Issues for a Theology of Marriage


by David J. Dunn  |  ελληνικά  ру́сский

Bradley Nassif wrote a recent post for Public Orthodoxy that named gay marriage as one of the most pressing issues the church must deal with today. If we are to retain our younger members in particular, he said, then we must “articulate the reasons that the Christian theological vision requires marriage to constitute a union of man and woman.” Nassif is right about the urgency but wrong about the argument. If Orthodoxy is to survive the next generations, then it must articulate a Christian theological vision of marriage. Period. No matter where that vision takes us.

If it sounds as if I am leaving the door open for the church to bless same-sex unions, I am. If it sounds like I am advocating for it, I am not. My point is that, in my experience, people (especially younger people) are rarely persuaded when the questions one asks are pre-loaded with the answers one wants.

This observation is not directed at Bradley Nassif. It is directed at all of us. We are not at risk of losing our young people because we are failing to uphold a so-called “traditional” view of marriage. We will lose our young people if we let ourselves be defined more by the “lifestyles” we oppose than the people we love.

When an Orthodox Christian talks about “traditional marriage,” what do they mean by “traditional”? Do they have in mind a time, not so long ago, when virginal daughters were commodities in business transactions between family patriarchs, and the wedding night was tantamount to what any decent person today would consider child rape? Or perhaps they mean to return to the 7th century, when marriage was not considered a sacrament but a church-accepted civil union. Often, what we judge to be “traditional” says more about our personal biases than the facts of history. History is complicated, ambiguous, and inconsistent. Tradition, especially Orthodox tradition, is never just one thing.

Nassif is right that an Orthodox theology of marriage needs to be articulated, which means it needs to be developed. Though it does not make for good marketing, the truth is that the vast majority of our theological resources come from monastics, and monks are not known for thinking deeply about sex. Marriage is viewed as a “legal” outlet for sexual energies one lacks the strength of will to control, and even then one should make every effort to control them (a strict application of the fasting regulations of the church would prohibit marital relations for close to half the year). Some sources praise the spiritual friendship marriage makes possible, and they talk of mutual service and submission as being a kind of ascesis. The marriage ceremony itself anoints the couple as the benevolent dictators of the household. While friendship and ascesis set the ideal tone for the couple, and the constant threat of rioting and rebellion the reality, these monastic and imperialistic frameworks hardly speak to the fullness of the mystery that is marriage.

The Trinity may be a good place to begin to think about that mystery. Our God is a God of infinite kenotic love—internal diversity united in shared, perichoretic self-sacrifice. But it is questionable whether this internal diversity of the Godhead requires sexual difference in a marriage. Though God is the fullness of gender, God is not sexed. Early attempts were made to sex the Trinity in the debate over the ordination of women, but these arguments have been discredited for being tritheistic, anthropomorphic, and thus idolatrous. (One must also, somewhat arbitrarily, arrest the application of trinitarian metaphors for marriage before further thinking about the number of persons involved leads to rather scandalous conclusions.)

Ecclesiology is another natural place to think about marriage insofar as Christ is the Bridegroom and the church his Bride, but apart from the gender implications of the terms (bride and groom), there is little here upon which to build a theological case against gay marriage. For one, in context, the application of bride and groom images are not focused on the sex of the individuals involved but the marriage feast of the Lamb. The fact that we can speak of a lamb getting married to a bride (or Christ’s ostensibly female Bride also being his ostensibly male Body) says a great deal about the limits of biblical metaphor. It also fails to live up to the richness of the way Orthodox theology uses metaphors, mixing them into paradoxes that direct the intellect beyond the images presented toward apophatic contemplation of the Divine Mystery itself.

Orthodoxy is conservative by nature. This is to its benefit. It keeps the church from flapping along with the fickle winds of change. But conservatism can easily slip into an unreflective fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is born of fear, and fear is never a solid basis for sound decision-making. This keeps the church from being a proactive agent for good in culture, making it instead a reactionary agent against any positive change that comes from culture.

Is the legalization of same-sex marriage such a positive change? Time will tell. So far, I have yet to see fire falling from heaven or ladies turning into pillars of salt. Fr. Thomas Hopko, of blessed memory, was in favor of civil unions. He believed that Christian love required extending the full protections of law to gay couples (though he did not believe they could make good parents). My own position is a bit more libertarian; “gay marriage” is just “civil union” by another name. Whatever the state calls those unions does not affect the church’s theology of marriage.

As we struggle to sort out that theology, we need to focus on dialog, not apologetics. Apologetics do a well enough job persuading those already inclined to be persuaded, but for skeptics and seekers they seem little more than propaganda campaigns crafted in echo-chambers. They are wholly disingenuous. The apologist is not listened to because the apologist has no intention to listen. May the Holy Orthodox Church always have an audience.

David J. Dunn is an independent scholar who writes on Orthodoxy and religion and politics.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.