Two days ago SCOTUS heard oral arguments regarding marriage equality. The “definition” of marriage was raised as a concern with comments about “the” definition of marriage as between a man and a woman and “the” definition as being ancient. But I find that there is not one, singular definition of marriage.
Over time the definition of marriage evolved.
Marriage has been an ancient contract, but not between a man and woman. The ancient definition of the contract was an exchange of property between two men. The definition of marriage provided for a transfer of alliances and allegiances between men. Women and the potential male heir she would birth were a commodity for sealing the deal.
One man handed over his daughter to the other but her value was so little that he also paid the bridegroom a dowry of money, property or goods. The definition of marriage from ancient times also did not restrict the man to only this one woman as a wife, nor did it restrict him from having lovers; in some societies, male lovers were preferred as superior. The marriage was utilitarian.
In addition, the historical evidence for marriage as a civil political strategy is present in the Jewish and Christian story and King Solomon is the prime example. This story highlights a form of marriage which today is completely foreign to most Americans. To have married hundreds of women and maintain a harem of hundreds of concubines is inconceivable today, demonstrating again that the definition of marriage has changed.
Within my context, many believe the Christian Scriptures repeatedly identify men and women marrying as proof the definition is only for opposite sex couples. Regarding the gender of the marital partners, descriptive passages of law or holy writings are not necessarily prescriptive. They are reports more than directives. Those that are directive are about the role of the parties in the marriage.
The male is to become the patriarch of the female’s household. The male may not divorce his wife unless she commits adultery. They are to have sexual intercourse with one another. In those days, women (as is true in some societies now among the Christian cousins, Muslims) women were not permitted to speak with any male other than her husband or young sons. Hence Jesus’ female followers were quite scandalous and the woman who he protected, guilty of adultery, was inconceivable. Jesus upended the roles of men and women. It is traditionally understood that Jesus was not married. This too was inconceivable. To choose not to marry redefined marriage.
Thus, descriptions of the marital contract in Scripture identify heterosexual marriages but rarely recognize any marriage as founded on what today is most respected—loving relationships.
The ideal of marital love is highlighted in two prominent relationships. In Scripture, David and Jonathon and Ruth and Naomi are two same sex couples who identify a covenant with one another in which mutual love is the pre-eminent concern. King David’s love for Prince Jonathon surpasses his love of women according to the Bible. The fact that we have any story of covenant between two women is amazing. Ruth is identified in Jesus’ genealogy which is astounding. For both, marriage would not have been an option as it was a civil contract among men regarding their daughters and their property as described above. Nevertheless these couples’ love for each other drew forth undying fidelity toward one another. In both cases a child was adopted and cared for by the non-biological “parent.” These two families of choice are biblical examples of the spiritual significance of covenant. More about that below.
In my tradition of Reformed Christian theology a significant shift occurred in the Reformation as the celibacy of the priesthood was debated and ultimately discarded. In his Institutes John Calvin discusses the role of civil law in relation to this issue. He believes the church has gotten inappropriately involved in marital law. Marriage is better left to the civil judiciary. Ultimately he highlights three things about just laws as he discusses marriage: the rule of love should guide our lawmaking, equity and justice are the natural basis and foundation of civil law, and an oppressive law is unjust even if it is restrictive for only a minority of the citizenry. (These citations are from Book 4 chapters 10 and 20.)
But perhaps most importantly, Calvin is very clear in his discussion of fidelity, chastity, and celibacy that marriage is a gift to help humankind understand the covenant bond between God and Christ/Christ and the Church and states the purpose of marriage is that we are “members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones, and thus one flesh with him…And that nobody may be deceived by an ambiguity, he [Paul] explains that he is not speaking of carnal union of man and woman, but of the spiritual marriage of Christ and the church.” (4.19.35) In other words, flesh of my flesh is not about copulation contrary to one perspective put forth by religious based anti-equality proponents.
The definition of marriage in the civil community was a property contract and in the Protestant church a spiritual sign of God’s covenant. Marriage is meant to reflect covenant love and the unity of spirit that does not (can not) be understood simply through the physical union of sexual intercourse. It is the commitment to one another that is most important. It has always been true that the ministers/rabbis did not “marry” people. Rather, the clergy witness and announce the exchange of vows between two people.
And so finally we come to Paul’s prime statement about the mystery of union with God, in Christ, “there is no longer…male and female,” (Gal 3:28) signifying that the most fundamental division of humanity has been laid aside. Our gender is not the definitive identifier of our humanity nor our place in the realm of God’s covenant.
If we no longer define our relationships first on the basis of gender, then marriage is defined on the basis of covenantal spiritual union formed through lovingkindness. If we no longer consider marriage as an assurance of property or political advantages, then marriage is defined as a mutual and equal exchange of commitment and shared life willingly entered by the partners. If we no longer restrict marriage to lawful copulation for the purpose of reproduction and inheritance rights, then marriage is defined as a family of choice reflective of a God who elects a people for salvation and service.
In other words, the definition of marriage has been fluid throughout human history when we look at the civil laws. When examining the spiritual descriptions of marriage we see the same fluidity, but we also find a new dimension that transcends gender-based restrictions in favor of calling all people to the love of God in covenant communion.
The conclusion of a court ruling about marriage equality must be based on the equitable application of the laws of marriage for all the citizens without regard to sexual orientation or gender expression.