Jesus Christ Wasn’t Down With Marriage

Laws aimed at reinforcing ‘traditional’ Christian marriage get Christ’s and early Christians’ views on matrimony exactly backward.

02.01.15 11:45 AM ET

This week the Mormon Church took a half-hearted shuffle toward LGBT equality by pledging to support anti-discrimination laws for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people. In a rare press conference in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, LDS leaders announced that they would endorse such legislation on the condition that it also protected the rights of religious groups.

The statement, which received a generally positive response, does not mean that the culture wars are over yet. The past week has also seen the introduction of three bills in Oklahoma that take direct aim at the LGBT community. When it comes to equality this week, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.

State House Bill 1599, the “Preservation and Sovereignty of Marriage Act,” stipulates that taxpayer funds and governmental salaries cannot be used to support same-sex marriage (SCOTUS be damned). House Bill 1598, known as the “Freedom to Obtain Conversion Therapy Act” would allow parents to seek (invariably damaging and unsuccessful) counseling and therapy to change a child’s sexual orientation. And, finally, House Bill 1597 would allow businesses to refuse service “to any lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person, group or association.”  Because nothing says “Christian” like the refusal to help others.

All three bills were introduced by State Representative Sally Kern, author of the autobiographical The Stoning of Sally Kern: the Liberal Attack on Christian Conservatism. In addition to her role as self-proclaimed (but remarkably still alive) martyr, Kern is best known for her 2008 statement that the “homosexual agenda” is a bigger threat to America than terrorism. In describing the current proposal, Kern stated that these measures are geared at “preserving  [Christian] values.”

The bills are unlikely to pass, and even if they did, they’re even less likely to survive a court challenge. Similar efforts in Arizona were the source of considerable embarrassment to legislators there. All the same, this last gasp of the religious right’s campaign against same-sex marriage depends on an understanding of what constitutes “tradition” that is, in fact, not particularly traditional.

In the Old Testament, marriage is quite clearly defined as a relationship between a man and a woman, a man and several women, a man and his fertile slave girl, and a man and his rape victim. But assuming that Kern is referring to Jesus and the New Testament, the evidence for holy matrimony is a little thin on the ground.

While Jesus is adamantly opposed to divorce, he never once speaks in favor of marriage. He never celebrates a wedding (from a historian’s perspective, facilitating drunkenness at the Wedding at Cana is less evidence of Jesus’s support of marriage than of his desire to keep the party going) and describes heaven as a place where marriage no longer exists. It’s called heaven for a reason. In Mark 10:29-30, and with no mention of child support, Jesus promises the disciples that anyone who leaves “brother or sister or father or mother or children” for his sake would be rewarded in the age to come. And he’s not just a home wrecker in theory; tradition maintains that some of Jesus’s disciples were married, but their wives are not mentioned in the Gospels. Apparently the apostles left their families to go on a three-year fishing trip.

The Apostle Paul is equally ambivalent about the desirability of marriage. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is clear that he would prefer that followers remain unmarried and celibate like him. If you really can’t handle celibacy and find yourself on fire with lust, then you should marry. As Paul puts it, it’s “better to marry than burn with passion.” But before you get swept up by the romance of Paul’s argument, remember: you should remain unmarried if you’ve got enough self-control to do so. Matrimony is a concession for the lusty; from Paul’s perspective—ironically—marriage was designed for people like John F. Kennedy and Tiger Woods.

In the first two centuries of the Common Era the real advocates for “traditional marriage” were the pagan Romans. The Christian tendency to reject marriage was one point of contention between the imperial authorities and the fledgling religion. In the legends that describe the activities of the Apostles, Jesus’s followers preached celibacy and sexual abstinence to the Roman aristocracy. And according to Christian apocrypha, sabotaging the sex lives of Roman officials was a surefire way to lose your head.

There’s no shortage of stories of young Christian women who abandoned their families and husbands in order to join Christianity and branch out on their own as missionaries. When she overheard the Apostle Paul preaching through a window, a young woman named Thecla was inspired to abandon her fiancé, cut her hair short, and dress as a young man spreading the good news. A cross-dressing single woman with a successful career? Those are traditional Christian values right there. If Kern wants to preserve them, then perhaps no one should get married.

Historically speaking, the function of marriage is about more than just religion. As Jon Marks, professor of anthropology at UNC-Charlotte told me, “Different cultures emphasize different roles that marriage serves and consequently it takes many diverse forms across cultures and classes.” It can function “in legitimizing offspring, establishing an independent household, formalizing sexual relations, uniting families as in-laws, and publicizing love as a couple.” But, other than marriage’s role as social adhesive, it’s unclear if any one “traditional” function or definition of marriage can be assumed.

Of course, there were other positions on marriage among early Christians and in the ancient world. All of the language of obedience to one’s husband is in the Bible, but the pro-marriage “traditional” view that Kern and others are trying to defend was just one view. The traditional Christian family was more about the bonds of duty assumed by members of a community than it was about matrimonial ties. At the end of the day, Kern’s desire to eliminate certain groups from her community for the sake of promoting Christian marriage pretty much gets the whole thing backward.