[Below are the opening and closing speech related to Motion 23 at the General Synod meeting in Fiji last week. Please note that the biblical work is largely that of Professor Esther Hamori and can be read in full at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/esther-j-hamori/biblical-standards-for-marriage_b_1540159.html]
Bula, Malo e lelei, Talofa Lava, Tena Koutou katoa.
Motion 23 simply asks that the discussions happening internationally concerning marriage be encouraged also within our church communities. The purpose is not to have a yes/no vote, but to have a discussion that will feed into the work of the Ma Whea Commission. Marriage is a rite we, the Church, have had a long involvement with. It is timely to consider what we are doing in marriage and why.
My personal view on the subject of same gender marriage is that it is the quality of the love between the couple – a quality marked by self-giving, mutuality, and commitment – that is sacred [and that some of us would term sacramental], rather than the gender of the two marriage partners.
Marriage in the Bible is not restricted to one man and one woman, or in fact to any one model. As Professor Hamori of Union Theological Seminary says “There is, however, a unifying theme to the diverse pictures of God-sanctioned marriages in the Bible, and it is that different kinds of unions are accepted in different places and times, evolving [simultaneously] with broader cultural shifts.”
Marital guidelines in the New Testament are clustered with instructions on other types of relationships. The passage in Ephesians that assumes a normative husband-wife relationship (and a hierarchy within it) is followed five verses later by the directive to slaves to obey their masters. There is no logical reason to read one set of instructions as culturally bound and the other as universal.
In his instruction to wives to be submissive, the author of First Peter turned to his Scriptures (the Hebrew Bible) for authority. As he explains, "in former times the holy women" used to submit to their husbands, as "Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord" (1 Peter 3:5-6). Since this is the biblical model to which Peter turns, we might benefit from looking at it ourselves.
Sarah was Abraham's half-sister (Genesis 20:12). "Well, that's not his point," one might say. Exactly: who the two parties were in relation to one another was not First Peter’s point. It was, however, a central point for Sarah and Abraham. At that time in Israel, the ideal marriage was within the family. This is why Abraham sends his servant to find Isaac a wife from among his kin, and God blesses Isaac with Rebekah, his first cousin's daughter (Genesis 24:4, 15). In the next generation, Isaac tells Jacob to marry from among his cousins (Genesis 28:2), and he does -- two of them.
But as we might agree, First Peter's point was not actually to uphold the biblical standard for marriage between close relatives. Rather he understood that this model for who the parties should be -- which was utterly central in its original setting -- was not applicable centuries later in his cultural context.
In a similar vein, the Bible reflects a range of perspectives on mixed marriages from different historical settings. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah prohibit intermarriage. In the book of Ruth, however the heroine is a Moabite woman who marries an Israelite man, and becomes the great-grandmother of King David.
Ezra and Nehemiah's adamant prohibitions against mixed marriage were intended to protect both sanctity and society at a time when the stability of Israel was in question. These two great leaders and proponents of the Torah of Moses were not concerned with the fact that the prohibition would have incriminated Moses himself, who had married a Midianite (Exodus 2:16-22).
Here again we see two principles at work: that biblical mandates for marriage shifted according to perceived cultural needs, and that the interpretive choice of what is seen as applicable by the reader begins with the reader's preconceived notions before ever turning to the Scriptures.
Each of these biblical standards for marriage -- polygamy, marriage within the family, prohibitions against intermarriage -- were seen as vital in some historical contexts, and not in others. In times and places where marriage to a first cousin was the ideal, the Bible says such marriages are blessed by God. When polygamy was the cultural norm, that too is said to be blessed. Kinship and property are important factors in many biblical marriages; one element that rarely figures into biblical standards for marriage, however, is love.
Marriage in the Bible is also not restricted to couples who can reproduce together biologically. Some biblical couples do not have children; others use a surrogate, such as Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 16), Jacob and Rachel, and Jacob and Leah (Genesis 30). In the latter two cases, each sister explicitly claims her surrogate's babies as her own, and all are presented as given by God.
So is it down to the Garden of Eden, then? Adam and Eve never actually got married. Is a woman created as an adult from a man's rib our example of what marriage should look like? It is no more logical to see the Eden story as establishing that all spouses in the world should be male and female than as establishing that all people should till the soil.
Some point to Adam and Eve as the authoritative model because Jesus refers to them in Mark 10:1-12. The context is this: Jesus has been asked whether it's lawful for a man to divorce his wife, and he answers by citing the Eden story and says, "Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate." He adds -- and this is the clearest statement about marriage that Jesus makes -- that anyone divorced and remarried is committing adultery.
Notably, it's hard to find too many heterosexual married people (including those who appeal to the Bible in opposition of same gender marriage) who argue that divorce and remarriage should be illegal.
While a conservative view is that the Bible sets standards, and cultures either follow these standards or don't, the Bible itself shows us that cultural norms and biblical positions shifted in tandem. This does not mean that anything goes; it's simply what we see in the biblical texts themselves. It does not mean that there are no standards; there were always incest taboos, for example, but what counts as incest is culturally dictated, and our society does not embrace many biblical perspectives on this (e.g., the ideal of marrying one's first cousin). It does not mean that God is a pushover; it shows, if anything, a God who will engage people in the world in which they live.
The variety we see in biblical models of marriage cannot be brushed off as a development from the Old Testament to the New Testament. First Peter uses the half-siblings Sarah and Abraham as his ultimate model of marriage, Jesus views divorce and remarriage as adultery, and Paul says it's better not to marry at all, but allows it "as a concession" (1 Corinthians 7:1-6).
The biblical models for marriage include a range of relationships and combinations, and these evolve with the culture.
In our time and place, given what we now know about homosexuality not being a sickness or aberration, given that many gay and lesbian people are and have long been faithful members of our church, given that many gay and lesbian couples have shown in their lives the fruits of grace, aroha, and service, given that some gay and lesbian couples are now are asking for marriage, let us re-consider what we – in the light of God’s Spirit – think is the essence of this marriage rite. To my mind to shut out a couple who want to pledge life-long fidelity and self-giving love is to threaten the integrity of what this sacrament means. Integrity goes to the heart of this discussion. Heterosexuals do not have a monopoly on Christ-like love – the love we hold up as an ideal in marriage.
So we need to korero [talk] about this. Why? Because it matters.
I move Motion 23 standing in my name.
Concluding speech/right of reply
Thank you for this discussion – especially to those who spoke from the heart, and those who spoke with reservations, and those who spoke about the wider issue and meaning of marriage.
Within the pages of the Bible we see the nature of marriage changing, evolving in tandem with broader cultural shifts – and I gladly admit there are other ways of reading Scripture.
We are at another time of change. LGBT members have exhibited extraordinary willpower to survive in a church that condemns them.
It is not inconceivable that before we meet again [in 2014] the NZ Government may legislate for same gender marriage. We need to think carefully, prayerfully, about our response, reading widely and listening to diverse voices.
If we decide we cannot change from the current norm of one man and one woman then we need to consider the signal that gives to those who often feel and are marginalized in our Church, and the consequent damage that does to how we are perceived by wider society. Currently the Church is seen by many in NZ society as fundamentally oppose to gays and lesbians in ways contrary to society’s understanding of the love and ministry of Jesus.
I remain however hopeful about the Church as a place of aroha and hospitality to gay and lesbian people, as a place that holds up the values of self-giving love, mutually and commitment in relationship [regardless of gender], and a place that listens to what the Spirit is saying to the Church in every time and culture.
What do you think?