Anyone who reads what Jesus says about marriage in Matthew 19 has got to conclude that he was no big fan of the institution. After he tells some inquiring Pharisees that a man who divorces his wife for reasons other than adultery and marries another commits adultery himself, the disciples say, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” Jesus replies:
Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.
The Apostle Paul underscores this point of view in Corinthians I.7, famously writing that it is “better to marry than to burn.” The marital state is a concession so far as primitive Christianity is concerned; and as Jesus instructs in Luke 14:26; following his radical new way means hating your family — including your wife and children. The popularity and importance of monasticism in the Middle Ages bears witness to Christianity’s early preference for celibacy.
To be sure, marriage eventually came to be valorized. After a millennium, Roman Catholicism made it a sacrament, and the Protestant Reformation, in its enthusiasm for living the Christian life in the world, celebrated the family as a little church. Still, given the foundational texts of the faith, it’s a little surprising how much spiritual significance conservative Christians are according marriage these days.
Take, for example, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Last week he took to his blog to call on his folks to pray that the Supreme Court will allow states to legally define marriage as between one man and one woman “because marriage is not just another culture war issue.”
Marriage is about the common good and flourishing of society, but is also an icon of the union between Christ and his church, embedded in the creation (Eph. 5:22-31). Without a Christian vision of marriage, we have no Christian vision of the gospel.
The scriptural reference is to Ephesians, the Pauline letter that contemporary biblical scholarship now regards as having been written by someone else. Be that as it may, the verses in question do relate marriage to “the union between Christ and his church,” but not in the way Moore suggests.
Ephesians uses that union as the model for Christian marriage: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church,” etc. In other words, it’s without the Christian vision of the gospel that there’s no Christian vision of marriage (as the SBC understands it), not the other way around.
Moore’s point seems to be that if the Supreme Court declares a right to same-sex marriage, then the Christian vision of the gospel is at risk. But whatever the Court decides, the SBC’s understanding of the Christian vision of marriage — wives as subordinate to husbands — has long since ceased to be the law of the land.