Marriage and the family in the 21st Century
Published 23 September 2010
by Rev. Dr. Max Champion
Who would have thought, a generation ago, that marriage would be under attack today? Who would have thought that 'living-together' before marriage would become the norm? Who would have thought that Uniting Church in Australia ministers would conduct a ceremony in which same-sex relationships mimicked marriage or that the President would not discipline them for doing so? Who would have thought that gay 'marriage' would become a celebrated human rights cause and a major election issue?
Until the 1960s marriage between a man and a woman, and the biological family created by their union, was widely regarded as a social good. The majority of weddings were held in Christian churches. Pre-nuptial agreements were unheard of. Families usually included a few children. Divorce was relatively uncommon.
Under the influence of post-modern thought, the 'institution' of marriage and the 'traditional' family quickly became objects of suspicion. Traditions were thought to curtail new, innovative forms of sexual expression and institutions were regarded as places where people's freedom, particularly that of women, was sacrificed.
- The causes of this radical shift, and possible responses to it, will be explored throughout the conference. In this session our focus is on the covenantal framework within which marriage and the family should be discussed. It would be ill-advised to start with psychological, sociological or legal matters before exploring the context in which the church's view of marriage arises. If we were to do that then, depending on one's point of view, marriage and 'family values' would be idealized or vilified.
In reflecting on the nature of the covenant in Scripture, it is important to note that:
- God is the initiator and guarantor of the covenant. It begins with God's creation ex nihilo of the cosmos and human beings which was 'very good'. (Gen 1:31) The grand purpose of creation is that all things should thrive under the 'dominion' (not domination) of men and women who shall 'become one flesh' (Gen 2:24) in order to carry out this mandate.
- The covenant made with Israel is a covenant of grace established by God in a fallen world (Gen 3:1f). It is not a 'contract' between equals but a relationship grounded in God's faithfulness to humanity. God's fidelity is the pre-condition of the covenant in which Israel is summoned to be faithful to God in being a 'light to the nations.' (Isaiah 49:6)
- In Israel this grand purpose comes in the form of a calling to and through 'Abraham, Isaac and Jacob' (Ex 2:24) to create families and pass on the history of God's fidelity 'to their children and their children's children.' (Dt 4:9&10) God's fidelity is marked by 'steadfast love' and 'discipline.' 'I shall be your God and you shall be my people' (Ex 6:7; Lev 26:12) is both promise and obligation - from both parties. On our part it entails being a community which, in face of opposition, praises God and does God's will.
- The failure of human beings to honour the covenant, and the need to recall the Hebrews to their vocation, reinforces the fact that the covenant is a covenant of grace.
- God's covenantal grace is radicalized in the Incarnation of the Son of God. The 'new covenant' means that God's 'steadfast love' for his wayward people has been embodied in the costly life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is powerfully expressed in the words of institution of the Lord's Supper: 'Drink from it all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant which is poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.' (Mt 26:28 // Mk 14:24; 1 Cor 11:25).
What does being a part of the covenant community mean in relation to the place of the family?
Being part of a biological family is important but it is secondary to our participation in the covenantal family. We sometimes forget this when holding 'family services' which may attract 'natural families' but discourage folk who are without families. We are called to 'honour fath and mother' (Ex 20:12; Lev 19:3). Jesus insists that the commandment be kept (Mk 7:10) but he also relativizes the importance of family relations when he says 'Who is my mother and who are my brothers?' (Mt 12:46f // Mk 3:31f // Lk 8:19f). Elsewhere he goes further, saying: 'Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple' (Lk 14:26 cf Mt 10:37 where the emphasis is on loving Christ more than the family)
The text must be handled carefully because it has been abused by religious groups. Nevertheless, it is clear that the family is a penultimate, not an ultimate good!
Marriage and the family must be put in the context of the covenant. God promises Abraham that through him 'all the families of the earth shall be blessed.' (Gen 12:3) And in baptism we become 'members of the faith and family of Jesus Christ.' (Gal 6:10)
This means that we take our place in the community which has been founded and shaped by the love between Father, Son and Spirit. We take our place, as members of biological families, within a divinely ordained community. It has its origin in the creation of the world, its end in the perfection of our humanity and its centre in the fully human Son of God who was baptized in solidarity with sinful humanity, suffered a fiery baptism on the cross and was raised from death.
We belong to the largest family on earth - the family formed from an unparalleled love for 'the family of man' which originated in the love existing eternally between Father, Son and Spirit and embodied in the One who had no family of his own.
It is often said that 'blood is thicker than water.' But, in baptism 'water is thicker than blood.' The natural order of things is reversed! The 'faith and family of Jesus Christ' into which we are baptized is not a family primarily defined by biology, nationality, colour, sex, status, wealth, denomination etc. The Christian or 'christened' family is marked by the cross of the One who shed blood to break down the many 'family' barriers that we erect to shield us from other 'families' (see Gal 3:27-28). In baptism we are given our true identity, not by blood relations, but by being united to Christ in costly love for the world. That means being incorporated into the community of perfect love which exists within God between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. There is no higher privilege than to be included in this unique family of God. We are given our true identity within the very being of God!
The connection between what is penultimate and what is ultimate is splendidly expressed in the 1999 Report of the National Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Uniting Church in Australia on Interchurch Marriages: Their Ecumenical Challenge and Significance for our Churches. It reaffirms the churches' mutual agreement on marriage as 'the commitment in public and before God of a man and a woman to live together for life'. It is a 'public covenant with each other and with God' and 'the unique sign of the unity which is promised us in Christ.' (p25) It states:
'Marriage for Christians derives its essence from God's faithful covenant with his people, which is modelled again through Christ's commitment to the church. For the Christian, marriage gains its meaning from God's grace in Jesus Christ, and is to be seen as part of the new creation in him.' (p26) ... 'The covenant relationship of marriage is an image of and is sustained by the covenant relationship between God and his people, between Christ and the church.' (p27)
In the Roman Catholic Church the covenantal nature of marriage is understood in sacramental terms.
'Baptism and Eucharist are fundamental sacraments for Roman Catholics. Marriage and all others are founded on baptism and relate Christians to the Eucharist in a distinctive way. The mutual consent of the man and the woman in sacramental marriage is of such a character that it is caught up into the saving purposes of God for the spouses and for their children. Their love for each other, which finds physical expression in their many different acts of mutual self-giving, has its ultimate source in the love of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In this smallest of Christian communities the love of God for all human beings and of Jesus Christ for the church is expressed through mutual love of husband for wife and wife for husband.' (p27)
- Therefore, marriage and family are given their true importance and deepest meaning in relation to the covenant which God has initiated with humanity and graciously revealed in the history of the Hebrews and embodied in Jesus Christ.