Marriage is about the Gospel: Clarifying the Boundaries of Christian Orthodoxy

Author:

Matthew M. Kennedy

Article ID:

JAF24523

Updated: 

Jan 4, 2023

Published:

Dec 27, 2022

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 45, number 2/3  (2022). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.


SYNOPSIS

Christians weary of the tumultuous debates over human sexuality sometimes wonder whether such a divisive conflict is necessary. After all, many of those promoting arguments in favor of affirming sexual relationships outside of traditional marriage also affirm the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Christ, and confess Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. Why shouldn’t they be recognized as brothers and sisters despite their disagreements with the classical position? Christian orthodoxy rests on not merely the creedal formulas but on the entirety of biblical revelation. Scripture teaches that human sexuality and marriage, in particular, are far from being non-essential, residing at the very heart of the Christian faith because God made us male and female in order to tell the world about Christ and His church. That is, God intends that the one-flesh union between husband and wife refer to, bear witness to, and make visible the union between Jesus and His church. Since marriage refers to Christ and His church and the sexual bond consummates the union, sexual relationships outside of biblical marriage obscure, misrepresent, and even blaspheme Christ and His bride. Therefore, to reject what the Bible reveals about sex and marriage is to reject the gospel.


 

When, in August 2003, the theological drift toward heterodoxy that had been a strong current in The Episcopal Church (TEC) for decades became a roaring flood with the consecration of Gene Robinson, a partnered gay man, as Bishop of New Hampshire, many traditionalist Episcopalians began to plan their exit strategies. While the Church had already been divided over the question of sexuality, the consecration represented for many the Church’s formal embrace of theological revisionism and her departure from the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

At the time, and still today, a number of those who held the traditional view, even some who eventually left TEC, found that language of “departure” — the language of apostasy — too harsh. After all, though TEC affirms homosexual relationships and ordains non-celibate homosexual clergy, she continues to profess the core tenets of the faith: that God is triune, one Being in three Persons, and that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God — truly God and truly man — born of a virgin and lived a life of perfect obedience, died on the cross for the sins of the world, rose again bodily on the third day, and ascended into heaven. TEC still teaches that the Holy Spirit resides in the church and in the hearts of all who believe and that He will preserve the church until the Lord returns and establishes His kingdom. While there are a good number of clergy and people within TEC who deny these things, they remain embedded in her liturgy and creeds. Is it fair, then, to say that TEC has “departed” from the faith because traditionalists disagree with her about sex? Can we say that about anyone who, while maintaining creedal orthodoxy, has become sincerely convinced that the sexually inclusive, “affirming” side is right and that the traditional view is the fruit of historical ignorance and cultural prejudice?

Many of the traditionalists who left TEC participated in the founding of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) in 2009. But only two years later in 2011, controversy erupted when the rector of a prominent Virginia ACNA congregation initiated a ministry partnership with the Episcopal Bishop of Virginia, a man who ordained non-celibate homosexual clergy and blessed same-sex relationships. Opponents charged that the rector had betrayed the founding principles of the ACNA and compromised the gospel. Defending himself, the rector pointed out that the bishop trusted in Jesus as his personal Savior and affirmed the historic creeds. We agree on the essentials, to paraphrase his argument, doesn’t that make him my brother? In his opinion, which many now share, differing views on sexuality may require denominational separations because of differing practices, but they should not lead to anathematization.1 We Anglicans, for example, disagree with our Baptist friends regarding infant baptism while recognizing our underlying union in Christ. If we can agree to disagree about a sacrament, should we anathematize people over sex?

THE CREEDS AND THE BOUNDARY OF ORTHODOXY

The word “orthodoxy” comes from two Greek words, orthos, which means straight or right, and doxa, which means opinion. To be orthodox is to hold the “right opinion” or to believe what is true. The Apostolic and Nicene Creeds reside at the very heart of the Christian faith. A person who rejects the doctrine of the Trinity or the person and work of Christ, which these Creeds define and enshrine, has stepped beyond the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. His perception of God and the person of Christ would so greatly diverge from that of the orthodox Christian that it would be correct to say that he serves another deity altogether. That the creeds define orthodoxy is generally accepted by professing Christians who disagree about sexuality, but does orthodoxy wholly consist in the creeds? Is there more to it?

The church fathers who gathered at Nicea in 325 to defend the full divinity of Jesus and the ontological unity of the Godhead did not have a formal creed. They possessed the Scriptures and the regula fidei — “the rule of faith” — a formulaic summation of biblical doctrine regarding God’s nature and Jesus and His work passed on from the earliest days of the church.2 If you were to ask Athanasius, the great defender of orthodoxy, what he thought he was doing at Nicea and its aftermath, he would likely say: defending biblical truth as it has been passed down to us from the apostles. Referring to the Arians’ biblical arguments, Athanasius writes, “Nor does Scripture afford them any pretext; for it has been often shown, and it shall be shown now, that their doctrine is alien to the divine oracles.”3 Arius taught that the Son was created, not eternal, and not of the same substance with the Father. He and his followers believed they were making biblical arguments. Athanasius, however, did not recognize the Arian interpretations of biblical texts as valid: “the Arian [heresy], as it is called, considering that other heresies, her elder sisters, have been openly proscribed, in her craft and cunning, affects to array herself in Scripture language, like her father the devil, and is forcing her way back into the Church’s paradise.”4

The Nicene fathers articulated biblical revelation in such a way that the Arians could not affirm it, defining Christian orthodoxy with regard to the Trinity and the person of Christ. But the Nicene Creed was never intended to be the sole measure of orthodoxy. Decades after the clarification of the Nicene Creed at the Council of Constantinople (381), a British monk named Pelagius taught that human beings, apart from God’s grace, can do everything God’s law requires. Pelagius was a creedal Christian, thoroughly Trinitarian, believing Jesus to be both true God and true Man. Nevertheless, he was condemned at the Council of Carthage in 418 because the church has always understood that orthodoxy means submitting heart and mind not just to the creedal formulas but to the fullness of biblical revelation, moral proscriptions included.5

To Love Jesus Is to Obey His Commandments

That orthodoxy includes submission to moral proscriptions is not a principle fabricated by the Nicene fathers. In John 8:31, Jesus says to those professing to believe in Him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.”6 Notice the bond between Jesus and His word. To be counted as mine, Jesus says, you must “abide” or remain in my word. But what does it mean to remain in Jesus’s word? Jesus goes on to say to His would-be disciples that by abiding, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (v. 32). They immediately take offense: “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone” (v. 33). One moment they claim to be believers. The next, they reject Jesus’s word about them. Jesus, consequently, tells them that they are not sons of Abraham but sons of the devil (v. 38). To abide in Jesus’s word requires receiving His words as true without qualification.

Some might think that abiding in Jesus’s word means paying exclusive attention to Jesus’s words quoted in the Gospels. “Jesus said nothing about homosexuality” is frequently put forward in the sexuality debate. Setting aside Jesus’s condemnations of porneia, usually translated as “sexual immorality,”7 which, for Jews at the time, includes homosexual sex,8 that argument succeeds only if the Arians were correct and Jesus is not God. Since Jesus, as the Gospels and the Nicene Creed make clear, is God, the Scriptures in their entirety, which God “breathed out” (2 Tim. 3:16), are also His words. One might also point to the examples of Jesus upholding the Old Testament as the word of God,9 to His promise in John 16:12–15 that He had more to teach His apostles, and that after His departure He would do so through the Holy Spirit. That promise is foundational to the church’s belief that the books written by the apostles and/or approved by them represent the words of Christ.10 One cannot dismiss, deny, or reject the words of the prophets of the Old Testament or the apostles of the New without dismissing, denying, or rejecting Jesus’s word. And only those who abide in His word are truly His disciples.

An Objection

Christians sometimes disagree about the interpretations, implications, and applications of biblical passages. Does disagreement necessarily mean that someone is dismissing, denying, and/or rejecting Jesus word? Not always. I mentioned baptism earlier. As an Anglican, I believe infant baptism is a biblically sound practice. There is no biblical command forbidding it, and there is arguably biblical precedent for it in the baptisms of households recorded in Acts 10:24–33 and 16:33. My Baptist brethren, however, point out that there is no explicit mention of babies in those texts and that the New Testament pattern is that faith precedes baptism. The New Testament does not require infant baptism. But neither is it proscribed. There is room, therefore, for faithful people to disagree while abiding in Jesus’s words.

Compare that disagreement with the Arian controversy. Jesus as well the New Testament writers explicitly and consistently claim that Jesus is the divine Son of God who has taken on human nature for our redemption (John 1:1–14). The New Testament refers to Jesus as God (John 8:58; Rom. 9:5; Phil. 2:5; 2 Pet. 1:1), the Father as God (Matt. 6:9; John 5:17–18; 2 Cor. 1:3), and the Holy Spirit as God (Acts 5:3–5; 1 Cor. 2:10–14). Jesus and the apostles, moreover, embrace the Old Testament revelation that there is only One God and no other (Isa. 45:5; Mark 12:29; 1 Cor. 8:6; 1 Tim. 2:5). To argue that the Son does not share the same essence as the Father, then, represents a direct repudiation of the words of Christ. To try to make such an argument from the Bible compounds the repudiation since it requires taking texts out of context, setting passages against one another, and explaining away direct claims. Athanasius rightly recognized that the Arian denial of Jesus’s divinity entailed the repudiation of His word, despite their claims to the contrary.

SEXUALITY AND CHRISTIAN ORTHODOXY

Should those who argue that same-sex sexual relationships ought to be recognized and blessed in the church be received as brothers and sisters, like Anglicans receive Baptists and vice versa? Or should their assertions be condemned along with those of Arius and Pelagius? The answer depends upon whether Christians can affirm these relationships while abiding in the words of Christ.

In the beginning, God made male and female human beings in His image (Gen. 1:27). God created the first man from dust. From the body of the man, God made a woman. Then, He joined them together as one flesh and commanded them to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth (Gen. 2). In Matthew 19:3–6, Jesus, having been asked by the Pharisees whether a man can divorce his wife “for any cause,” turns back to this first union as the basis for His teaching on marriage: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” According to New Testamanet scholar Robert Gagnon, the language Jesus uses in this passage indicates that God made them male and female for the very purpose of joining them together as one flesh.11 God made them male and female so that He might join them as one flesh. Jesus considers that first union a marriage and (since He applies the model to marriages in His own day) constitutive of all marriages. The reason a man cannot “divorce [his] wife for any cause” is that God joins every husband and wife together just as He joined Adam and Eve.

But there is more to it. When Paul takes up the topic of marriage in Ephesians 5:22–33, he commands wives to submit to their husbands. This would not be surprising coming from the pen of a first-century man. Paul, however, does not ground the command in some ancient notion of male superiority. He grounds it in redemptive typology. Wives are to submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ. Husbands, likewise, must love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25). This typology might have seemed odd to Paul’s gentile readers, but for Jews the imagery would be somewhat familiar. “For your Maker is your husband,” writes Isaiah to the people of Israel, “the LORD of hosts is his name” (Isa. 54:5).12 But that Paul sets Jesus into God’s place as divine husband and the church in Israel’s place as bride might have been startling.

Paul’s conclusion, however, is truly profound. Quoting Genesis 2:24, he writes, “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:31–32). The mystery is marriage, God joining a man and a woman together in a one-flesh union. Marriage, Paul says, is not simply analogous to the relationship between Christ and His church. Marriage refers to it. That is, the purpose for which God made them male and female and joined them together is so that their one-flesh union (and every subsequent one-flesh union) might refer to, bear witness to, and make visible in the flesh the union between Jesus and His church. This is why God made Eve from Adam’s body. The church is both the body of Christ and His bride. This is why they were commissioned to multiply and fill the earth, because one day Christ would commission His church to make disciples of all nations. Marriage is about the gospel.

Why Forbidden Sex Is Forbidden

That marriage is about Christ and His church explains the negative portrayals of polygamous patriarchal relationships in the Genesis narrative (Gen. 4:23–24, 16:1–6, 29:21–30:24) and the outright proscriptions against adultery, homosexuality, and bestiality found in the Levitical law (Exod. 20:14; Lev. 18). It is why the New Testament forbids all sexual activity beyond one man and one woman in a lifelong marital union.13 Since marriage refers to Christ and His church and the sexual bond consummates the union, sexual relationships outside of marriage obscure, misrepresent, and even blaspheme Christ and His bride. The adulterous husband, for example, tells a lie about the faithfulness of Christ; the adulterous wife lies about the devotion of the church.

Homosexual relationships, for the same reason, are expressly forbidden in the Old and New Testaments.14 The most extensive discussion of homosexuality is found in Romans 1. Beginning in verse 18, Paul describes the spiritual condition of humanity after the Fall by reference to a series of exchanges. Human beings have exchanged the worship of the Creator for created things, the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:22–25). For this reason, Paul continues, “God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error” (Rom. 1:26–27). It is notable that both women and men are indicted. The relations “contrary to nature” for which women exchanged natural relations are driven by the same passion that leads men into committing “shameless” acts with other men.

Gagnon, commenting on this passage, notes that the idolatrous turn from Creator to creature is mirrored by the narcissistic turn in homosexual relationships: “what bothers Paul about female-female or male-male intercourse is the absence of a gender complement and the narcissistic and/or delusional attempt at merging with a sexual same.”15 Instead of men and women looking beyond themselves and being joined by God in one flesh unions to the complementary sex, they are inflamed with passion for their own image, men with men, women with women. So that a man does not leave his father’s house and cling to his wife, but he clings to another version of himself. God instituted marriage so that the husband might refer the world to Christ by giving himself up for his bride. In homosexual relations, it is as if Christ rejects His bride in favor of Himself. The wife, in submitting to her husband, refers to the devotion of the church for Christ. In lesbian relationships, it is as if the church is devoted to herself.

Of course, for all of these texts, those promoting same-sex sexual relations in the church have formulated explanations. The Levitical prohibitions, some argue, belong to the purity code, which has been fulfilled and is, in the New Covenant era, obsolete. Those men and women engaging in shameful acts contrary to nature in Romans 1 are participating in ritual homosexual acts in service to idols. Idolatry, not homosexuality, is the real problem. In 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, the issue is pederasty rather than loving same-sex relationships that were, they claim, unknown in the ancient world. These explanations are readily dismissed depending as they do on extra-biblical categories of sexual identity and orientation introduced by Queer Theory, assumptions about historical context that either cannot be demonstrated or that have been shown to be false, and on challenges to classical interpretations driven not by solid exegesis but by the contemporary agenda to justify homosexual relationships.16 In this way, pro-LGBTQ interpretations should be categorized alongside the Arian misuses of Scripture rather than within the pale of orthodox disagreement.

Worse, these arguments ignore the wider context of biblical sexual prohibitions. Scripture’s sexual prohibitions are never in service to arbitrary, culturally conditioned norms but rather to the overarching narrative of redemption that is grounded in the incarnation of the Son of God, His death, resurrection, and ascension, for the sake of His body and bride. Any theological framework that does violence to the institution of marriage between one man and one woman, therefore, also does violence to the gospel. Such disagreements, by definition, cannot be received as orthodox but must always be identified as false — and those pastors, leaders, and theologians who promote them must be considered anathema17 and exhorted to repent and believe the gospel.

The Reverend Matthew M. Kennedy (M.Div, VTS) is the rector of The Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, New York.

NOTES

  1. Material regarding this ACNA dispute is based on my personal experience and memory.
  2. Paul articulates an early form of the rule in 1 Corinthians 15:3–7.
  3. Athanasius of Alexandria, Four Discourses Against the Arians 3.10, trans. Philip Schaff, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf204.xxi.ii.i.i.html. Spelling updated for accessibility.
  4. Athanasius, Four Discourses Against the Arians 1.1.
  5. John Whiteford, “Moral Heresy; Is There Such a Thing?,” Christian Research Journal, vol. 4, no. 3 (2020):14–16.
  6. Bible quotations are taken from the English Standard Version.
  7. See, e.g., Matthew 5:32.
  8. Scot McKnight, “What Is Porneia to a 1st Century Jew?,” Jesus Creed, April 4, 2014, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2014/04/04/what-is-porneia-to-a-1st-centuryjew/.
  9. See, e.g., Matthew 15:6; John 10:35.
  10. The apostles understood themselves to be bearers of the words of Christ. Peter, for example, writes, “you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles” (2 Pet. 3:1–2).
  11. Robert Gagnon, “The Gospel of Jesus on Sexual Binaries,” First Things, April 4, 2016, https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2016/04/the-gospel-of-jesus-on-sexualbinaries.
  12. See also Jeremiah 31:32, Hosea 2:16, and Ezekiel 16:8.
  13. The prohibition against porneia was all inclusive. See Ian Paul, “Does the Bible Prohibit Sex Before Marriage?,” Psephizo, August 9, 2021, https://www.psephizo.com/sexuality-2/does-the-bible-prohibit-sex-before-marriage/.
  14. Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, Romans 1:26–27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10 are the clearest examples.
  15. Robert A.J. Gagnon, “Four Myths of Pro-Homosex Propaganda: A Response to Tex Sample’s ‘What Do Bible, Tradition Say About Gay Marriage?,’” October 2003, http://www.robgagnon.net/TexSampleResponse.htm.
  16. For an exhaustive discussion of these objections and detailed answers to them, see Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutic (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002).
  17. “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8–9).
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