Doctrines & prohibitions

Recently, at lunch with a friend, we lamented the lack of historical awareness amongst Christian leaders, particularly regarding the scriptures (More accurately, I lamented it; my friend listened and agreed!)

The Bible is a collection of narrative, poetry, law, songs, prophetic utterances, correspondence and gospel stories. However, most people regard it as a book of prohibitions and doctrines.

It’s understandable that the scriptures, composed of such divergent materials, were condensed into doctrine. However, these doctrines always need to be understood as derivative and provisional.

That rarely happens. Too often, they are regarded and communicated as divinely inspired text.

They are secondary, reflective of the human need for clarity (and power), and they sometimes distort scriptural stories.

Returning to the source material, to the biblical texts, allows us to rediscover the intricacies of the poetry and stories, of the characters, tensions in the plot, and unresolved paradoxes and contradictions.

It is stories that ground us in the ambiguous reality of our existence, and it is biblical stories that best point us to divine mystery, not doctrines and prohibitions.

Recently, Israel Folau released a video claiming that the bushfires ravaging NSW and Queensland are God’s punishment for legislating gay marriage.

Apart from the insensitivity of his remarks, and the fact that God is very slow in exacting vengeance (gay marriage was legalised on 9th December 2017), his stance assumes that his (traditional) model of marriage is the only God-inspired model.

One should ask whether Israel has read his scriptures because polygamy is common in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Also, as my lunchtime friend suggested, why are there so few, if any, inspiring accounts of a marriage in the Bible? We read about relationships of regard and substance, David and Jonathon, Ruth and Naomi, but where is the story of a marriage that compels us today? (One might also ask why Jesus didn’t marry if, as many Christians assert, it’s so important.)

The church only began to officiate at marriages a long time after Jesus, and didn’t formally recognise marriage as a sacrament until 1184.

The concept of marriage has evolved and will continue to do so.

I am grateful for this, especially the contemporary model of marriage that emphasises emotional intimacy, respect and equality.

Marriage changes over time. To deny this betrays a lack of historical awareness and disrespects the scriptures.

In the early 1930s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested that God instigated no particular model of marriage. He hinted that any model of marriage was potentially blessed as long as it was open to the love of Christ.

He wrote, ‘every order (of relationship) is mutable and destructible, including monogamous marriage.’ In 1930s Germany, in a society relentlessly organised around heterosexual monogamy, his statement was bold and strangely prophetic.

Bonhoeffer’s insights are a reminder of the role of the Christian community in shaping and reshaping social institutions, including marriage, that they better reflect the love of Christ.

Folau’s remarks deny this.

Bonhoeffer’s open it up.