Why Marriage Matters: The Church and Marriage Equality

Genesis 2: 18-25; Matthew 19:3-12

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After I graduated from Boston University School of Theology forty-one years ago and became a local church pastor if you’d told me that I would preach at Marsh Chapel during my last year of active ministry and that the topic I would choose to talk about would be marriage I would not have believed you.

Marriage was a routine part of the life of the church and my work as a pastor, usually more fun than funerals. We did premarital education and counseling with couples but we drew much more heavily on psychology and the social sciences than we did biblical studies or theology or ethics when we taught and counseled.

I am fairly amazed that I have spent so much time these last several years of my ministry trying to understand marriage biblically, theologically, and even politically.

It is in some part your fault, Massachusetts. In 2004 you became the first state in our nation to make same-sex marriage legal, and look what has happened since. Less than ten years later, marriage equality is now the law in 13 states, the District of Columbia, and five Native American tribes.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government must recognize and honor same-sex marriages conducted in states where they are legal.

A recent Gallup poll indicates that 52 percent of Americans would vote for a federal law that made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.

It seems increasingly likely what you began here in Massachusetts will eventually reach every state and beyond.

The argument in the courts and on the public square for marriage equality, put simply, is that marriage is a civil right and that we cannot constitutionally deny any group of people their civil rights.

Earl Warren writing the 1967 Loving v Virginia Supreme Court decision said: “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men” … and presumably by free women as well.

Legally, marriage is a civil right and so marriage equality for adults of all races, nationalities, genders, sexual orientations and identities is undeniable.

Since the principle of equality is rooted in the teachings of all of the Abrahamic religions, you might think the churches, synagogues, mosques and meetings of America would applaud another advance for justice.

This, of course, has not entirely been the case. There have been problems.

One problem is the Bible. The Bible simply always assumes that marriage is between a man and a woman or, in some cases, between a man and women. As the religious opponents of marriage equality like to say, there is no Adam and Steve in the Bible. It is true. There isn’t.

So to understand marriage equality people of biblical faith need to take a leap of theological deduction and imagination. We need to ask whether the Bible’s teachings about marriage are about anatomy and biology and physiology or whether they are about the quality of relationship between two people who love each other and want to make the profound commitment to each other that we call marriage.

It is a theological leap many find difficult and it is a leap, frankly, it would never have occurred to us to take …  except that we have known gay and lesbian couples who have demonstrated in their lives together this quality of love and commitment that is the ideal of marriage. It is because of them that we’ve needed to go back and read the Bible again and see if we can find room for them in the story.

I have tried to read and consider carefully the arguments of those who oppose marriage equality on the basis of biblical teachings. Most now acknowledge that the battle within the American culture is pretty well settled. They acknowledge the secular culture has changed its mind. The secular culture now accepts same-sex marriage.

But, they argue, the church needs to be counter-cultural. They argue that the church cannot allow the secular culture to redefine biblical teaching.

it seems to me this argument is based on the theological assumption that God is not present or at work within the culture, only within the church. The assumption is that the culture is godless while the church holds all godly truth. I find no substantial support for this way of thinking within Scripture or Christian tradition and certainly not experience.

Jesus says the wind blows where it chooses. (John 3:8) The spirit goes where it will.

Biblically God has always resisted being caged inside temple walls built by human hands. God’s very name is I am who I am and I will be who I will be. (Exodus 3:14)

The Gallup poll I mentioned that indicates that 52 percent of Americans would vote for a federal law that made same-sex marriage legal in all states has some other interesting data. Among those who said they rarely or never attend church or a house of worship, 67 percent said they would vote for same-sex marriage. Among those who say they attend church monthly or nearly weekly, 51 percent said they would vote for same-sex marriage. Among those who reported that they attend church weekly only 23 percent said they would vote for same-sex marriage and 73 percent said they’d vote against it.

I hate to say this but it may be a mistake to spend too much time in church. God is not contained within church walls nor within the covers of a book. God is in the world –at work in the culture– and only when we are listening to both the book and the world can we find a path toward understanding God’s will and way.

We come to church not because this is where God lives and we want to pay a visit. We come here to recall where God encountered us in our lives in the world last week and to prepare ourselves to meet God in the workplace, the classroom, the bowling alley, the bar, the ballpark in the week to come.

The theologian Karl Barth said that the preacher needs to have a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Christians need to pay attention to both the book and the culture.

Unless our experience in the world helps us always read the Bible anew, it becomes a dead book that keeps us buried in the ancient past instead of the story of a God of justice, inclusion, and love who helps us find our way into the future … a future the people who wrote the book would have never imagined but which they understand to be consistent with what they began as they watch us from heaven.

I serve a church in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC. We reflect our neighborhood. On an average Sunday, a fourth to a third of our congregation are openly gay and lesbian men and women.

We are part of a denomination that forbids same-sex commitment ceremonies or weddings. The rules say these ceremonies shall not be celebrated in our buildings or by our clergy.

Back before marriage equality came to the district we started doing what we called services to honor gay and lesbian committed relationships. Couples would come here to Massachusetts to be married or they would have private ceremonies in their homes where they exchanged vows and then we would have a public service in church to honor their commitment. We were careful not to celebrate until we’d left the building. We didn’t break the rules.

Then in the fall of 2009 friends started telling me that marriage equality was coming to the district. I went to my board and asked, “If it happens, what do we do?”

Clergy and congregations in my denomination had been punished in the past for doing same- sex weddings.  Pastors had been suspended or even defrocked, the ministries of congregations had been disrupted.

We were engaged in a dozen ministries in our community as well as trying to provide quality religious education for our children and youth and all the ordinary programs congregations do. We were working with others to end homelessness. We were engaged in global mission in Haiti. We were trying to address the ridiculously high incarceration rate of young African-American men in our city.

We didn’t want our ministries disrupted. And we had no desire to break any rules.

We started a congregational conversation that lasted for several months.

The conversation was a bit chaotic and confusing. We were all over the place in our thinking. No path ahead was emerging.

Then during yet another disjointed, somewhat frustrating, congregational meeting Doug stood up and walked to the front of the sanctuary. Doug of Sam and Doug. Known by everyone in the congregation. Between Doug and Sam they had served on countless committees and task forces and mission groups. They were faithful, generous, always offering their home for meetings. They were loving towards each other, caring towards others, especially the elderly and weak of the congregation.

Doug stood before the congregation and simply said “I want to be married in my church by my pastor.”

I want to be married in my church by my pastor.

The tone and direction of the conversation changed. We were no longer talking about theories or strategies or consequences. We were talking about Sam and Doug.

In September 2010, Foundry Church members adopted a policy of marriage equality by a vote of 367 to 8.

We just cannot read the Bible as though Sam and Doug do not exist. We cannot be the church as though Sam and Doug were invisible.

Marriage equality as the law of the land is good and right, but the struggle will not be over until it is settled in our faith communities.

While marriage is a civil legal status, it is more than that. We don’t go to our lawyers to marry us.   We go, most of us, to our priests, pastors, rabbis and imams.

The latest edition of the textbook Choices in Relationships: Introduction to Marriage and Family by David Knox and Caroline Schacht says that 80 percent of marriage ceremonies in America are conducted by clergy. A 2011 article[i] by Michelle Boorstein in the Washington Post suggests this percentage may be declining but the majority of Americans still go to a person they believe to be a man or woman of God to be married. Even those who don’t, Michelle Boorstein reports, still often include religious rituals in their ceremonies.

There is a deep intuition within us that marriage is more than just a secular legal contract. In the love and intimacy of marriage, even in the times of distance and disagreement and disappointment that we need to painfully work our way through, even in the experience of brokenness of a marriage … in the joys and struggles of marriage we experience something that is like the relationship between humanity and God. We know deep down that our marriages are not just legal but also holy and sacramental.

The creation story of Genesis 2 talks about the purpose of marriage. Genesis 2:24 and 25 say: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and they were not ashamed.”

The holy purposes of marriage are, first, to get you out of your parent’s home. Then –holiest of all– it is to give you someone to hold on to … to cling to in bad times, to hug in good times, to hold on to when holding on is hard … to give you someone to become one flesh with even as your flesh grows old … and to give you someone to be naked with without shame.

How could we be so unimaginative, so incapable of translation and deduction, so densely literal that we would deny such a holy marriage to Sam and Doug? If we don’t start doing it, the rocks in the walls of our buildings will start putting on our robes and stoles and doing weddings themselves.

Jesus said it — Those whom God has joined together, let no one separate.


[i] Michelle Boorstein, “More couples pick friends to preside at weddings,” Washington Post, Sept. 16, 2011.

~The Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Pastor

Foundry United Methodist Church, Washington DC


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