Long Reads

Autophagy #5 – On Love, Sex, Marriage

What is the biblical view of marriage? How to be true to the Gospel in the modern world?

This is a long text. I build on different concepts and I suggest reading one thing at a time. You can jump to each section clicking here: Ritual and Myth, Sex and Marriage, Marriage and Sin, Early Christian Marriage, Love, Imago Dei/Imitatio Christi, and The Law of Love. I hope that after reading you will understand in a deeper level what the bible means by marriage, and how the gospel of Jesus radically changes our relationship to one another: even our sexual relationships.

Ritual and Myth

The work of theology is, always, to assign meaning and symbolism to things that were already there from the beginning – or if you prefer, not to assign it, but to reveal it. Theologians are mythical storytellers, not inventors. In telling stories that communicate who we are, where we are from, and what our purpose is, theologians form, inform, or challenge, the symbols and the imaginary of people’s relationship to God and to their own lives; our image of God, after all, shapes our own image.

The process from a spontaneous thing or event to a systematic ritual and theory is organic: as people ask “why do we do this?”, the leaders explain things the best they can, often with a good amount of imagination and best-guesses, and that process slowly shapes a community’s theology and symbols. That is exactly what the author of Exodus tells us Moses instructed the elders of Israel to do when he established the ritual of Passover (Easter):

…You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children. When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’… (Exodus 12)

This ritual, Passover, defined the people of Israel and still defines modern Jews, as they celebrate it every year, retelling the story and remembering that day of liberation. Passover was central to Christianity because on the year Jesus died, on Passover, he was having the special supper with his disciples and he asked them to continue doing what they were doing, but in his memory (he was not specific about how often), presenting them with bread – something everyone eats – and wine – something most people drink. He said the bread was his flesh, and the wine was his blood, and they ate and drank. In a few centuries of Christianity developing, between Jesus’ Passover supper with his friends and his friends doing the same thing over and over again, teaching their own disciples to do the same, and then their disciples asking new questions, and they coming up with answers, we found ourselves a thousand years later debating whether the bread in communion is literally Jesus with the accidents of bread or just sort-of-Jesus united to the bread, or just a symbol, getting complicated in philosophical terms Jesus never used. Not only did we get complicated on defining what was once the simplest of rituals, we actually persecuted and killed each other because of it.

There we have it: an event (Exodus), then a story and a ritual that gives meaning to it (Passover). Then again, a new event (Jesus’ last supper) that changes the original meaning of the first, and establishes a new story and a new ritual (Eucharist/Lord’s Supper) that gives new meaning not just to Passover, but to eating bread and drinking wine with your friends.

One of the main questions studying the bible, for theologians, is whether these stories, which are called myths – like reading 1 Corinthians 11:23-34 – tell how something new started, or if they were simply adding new meaning to something old. For example, baptism was a Jewish tradition: Gentiles who wanted to enter the Jewish community were baptized, Jews have several different washing rituals for different reasons, and John the Baptist, a popular Jewish prophet, had started a movement of purification asking all Jews to baptize themselves. Then came Jesus and asked his disciples to baptize both Jews and Gentiles, once and for all, “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”, promising a mysterious new baptism “with fire”. This was a scandalous and new, subversive addition to an old ritual. Now the idea of baptism is associated mainly with Christianity, even though Jews still practice Mikveh.

Thinking back on the Eucharist, it would be ridiculous to read the gospels and think Jesus instituted the eating of bread and the drinking of wine, or that bread and wine are God-given things that humans should not be allowed to enjoy outside Christian guidelines. We very much understand that celebrating communion is one thing, and drinking some wine while enjoying a French baguette with a friend is another, even though the only real difference is what we think we are doing. The difference is not in the bread, or the wine, but in our own thoughts, words, and feelings.

Similar is the question of sex/marriage: how do we distinguish the lines between what has happened in human history, what is told in the bible, and what we tell ourselves through theology and culture?

Sex and Marriage

“Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken. ”Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

This is a creation story. It has the mythical function to describe why men leave their fathers’ house to cling to their wives and start new families. Did people start forming couples and new families only after the story was written? No. The story was written because people were already doing it, because they have always been doing it, and someone wanted to explain it. Maybe it was Moses who wrote it, as tradition says, or maybe it was someone in the Davidic period, as documentary theory suggests, but the fact remains that people were already leaving their houses and clinging to their partners by the time this text was written. At some point a baby human was made because a couple had sex and it was definitely before Moses or anyone wrote anything. Therefore, the text itself did not institute anything new, it simply explained something that had been going on for several centuries.

Today, conservative Christians like to flaunt at the rest of society that marriage is a God-made institution; allegedly it does not belong to humans to define it or re-define it. They usually say this as a critique to same-sex marriage, or against people who find that marriage isn’t necessary for their romantic relationship to be healthy and happy and good, who believe that God has no problem with it. Conservative Christians spend a lot of energy trying to convince people that God is angry with things people find rather normal. My hope is to do a bit of theological and historical investigation and ask, what exactly makes God angry about marriage and sex? What does God care about, so that we should care about it too?

Another important passage in this argument is in the Gospel of Matthew:

“Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”

Now, I don’t intend in actually talking about divorce and reasons to divorce. However, this passage is quoted to make the following argument for marriage: Jesus used the Genesis 2 passage as an authoritative answer to the Pharisees, characterizing the union described in Genesis 2 as something “God joined together”: If you do not believe marriage is instituted by God, you don’t take Jesus seriously. I would like to challenge that idea.

The Catholic church defines marriage, in its catechism, as such: “a covenant by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring.” ¹

In conservative Protestant circles the definition I have known is more or less like this: “a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman, made before God and the community (both Church and State), to be faithful to each other, to provide for and to love each other until death do them part.”

Now, here is what I do not understand:

If the passage in Genesis 2 instituted marriage, and marriage is what these churches say it is, then why aren’t any of these points in the Genesis 2 text?

In the Genesis 2 text a woman is made out of a man. Given that their genetic make-up is the same, we could say that the first woman in mythical history is transsexual, but let’s not go there. The man sees that woman and recognizes her for what she is: the same as him. Then, they join. In other words, they have sex. Their genitals fit and they “become one flesh”. Then the narrator says this is why men and women leave their parents to make a new family/house. The one flesh that was once divided in two becomes one again through sexual union. Jesus says this is something God did, a union that God joined, and that humans should not separate it.

Plenty of traditions acknowledge the spiritual and mystical power of a sexual union. Christian tradition, however, prefers to assign the value and meaning of the spiritual and mystical union not to the sexual act in itself, which God established, as Genesis says, but instead to the covenant contract of the Church and the State. In other words, I have the impression that Christian tradition has hijacked the sanctity of living sex and sanctified, instead, dead letters and contracts.

Leaving theology to the side for a moment, what exactly is marriage, in itself, regardless of what different churches say?

One way that anthropologists (people who study human beings across time and culture) have defined marriage is this: “Marriage is a union between a man and a woman such that the children born to the woman are recognized as legitimate offspring of both partners” ²

My own working definition is this:

Marriage is a social and economic agreement to legitimize a sexual union and its offspring.

It is social because it depends on the community and its approval, and it is economic because it involves sharing property and providing for each other and for the children.

The moral imperative definition I find that makes sense with the bible is this:

Marriage is a social and economic covenant to legitimize sexuality, its offspring, and to protect the vulnerable.

I will come back to these definitions, but why are they important? Because before talking about marriage, and before affirming it is instituted by God, we need to define what it is in the first place. Why is it not clear? Why do I need to go through this? Because the story in Genesis 2 only shows a man telling a poem to a woman and then having sex in a garden. It doesn’t even say Eve got pregnant right away, and her children only show up already grown up by chapter 4, decades later. There is no ceremony, no exchange of vows, no covenant, no promises, only passionate sex in a garden.

The narrator, on verse 24, which Jesus quotes, is the one who brings in the social and economic dimension to it: leaving your father’s house. Adam and Eve had no family beyond each other and God, therefore, verse 24 cannot apply to them. What it does, however, is use them as an example to the reason why people do actually leave their father’s house to cling to their partner. Verse 24 is the word of the author of Genesis, who explains his own theological storytelling to the listener: because once upon a time that first couple recognized they should be together and had sex in a garden, since then, forever after, couples have felt they need to live together and have chosen to leave everything behind, live together, and have sex – unfortunately, usually not in a garden. In other words, verse 24 was not written to describe what happened in the garden, but rather to instruct the reader/listener. Sex is sacred, marriage came later, and when Jesus argues for the sanctity of marriage he does not point us back to a ceremony or a promise done before a community, but to the first couple who had passionate sex in a garden. Sex makes marriage holy, not the other way around.

Marriage and Sin

As we start to go beyond sex and start thinking about marriage, with the dimension of family and the associated financial need that comes with supporting one another, etc, which are simply not mentioned in the story of the first couple, we begin to see what makes things complicated: sin. Sex in itself is never treated as a sin in the bible, but rather as something sacred. However, as with all things sacred, misusing sex is profane.

Understanding what the bible says about sexual sin is central to understanding what the bible says about marriage.

There are only three forms of sin tied to marriage that I see in the Hebrew Testament (Jesus’ and Paul’s bible):

First, thou shalt not commit adultery.

Second, more indirectly, thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s house, slave, donkey, and wife.

Third, the sin of Onan (Genesis 38).

Adultery in the bible is when a man sleeps with another man’s wife. The first direct implication of this is property. In the patriarchal culture of the time, it was a violation of a man’s exclusive rights over his wife to have another man sleep with her. The problem is not to sleep with a woman, or even feel sexual attraction to a woman: the problem is to sleep with the woman of another man.  The writer of Proverbs makes this very clear in his exhortations to both unmarried and married men to be careful with the evil adulteress woman. The writer admonishes the listener to avoid a “loose” woman, because if he does not…

“you will give your honor to others, and your years to the merciless, and strangers will take their fill of your wealth, and your labors will go to the house of an alien”. He then tells him this: “Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well. Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets? Let them be for yourself alone, and not for sharing with strangers. Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. May her breasts satisfy you at all times; may you be intoxicated always by her love. Why should you be intoxicated, my son, by another woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?” (Proverbs 5)

Read that text again. This is the biblical wise man’s reason for not sleeping with another man’s wife: you will end up giving your honor, years, wealth and labor to a stranger. The problem is not a broken heart, any sort of drama from modern romance, or even a rupture on your mystical connection, but, rather, the rational and cold calculation of what happens when a husband provides shelter, food, care, clothes, and pretty much everything he has to his wife, by working hard every day, expecting nothing but her sexual faithfulness in return, but she chooses to take those things and sleep with other men.

Gritty, isn’t it? It surely does not relate very much to our modern understandings of marriage as a romantic union between two people who are (supposedly) not together because of finances. Let’s not even mention sexual equality or women’s rights: men had several wives and concubines, but women could only be a virgin or have one husband, anything else would be immoral. Today we don’t understand marriage in terms of financial provision in exchange for sexual faithfulness, but the picture in the bible is clear: Women did not have the socioeconomic power of status and property, so they would be bound financially to their father until a husband came along, and that husband, of course, would provide for her in exchange of her sexual faithfulness. Consent or romance were optional, at best.

Deviant women who did not consent to their lot were thrown out of that system, no longer being kept by either father or husband. These abandoned women, unable to be workers in its proper sense, would turn to prostitution for subsistence. Few things are as demonized in the cultures that wrote the bible as the woman who owns her own body and asks money in exchange of sex: choosing to get what the marriage institution had to offer in her own terms, without being bound to a man, was considered an abomination.

Yet still, the cold wisdom of the Proverbs instruct the young man to prefer a prostitute over an adulteress woman, because when you sleep with another man’s wife, he will most likely want to kill you, whereas a prostitute will only ask you for a loaf of bread (again, she does this for subsistence):

“… the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life to preserve you from the wife of another, from the smooth tongue of the adulteress. Do not desire her beauty in your heart, and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes; for a prostitute’s fee is only a loaf of bread, but the wife of another stalks a man’s very life. Can fire be carried in the bosom without burning one’s clothes? Or can one walk on hot coals without scorching the feet? So is he who sleeps with his neighbor’s wife; no one who touches her will go unpunished. Thieves are not despised who steal only to satisfy their appetite when they are hungry. Yet if they are caught, they will pay sevenfold; they will forfeit all the goods of their house. But he who commits adultery has no sense; he who does it destroys himself. He will get wounds and dishonor, and his disgrace will not be wiped away. For jealousy arouses a husband’s fury, and he shows no restraint when he takes revenge. He will accept no compensation, and refuses a bribe no matter how great.” (Proverbs 6)

The second sin I mentioned, which is less directly related to sexuality, is coveting. The Decalogue lists wives among slaves and other forms of property, to show, once more, the centrality of property in the biblical concept of marriage:

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:17)

Again, the clear picture of a biblical understanding of marriage, in the texts that Jesus considered “bible”, is one of patriarchal property. You don’t sleep with another man’s wife, you do not steal another man’s property, you do not covet another man’s slave. Your sin, as a man, is sin against another man. Seeing a prostitute is better than sleeping with a married woman because her husband will kill you, while a prostitute only needs money or food and you will not offend another man. Such is the clear, explicit reasoning in a biblical view of marriage.

When Jesus tells us not to look at a woman with lust, the word for lust is the same verb as to desire, long, crave, or covet: ἐπιθυμέω. It is the same verb that Peter uses saying that angels longed to know the Gospel that was revealed to us (1 Peter 1:12). Even in English, the word lust means desire. Both in James 1:15 and in the letter of 1 John 2:16, when they speak of lust, it is about material possessions. The common idea that biblical prohibitions of lust have to do with sexual appetite or attraction serves to completely ignore the actual implication of the word: desire for property.

The third sin, the sin of Onan, was a matter of honor between men. Again, the institution of marriage has nothing to do with feelings or romance, even partnership. It has nothing to do with consent or the woman’s rights. This is about a man’s honor and a man’s duty to other men. The story is as it goes:

“It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and settled near a certain Adullamite whose name was Hirah. There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua; he married her and went in to her. She conceived and bore a son; and he named him Er. Again she conceived and bore a son whom she named Onan. Yet again she bore a son, and she named him Shelah. She was in Chezib when she bore him. Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn; her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her; raise up offspring for your brother.” But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to his brother’s wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother. What he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also.” (Genesis 38)

If you read the whole chapter 38, you will find a crazy story where Tamar, a twice-widow, is the protagonist who pretends to be a temple prostitute in order to bear a child of her father-in-law, Judah (yes, THE Judah from whom the great tribe of Judah springs), tricking him, because he did not give her to his third son. In the process he tries to burn her alive thinking she had slept around with strangers, not knowing she was the prostitute he had slept with. It is a disturbing tale of a woman whose only purpose, as a wife, was to bear children, being passed down different brothers and finally carrying the child of her father-in-law, only to fulfill her duty, doing so through trickery and deceit, taking the position of a transgressor in order to reveal Judah’s hypocrisy. This tribal story portrays well the biblical view of marriage, and none of this is called a sin and God doesn’t strike any of these people dead because of sex, or deceit, or prostitution… only Onan.

Let’s talk about the sin of Onan.

To explain this, it is important to return to that anthropological definition of marriage, as it is the one that sheds the most light into the story: “Marriage is a union between a man and a woman such that the children born to the woman are recognized as legitimate offspring of both partners”. The difference between a wife and a concubine (a sex-slave) in the bible is the fact that the wife’s son is considered legitimate, while the concubine’s son remains a slave. The apostle Paul uses this dynamic as an argument in his letter to the Galatians:

“It is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother. […]Now you, my friends, are children of the promise, like Isaac. But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the scripture say? “Drive out the slave and her child; for the child of the slave will not share the inheritance with the child of the free woman.” So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman” (Galatians 4).

The apostle Paul structures his argument around the difference between a wife and a concubine: both belong to the same man, both are fed and sustained by him, both owe their sexuality to him, but one is free, the other is a slave: in other words, the son of one will be considered a free man, and the son of the other will be considered a slave. They themselves have no meaningful freedom aside from what their son, the male, will inherit. Without criticizing it in any way, the apostle uses that picture in order to make his theological point about living in the flesh or the spirit. Since the apostle did not criticize it, I can only understand that he was perfectly comfortable with that picture, and to me that proves that this is, really, the “biblical view of marriage”: ownership, property, patriarchy, and slavery.

Now, I am not trying to be pretentious and use modern standards to judge the bible. None of this is defined, instituted, or started because of the bible. Nowhere does the bible say things have to be this way – specially not for all peoples at all times. The bible simply describes how things were. It is the readers who take the texts to make authoritative discourses, not the texts themselves. Paul uses an image he is familiar and comfortable with to describe a point to a people who knew that picture well. It is still descriptive, not prescriptive. Illustrative. Nowhere does the bible say what marriage is supposed to be, it simply describes the way real marriages were, and from these descriptions, we understand what the authors and their communities understood by the word “marriage”.

Once we understand what the word “marriage” means, we can understand why violating it was considered wrong, and we can consider the principles that apply to our own sexual relationships and our own sexual covenants today. To do that, we need to be as honest as we can, lest we paint a picture of the bible that is not real. I have had plenty of friends who abandoned Christianity altogether because once they read the bible they realized it has little to do with anything they ever learned in church. When the church says it is teaching “what the bible says”, but when a bit of serious reading shows that it does not, people feel lied to – with good reason.

The sin of Onan makes sense when we understand that marriage is the institution that legitimizes children. Like Isaac was considered the true heir of Abraham because he was the son of his wife, Sarah, even though his half-brother Ishmael was born first from Abraham’s (sex-)slave Hagar, so was the situation of Tamar, her two husbands and her father-in-law. The reason for her marriage was to bear children for Er. Because Er died, Onan had the duty to give her a child in the name of Er, but he wanted the child to be considered his, not his brother’s, so he chose to spill his semen on the ground instead of inside her. The only reason he was supposed to sleep with her was to give his late brother a son, but by his blatant disrespect of his duties, he enjoyed sex with her while deceiving his community and betraying the purpose he joined this relationship, and thus, the storyteller tells the reader that the Lord was angry and killed him. When Tamar transgresses the social code and acts like a prostitute, having sex with her father-in-law, she is justified by accomplishing her duty to bear children in the name of her late husband Er. The dignity of marriage in these stories is linked to a man’s heritage and childbearing: fidelity is expressed in continuing a lineage even after death, through transgressive means if necessary. Again, there is no romance, no pleasure, not even love, only duty and property. In the institution of marriage, the woman is a means to bear children, preferably male.

Another famous story of adultery in the bible is the story of David and Bathsheba. His sin was to sleep with her while she was still married, and then kill her husband. God takes away their first child as a punishment, but their second child, Solomon, becomes the blessed king who allegedly wrote the book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, the wisest and richest man in mythical history. Again, the problem of adultery was David’s sin against Beth-Sheba’s husband. The fact that he watched her bathe from afar, had her brought to his palace by force, and then raped her, were not sins in themselves. Offending her was no sin. Offending her husband, however, was. When the prophet Nathan confronts him, Bathsheba is compared to property – a sheep – and the sin is described as a sin by a rich man against a poor man.

Early Christian Marriage

The actual institution of marriage is generally the same by the time of the New Testament. Israel had been colonized by Greece, and the Greek culture did not encourage polygamy (one man having several legitimate child-bearing women), which until then was normal in Israel. By the time of Jesus, after colonization, the first century Jews practiced monogamy, as did the hellenized Roman empire in general. Concubines and prostitutes were still around, and non-Jews even had male concubines. Prostitutes were usually temple prostitutes, which the Jews associated with idolatry, something that becomes symbolic in religious discourse and even feeds into the apocalyptic imagery of John’s Revelation. When it comes to what the New Testament means by “Husband” and what it means by “Wife”, and what “Marriage” is, the only real change from the Hebrew Testament is that now monogamy is the rule. Nowhere it says that it is that way because God said so, and History implies it was simply Greek influence.

Another important dynamic in the early church is that Christian communities believed the world was about to end. If the world was about to end, there was no point having children. If one won’t have children, it is better to not be married, and maybe if you want to have sex anyways it is better to just see prostitutes. That seems to be what was happening with the Church of Corinth, to whom Paul writes two letters. What is interesting in his address about marriage and whether people should marry or not (1 Corinthians 7) is that Paul does not speak of procreation primarily, but rather, sexual desire, returning to the original reason why someone would want to be “joined” to someone else, as we saw in Genesis 2. He says that if one if burning with passion, he better get married than to see a prostitute (which are the accepted ways to sleep with a woman without violating another man’s rights over his wife or daughter). Thinking back to the ancient paradigm, women always belonged to a man, but a prostitute owned herself, transgressing the social norm, and she was related to foreign gods which Christians and Jews should not relate to. Paul’s pragmatic answer makes perfect sense. Paul wanted to please both Jews and Gentiles for the sake of the Gospel, and that meant a code of conduct that avoided prostitutes, condemned pederasty, and celebrated monogamy.

Paul also makes reference to his wish that every man would be “like him”, and other texts of Paul imply that he was single his whole life. This reminds me of the same principle the author of Matthew explains, through sayings of Jesus, in Matthew 24, when it speaks of eunuchs: castrated men, or devoted men who avoid sexual relationships. Jesus himself died without children (or at least none is mentioned in the gospels), and one of his most radical statements is that in order to follow him one must be ready to hate his own father, mother, wife, children, and even their own lives, more than him. The reason this is particularly important is that while on one hand Paul and Jesus explained how Christians should behave in marriage and family, by establishing rules about divorce, marriage, and prostitution, on the other hand, they both seemed to see marriage and family as burdens for the walk ahead of them: Jesus carrying a cross, Paul, partaking his sufferings. In other words, “family” was a burden to Jesus, to Paul, and in Jesus’ view, to anyone who would follow him. Paul makes it clear that marriage should be for the Christian who finds himself “burning up”, since in his context, the only other alternative, which is a prostitute, was directly linked to idolatry, and that was not an option. My point is, the “Family” is not exactly a biblical Christian value.

But again, what was meant by the word marriage? A contract where a man would take another man’s daughter and give her everything she needs in exchange for sexual faithfulness, wherein their children are considered legitimate.

So far, despite whatever modern sensitivity you may have had, of the way I have shown women are portrayed in the bible, or the way marriage is portrayed in the bible, or what Jesus or Paul thought of marriage and the family, I haven’t really made an argument about it being good or bad. All I have tried to do is describe what I see and read. Exegesis.

Yet that is not why we read the bible, is it? We do not read the bible as the historical document it is, in order to learn the social and cultural customs of Greek or ancient near-east societies. We read the bible in order to have some light shed on how we should live our own lives, not about how other people lived theirs. We read passages about marriage to wonder whether we should get married, passages on divorce to see whether or not we should get divorced, and passages on love to learn what it means to truly love. The fact that these words meant different things two thousand years ago than how we understand them today is usually irrelevant to most of us.

I believe that in our attempt to find ourselves and the guide to our lives in the bible we have created a chasm between the bible and our theologies. My hope is that by looking at the bible closely, and taking its words seriously instead of trying to harmonize them with our own views, making an honest distinction between both, we can revisit our own theologies and, therefore, learn to walk a humble walk with our God, learn to carry our own crosses, and stop judging others based on our own ideas of what God is supposed to be.

Love

Marriage and family today in Western capitalist democratic societies is radically different than anything in the bible. The authenticity of children is now decided by biology, not contracts or rituals: a DNA test is enough to legitimize a child and make a claim for heritage and family. The contract is no longer between a man and his wife’s father, but rather, the woman is a free participant who enters the contract as an equal. He is no longer her provider, they are partners. Divorce is not something a man does when he is unsatisfied by his wife, or because he discovers that she is not a virgin during the honeymoon, but rather it is the dissolution of a marriage contract that can be pursued by either side. Sex, after the sexual revolution, is no longer necessarily tied to procreation, but is mostly, between consensual adults, an expression of affection in the giving (and taking) of pleasure (to be fair, the Song of Songs already shows us that there are plenty of forms to show sexual affection without procreation). Consent has become the social rule for sex, married or unmarried, not duty. Furthermore, romance is, with all its fantasies and myths, the main reason why people get married today.

I believe much of this has come about thanks to Christianity, not against it. Secularization is a phenomenon of Christendom after the Enlightenment. The so-called Western civilization and its post-Christianity, with all its rich, good and bad Christian heritage, is a movement towards equality, freedom, and fraternity, as expressed by the motto of the French Revolution for Democracy. I believe Christianity at its beginning had the seeds of a movement that is still not over, which progresses slowly towards a world of justice and love in harmony, a world of equality, where there is “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female”. A world of oneness that transcends imperialism, nationalism, classism, racism, and even sexism. This seed of the Gospel blooms like a plant cracks a sidewalk, bursting slowly above the pavement of dead stone: through the Roman Empire, through the Dark Ages, through the Colonial times, through the social Darwinism and the scientism of the last century, and today through all our modern ideological conflicts.

I base my theory of social change starting with the Gospel on this verse:

 “I no longer call you servants, […] instead, I have called you friends.” John 15:15

This verse, along with the whole discourse that continues from there, shows the end and culmination of the Gospel: the reconciliation of God and Humans. The language in the bible referring to God is usually a language of slavery: God is our Lord, we are his slaves/servants. In the same way, God is our King, we are his people/subjects. Yet again, God is our Husband, we are his bride. This shows a God who has all power and humans who are utterly needy of power, expressed in different images from human relations of slavery, government, and marriage. Like marriage, the bible does not institute monarchy or slavery, but contains regulations to societies that had these institutions, and uses them as illustration.

The word agape, in Greek, which is translated as love in the bible, reflects a love that has the power to give, a love that can afford to be selfless, to not think of itself. That is the love of God, or the love a master may have for its servant, a king may have for its people, or a husband may have for his bride. The word eros is, in a way, the polar opposite: it is the love that needs, that languishes, that thirsts. This is the love that receives, that holds tight, almost desperately. It is romantic, intense, sexual. If God loves us as agape, our response is eros: he gives, we receive; he has all power, we have none.

Jesus transgresses this language, being the God who through the incarnation does the unimaginable and disrupts human notions of order: He won’t be our slave-Lord and treat us as such – even if he may have that power – but instead he makes us his friends. I believe that when John wrote these words he knew very well that friendship is the truest among equals (my favorite rendition of this reasoning comes from Aristotle³). It was hardly conceivable in antiquity that people of unequal social standing could ever have the love of friendship for one another, yet John portrays the Eternal Logos calling fishermen and tax collectors his friends.

Peter denied Jesus three times while Jesus was sentenced to death, but after the resurrection Jesus asks Peter, three times, if he loves him. Peter answers that he does. Jesus asks the first two times using the verb agapeo, but Peter could not love him that way, so he answers to Jesus that he loves him using the verb phileo, which is the love of a friend, an equal. The third time, Jesus asks Peter if he phileo him, and Peter, constrained, answers that Jesus already knows the answer: he does. Reading this text I can only imagine them crying. This moving scene of forgiveness shows a Christ who was uninterested in maintaining balances of power, a Christ who cared about his friend and accepted him independently of social or even cosmic differences. The Holy God Almighty embracing a sinner and being called his equal: this is the transgressive seed of the Gospel that slowly deteriorates the human traditions of death and that brings life to the world. This is the love that Paul speaks about in 1 Corinthians 13 as the excellent way in which the whole church should walk.

Today slavery is officially abolished (although we haven’t extinguished it and there is a long way to bring humane conditions to all workers in the world). One could argue this has brought a rupture to our understanding of God as Lord in the real sense of the word, but I believe that is because God wants us to ultimately be his friends, not his slaves.

The imperial world of Christendom has been overtaken by democracy, losing the sense of kingdom and government of God as our King, and of us as his people, and I believe this is a consequence of a God who chooses to be near us, who invites us instead of forcing us, who befriends us instead of raping us, who wants us to participate and consent, not simply obey in the authoritarian sense.

Similarly, as marriage has changed, I believed we are no longer familiar with what the bible meant by saying that God is our Husband and we are his bride. If you were shocked exploring the passages above a bit closer than usual, that if proof of it. Yet, like slavery still continues in the margins, and how authoritarianism takes up new forms, the institution of marriage and its values of ownership and jealousy, if not violence, continues. Today we still get married and act as if the bible’s references to marriage refer to what we are doing, like slave-owners in the eighteenth and nineteenth century justified their owning of slaves by reading the passages in the bible that refer to slavery, even the ones that tell slaves to obey their masters without complaint, in order to silence struggles for liberation, regardless that first century slavery in the Mediterranean was not the same as colonial Americas. Therefore it is not enough to find words in the bible to justify our theology: we need to think and allow our minds to be transformed by the principles of the Gospel, the most important of all being love:

This is the picture of the Gospel in the biblical context of marriage: The God-Husband gave himself to death for the sake of his bride, a bride that was his property, who had no rights, whose consent did not matter, whose will did not matter, who was given to him by his Father, who had no power of herself, whom he could beat and mistreat as much as he wanted, even arguing she deserved it. That God-husband chose to declare her free, declare her the same as him, and invite her to join him. He gave her all things and made her a co-heir with him, even though legally she would take no part in the inheritance unless she were a male son like him. In their relationship, there is no longer male or female. They have become one from the moment he met her and she accepted, but their wedding ceremony and feast is to come only at the end of times.

Meditating on the example I am invited to follow, I believe Christ does not want the continuation of an institution of patriarchy, property, slavery and violence. I believe God wants equality, respect, and good will, out of love, not out of obligation to a vow. Jesus even forbade us to vow. I believe Christ wants women and men to treat each other as ends in themselves, not as means of duty or trophies.

Imago Dei/Imitatio Christi

My expectation is that once the seed of the Gospel grows and cracks the asphalt of our societies a bit more, we will understand that sexuality has been set free, that in Christ there is no longer male or female, and that this has radical implications to how we relate to one another, in every sense, including sexually. This does not mean lasciviousness and orgies, it does not mean abuses and uses of one another, but rather, the free and open handed love of friends and equals who consent in giving pleasure, expressing affection and sharing lives together.

On one hand, I trust God to have human history move in that direction, in the other, I understand that it is my Christian duty to work and struggle for it. Why?

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1)

…now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God… (Ephesians 2) 

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13)

You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. (James 2)

The duty and calling of Christians is not to give lip-service that they believe in God, it is not to go to church every Sunday, to observe a liturgical calendar, to partake the sacraments, nor even to tell people in the streets that a man from Galilee once came back from the dead. The duty of a Christian, at the heart of all this, without which none of this makes any sense whatsoever, is to love like Christ loved us.

How did Christ love us? His agape for the world, which we are called to imitate towards our neighbor, which husbands are called to have for their wives, is this:

…though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. (Philippians 2)

God’s act of love towards humanity was to become like the lowest human, in order to reconcile all humans to God. It is the image of a Lord, a slave owner, becoming a slave while making the slaves free; the image of an emperor crowning his subjects and washing their feet; the image of a husband listening to and serving his wife for her own sake. In other words, God’s agape is the act of giving his own power to the one who had no power, for their own good, and in doing so, making them equal.

Our slow movement from a Roman empire to a world that moves towards democracy is the fruit of understanding that there should not be divisions and hierarchies when taking decisions that affect everyone’s lives, that it makes no sense to hold one man above other men as a king, that rather, we participate in life together and we belong to one another. The slow movement from different forms of slavery and subjugation to salaried work, and, slowly, towards dignified work and standards of living for all workers in the world, is the maturing fruit of understanding that the well being of all men is more important than anyone’s profit, that life is sacred and not to be monetized, that bread is to be shared and not hoarded, that where the Spirit of God is there is freedom. Finally, the slow progress through which women and other minorities have gained space in society, where their witness is valid, as they have gained the political right to vote, began to be considered equals to men before the law, and socially, their consent began to matter, gaining access to education and to work, no longer considered property of their fathers or husbands, and so on, shows that we are moving towards the New Kingdom where there is no longer male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile.

None of these movements are complete. There is still slavery, there is still abuse, people are not really free when all their energy is spent trying to pay bills and not be homeless, more and more people devote their lives to Mammon (money), and abuse is rampant in and out of relationships, not just sexually, but also emotionally. Such is the tension of living as one who wants to imitate Christ in a world that lives in darkness. We believe that through the death and resurrection of Christ all powers were defeated and we are called to imitate him and love one another, even our enemies, the way God loved us. This love corrodes fallen human notions of order and institution as we treat and respect one another as equals, as we refuse to impose ourselves violently, as we give our own lives for the sake of others. Above all, as we believe that every person in this planet is so beloved by God that God would die for them, we refuse to participate in their mistreatment and oppression. This refusal leads to both conflict and blessing, as we will be despised by those who worship power, but our good works will be evident, God will be glorified, and slowly our light will shine and our salt will temperate the whole world. We have come a long way from the first century Roman empire, and there is more to go.

Much of the mistreatment of women and of minorities including homosexuals comes from a different image of God, a Patriarchal Theology: That God created Man in his image, and that everything else, including women, was created for men. The bible does not actually agree with itself on plenty of things: some passages show a strong opposition to monarchy, others support it; some show strong opposition to slavery, others support it; some show strong opposition to xenophobia and nationalism, others support it, and so on. The biblical text is in constant tension with itself, a tension which Christ resolves. The equality of men and women is one of these issues of tension: In Genesis 2 the woman is made out of man, and the Fall in Genesis 3 is told in the structure of a reversal of an ideal order, as the serpent (an animal) tells the woman to do something, and then the woman tells the man to imitate her, and that man betrays God. It is an inverted hierarchy. Genesis 1, however, says that God created Human male and female at once, in his image: no hierarchy. Genesis 1 shows humans created in God’s image, and Genesis 2-3 shows a patriarchal order that ushers in the Fall. I believe that Jesus wants us to live in the order of Genesis 1, where we are all the image of God. Still, much of the Patriarchal order that persists today was justified and expressed in the Hebrew Testament laws, such as this:

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. (Leviticus 20:13)

The text is clear: if a man has sex with another man as if it were a woman, it is an abomination. My question is: why?

The laws preceding that verse are all centered on the patriarchal hierarchy which Christ abolishes. As I mentioned before, sin was only sin against men. The sin here is that another man is reduced to the level of a woman, and, to a patriarchal structure, that is abominable. With the advent of Christ, where there is no male or female, this verse cannot make sense. Why would it offend me to be treated as a woman?

What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—

The Law of Love

What does this mean, then, for sex, marriage, and love? Does this mean Christians can or should be monogamous, polygamous, polyamorous, heterosexual, gay, trans, or what?

It means we are all called to weigh these questions ourselves before God’s commandment to love, in all its ambiguity. It means we are called to love one another for their own benefit. That we should forgive offenses, give the other cheek, wash feet. It means we love by daring to become equal to the one we love, by laying down our rights and traditions for the good of our neighbor, like the God Almighty who left heaven to wash the dirty feet of dirty sinners. We live with people who are not Christian, in societies that are not Christian, and we want to be upstanding members of society who harm no one, but who also do not care to please people’s notions of propriety, but only God’s. A foolish God. It means that with the help of the Light of the World we can see the empty husk of laws, regulations, holidays, “do”s, and “don’t”s, for what they really are. It means we can live in truth and grace.

How does this affect your relationships and your sexual life? How can you love who you love and treat them as an equal, listening to their voice, serving them, being good to them before God and people, while also not following abusive traditions for tradition’s sake, knowing that in the end of all things every law and empire will pass away, and only Love remains?

Christians in the early church were accused of having incestuous orgies⁴ as much as they were criticized and mocked for being ascetics. I believe this shows the misunderstanding of a world which does not understand the transgressive love of the Gospel, a love that transcends Order and Chaos, that instruct us to be mature and no longer depend on the rod of a a teacher. The right thing to do is always complicated and ambiguous, but the principle itself is simple: Love your neighbor as yourself, love as Christ loved us.

Returning to the question of marriage, this is the moral imperative definition I find that makes sense with the bible:

Marriage is a social and economic covenant to legitimize sexuality and its offspring, and to protect the vulnerable.

What I mean by this is that when the New Testament says that Love is the center of the Law of Moses and that in it all commandments are fulfilled, I believe it, even regarding the institution of marriage. Yes, even this institution of patriarchy, property, and violence, was good and used by God, which is why it is in our bibles today. Through a patriarchal culture, the laws of marriage and sexuality obliged men to be faithful and to provide for women, protecting them, since they were extremely vulnerable socially and economically by not having any rights and being considered inferior to men. This was a net of protection.

But, as Paul teaches us in Galatians 3 and 4, the Law was there to be a disciplinarian, a tutor, a guardian. God’s regulations for the human experience of sex and marriage were not ends in themselves, but rather, they were meant to lead us to Christ and to moral maturity.

I believe the advent of Christ does not intend in keeping women vulnerable in order to preserve an ancient institution, but rather to transcend it by bringing men to realize women are equal. Today, if a woman is single and living alone, she can work and afford her costs of living. She does not need a father or a husband to take care of her. She does not need a social and economic net of protection. Children, however, do. Children are still vulnerable, and they need a social and economic net of protection that keeps them safe and protected, that gives them belonging, etc. This net was never provided directly because of marriage: Abraham had a son with Hagar, Ishmael, who almost starved to death in the desert, cast away from home, and God himself had to intervene because Abraham did not care. I believe that as Christians we should care, and I am not saying marriage is the answer, but I do believe it is the a practical way to give ourselves up for the good of a vulnerable new life: by making a covenant to stay together for a child’s sake as long as they need us. Still, human relationships are broken, numerous children have grown up in divorced homes, including myself, and found meaning in human relationships aside from their fathers or mothers. The whole community of the faithful is responsible for those who are vulnerable, and maybe that leaves no teleological justification for marriage.

Ultimately, I believe that true love is friendship, a friendship that refuses claims of difference and status, where sinners walk boldly before the Holy Throne and are welcomed to walk with God.

Sex, this holy thing, is to be treated as holy, to be done with respect, fairness, equality, good will, and love. These things are hard to find both outside and inside of marriage. Do you join the other person as flesh of your flesh, as one, the same as you, or do you use them as an object for your pleasure and possession? Rings and contracts do not help you with this question. As it is usual in the Gospel, loving your neighbor like Christ loved you is a much higher standard than following a guidebook or a checklist.

Marriage, this ambiguous institution, is for those who want to be part in it, and I would argue it can be a good thing if done between lovers who truly want to make that covenant. It may also be a pragmatic choice to validate a civil union before the state.

I could go on and explain this more but I have already written too much. I made claims about Western society and about Christianity but marriage is a human institution that goes beyond these two categories. The different shapes of marriage and sex are facts of the human experience. My question is: Would Jesus care whether you are Christian or not to live life the way he taught? Jesus himself wasn’t Christian. But for those of us who are Christian, for those of us who do care, I ask, what makes one a Christian? If you are a Christian, can you date, have sex, and even marry someone who is not?

Paul says that light and darkness cannot live together.

The thing is, I don’t think God, reality, Truth, cares about what you call yourself. You can call yourself a Christian and be very much anti-Christian, trying to conserve everything Christ came to destroy. You can be an atheist but your love for your neighbor be Christlike. John already told us that it is those who love who truly know God. The real question is whether you are light or darkness, and whether the other person is also light or darkness. Your love, your friendship, will grow out of the equality between you, or it may break out of differences, and you may find yourself in an empty husk of a relationship that is made of dead letters and vows that mean nothing.

The best answer I find, to end this long text, is one of Jesus’ parables:

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.

Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not trust him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes trusted him […]”


 

 

References:

  1. CCC can. 1055 §1
  2. Page 110 of Notes and Queries on Anthropology. Sixth edition. by Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Available on https://archive.org/details/NotesAndQueriesOnAnthropology.SixthEdition
  3. …Nichomachean Ethics, book VIII (http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.8.viii.html) “for friendship is said to be equality”
  4. For an accessible secondary source on this, see Greece & Rome, Vol. 57, No. 2, © The Classical Association, 2010. All rights reserveddoi:10.1017/S0017383510000069

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