A Good Mystery

Michael Metzger

You can’t solve a mystery if you don’t see the whole story.

It’s a mystery to many why God would deny gays the right to get married. It seems arbitrary. This is to be expected, since at first mysteries don’t make sense and God is a mystery. He is also good. Reconciling these two requires seeing the whole story.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this story starts mysteriously. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). God’s name throughout Genesis 1 is Elohim, an ambiguous noun since Elohim is plural. In Hebrew, plural nouns denote plurality or majesty, or both. In this story, it’s both. As scripture unfolds, the mystery is partly cleared up. Elohim is Father, Son, and Spirit—in the unity of the Godhead there are three persons. One divine being, one nature, yet three persons.

The nature of their relationship is love, as John writes: “God is love” (I Jn. 4:8). By its nature, love is the enjoyment of communion with one another as well as desire to expand its own joy. Enjoy and expand. An infinite God could do this an infinite number of ways, but in their wisdom, Father, Son, and Spirit create human beings in their image and invite humanity into the communion. They decide to “wed” their joy with humans.

The nature of this expanded friendship is mysterious since “God is spirit” (Jn.4:24), an immaterial being. Made in the image of God, humans are spiritual beings inhabiting material bodies (Gen.1:26). God wisely designed the human body to help us to “see” the mystery of the immaterial Trinity. For example, the individual members of our body work in harmony for our enjoyment, just as the Trinity enjoys working in harmony.

Human bodies are also designed to reflect the expansion of the communion of love. “Let us make them in our image—male and female.” God creates Adam but Adam living alone “is not good” (Gen.2:18) since God is not one person. God is one nature yet three distinct persons. As Adam begins expanding the kingdom by naming the animals, he senses something is missing (Gen.2:19-20). He could see the animals all had bodies but senses they did not share his nature. When Adam meets Eve, he experiences the expansion of love in his body. “This is it—at last! Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” (Gen.2:23). In the Jewish understanding of this verse, “flesh” and “bones” signifies the whole human being, including the genitalia. “The human body is meant to reveal and participate in the spiritual mystery of divine love,” writes Christopher West.1

Becoming “one flesh” refers not only to the joining of two bodies sexually (animals do that) but also represents the communion of love between the Father, Son, and Spirit. It is in their bodies that Adam and Eve share this love in a mystery told in two chapters—creation and consummation. In their created design, Adam and Eve are “wed” to the community and consummate their love.

This is not the whole story, however. When sin erupts, Adam and Eve feel shame in their body. Shame is a sign of sin. God redeems them by covering their nakedness. He also prohibits the couple from continuing to enjoy the garden. This is redemptive love, for had Adam and Eve remained in the garden and eaten from the Tree of Life, they would be permanently dead. Exclusion is not always arbitrary and capricious.

The mystery of enjoying and expanding the community of love is now told in four chapters—creation-fall-redemption-consummation (or what is known as the final restoration). God’s eternal plan has always been to “marry” us (Hos.2:19)—to live in an eternal exchange of love and communion, writes West, except that original story is altered. Humans are no longer necessarily “wed” to God. It is only after God redeems Adam and Eve, covering their bodies with clothing, that they rejoin community of love and once again enjoy sexual consummation—“Adam knew Eve” (Gen.4:1).

This is the whole story that scripts the Judeo-Christian institution of marriage. By definition, institutions define reality and form boundaries. For example, the community of love between Father, Son, and Spirit is pure and eternal, so marriage as a picture of this story is monogamous and permanent. Extramarital sex and divorce destroy the picture. We rejoin community of love in redemption and will enjoy consummation with Christ after the wedding feast in eternity (Rev.19:7). Thus, marriage as a picture of this reality abstains from sexual consummation until after the wedding. Pre-marital sex distorts the picture. The Godhead is different persons—hetero—so marriage as a picture is heterosexual, between a man and a woman. It isn’t homosexual.

This is why there is nothing arbitrary about denying gays the right to get married—if marriage is a picture with a purpose. If on the other hand marriage is simply two consenting adults loving one another—if this is the story—then excluding two consenting adults is simply arbitrary. It all depends on the picture.

It is no coincidence that arbitrary is the accusatory word flung at God. In the late 1800s, Friedrich Nietzsche imagined a world rid of the gospel story. Churches would then become “the tombs and sepulchers of God” and humanity would descend into “madness,” which Nietzsche defined as the “eruption of arbitrariness.” Those making moral distinctions would be accused of being arbitrary. Prophecy fulfilled.

The modern church bears some responsibility for this eruption. It tends to be ignorant about institutions. By definition, institutions define reality and form boundaries. When the church operated as a culture shaping institution, marriage had boundaries. Distortions were obscene, which means without story, or deviating from the script. Homosexual marriage was considered obscene. Excluding it was not arbitrary. This is no longer the case, as the church is no longer a culture shaping institution. It’s why younger Christians no longer understand marriage as a picture of the gospel. Shaped more by influential institutions—especially education and media—they don’t want to appear to be arbitrary, so their attitudes towards gay marriage are softening.

Going soft is no way to solve a mystery. God is a mystery and he is good. The gospel is a mystery and it is good news. In excluding gays from marriage, God is not arbitrary, but you’d have to see the whole story to solve this mystery. Next week, we’ll see the story as told throughout scripture.

1 Christopher West, Theology of the Body for Beginners (West Chester, PA: Ascension Press, 2004), p. 24.


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  1. The state of our “unions,” especially within the Church, are so destitute that I find it difficult to look outside before taking a good hard look at the institution of marriage within the Church.

    It seems to me that we spend a lot of time trying to protect the integrity of marriage by hedging boundaries prohibiting same-sex couples from marriage (a boundary which I affirm). However, I find it very difficult to affirm such a definition of the integrity of marriage when Christians fail to live by their own vows. The statistics of the ‘success’ of Christian marriage is staggering – somewhere around 40-50% ending in divorce (depending on the survey).

    I realize that there are several daunting obstacles to marriage as God intended.However (I don’t mean this to be a slam on this Commentary because I really am grateful that you’ve written on the topic), to many I think we come off as quite hypocritical when the Church spends more time keeping ‘other’ people out than keeping its ‘own’ people in!

    Additionally, one of the most troubling aspects of the fall of marriage, at least as it seems to me, is the question of to whom does institution belong? I affirm that marriage is a covenant made by a man and a woman before God. The key here, however, is not that it’s a heterosexual relationship but that it’s a relationship cemented by a covenant made ‘before God.’ If a man and a woman want to get married and get the proper paperwork approved by a Justice of the Peace is this a proper marriage simply because it involves a man and a woman? Is a marriage between a man and a woman administered solely by the State a proper marriage?

    By all this all what I am really trying to communicate is that I think there are many factors going against marriage as God intended and I think the issue of homosexual marriage is often polarized to the neglect of issues like marital faithfulness.

  2. Mike:

    Our men’s bible group has been struggling to come up with a theologically based case against gay marriage. This article says it all. Thank you.

    The Church is the keeper of this mystery so it must take responsibility for recapturing this understanding. But when I ask supporters of gay marriage for a theological
    justification (the same request I make of supporters of the “right” to abort) I inevitably get some variation of the theme that we are supposed to love everyone and judge nobody. That seems to be the whole story for them.

    This seeming conundrum will have to eventually be resolved in the seminarys but at the moment they seem to be asea also. How do we tackle that?

  3. Kevin.

    Exactly right. The old adage applies, however, that bad examples make bad law. Examples of bad heterosexual marriages are often used as arguments against a Christian definition of marriage (as you rightly point out). But that’s like saying there since are automobile accidents, automobile driving ought to be banned. It is deeply troublesome that Christians have high divorce rates, etc (as you rightly point out) but they are not an argument against marriage as a picture. They are simply indefensible.

  4. The adage is ‘hard cases make bad law’. . . . (and not that bad examples made bad law). Bad examples are just bad examples. At law, they would be excluded as irrelevant.

    How is it that we see the question of failed marriages as relevant to how properly to define marriage itself? Unless, of course, we wish to use a pseudo utilitarian approach and ‘define’ marriage so that any and all might ‘succeed’. . . .

    I think the hard case in this scenario – in the sense of making ‘bad’ law – is the homosexual couple who have been together for 30 years, caring for one another and each other’s families, etc. in a close relationship that looks for all the world just like a successful loving marriage, except that it’s not. But of course the argument is that, just as we don’t use failures to define marriage, neither do we use apparent ‘success’ outside of marriage to change the definition.

  5. I know you’re interested in talking about marriage, but you’re equally interested in talking about institutions and tying these thoughts together, and so am I. When you said: “When the church operated as a culture shaping institution…” that’s the issue that needs plenty more attention, and one I look to your blog for guidance in thinking it through. I’d like to ask, “Are you that sure that the church is no longer a culture shaping institution?” After all, if there were no church, would we not be in anarchy or in a totalitarian empire required to worship the emperor? We’re not.

    The church still has amazing cultural influence, I would venture to say, but if you don’t say, then there’s a discussion to be had. For example, given that we’re talking about marriage, there still are very much enforced laws here in Massachusetts requiring the registration of out-of-state clergy with the Commonwealth before the clergy person is allowed to officiate a wedding. The state recognizes the institution of the church. Maybe the weak link is that the church (and what is “the church” but the people of the church?) doesn’t recognize itself as an institution.

    I’d like to explore the connection the church needs to make with the institution of education. The proliferation of “Christian schools” and the church’s pulling back from marriage with society’s other institutions – like public and private education – doesn’t look healthy: caring only for one’s own institution is dangerously myopic. So, when the church witnesses the state’s blessing of homosexual marriage, would it be better for the church to spend all its time or just some of its time condemning the practice, or spending at least some of its time inviting the couples to parenting classes? Which does more to address the needs of our fellow citizens? Which route shows the power of an institution to be above the fray than awash in it?

  6. I think this is the key sentence in your argument, but when I go back and read this sentence:
    “The Godhead is different persons—hetero—so marriage as a picture is heterosexual, between a man and a woman. It isn’t homosexual”
    I can’t figure out how it is related to the paragraph where it is found. I feel like the if->then is all discombobulated. The statements immediately before are about premarital sex and the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. I’m not following the reasoning.

    I also can’t understand how “different persons” = “different genders.” Two gay guys marrying are different persons; just as I and my wife are different persons.

    I was kind of eager to see what the argument was going to be, since I am personally opposed to gay marriage. However, if this sentence I quoted is the essence of the argument… I don’t think I am getting it?

  7. One of the major themes running through the Bible is about life that shows the glory of God. God is the source, protector and enhancer of life.
    God has brought the church and our nation to the point of decision – life or death. He calls us to choose life.( Deut.30:15).
    Marriage between one man and one woman is the choice for life through procreation, preservation and provision.
    Homosexuality provides none of these. The choice is still, “Today I have set before you life or death, choose life.”

  8. Dave:

    While I agree that a broader discussion of institutions would be most beneficial, your argument that there are only two results when the church is not a culture-defining institution (anarchy or totalitarianism) is reductionist. There are far more possibilities, including a society where representative government deems any and all relationships between consenting adults is permissible.

    Finally, it’s hard for me to read any reputable paper and agree with your assessment that the church still has “amazing” influence. But maybe we read different rags.

  9. Max DuPree says that the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The church is no longer considered a reality defining institution, just as religion is no longer viewed as a source for public knowledge. In American society, there are cultural traces of an bygone age still present. But among the young, the church is the last place they will turn to find expert knowledge on how life works — particularly in the arena of sexuality. We live instead in a world without boundaries where pride and passion are embraced and celebrated. Nietzsche foresaw a transvaluation of values, where the good is bad and the bad is good. Such is our world — “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things, but approve of those who practice them.”

  10. Marble:

    Thank you for your clarifying comments. Good mind.


    At this point, a seminary education, while often sketching out this story, does not know how to translate it so that our culture-shaping institutions might take it seriously and act on it.

  11. Mike – useful piece, thx. It helps with a Christian understanding of marriage as hetero. This is important, yet it seems to me there is still a large gap in getting from here to a story that is consistent with the Establishment Clause. What story might work there? Let me add that I believe the EC should be interpreted in a way that considers Humanism to be a religion, which prevents a simple rejection of the Christian story on the grounds that those of other beliefs do not hold to it.

    I’ve seen Humanist arguments in favor of gay marriage that include a deconstruction of hetero-marriage as something required for survival in an earlier/agrarian time but not required in our modern times. There’s the arugment about procreation, but clearly we don’t need all marriages to have offspring in order to continue the species. There’s an argument from nature, but we counter natural creation at many turns to advance health and welfare.

    I believe that an EC story is needed because, without it, the Christian community seems to be seeking merely its own hegemony and a de facto establishment of (at least one aspect of) Christianity. Furthermore, the purely Judeo-Christian story (even a corollary Islamic story, whatever it may be) won’t turn the hearts of Humanists. Indeed, the likes Marble’s 30-yr case form quite a compelling story outside theistic circles.

    Also, I very much like your etymology of “obscene” (it relates to my film analysis work) but I could not validate with other sources, which lean toward “onto filth” as the breakdown of the word. Can you offer more here?

  12. Late to discussion, but two thoughts:
    – Is there a response to merril’s question? I think I missed the same logical connection.
    – Is the church’s job, culture shaping institution or not, to modify the behavior of non-Christians? I am more inclined to advise Christ followers to model good marriages and love their communities than to say what my non-Christian friends can and cannot do. If the point of legalizing gay marriage is to have churches say it is great, then no, I don’t agree with it – the church shouldn’t have to do that. But if the point is to offer legal standing to something that already exists, why should the church interfere?

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