the Bible: There is no message against same-sex marriage.)

The duty we reject

I never heard or read of any considerable revival of religion which was not attended with a spirit of reproving. I believe it cannot be otherwise; for what is faith, unless it worketh by love? Thus it was in every part of England when the present revival of religion began about fifty years ago: All the subjects of that revival, — all the Methodists, so called, in every place, were reprovers of outward sin.

– John Wesley “The Duty of Reproving Our Neighbor

In the list of sermons of John Wesley that would not go over well today, this one has to be near the top. It is a sermon about the necessity and method of pointing out each other’s sins. Wesley takes as his text Leviticus 19:17, which if you are not aware comes right before a little verse that Jesus Christ holds up as the second great commandment.

As is typical for Wesley, this sermon displays a keen grasp of the nuances of pastoral work. Wesley is never a one-size-fits-all teacher. He is always aware that different people and different audiences require different messages. In our day, we often misinterpret Wesley because we fail to take his awareness of audience and situation into account. We treat him like a systematic theologian rather than a pastor in the trenches.

In this sermon, he starts right off with a key observation about picking our battles wisely.

But if we desire not to lose our labour, we should rarely reprove anyone for anything that is of a disputable nature, that will bear much to be said on both sides. A thing may possibly appear evil to me; therefore I scruple the doing of it; and if I were to do it while that scruple remains, I should be a sinner before God. But another is not to be judged by my conscience: To his own master he standeth or falleth. Therefore I would not reprove him, but for what is clearly and undeniably evil.

In another place, while offering similar counsel, Wesley holds up the example of going to the theater. He writes that he could not set foot in such a place, but he knows others who can without threatening their salvation.

So the question, of course, is what are those class of things that are of a disputable nature? Wesley offers some examples of things that fall into the category of undeniable evil.

Such, for instance, is profane cursing and swearing; which even those who practise it most will not often venture to defend, if one mildly expostulates with them. Such is drunkenness, which even a habitual drunkard will condemn when he is sober. And such, in the account of the generality of people, is the profaning of the Lord’s day. And if any which are guilty of these sins for a while attempt to defend them, very few will persist to do it, if you look them steadily in the face, and appeal to their own conscience in the sight of God.

The list here: profane cursing and swearing, drunkenness, and profaning the Lord’s day. I almost hesitated to produce the quotation above as examples of undeniable evil because for each one we do deny them as evil.

Although Stanley Hauerwas no longer claims to be United Methodist – I believe — he has taught many a seminary student that cursing is nothing to be ashamed of. As for drunkenness, many will call this a sickness rather than an evil act. There are even those who say it is mere frivolity and of no moral concern at all. And as for profaning the Lord’s day, to even raise it as a concern is viewed by most Christians today as a sure sign of fanatic or a hopeless fool.

Are we reproved by Rev. Wesley’s list or does it lead us to dismiss his entire sermon?

If we retain the sermon at all, we will notice that Wesley does not advise us to engage in street-corner reprovings. He is no advocate of hectoring passersby. Indeed, he directs our attention first to our close relations then in widening circles. Of special attention are those who were joined together in Methodist societies, as those groups were formed for the express purpose of watching over each other in love.

As baptized Christians we make similar promises to nurture and love each other. Is there room for more of a spirit of reproof among us?

The evils of schism

From John Wesley’s sermon “On Schism.”

One great reason why this controversy has been so unprofitable, why so few of either side have been convinced, is this: They seldom agreed as to the meaning of the word concerning which they disputed: and if they did not fix the meaning of this, if they did not define the term before they began disputing about it, they might continue the dispute to their lives’ end, without getting one step forward; without coming a jot nearer to each other than when they first set out.

How much truth is there in this observation about nearly every dispute in the life of the church? How many arguments grind on forever because we cannot even agree on the meaning of words?

But this sermon of Wesley’s is worth our attention for more than his insights into the nature of disputes. It is a challenging and fascinating reflection on issues that are being discussed openly among us today. (Thanks to the colleague who drew my attention to it.)

The first section of the sermon is a word study on the biblical word “schism” and its meaning. Wesley argues that schism in the Bible refers not to separating from another group of Christians but the presence of divisions or divides within a body of Christians. Wesley argues that schism is a lack of unity of mind or loyalty within the church. It is agreeing to disagree while still claiming to be outwardly united.

After arguing that schism is not about separation from the church, Wesley then goes on to discuss the evil of separating or breaking off from a community of Christians.

To separate ourselves from a body of living Christian, with whom we were before united, is a grievous breach of the law of love. It is the nature of love to unite us together; and the greater the love, the stricter the union. And while this continues in its strength, nothing can divide those whom love has united. It is only when our love grows cold, that we can think of separating from our brethren. And this is certainly the case with any who willingly separate from their Christian brethren. The pretences for separation may be innumerable, but want of love is always the real cause; otherwise they would still hold the unity of he Spirit in the bound of peace.

To separate, Wesley argues is a repudiation of the command to love each other. And this breach leads to all sorts of evil consequences. See if you spot any of those among us today:

It opens a door to all unkind tempers, both in ourselves and others. It leads directly to a whole train of evil surmising, to severe and uncharitable judging of each other. It gives occasion to offense, to anger and resentment, perhaps in ourselves as well as in our brethren; which, if not presently stopped, may issue in bitterness, malice, and settled hatred; creating a present hell wherever they are found, as a prelude to hell eternal.

Do we think evil thoughts about each other? Do we impugn the motives of those who we see as our foes? Do we celebrate their struggles and resent their victories? These are what happens when you stop loving each other.

And as these things grow and grow, Wesley writes, they become a real obstacle to the work of the church. To those outside the church, they become a spectacle that undermines any claims we make about what it means to be Christians or follow Jesus Christ.

But then Wesley turns in a way that speaks to the very heart of our present troubles. He asks what one should do if they cannot remain in a church without being compelled to sin. He argues that in that case we must separate and that the sin of the separation should fall on those who forced us to it. He explains his own thinking this way:

I am now, and have been from my youth, a member and a Minister of the Church of England: And I have no desire, no design to separate from it, till my soul separates from my body. Yet if I was not permitted to remain therein without omitting what God requires me to do, it would then become meet and right, and my bounden duty, to separate from it without delay. To be more particular: I know God has committed to me a dispensation of the gospel; yea, and my own salvation depends upon preaching it: “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel.” If then I could not remain in the Church without omitting this, without desisting from preaching the gospel I should be under a necessity of separating from it, or losing my own soul. In like manner, if I could not continue united to any smaller society, Church, or body of Christians, without committing sin, without lying and hypocrisy, without preaching to others doctrines which I did not myself believe, I should be under an absolute necessity of separating from that society.

And so, in the United Methodist Church, I believe, we have many clergy and laity who say denying them the ability to preside at same-sex weddings is the equivalent of the scenario imagined by Wesley. For them, preventing gay weddings is in some way forcing them to sin and, perhaps, risk their own salvation. (I’m not sure if any argue the point as far as Wesley.) And I know some clergy who have reflected upon what they would be forced to do if the language in our discipline were rewritten. Could they stay in such as church, they ask?

Of course, many of our contemporaries opt to stay in a church that requires them to betray their conscience and choose to defy the church. Wesley was neither the democrat nor the activist that many of us are today. To defy the church and remain within it at the same time would be unthinkable to him. We, in our day, have made it not only thinkable but righteous.*

Wesley ends his sermon with a call to Christians not to separate from their church. This is, I believe, a sermon written to quell the calls from within the Methodist movement to pull away from the Church of England or to cease to attend parish churches where the priest does not preach sound Methodist doctrine.

But Wesley then closes by returning to what he had called the biblical definition of “schism” — division within the church. He summons his hearers and readers to resist all factions, parties, and divisions within the church as well.

O beware, I will not say of forming, but of countenancing or abetting any parties in a Christian society! Never encourage, much less cause, either by word or action, any division therein. In the nature of things, “there must be heresies,” divisions, “among you;” but keep thyself pure. Leave off contention before it be meddled with: Shun the very beginning of strife. Meddle not with them that are given to dispute, with them that love contention. I never knew that remark to fail: “He that loves to dispute, does not love God.” Follow peace with all men, without which you cannot effectually follow holiness. Not only “seek peace,” but “ensue it:” If it seem to flee from you, pursue it nevertheless. “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”

I read these words and think of our factions and divisions. We have saavy and in some cases well funded groups vying to power and leverage within the church. On the congregational level, who cannot think of these same kinds of divisions and factions. Who does not have within their congregation divisions that poison the life of the church, the love of Christ, and our witness to the world?

Wesley’s closing words are of encouragement. Do not weary of doing well and seeking peace, even if there are no signs of peace coming. No where — no where — does he imply that such peace should be bought with betrayal of truth. But neither does he suggest we should abandon our hope and trust in God, the God of peace.

I do not expect Wesley’s words to solve an disputes among us, but I hope those of us who claim some fellowship with Wesley would at least listen to his words and reflect on whether they might have some wisdom for us.


*Some would cite here Wesley’s practice of field preaching and the complaints that generated, but note the difference. Wesley always argued that his practice and theology were in line with the Church of England. He did not declare the authority of the church void or its rules evil. I think there is an interesting discussion about this comparison, but to just say “Wesley broke the rules” as if that justifies breaches in our discipline strikes me as simplistic and perhaps misleading.