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Talking snakes and traditional marriage

Talking snakes and traditional marriage

by Elizabeth Kaeton

What makes a marriage Christian? What is the relationship between the Church’s blessing of a relationship, whether different-gender or same-gender, and a union, “marriage” or otherwise, created by civil law? Is the blessing of a same-gender relationship equivalent to the marriage of a different-gender couple, and if so, should this liturgy be called “marriage”?

These are some of the questions posed by the SCLM (Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music) in Resolution A050, which asks that the Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies create a Task Force on the Study of Marriage. The resolution specifies that the task force consist of “not more than twelve people, consisting of theologians, liturgists, pastors, and educators, to identify and explore biblical, theological, historical, liturgical, and canonical dimensions of marriage”.

Already, many are weighing in on the definition of “traditional marriage” – by which many mean to hold us to the line of “tradition”, i.e., “the way we’ve always done it before”: one (fertile) man and one (fertile) woman. At least, that’s the “tradition” that’s fresh in the minds of many.

If you want to build a case for that definition of “traditional marriage”, I have a suggestion: Don’t start with Scripture. You’ll find a greater case there for polygamy and contract negotiations between two men for the “property” of a woman than “traditional marriage”.

Most folks who want to build a case for “traditional marriage” begin with the Story of Creation, with particular emphasis on The Fall. This is a natural default position for those of the evangelical persuasion who seem blithely unaware that both stories are just that: stories. Myths. They are lovely stories – holy, sacred stories, to be sure – but they are not “The Truth” as we know it today, informed as we are by research and science and archeology and forensics and the like.

These stories are the way ancient people sat around the wilderness campfire at night and told stories to try and understand “the meaning of Life”. Their inherent value lies in the evidence they provide of our evolution as human beings whose understandings about God’s action in the history of our lives has also evolved. As such, these stories have great meaning and significance, but in no way do they provide the architectural foundation for the meaning of marriage.

There is something in the human condition – no matter how young or old we are – that loves a good story. Our ears perk up when we hear, “Once upon a time…..” and we wait for the ending, “….and they lived happily ever after.”

We have our “happily ever after” when we follow the path Jesus has set for us which leads to Life Eternal. Everything else is just details.

Ah, someone is saying, “the devil is in the details.”


If you base your theological understanding of “traditional marriage” on myths that include talking snakes, then the church is in a whole lot more trouble than anything blessing covenants between two people of the same gender could bring.

I mean, seriously? Talking snakes and “The Fall”? That can be believed but not the belief that there is goodness and holiness in my 37-year faithful, monogamous relationship?

Isn’t that where the conversation about “traditional marriage” always leads? It’s not a simply means to fortify the status quo but to take down anything that doesn’t look like what might have made a Norman Rockwell portrait of Americana on the front cover of The Saturday Evening Post.

I find the whole conversation about Scripture and Traditional Marriage to be surreal when it’s not condescending and arrogant and deeply insulting. I find myself going back to the 38th Chapter of Job and hearing the questions which Job reports God asked him, like: “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?”

I’m sure some find this sort of conversation enlightening and, perhaps even intellectually entertaining, but I’ve been in the struggle for Marriage Equality for a long time. I’ve heard it all before and I know where it leads. In the end, we all become scriptural gymnasts, twisting and turning as we try and impose the meaning we want to give on ancient words that had an entirely different context and intent in their meaning.

Sigh. I suppose it has to be done. Point, counterpoint and onward into the whirlwind of human folly. “Knowledge puffs up but love builds up” (1Corinthians 8:1b)

I do take some comfort in the fact that Resolution A050 asks, “That the task force consult with couples living in marriage and in other lifelong committed relationships and with single adults”; and “That the task force consider issues raised by changing societal and cultural norms and legal structures, including legislation authorizing or forbidding marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships between two people of the same sex, in the U.S. and other countries where The Episcopal Church is located”.

Yes, after we talk to all the “theologians, liturgists, pastors, and educators, to identify and explore biblical, theological, historical, liturgical, and canonical dimensions of marriage”, please lets look at the realities we are facing in today’s world and try and find some meaning and hear some stories – just the way our ancient forebears did.

I am especially heartened that A050 also asks, “That the task force develop tools for theological reflection and norms for theological discussion at a local level.” This, I think, is an even deeper challenge than defining marriage. If we can do that for this important issue, perhaps we’ll have a means and methodology to discuss other controversial issues in the church.

Perhaps with a way to talk and listen to each other instead of listening to talking snakes, we may well find a way to talk about the traditions of mutual love, fidelity, intimacy and mutuality that are at the heart and soul of Christian marriage.

The Rev’d Dr. Elizabeth Kaeton is an Episcopal priest who loves Jesus unconditionally and struggles with the institutional church continually. She is currently a member of and assists at All Saints Rehoboth Beach and St George’s Chapel, Harbeson, DE and has a private pastoral counseling and consulting practice. She blogs at Telling Secrets.


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Leslie Scoopmire

Gary made another excellent point. Jesus was grounded in the Law, but the law filtered through human hands was and IS sometimes used in a way that subverted the intent of the Law.

The bottom line is, those who seeks out Oold Testament sources to support “traditional” marriage “as God ordained it” can get into some deep trouble before ever leaving Genesis. Polygamy, concubinage, rape, incest, women bought and sold as property are only the beginning.

What is always clear to me in the Biblical metanarrative is God’s design of us as creatures who are to love each other, be faithful to our promises to both God and each other, and that in order to live a fully human life we are not to focus on ourselves and our self-centered desires but on helping and caring for each other in gratitude for those same gifts God has bestowed upon us.

Father Ron

A lovely reflection by Elizabeth; and challenging – to all of us who hold Scripture dear, and yet believe that changing times and circumsatances call for different strategies.

A can’t help agreeing with Savi, that our exegesis must never lead to ‘exit Jesus’ – in our struggle for the best way of living our life as it has been given to us.

I, for a time, worried about the term marriage for same-sex monogamous relationships but now have come to see this as a way of publicly affirming a life-long loving partnership between two people committed to each other – regardless of their given gender

Ron Smith (added by ~ed.)

Gary (NJ)

‘..our Lord never ‘outgrew’ the practice of looking to the ancient Scriptures for guidance and revelation.’ That’s true, but when the Law was cruel, unjust, or unfair, He would say, ‘you have heard it said…., but *I* say….’ If there is one thing we can be sure of about Jesus, it’s that he always included and loved the outcast and the despised; especially those who were cast out by Jewish Law.

Gary (NJ) — please sign your name next time you comment. Thanks ~ed.

Clay Calhoun

“Most folks who want to build a case for “traditional marriage” begin with the Story of Creation, with particular emphasis on The Fall. This is a natural default position for those of the evangelical persuasion who seem blithely unaware that both stories are just that: stories. Myths.”

So, what are we to make of Jesus referencing the opening chapters of Genesis in response to the Pharisees’ question about marriage? I don’t deny that significant Old Testament material is myth (not in the sense of falsehood, but in the sense of a truth beyond mere historical fact), but I think it’s at least fair to say that our Lord never ‘outgrew’ the practice of looking to the ancient Scriptures for guidance and revelation.

Elizabeth Kaeton

Hi, Savi,

I agree with you. I cherish the stories from the Hebrew Scripture because of the universal truths they have to tell.

I agree with you as well that we should read scripture “with our critical faculties switched on”. It’s fun, in the third grade, to believe in talking snakes. And then, we grow up.

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