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Affirming Gay Marriage in the Christian Church
books, both arguing in favor of same-sex marriage, yet as different as can
be! In Blessing Same-Sex Unions, Mark Jordan writes in an often
ironic tone. Why should gays and lesbians aspire to receive the church's
blessing on their unions if heterosexual marriage is itself a charade in
practice and theologically unsubstantiated? Jordan, a professor at Emory
University, argues that Christian marriage is loaded with contradictions,
having been captured by cultural notions of romance and the perfect wedding.
He examines how such conventions have also come to influence the understanding
of unions of same-sex couples. Documenting his case colorfully from both
popular media and scholarly sources, he asks: If all that marriage entails
is following the etiquette advice from a professional wedding planner, what
is the point?
Jordan digs deep as he examines the historical and theological origins
of Christian marriage. The chief contradiction involves the practice of
polygamy in the patriarchal biblical narrative, which undermines later
attempts to construct a Christian norm. And Jordan subjects theological
arguments for marriage based on the New Testament to criticism based on
the vagaries of the texts used to substantiate them. When one studies
the historical manifestations of the interpretations and rituals of marriage,
it becomes clear that they have been in constant flux. Jordan considers
even the work of John Boswell and Alan Bray, who argue for some historical
precedents for same-sex unions, to be of limited value for the construction
of a contemporary rite.
The task of producing a foundational theology of Christian marriage
and implementing that theology in marriage practice is an urgent matter
not only for same-sex unions but for all marriages, Jordan contends. In
the end he affirms that "Christian churches should bless same-sex unions,"
but he makes his argument more by negating the confusions of straight
marriage than by constructing a positive case.
By contrast, What God Has Joined Together? is strongest when
David Myers and Letha Dawson Scanzoni are arguing for the virtues of Christian
marriage and advocating that the same virtues be available to gay and
lesbian couples. Myers, professor of psychology at Hope College, and Scanzoni,
author of eight other books and editor for the Evangelical and Ecumenical
Women's Caucus, write in the idiom of the evangelical audience they seek
to persuade. They honor opponents of gay marriage by taking very seriously
the chief objections to greater inclusiveness for homosexual persons in
the life of congregations. For example, they review the literature on
the cause of sexual orientation and the possibility of changing one's
orientation, as well as familiar arguments based on the Bible texts regularly
used in the homosexuality debate. While their conclusions favor greater
openness, their style is more irenic than Jordan's.
Myers and Scanzoni cite statistics that make a formidable case that
marriage contributes greatly to human flourishing and the well-being of
society. (These are the same statistics that Jordan calls into question
as rationalizations for the "marriage movement.") The authors are persuaded
that civil unions for homosexual couples are insufficient. Rather, only
the blessings of Christian marriage can bring the fulfillment that God
intends for human lives. They call on liberals to advocate more forcefully
for the value of marriage in general and ask conservatives to recognize
that the benefits of marriage can also contribute to genuine fulfillment
in same-sex relationships.
In an appendix about "changing attitudes," Myers and Scanzoni raise
the question of whether we are in the midst of a paradigm shift toward
greater acceptance of homosexuality and the possibility of gay marriage.
Actions by denominations, such as those taken at the recent churchwide
assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, can be subject
to varying interpretations. On the one hand, that assembly soundly defeated
a resolution (requiring a two-thirds majority) to change church policy
to allow in exceptional cases the ordination of ministers in lifelong
same-gender relationships. On the other hand, almost 50 percent voted
in favor of allowing such exceptions, a surprisingly large percentage.
At the same time, the ELCA passed a resolution allowing local pastors
and congregations to discern appropriate forms of pastoral care-an existing
practice that has in some places been interpreted as allowing for the
blessing of same-sex couples. From within the flow of history it is very
difficult to discern whether a paradigm shift is in motion or in the process
of being checked.
Whether through ironic or irenic discourse, the authors of both of those
books seek to foster the emergence of a paradigm that affirms gay marriage
in the Christian church. While their arguments are substantially different,
they agree that the case for the blessing of same-sex unions can be made
only with a careful and thoroughgoing reclamation of the meaning of marriage
itself, starting with the theology and practice of heterosexual marriage.
L. Nessan is academic dean and professor of contextual theology
at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, and author of Many
Members, Yet One Body: Committed Same-Gender Relationships and the Mission
of the Church (Augsburg Fortress)
CENTURY. Reproduced by permission from the December 13, 2005
issue of the CHRISTIAN CENTURY. Subscriptions: $49/year from P.O. Box
378, Mt. Morris, IL 61054. 1-800-208-4097
Copyright © by the author
All Rights Reserved
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