Recent discussions on social media have helped me clarify one of my deeper concerns about the way the conversation about marriage has been framed heading into the General Conference that starts today. A key question that faces this General Conference, once again, is this: Is marriage dependent on cultural context?
The One Church Plan (OCP) and the Connectional Conference Plan (CCP) both assume that different cultural contexts require a contextualized approach to marriage. Unfortunately, neither plan actually provides a clear argument for why marriage should be thought of in this way. The Commission on a Way Forward (COWF) Report simply begged the question. [Begging the question is often misunderstood. One begs the question when making an argument that assumes the truth of a disputed assertion.] The report assumes that the solution to the ongoing disagreement about same sex marriage is contextualization. But whether marriage ought to be defined and practiced differently in different contexts is at the heart of the disagreement.
Contextualization itself needs careful and sustained attention. Some things are rightly changed or adjusted based on the cultural context. One obvious example is translating the Bible. The Bible ought to be translated into the vernacular of a particular context. The kind of music used in worship, or the length of the worship service, are other examples. Contextualization is crucial in many respects. But not everything is appropriately considered a matter for contextualization. We do not, for example, consider the canon of Scripture to be a matter subject to cultural context.
Whether one can support the OCP or the CCP largely comes down to whether you believe that marriage is the kind of thing that is dependent on cultural context or whether you believe it is not.
Rather than showing why United Methodists should believe that marriage is rightly thought of as dependent on cultural context, the COWF Report simply asserted that it was. If the current understanding of the UMC does not see marriage as a matter subject to cultural context, the COWF Report in begging the question guaranteed at the outset that the current United Methodist understanding of marriage would not be given a fair hearing. The COWF started by privileging “as much contextual differentiation as possible” and explicitly stated that United Methodism’s unity “will not be grounded in our conceptions of human sexuality, but in our affirmation of the Triune God who calls us to be a grace-filled and holy people in the Wesleyan tradition.” (COWF, 6)
A similar question begging move is made in the statement on mutuality a few pages later: “Mutuality. We will recognize all contextual adaptations and creative expressions as valid expressions of United Methodism. No one expression is normative for all others.” (COWF, 10)
The more I think about marriage as potentially having a definition that changes based on beliefs about marriage in a cultural context, the more problematic I find that belief. The logic seems to suggest that whether the church believes that God blesses same sex marriage is dependent on what non-Christians in the surrounding culture think about same sex marriage. What is the basis within the Christian tradition for such a view?
Again, we are not given an argument for such a view. It is simply asserted, repeatedly. I have not seen an explicit argument to for why we should view marriage as dependent on cultural context by supporters of the OCP or the CCP.
Imagine two people of the same sex desire to get married and they seek a Christian marriage. Do United Methodists really intend to say that our affirmation of their marriage is dependent on the plot on God’s earth where their feet are standing?
It seems to me that the logic of contextualization regarding marriage collapses under any scrutiny. If it is right, for example, for two people to get married in one context because their context affirms same sex marriage, is it wrong for those same two people to get married in another geographical location if that context does not affirm same sex marriage? Does the cultural context that the people are in determine whether we affirm or do not affirm same sex marriage? Or is it the cultural context of the people themselves that determines whether we affirm or do not affirm same sex marriage? If it is the latter, what does contextualization mean when one person comes from a cultural context that affirms same sex marriage and the other person comes from a cultural context that does not affirm same sex marriage? If affirmation of same sex marriage is dependent on the context one is physically in, does one take their marriage with them if they move from an affirming to a nonaffirming context? I cannot imagine anyone would want to argue for such an understanding. But I’m not sure we know why it would not be the case given the insistence on the particular importance of context.
To be fair, I think that many United Methodists who support the contextualization approach to marriage do not actually believe that marriage is dependent on context but agree with the result of contextualization plans, i.e., changing the United Methodist Church’s teaching and practice regarding same sex marriage from nonaffirming to affirming.
Bishop Carter, the current President of the Council of Bishops and one of the moderators of the COWF, does not seem to me to really believe that marriage is a matter of contextualization. In a recent AP News article Bishop Carter is quoted as follows, ““We’ve tried to remain together as a global body,” he added. “The challenge is simply that there are some nations where homosexuality is taboo.” A taboo is not usually thought of as something that reflects a rational or logical argument or approach to something. Particularly as used in Western contexts describing non-Western contexts, a taboo is seen to be an irrational rejection of something that is unwilling to even engage arguments. Carter’s use of taboo suggests that he sees the views of “some nations” that do not affirm same sex marriage as coming from a social prohibition that is not a reflection of God’s will, but is irrationally restrictive. The assertion that we are divided because “some nations” where “homosexuality is taboo” is also misleading because it suggests that United Methodists in the U.S. are in agreement in wanting to affirm same sex marriage, which is not at all the case. (The quotation also suggests that the current beliefs and practice of the UMC have no Scriptural or theological warrant, which I don’t think Bishop Carter intended in this quote. It is also entirely possible he was misquoted or quoted out of context here.)
A majority of the Council of Bishops have recommended a plan (the OCP) that is built on the understanding that marriage is contextually determined. I have yet to see a Scriptural argument that marriage ought to be understood in this way. I don’t think I’ve seen a substantive theological argument to this end either. Rather, contextualization has simply been asserted as a self-evident truth.
This conclusion seems to me to be inescapable: Christian marriage is dependent on God and not on the shifting winds of culture. The church’s responsibility is to discern God’s will as best as we can, relying especially on Scripture and our common heritage as Christians, and to offer the truth to the world. We may be wrong. In fact, many of us must be wrong given how deeply divided we are. This is a serious matter and much is at stake. God help us.