Hauerwas on marriage and homosexuality

Stanley Hauerwas writes in an essay called “Resisting Capitalism: On Marriage and Homosexuality” that the people of the United Methodist Church don’t have any idea how to talk or think about homosexuality.

They do not know how to think about homosexuality because they do not know how to think about marriage and divorce. The churches have generally underwritten romantic accounts of marriage — that is, you fall in love and get married so that sex is an expression of your love. Such accounts not only destroy any understanding of marriage as lifelong monogamous fidelity but also make unintelligible the prohibition against same-sex relations. After all, the latter are often exemplifications of a loving relation.

Hauerwas’ overarching point in the essay is that we as a church have capitulated to the idea of marriage as an easily voidable contractual relationship that is only valid so long as those in the contract deem it in their interests to remain so. Such an understanding leaves out questions about the purpose of marriage as an institution ordained by God, and reduces it only to an expression of our choices. Hauerwas writes that when that is the meaning of marriage, our conversations about homosexuality and same-sex relations make no sense. He argues that we first have to recover the concept of marriage from liberal capitalism before we can hope to talk coherently about any of the related questions — promiscuity, fornication, adultery, polygamy, divorce, homosexuality.

Hauerwas offers us a list of provocative questions, particularly for those who support the United Methodist teaching on sexuality:

Do they think that a marriage is no longer a marriage simply because the people in the marriage no longer love one another? Do they think people who have been divorced can remarry after they have found someone else to love? How should people be examined to discern whether they are capable of making the promises we still ask people to make when the church witnesses their marriage? Should people who have been divorced bear a greater burden of proof if they wish to be remarried?

These are tough questions, but I find persuasive Hauerwas’s insistence that our answers to these questions should inform our answers to other questions. For Hauerwas our discussions about what some call “the clobber verses” of Scripture should be done in the light of the scriptural witness regarding singleness and marriage, letting our discernment about those matters shape our reading of other parts of Scripture. Of course, as Hauerwas notes in his essay, when he offered his arguments as part of a General Conference appointed task force he was ignored by both sides of our ongoing debate.

For what it is worth, though, I find his proposal more appealing than slinging slogans and scripture at each other, and I do think theological questions about sex and sexuality are best understood as secondary to our theological understanding of what marriage is and why people do or do not enter into it. Put into question form, we need an answer to the question “Why should people get married?” before we can have a coherent answer to the question “Why is sex outside of marriage bad?”

I don’t think either question ignores Scripture. Rather, I think they force us to read Scripture and wrestle with its witness to us.


15 thoughts on “Hauerwas on marriage and homosexuality

  1. Hauerwas is absolutely right. We must have some discussion on what is marriage for before we even began debates on same sex marriage. If marriage is just a contractual obligation between two parties there is no sense not to have same sex marriage. In this case marriage is just turned into a government institution.

    1. Just for reiteration, marriage is always legally a three party contract….the two people and the affirming State.

      1. In fact, aren’t clergy empowered only by State X to enter ‘Jim and Jane’ into legal marriage? The Methodist church, or any other, doesn’t have any authority of its own to marry anyone. I’m just asking this….i don’t know…..

        1. The Church has all the authority it needs to recognize a marriage of its own members. It may not have the force of law, but the Church is really less concerned with the legal dimensions of the marriage and more concerned with the spiritual realities of it. Mind you, it gets murky because of the state’s hand in what is otherwise considered a religious rite. (Seriously, states generally require that an officiant be a ‘minister of the gospel,’ though they tend to ignore the blatantly Christian connotations of the term and say that ‘any religious minister will do,’ including those who are atheists–see http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2013/august/atheist-ministers-clergy-housing-allowance-ffrf-ecfa.html.)

      2. This is the view of the civil authorities and the law, but I am more interested in the Christian meaning of marriage, which in my mind, at least, is distinct from the civil. legal, institution.

  2. I would agree with Hauerwas, but I wonder….. . But, I’m not so sure that the purpose of marriage can be relevantly passed on without FIRST dealing with the sex outside of marriage discussion. It is my observation that most Christians could not define what biblical purity is and what it means to live in that purity. Our society has hijacked and for the most part has replaced purity with acceptable promiscuity. From television, to music, and even cartoons our children are being effectively taught the “worlds” way. I wonder if beginning this conversation about marriage in hopes it will then pave the way to find the answers to sex outside of marriage without first understanding what purity means would be like tearing down the house built on shifting sand only to begin building a new house on the same shifting sand….or…..pouring new wine into an old wineskin.

    I wonder…..if we were to add up all the time, countless hours, and all of the thought, and all other resources that have been put into the issues facing the church today concerning sex and marriage……and compared it to how much time we spent corporately and individually on our knees in genuine and diligent prayer to our All Mighty God concerning these issues….well……I just wonder.

    I pray for all of the leaders of the church……that they….and we……not lose sight of the truth that it is not flesh and blood we war against and the weapons to tear down such a stronghold are not formed by human hands…..or intellect. Every recorded revival I’ve studied in the church’s history began with continual and fervent prayers from deep within the hearts of believers who acknowledged they NEED God’s help and strength for victory.

    Pray on…….

  3. I have been studying the history if marriage for a few weeks.
    I have not read Hauerwas
    But I thank you for the suggestion.

    I think I recommended the work of Carle C. Zimmerman to you earlier.
    Zimmerman concentrates of the marriage form from a historical sociological context.
    He points out in the days of the apostles there were two types of marriage contracts.
    One type of marriage is referred to as a “concubitantus marriage“. A loose contract where the partners are recognized under the law but both partners maintain a certain independence. Any children born of the concomitants marriage are the property of the mother and the child has no legal claim of inheritance and does not take the fathers name. The woman maintained a certain amount of independence.

    The traditional marriage is referred to as “dignitas marriage” and the wife and children would carry the fathers name, all rights of inheritance and the wife left her home to “cleave to her husband” The laws were designed to protect the wife and children of the dignitas marriage. It is interesting to know an infant placed at the foot of the father was rejected or accepted publicly by the man either picking up the child and cradling the child or leaving the infant at his feet. An infant left at the foot of the sitting male was rejected by the male and taken by a slave to be exposed .

    Zimmerman goes on to point out the breakdown of the family has real consequences for communities and nations. He quotes historical writings like Plutarch & Polybius, about the decline of Greece and what condition the Grecian family was in at the time of it’s decline. Zimmerman describes the transition of the family originally controlled, defined & regulated by tribes and clans to government to the Christian church and back to regulation primarily by the state and the consequences of all.
    Those of the feminist persuasion would be a little surprised to read it was the Christian Church that proposed, supported and declared marriage an independent institution like no other where all rights are equal because the couple is not seen as independent of each other but were made one under God’s authority.

    Zimmerman concludes GLBT marriage are not the cause of the decline of nations but one symptom of a declining nation.
    I am beginning to think Luther’s greatest mistake may have been to declare marriage not a sacramental.
    But taking into consideration the condition of the Christian Church so corrupted …………………..

    Really great topic.

  4. I find it amusing that Dr. Hauerwas links our view of marriage to capitalism. The view he quite correctly condemns was not wide spread in the days of Robber Baron capitalism or even the “Ozzie and Harriet” 1950s . It was wide spread in communist countries such as the Soviet Union and the more socialist European countries (e.g., Scandinavia). If we look a bit at the history, we see it is a natural outgrowth of post-enlightenment romanticism. This intellectual view was propagated to the culture through the entertainment industry from the 1940s to date. Consider all of the sappy romantic movies in which “love” (at best chemistry and most often lust) conquers all, (e.g., attempts by knowledgeable and loving parents to “arrange” a good marriage, previous marriage commitments). Of course modern liberalism (licentiousness) has contributed by valuing “sexual freedom” above all else and totally mischaracterizing the real life consequences of such behavior in movies and television. The widespread use of contraception has also divorced marriage from procreation and child rearing. Dr. Hauerwas is correct in many ways. It is just a shame that he cannot divorce himself from the academic anti-capitalism to see the real “liberal” causes of the problem. Capitalism has much to answer for; but the decline of marriage is much more related to progressive anti-capitalism than to the faults of capitalism.

    1. Zimmerman also argues the focus away from the family, community, personal responsibility and towards rights of the individual, personal satisfaction, individual need, desire and the goal to increase riches all led to the decline of the family unit. Children no longer seen as a gift and asset would be considered a nuisance and thief of wealth.
      After all children cost and the division of wealth by inheritance decreased the wealth of the family.
      Zimmerman also pointed to the media as contributing to the changing of attitude toward marriage.

      He also points to historical writing and events that establish the decline of the family was recognized as a threat to a healthy society at different points in history. Laws where passed to encourage family unity and child bearing. Some where successful and some where instituted too late.

  5. I appreciate the topic and the iconoclastic Hauerwas. He certainly gets us nattering because we want this RESOLVED. However, the Bible doesn’t lay out its truth as Church Dogmatics or even a Book of Discipline, so we are “stuck” (so to speak) with a living encounter with God’s self-revelation. We are let off the hook easily. It’s not “as we like it”…

  6. Well said. An answer first to ‘Why get married?’ should proceed the others. I watched my brother recently marry his male partner of 20 years. As happy as I was for them, I had to wonder, ‘What’s the difference?’. What really changes due to this institution of marriage? For them, I know it was about an outward expression of love, longer lasting than most hetero marriages today. But for me and my partner of 17 years watching from the sides, we could only wonder, ‘Why bother?’.


    1. Validation and acceptance. That’s why.
      Marriage offers security, fends off the loneliness, secures wealth and offers rewards the single life does not.
      Those that once said marriage was “heterosexist” and the straight community has no right to define what marriage is or what is acceptable practice within the confines of marriage, now covet the institution.
      But how does a group that has always declared the institution of marriage suffocating, too institutionalized, restrictive do a 360 degree turn?

      Simply reinvent marriage and family to your liking. Instead of being a subject to rules and regulations or subject to social norms associated with traditional marriage make up new rules. It is what the Ancient Greek model was.
      That is how GLBT persons operated successfully in other cultures with total acceptance.
      The problem is that is not what the Christian Church teaches or the Christian Community practices.
      Those “other cultures” did not and do not worship the God we worship or subject themselves to the laws our God set forth.

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