This is Part 3 of an ongoing theological reflection on marriage as a sacramental practice and how it relates to other sacramental practices. In Part 1 and Part 2, as well as this post, I look at marriage. In coming posts, I'll look at marriage as a sacramental practice in relation to other sacramental practices.
Sorry for the delay on this one. Dissertation research, vacation, and technological issues compounded.
I've put off substantial biblical discussion thus far, limiting my biblical references to raising up issues around marriage not typically associated with a faith approach. Hopefully I've made some room for sociological and eschatological reflection in this theological thought exercise, but you'll have to tell me.
I have not found a place in the Bible where it is written, "Marriage is..." If someone has, please let me know. Even if there were such a place, I'm guessing the church would have already had schismatic fights about it like we've had over phrases like, "This is my body," and, "This is my blood," or most ironically, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." Absent any direct, explicit definition of what marriage is in the Bible, any definition is in some sense socially constructed. It is worth looking into examples of marriage in the Bible, however, because they play a part in shaping the society in which we learn what marriage is.
To the beginning!
Eve was Adam's wife, but they were never married.
"Wait," some will say (including myself at one point), "they had sex and then were man and wife. Therefore, marriage is sex!"
This has some weight, since the overwhelming model of marriage presented in the Bible is polygamy. In today's context of greater gender equality, an argument could be made here to include polyandry, but I won't bother, because even with the biblical weight of polygamy, the same examples often present a counter example for the marriage discussion as it is.
I'm thinking here of the kings of Israel and Judah, who certainly were in polygamous marriages, but they also had concubines. Two groups of women with whom the same man had sex, some were his wives and some weren't. Sex is a part of marriage, but not all of marriage.
Sex Type Thing
To clarify the point, we don't even need to leave Genesis. The story of that hallmark of faithfulness, Abraham, known at the time as Abram, and his non-wife but clearly sexual partner, Hagar.*
Open on scene of nomads in wilderness
Sarai: God said you would have offspring, but I'm not conceiving. Have sex with my slave, Hagar.
Fade through black to tent scene several weeks later
Hagar: I'm pregnant! [in a mocking tone] I'm a better at being wife that Sarai! I'm a better at being wife that Sarai!
Sarai: [angrily] Get out of here!
Cut to scenes of pregnant Hagar wandering in the wilderness and eventually coming upon a spring of water
Angel Elroy: What are you doing here? Go back to your mistress. Through your son, you will have a large family, but your son will be a bit of an ass.
Cut to scenes of return, birth of Ishmael, and Hagar submitting to be Sarai's slave, then fade out
While this story is more about the relationship between Sarai and Abram with Hagar being caught in the middle, an interesting thing still happens: Hagar never becomes Abram's wife. Indeed, the operative assumption is that any children birthed by Hagar from sex with Abram will become Sarai's! Something else is going on here around marriage.
Marriage is about sharing the fullness of your being with another person. It includes sex, but is neither limited to nor defined by it.
The three Greek words from the New Testament that we translate as "love" get at this: philios, eros, and agape. These Greek words could also be translated as friendship, sexual attraction, and self-sacrifice. Independently, each of these can describe a some kind of relationship. Paired together, even more relationships can be described. When all three are present in a relationship, it feels to me that we're close to what marriage is. Except of course, that this is not in line with Greek thought about marriage. And it ignores the spiritual and fiscal aspects of marriage that are realities whether we want to deal with them or not.
*The full story is in Genesis 16.
Marriage can't easily be ubiquitously defined, but hopefully it includes an element of faith. Is there a shared faith? What is it in? What does this mean for the relationship? Are polygamy and polyandry off the table? What about serial polygamy and serial polyandry, which are common practices in the United States?
Marriage, as a sacramental practice, places certain expectations on those being married, but outside of the church, these expectations will be different. In other faiths, marriage will have its own expectations--some the same and some different.
God works in marriage not because marriage is somehow salvific, but because marriage is a relationship and God works in and through relationships.
There's a reason the Bible uses the metaphor of marriage so frequently in exploring the relationship between God and God's chosen people, including references to the many "poly"s in both normal and serial versions: making a marriage work takes mutual intent and effort, regardless of how you define marriage. Being in relationship with God takes mutual effort (regardless of how you define god).** Explaining this within Christianity is how the conversation turns to marriage as a sacramental practice.
**See Luther's Small Catechism, First Commandment.