A woman from our discussion group has asked us to have a conversation on “marriage privilege.” Here is her note:

I would love it if you would start a discussion on the marriage privilege. I am 100% for equal rights to the option of entering into marriage. But the idea of marriage as THE pinnacle of human relationships has come up repeatedly in discussions of GLBT rights. I want to support GLBT access to marriage, but I have a hard time with whole-hearted support when the cause is presented this way because I have a lot of questions about marriage as the ONLY legally and socially acceptable way to form a family. (I.e. GLBT is not the problem issue for me, it is marriage that is the problem issue.)

The woman then says that she is going through a divorce and she has been thinking about the privileges she will lose by not being married. She wonders if this is fair.

I find myself asking, why are there no other options to form care relationships? what are ways that singles and unmarried couples and whole communities can form valuable mutually caring relationships? and what kinds of policies and legal systems would support non-marriage caring as equally valid to marriage?

In all their rantings about “family values,” many churches have remained silent about certain parts of the Bible where it discusses marriage in ways that are inconsistent with church teaching. The fact that the Bible seems to treat women as property in some places, is treated as sacrosanct, but other more disturbing practices are simply ignored.

We do not truly love the Bible if we have to lie about what it says in order to defend it. We do not need to hide from the sexist origins of biblical marriage, but neither should we ignore the Bible’s clear call to outgrow our every immature understanding of what it says, and to grow more and more into universal love and into a commitment to justice for all people.

I believe one reason much of the church has been so reactive on gender issues is that they have no reality based notion of sexuality. When modern people translate words like “family” or “marriage,” we are projecting our modern meanings onto an ancient text that spoke very differently of marriage. Here are 5 things most churches will not tell you about biblical marriage:

1. Biblical marriage was based on a covenant between persons, not on the laws of the state nor the rules of the church.

2. Biblical marriage was based on a call to fullness of life. So, if a wife was unable to bear children, the man was sometimes encouraged by that wife to impregnate a servant so the family could have a child even if she could not. Obviously, I do not bring forward this practice to recommend it, only to show that such arrangements were not like our modern concepts of marriage.

3. Most churches simply ignore the fact that biblical marriages were often polygamous.

4. The Bible has nascent  ideas of gender equality that grow as the story unfolds. Some Rabbis interpreted the story of Adam’s rib as a symbol of equality, not that the man was to dominate the woman. We can certainly trace a literal affirmation of the misogynous cultures into which the scripture was spoken, but we can also hear a call to outgrow the dead skin of what the bible literally said, and to hear its call to fullness of life on this day. St. Paul said we should obey the spirit of the law not its letter. He said we are to grow beyond what he called “rules of flesh” like circumcision and celibacy, and to grow into the “fruits of spirit” which he listed as virtues like gentleness and fidelity.

5. The Bible understood the covenant of marriage as taking place in community. Marriage is not a moralistic rule for two individuals, but a sacrament meant to enrich the larger community.

So let the conversation begin. Feel free to disagree with what I have said. As always, my stance is the first word in the conversation, not the last