In a recent post at First Things, Abigail Rine, an assistant professor of English at George Fox University, writes about her experience trying to teach “What is Marriage” [pdf]. Her Evangelical students not only didn’t like the conclusion, but had difficulty even understanding the authors’ argument. Yet Rine does not place the blame primarily on them, but on their pastors and parents:
While I listened to my students lambast the article, it struck me that, on one level, they were right: marriage isn’t in danger of being redefined; the redefinition began decades ago, in the wake of the sexual revolution. Once the link between sexuality and procreation was severed in our cultural imagination, marriage morphed into an exclusive romantic bond that has only an arbitrary relationship to reproduction. It is this redefinition, arguably, that has given rise to the same-sex marriage movement, rather than the other way around, and as the broader culture has shifted on this issue, so have many young evangelicals.
From time to time, my friend Justin Lee—founder of the Gay Christian Network—and I give joint presentations about how Christians can disagree charitably and civilly about homosexuality. Justin and I both grew up Southern Baptist, and we have a lot in common. We also disagree, and have disagreed for nearly two decades now, about whether same-sex sexual activity is ever compatible with God’s will.
Sometimes, someone who has seen our presentation will ask me why I think Justin “changed his theology” to support gay marriage, while I stuck with conservative theology. This is a fairly natural question, and since Justin and I have been friends for so long, I would be as likely to have insight into that as anyone.
However, I think the question actually rests on a substantial misunderstanding. I did not hold onto the theology of marriage I learned in Southern Baptist Churches growing up. If I had, I would support same-sex marriage. When I listen to Justin’s presentations, what I hear in his arguments for same-sex marriage is simply the logical outworking of the theology of marriage we both grew up with.
Justin has to explain away a few verses that deal with homosexuality. But his efforts to explain away do not surprise me. I grew up among pastors who didn’t even bother to explain away the New Testament teaching on divorce as they cheerfully blessed second, third, and even fourth marriages (and yes, I had the misfortune of attending Rev. Ken Hutcherson’s church for a time). However, the connection between marriage and procreation—which is the most important basis for distinguishing between same-sex and opposite-sex marriages—was rejected if not mocked by Evangelicals who regarded the Catholic teaching on contraception entirely backward.
In the most obvious sense, Justin is more faithful to his Evangelical upbringing than I am. I hold a traditional view on same-sex marriage because I rejected the theology of marriage I grew up with, and came to embrace the theology of marriage that used to be defended by Protestants and is still (at least officially) defended by the Catholic Church. That theology has, however, largely disappeared from the daily practice of American Christians, Catholic or Protestant.
As I consider my own upbringing and the various “sex talks” I encountered in evangelical church settings over the past twenty years, I realize that the view of marital sex presented there was primarily revisionist. While the ideal of raising a family is ever-present in evangelical culture, discussions about sex itself focused almost exclusively on purity, as well as the intense spiritual bond that sexual intimacy brings to a married couple. Pregnancy was mentioned only in passing and often in negative terms, paraded alongside sexually transmitted diseases as a possible punishment for those who succumb to temptation. But for those who wait, ah! Pleasures abound!
There was little attempt to cultivate an attitude toward sexuality that celebrates its full telos: the bonding of the couple and the incarnation of new life. And there was certainly no discussion of a married couple learning to be responsive to their fertility, even as a guiding principle. To the contrary, the narrative implied that once the “waiting” was over, self-discipline would no longer be necessary. Marriage would be a lifelong pleasure romp. Sex was routinely praised as God’s gift to married couples—a “gift” largely due to its orgasmic, unitive properties, rather than its intrinsic capacity to create life.
The conjugal understanding of marriage, as articulated by Girgis et al, depends upon a view of sex that, in my experience, is not predominant in evangelicalism. Take Mark Driscoll’s book Real Marriage as a recent, if extreme, example. With its celebration of anal sex and breast augmentation as marital sex aids, Real Marriage is emblematic of how deeply the ideals of the sexual revolution have permeated our culture, even to its evangelical corners.
To my students, the authors of “What is Marriage?” are making a troubling move, reducing the purpose of marital sex to its reproductive function. What they seemed less able to recognize is that they have inherited the inverse: a view of sex with little meaningful connection to procreation. And once such a view of sexuality is embraced, there is not much foothold, aside from appeals to biblical authority, to support the conjugal understanding of marriage.