The Bishop’s “Reverse Marriage”
I had the privilege of traveling to San Diego, CA last month to attend the Ruth Institute’s It Takes a Family to Raise a Village Conference. The conference is targeted at college-aged students and provides them the opportunity to learn from and interact with very notable scholars who work in the field of marriage and family in their respective disciplines. Speakers included economists, attorneys, activists, a medical doctor, and theologians all presenting persuasive arguments in support of natural, man/woman marriage. I wish a similar program had been available when I was a college student and even more, I hope that if it had, I would have had the wisdom to avail myself of it.
The highlight of the weekend in my estimation was a conversation between Drs. Robert Gagnon (of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) and Jennifer Roback Morse (of the Ruth Institute) and The Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson (Bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire, Episcopal Church) and Dr. John Corvino (associate professor of philosophy, Wayne State) that centered on the definition of marriage. I say “centered on” because in the nearly three hours of very cordial and respectful dialogue, the participants covered many issues closely related to the debate over whether we as a society should remove the gender requirement for marriage and allow men to marry men and women to marry women. I could not have been more pleased to align myself with the Ruth Institute and Drs. Gagnon and Morse that night. They were quite bold in answering hard questions and standing on Biblical truth. Bishop Robinson and Dr. Corvino expressed themselves well and I respect their willingness to come to a large evangelical church with a congregation and pastor who are on the record as being opposed to changing the definition of marriage to accommodate same sex couples.
For the past two weeks, however, I have recounted one particular aspect of the debate many times, discussed with several people, and spent a lot of time considering it. I’m troubled by it. Bishop Robinson, who was once married to a woman and is now divorced and remarried to a man, was asked at one point why he should be taken seriously as an advocate for his position when he himself has broken the vow that he took with his former wife. Bishop Robinson’s reply was interesting and in a way, I can see how it would seem noble to one who thinks from his perspective. His response was a description of how his marriage ended. Mr. and Mrs. Gene Robinson went to the courthouse with their priest and lawyer and after they received a divorce decree, they went directly to their church where they read apologies and gave back the symbols of their vows, the rings that they had exchanged seventeen years earlier when they were married. Their vows had been to honor one another and when it became clear that the present circumstance was unnatural for Mr. Robinson, they mutually agreed to release one another from those vows in order to honor those same vows. There is a circular and internal consistency to their logic.
There is one profound problem, however. Marriage vows aren’t exchanged to be self-affirming and internally consistent. Marriage vows have become an important ritual that reflects the supernatural union of a man and a woman. No less than the Lord Himself tells us that it is God who joins the two into one flesh and that no man (which includes the parties to the marriage) can separate that union (Matthew 19:6). Jesus simply does not provide a contingency plan in case those vows become too difficult to honor or in the case when tortured logic seems to affirm that the best service to those vows is to break them. The fact remains, vows do not join a man and woman together in marriage. God does that. The ritual is important, but the ritual is reflective of the reality and the reality is that the marriage union is for life no matter the circumstances. The “reverse marriage” that Bishop Robinson described is unique and interesting and certainly sends the message that he takes marriage “unbelievably seriously”, in his own words. The precedent that he sets, however, is a selfish one. What preferences amount to a circumstance that would necessitate the breaking of marriage vows? Surely there are others. Who is the arbiter of the answer to this question? The individual? If that is the case, marriage is meaningless. The institution falls apart, because every marriage vow has a qualifier attached—I am committed to this marriage and to you UNTIL the circumstances don’t suit my preferences. The Bible simply makes no provision for a “reverse marriage.” Because of sin, Moses made an accommodation for divorce which is really designed to protect the vulnerable (Matthew 19:8; Deut. 24:1) and believers are given permission by Paul to relent in their resistance to divorce that they did not initiate (1 Corinthians 7:15), but nowhere does God make any provision for undoing marriage. In fact, God regards it as a violent and destructive act (Malachi 2:16).
There have been days in my marriage that would have been better days had I been single. The day after, however, was made better by the fact that the day before I had stayed married even though being single would have served my immediate purposes. I’m sure that every marriage has those types of days or even those types of hours.