The recent outcry over The Gospel Coalition posting an excerpt from Josh Butler’s forthcoming book Beautiful Union on their website brought marriage back to the forefront of discussion in Christian internet circles. Yet this is a topic that never seems far away. Having grown up in evangelical churches, I am very familiar with evangelicalism’s centering of marriage and family, supported by the mutually reinforcing ideologies of purity culture and marriage culture. When I joined a mainline denomination as an adult, I encountered another kind of preoccupation with marriage—groups of people fighting tooth and nail to maintain “traditional marriage,” often equating heterosexual marriage with the Gospel itself in their rhetoric. All of this prompts the question: Why are so many Christians so focused on marriage?

The theological significance that a Christian community ascribes to marriage affects everyone in the community, both in how its members aim to conform their lives to the ideal of marriage and in the way that failure to meet this ideal is perceived. Some Christian traditions consider marriage between baptised Christians to be a sacrament. In Protestant communities, marriage is usually not considered a sacrament, yet in practical terms marriage often outweighs baptism and communion in terms of the spiritual significance it is granted and the way that it functions as a gatekeeping mechanism for the community. Across the spectrum of Christian traditions, those who don’t achieve the goal of heterosexual marriage have often been excluded from full belonging in their Christian communities.

I’ve heard plenty of wedding sermons, but I don’t think I’ve ever been to a wedding where the Gospel text was Luke 20:27-40, or its parallel texts in Matthew and Mark. Given that this is one of the only times that Jesus directly addresses marriage, it should be a seminal text for anyone trying to build a Christian understanding of marriage. In this passage, various people have come to Jesus with thorny questions, trying to trip him up in what he says. The last group to present him with a question is the Sadducees, who, we are told, “say there is no resurrection.” The Sadducees present Jesus with a case study: a woman’s husband dies and his brother marries her to “raise up children for his brother.” The woman marries all seven brothers without producing any heirs, until at last she dies, too. “In the resurrection, therefore,” they ask Jesus with a gleam in their eye, “whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her” (Luke 20:33).

Jesus is clear in his response: “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection” (Luke 20:34-36). Jesus contrasts here between “this age” and “that age [to come],” but these labels convey more than a temporal distinction. To import language that Jesus uses elsewhere, “that age” is one in which the kingdom of God is fully present. Marriage is commonplace for “those who belong to this age,” but marriage has no place in resurrection life.[1]

This passage hints that procreation is not something the children of the resurrection need worry themselves about either. In the scenario that the Sadducees present to Jesus, each of the brothers marries the widow in a dutiful effort to follow the law of Moses and produce an heir for their dead brother. But Jesus tells the Sadducees, “You know neither the scriptures nor the power of God” (Mark 12:24). Those who are part of the age to come are “God’s children” and “children of the resurrection.” Neither marriage nor procreation is a concern in the age to come, in which God’s power births children without need for the formalities of blood relation.

Jesus’s ambivalence toward marriage is echoed throughout the New Testament. In Matthew 19, Jesus’s disciples suggest that perhaps it is better not to marry. Jesus responds, “There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can” (Matthew 19:11-12). For his part, Paul repeatedly says that he thinks it is preferable not to marry (1 Corinthians 7:1, 7, 8, 11, 26, 38).

Yet churches rarely turn to these teachings to build their theology of marriage. A New Testament passage that is given far more weight is Ephesians 5. Here, Paul famously instructs husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church. Much is made of the fact that Paul uses marriage as a symbol for Christ’s relationship with the church (and much modern theological extrapolation is hazarded from this, into things like the “roles” of each partner in a marriage). When this passage is used as the basis for a theology of marriage, it is often treated as if marriage is a uniquely privileged metaphor for Christ and the church, thereby granting marriage a special spiritual status.  

In reality, there are a variety of metaphors for the relationship between Christ and the church throughout the New Testament—shepherd and flock, vine and branches, cornerstone and building, etc. Yet most people would not claim from this that raising sheep is a spiritually privileged occupation or that buildings are inherently sacramental. Even within the Ephesians 5 marriage passage, Paul draws on another well-known metaphor for Christ and the church—that of a body. We are members of Christ’s own body, Paul says. Christ feeds and cares for us just as we do the same for our own bodies (Eph. 5:29-30). So yes, I can look to marriage and see a symbol of Christ and the church. But I can also look to my own body and see the same thing.

Jesus’s teachings radically decenter marriage, yet many Christian traditions have granted heterosexual marriage a privileged spiritual status. Whether marriage is considered a sacrament or whether it just functions unofficially in this way, marriage has often been made an unspoken condition for experiencing the fullness of spiritual life. Yet there is no basis in the teachings of Jesus (or Paul) for privileging marriage in this way. In fact, Jesus seems to say exactly the opposite—that marriage is irrelevant to children of the resurrection.

So, is heterosexual marriage really a “holy estate” as the old prayerbooks say? I think it can be. But singleness can also be a holy estate. So can queerness. For some, sifting through the pieces of a failed marriage might be the most holy estate of all, the place where God’s presence is most deeply known. Maybe it’s time we let go of our collective obsession with marriage and started living resurrection life.

[1] A similar teaching is found in Luke 17:26-27: “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them.”

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