Pagan and non-Christian societies provide legal status and support for the kinds of marriage that express their basic beliefs about humanity, sexuality and marriage. Pagan societies almost universally see marriage as polygamous [and occasionally polyandrous] with various legal provisions made for concubinage. Under both communism and fascism, definitions of marriage have been used that were quite alien to the local Christian churches. Greek and Roman definitions of marriage and sexuality are a well documented point of deep divergence with the local churches of the early centuries. If Europe returns to its pagan ancestry then, naturally, it will return to those ancient, non-Christian definitions of marriage and sexuality.
Someone asked me, with evident shock, if I could imagine what would happen if the current redefinitions of marriage led to things like polygamy? It was very sweet really. Christian churches have often lived under legal systems that recognise polygamy and it has been [and still is] quite a common form of legal marriage around the world. Local churches have lived under legal systems that recognised same-sex partnerships in the ancient world and we are doing so again now. Yes, it can be a shock to realise that we live in a non-Christian society and we do not have any privileged status or power. Yet, this has been quite normal for local churches down the ages and it is, in fact, what Jesus told us to expect. The only weird thing is the way that European churches have grown so used to actually imposing ‘Christian’ ideas through the statute books. It is interesting to see which churches and church leaders are most alarmed at the loss of this power.
The LORD Jesus Christ, through the whole Scriptures, sets out His own unique vision of marriage and sexuality. The Bible shows almost no interest in what kind of ‘orientation’ any of us might have or what kind of people or things our sexual desires might attach to. Throughout the whole Bible there is a much more practical concern with what we do with our sexuality and how we say “no” to worldly passions, living self-controlled lives in this present age while we wait for the glorious appearing of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ. The passions are there, and we are not told to deny their existence, but rather we say ‘no’ to them and instead develop [receive from the Spirit] a new passion for the glorious appearing of our God and Saviour. (Titus 2:11-13)
The alcoholic might live with a strong worldly passion all their life, yet every day they have to say ‘no’ to it - and the fact of that daily ‘no’ is what gives them the freedom and dignity that is so precious. We understand this well enough, but don’t always see how the experience of the alcoholic is a basic paradigm rather than a special case.
We all are what we are as fallen, messy sinners, whether our sexual desires want to run away after several different people of the ‘opposite’ sex or the same sex or both sexes or we may feel little sexual desire. As followers of Jesus, all of us have to say ‘no’ to a great many of our sexual desires, yet there is that one context of a lifelong marriage between a man and a woman where we are permitted, within godly limits and self-control, to say ‘yes’ to sexual desire. Jesus’ preference is, of course, that we don’t marry at all and are able to say ‘no’ to all our sexual desires and give all our passion and desire to the life and work of the Kingdom of God. Yet, if any of us cannot do that, there is this one possibility of a totally exclusive, lifelong, sacrificial marriage between a man and a woman.
Yes, even allowing for that possibility does not mean that any specific person will ever be married. There are godly people who would love to marry but have just never been able to make it happen, for one reason or another. There are godly people whose desires do not lead them towards such a marriage.
Naturally, this understanding of marriage and sexuality is based on a passionate love and trust for the LORD Jesus Christ. It would seem very legalistic and futile for anybody outside the love and support of a local church to try to live this way. How can any of us joyfully say ‘no’ to our worldly passions, eclipsed by that great passion for the return of Jesus, unless we are members of the local family of Jesus followers? There is too much frustration and bitterness when we turn to ‘religion’ as the alternative to our own sexual desires – or when people turn to a harsh treatment of the body (Colossians 2:23). It is not good for us to be alone - and whether we are married or not we urgently need that family of the local church where we can find that unity and diversity in Jesus that we were made for.
It is, of course, slightly odd that in the modern age there is so much pressure within our churches to get people married off. Yes, the culture of the day strongly worships sex, romance and relationships - with the overt pagan claim that a failure to be sexually active is almost dehumanising. Our Christian ancestors of the ancient Roman empire tended to emphasise their freedom from such views by declaring how many of their congregations were lifelong unmarried virgins. It is hard to imagine such a free and confident view of human sexuality at this moment, though there are some encouraging signs as we are sent back to an older, deeper view of sexuality and marriage.
We are living at the tail end of a cultural era when Christianity had exercised enormous control over the legal structures of the European world. It is fascinating to see how this was done in relation to marriage in medieval Europe as strict legal limits on marriage were introduced as a support to the vision of ‘Christendom’ that was forming. Polygamy was a widespread European practice in early medieval Europe which was addressed with ‘Christian’ legislation especially after 1215. A classic example was over the marriage of close relations. Historically it was considered a good thing to marry close relations so that land and power could be kept within a fairly tight family heritage, but for a variety of political, economic and theological reasons Christendom tended to introduce legal limits that forced people to marry from a much wider social circle.
Having such political and legal power was not necessarily good for the churches or for ‘Christian’ marriage. If the only kind of legal marriage available is ‘Christian’ marriage, then is there really any such thing as ‘Christian’ marriage in such a society? If people were forced to marry only as if they were followers of Jesus, even when they were most definitely not, then how could anybody ever see what difference Jesus really makes to marriage? Once we seriously question the idea that the church should be married to the state, then we see how strange it is for the church to ever be meddling in the business of the state’s legal recognition of marriage?
My Nonconformist friends find these protests against legal definitions of gay marriage totally incomprehensible, but for those of us with established church connections it is “emotionally more complicated”! Islam is comfortable with claiming legal and political power because it was the way of Muhammad from the beginning, but it is most definitely not the way of Jesus to do that.
In the period between Moses and the Ascension when the Christian church formed its own nation and, to various limited degrees, was able to write its own laws, there was a sense in which ‘Christian’ marriage and the law had a much closer relation. Even then, of course, the law could only define the limits and provide certain provisions, but the love and sacrifice, the faithfulness and service, all still came down to the godliness of the husband and wife.
However, before Moses and after the Ascension, how could local churches ever have that level of legal control over marriage in any society? We are only ever a small minority and Jesus promised us that we would be consistently persecuted, misunderstood and even hated. We are spread out through all the nations and cultures of the world, trying to live out the way of Jesus under all kinds of legal systems and cultural expectations. Sometimes the law makes it easier for us, sometimes not.
Many of our brothers and sisters in Muslim majority nations or communist regimes have all kinds of legal problems not only with marriage but also their basic citizenship. It is pleasant when the law is not against us, but can we ever really expect the law to enforce the way of Jesus on the whole of a nation?
Can we ever really expect to be the legal majority who makes life difficult for or even persecutes those who do not follow Jesus?
In the 16th and 17th century some of our Christian ancestors took a very different view. What had the church got to do with marriage? How had the church ever ended up exercising this kind of state power, providing legal norms for marriage? How did local churches ever become franchises of the registry office? The Puritans who went to America wanted to escape the European alliance between church and state. The established churches of England and Rome thought that marriage was their business, to be authorised by the clergy, but the new England Puritans believed that marriage was a civil business to be governed by the magistrate. They did not want institutional churches wielding such civic power.
Followers of Jesus marry only other followers of Jesus, only one man married to one woman, exclusively and for life, modelled on the marriage between Christ and the Church - but none of that is from the magistrate! The magistrate/registry officer is only interested in recognising the civil union defined by the state: the content we pour into that is what it means to follow Jesus.
Think for a moment who utterly strange it would be to imagine Jesus of Nazareth lobbying Herod or Pilate for better marriage laws so that His teaching might find a more comfortable place in society. The Christians in the catacombs were not administering the states records.
Local churches are the places where Christian marriage is defined, where we disciple one another in Jesus’ way - and it is almost a total irrelevance how the state views marriage. The way we follow Jesus in marriage and sexuality is ever more distant from the legal patterns and cultural assumptions of European society. Maybe that’s all the better for our Christian witness. Perhaps it is time we got out of the legal marriage business and leave that entirely up to the state.
The state can define marriage however it wants to - but we should have the confidence and faithfulness to hold up and display Christian marriage for what it is. We are not a franchise agency for the state’s administration of marriage. We are the churches of the LORD Jesus Christ bearing witness to His way of sexuality and marriage that is radically different to anything else in European culture. We need to make sure that in our local churches we are showing the world what the LORD Jesus Christ created marriage to be - but can we really do this through the statute book? What right do we have to judge those who are outside? 1 Corinthians 5:12.
A friend asked me to consider another possibility. In the Bible it is sometimes difficult to see the relevance of the state at all in marriage. When Isaac married Rebekah, wasn't that just handled within the local church? The local church community recognised that Zak and Becky were hitched and so Zak & Becky went to live in his tent for the rest of their lives. Did it ever cross their minds to register this event with the local Canaanite magistrate? Were they expecting some tax breaks, allowances and credits as a kind of state reward for getting hitched? I'm not convinced that any of these things went through their minds. So, is it even conceivable that a modern Zak and Becky could, after some marriage prep and wisdom from older Christians, announce their marriage after the morning service and then go and live together for the rest of their lives as a married couple... and never even bother seeking tax credits, allowances or legal status from the magistrate? This possibility gave me a sleepless night, thinking it through.
The fact is that as followers of Jesus our marriages are full of challenges and struggles as well as joy and comfort. When we display the way of Jesus in marriage we are trying to show how grace, patience and love work when selfish sinners are joined so closely together.
At the moment there is a real danger that, once again, Christians can appear to be trying to legislate through the statute book that non-Christian people must behave as if they are Christians.