The Future of Christian Marriage: Paul on the Powers

This post is based on remarks I made during The Past, Present, and Future of Christian Marriage Open Forum held at Chester Cathedral on Saturday, October 22nd, 2016. Beside me on the panel was Dr Ben Fulford, Canon Jeremy Pemberton and Rev.Sarah Jones. The event was part of Chester’s Sexuality and Anglican Identities Project. For more information on the research project and up-and-coming events, please see:

Improving the Same-Sex Marriage Debate

Contemporary theological discussions concerning the status of same-sex marriage, have frequently focused on a narrow range of Scriptural texts. For many Christian ethicists, Genesis 2:18-25, Romans 1:26 and Matthew 19:1-12 continue to serve as recurrent lenses through which to understand the moral status of same-sex marriage and homosexual relationships more generally. Such a selective emphasis has invariably led to an exaggerated exploration of the notion of ‘natural order’, complementarity and gender identity to the exclusion of a much more complex  set of issues evoked by the Scriptural record, among them the eschatological transience of marriage (Matthew 22:30) and the conventual acceptance of individuals who cannot, or will not engage in procreative activity (Isaiah 51:1-56:8: Matthew 19:12). In the following blog post, I argue that a richer discussion can be perused through an exploration of Paul’s theology of the Principalities and Powers. While a great deal of theological scholarship has focused on the implications of this concept for Christian accounts of pacifism, I argue that the radical social ruptures implied by Paul’s focus in texts like Ephesians 6:12 and 2 Corinthians 4:3-4, also has implications for debates surrounding same-sex marriage. While gendered language is a recurrent part of the symbolic scenery of salvation, such descriptions should, I suggest, be qualified by the Pauline insistence that all parts of our social, political and biological experience, have been distorted and are now being transfigured by the resurrection of Christ. This leaves cultural structures, traditions, and natures, open to a form of deep-seated questioning, the kind of question which makes same-sex marriage at the very least theologically intelligible.

File:Gay marriage NYC.jpgA central consideration at the heart of this proposal is the claim that for Paul to belong to Christ, means being inducted into a new citizenship (Philippians 3:20), one which is dependent upon baptism rather than procreation or gender polarity. To flesh out this assertion this post considers the implied social implications of Paul’s declaration of that Christ has humiliated the Powers of the world (Colossians 2:15). By placing Paul’s ideas in dialogue with the later Gospel material, I suggest that Paul’s account of the dethronement of Christ’s mysterious opponents should be understood in the context of a series of Jesus’ enigmatic sayings concerning the concrete nature of the Kingdom. In ‘the kingdoms of the world’ (Matthew 4:8) order is produced by regimented hierarchies which always privileges the larger civic community over small clusters of freely chosen of affection. Yet, as I go on to suggest, it is precisely the non-civic, non-familial ‘cluster’ that the Jesus of the Gospels and Paul are most interested in defending. Far from validating social kinship or the qualities of men and women in marriage, such a clustered conception presupposes a mode of radical disengagement from the excessive idolatries of kinship, civic community, and procreation, in ways which undercut a simple equation between marriage and heterosexuality.

The Powers: The Kingdom and the New Social Order

Of all the manifold dimensions of Paul’s theology, his reference to ‘principalities and powers’ appears the most enigmatic. Paul refers to these forces throughout his letters, particularly in the context of the cosmic dimensions of Jesus’ death on the cross (1 Cor. 2:8, Ephes. 6:12, Col. 2:15). Yet, he does not provide an extended explanation of who or what they are. Thus, attempts to reconstruct their role and import in Paul’s thought have relied on close analysis of the Greek and Hebrew context in which Paul was writing, as well as an extrapolation of Paul’s meaning through consideration of the concepts with which his language of ‘the powers’ are paired. What are the most important results of such inquiry? An excellent way into these contemporary scholarly discussions remains Hendrik Berkhof’s Christ and the Powers (1953) which subsequently shaped the theological ethics of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas. Of enduring theological significance in Berkhof’s book is a sensitivity to the link between these otherwise puzzling references and Paul’s wider notion of being made new in Christ. In this connection, Berkhof offers us the following definition using Romans 8:37-9 as his primary backdrop:

Paul observes that life is ruled by a series of Powers. He speaks of time (present and future), of space (depth and height), of life and death, of politics and philosophy, of public opinion and Jewish law, of pious tradition and the fateful course of the stars. Apart from Christ man is at the mercy of these Powers. They encompass, carry and guide his life. The demands of the present, fear for the future, state and society, life, death, tradition, morality, they are all “our guardians and trustees,” the forces that hold together the world and the life of men and preserve them from chaos.[1]

This final point in Berkhof’s is at this early juncture worth labouring. Our lives are ruled by Powers from which Christ offers us freedom (a portal to a new social identity) yet they are the same forces which give our lives structure. Indeed, as Colossians 1:5: -17 makes plain, these forces were created by God for Christ to rule over. This Janus-faced account of our predicament means that while the Powers have a function within the created order, they frequently overstep their allotted bounds in that order. We can see this clearly in relation to state power. While to Paul’s mind it is right and proper that the state punishes wrongdoing, (Rom. 13:4) loyalty to the state can mask one’s primary loyalty to God. In Paul’s own context, this clashing of loyalties was vividly epitomised by the many state-sponsored religious cults which attempted to cloak government in a cloak of sacred majesty, a majesty belonging to God alone (1 Cor. 10:20). Yet why have these aspects of life overstepped their proper function? Paul’s answer is neither systematic nor straightforward, but involves a transfer of rule from the creature to the creature, leading to formalised idolatry and social disorder (Rom.1:25). The Powers are caught up in this transfer of authority, becoming barriers to, rather than proper means of, worshipping God. As Berkhof expresses the matter:

Paul speaks once of the Powers as related to the creative will of God. But we do not know them in this divinely intended role. We only know them bound up with the enigmatic fact of sin, whereby not only men have turned away from God, but the invisible side of the cosmos functions in diametric opposition to its divinely fixed purpose.[2]

Bartolomeo Montagna - Saint Paul - Google Art Project.jpgBut this kind of statement merely generates another thorny question for both commentators and theologians. There are a few moments in Paul where the Powers appear to take on a personal aspect, as in Galatians 4:3 where the Powers are referred to in terms of ‘elemental spirits’ or in Colossians 2:15, where they appear to be captured like human soldiers.  Yet Paul’s evocation of time, height, and depth in Romans is suggestive of something closer to personification than personhood.  Are we to understand the Powers as beings who have fallen like Adam or as instruments who are being used for the wrong purpose, either by creatures or the shadowy Satan? On this latter point, there has been some scholarly disagreement. For Berkhof, we need not suppose that Paul conceived of these forces as personal beings, but more like structures of life or conditions of being.[3] Walter Wink picks up on this ambiguity and suggests that the New Testament writers engage in a kind of dialectic, where the Powers are spoken of in both personal and impersonal terms. In this respect, we can understand the Powers as ‘if they were these centurions, that priestly hierarchy’ one moment, and then ‘spiritual entities in the heavenly places’[4] the next. This double aspect suggests to Wink that to speak of the Powers means referring to both the inner and out aspects of social structures, natures, and hierarchies. Under the rubric of the ‘outward’ Paul observes armies, insignia, and cities, under the bracket of the inward, he detects ‘the spirituality of institutions’[5], the extent to which cultural forms partake in or resist, the various economies of idolatry.  Regardless of which interpretation is nearer the mark, Paul’s central point is this. The creation has until recently been under a regime of injury and bondage, for which Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the solution. Paul’s majestic language of Christ’s work giving birth to a new creation (Rom. 8:22:  2 Cor.5:1) is intended to reinforce the fact that whatever orders we belonged to in the past, is now being judged or reconfigured by Christ. To speak of the Powers being subdued means that the old structures of the world will come at last to yield to the intentions of the God of Israel.

How the Powers Disrupt the Same-Sex Marriage Debate

NTWright071220.jpgHow might these claims about the Powers impinge on debates surrounding same-sex marriage? Anyone familiar with contemporary theological debates regarding the status of same-sex marriage will note the exaggerated role of the doctrine of creation in such discussions. In a recent exploration of these issues the theologian and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has suggested that same-sex marriage not merely disrupts a settled social order, but ignores the deep structures which constitute God’s intentions for creation. As Wright notes:

[If] you believe in what it says in Genesis 1 about God making heaven and earth—and the binaries in Genesis are so important—that heaven and earth, and sea and dry land, and so on and so on, and you end up with male and female. It’s all about God making complementary pairs which are meant to work together. The last scene in the Bible is the new heaven and the new earth, and the symbol for that is the marriage of Christ and his church. It’s not just one or two verses here and there which say this or that. It’s an entire narrative which works with this complementarity so that a male-plus-female marriage is a signpost or a signal about the goodness of the original creation and God’s intention for the eventual new heavens and new earth.[6]

Given the fact that gender polarity is a recurrent theme throughout Scripture, this conclusion seems on the surface to be a solid reading of the social and sexual implications of Genesis 1. However, this reading leaves out Paul’s account of the Powers, a radical commitment that can be seen to condition Paul’s response to all social and sexual conditions, including the institution of marriage. How so? Let’s first have a look at Paul’s views on procreation, for it is here we can begin to see the contours of his Powers analysis in action. As a first-century Jew, Paul naturally situations his story of the Messiah within the larger story of Israel. He, therefore, accepts that fruitfulness is the portal through which God’s purposes become manifest. Thus, Jesus (‘born of a woman’[7]) validates the generations that have come before as the heir of David and the fulfillment of the inheritance of Abraham (Gal. 3:16). Yet Paul’s interpretation of the promise of Abraham (Gen. 17:4) is not merely a reaffirmation of the command ‘be fruitful and increase in number’ (9:7) but a radical inversion of structures of blood and tribe. The old process of fecundity must now be understood in the context of Jesus’ victory over the powers. To belong to God through Jesus means that those not born in the family of Israel, will be ‘grafted’ (Rom. 11:17) or ‘adopted’ (Gal. 4:5) into it. Inheritance or procreative capacity are quite secondary to this.  Paul’s point in using generative language relates not to the supremacy of procreation, but to the countercultural community being realized in Christ.

This same emphasis can be seen in his attitudes towards marriage. In his letter to the Ephesians Paul suggests that the marital relation can be used as a vehicle for modeling the believer’s submission to Christ. In this mode of imitation, Paul declares, ‘Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’ (NIV 5:25). Paul’s instruction for wives are equally imitative, ‘Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour’ (Ephes. 5:22-24). In contemporary debates, this text frequently becomes part of a wider concerning gender complimentary[8], whereby marriage becomes a crowning sign-post of the natural order.  Yet such readings have, I suggest, missed the point. What Paul is saying is that marriage is of value, only insofar as it reflects the love and order of Christ. It does not have inherent value, as part of some pre-Christian, natural state. Evidence for this line of interpretation can be gleaned from Paul’s wider analysis of social custom and cultural ritual in the light of the New Covenant. When confronted with the issue of ceremonial observance among the Colossians, Paul offers the following formulation:

And having disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. Therefore let no one judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a festival, a New Moon, or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the body that casts it belongs to Christ (Colossians 2:15-17).

Thus, all social customs become relativized beside the loving commandments of Christ. Marriage, like food laws, purities and moralities beside the transformation ushered in by Jesus. Therefore, Paul can say in terms which some moderns find disconcerting, ‘if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion’ (NIV 1 Cor. 7:9). The instrumental terms with which Paul speaks of the marital bond is a necessary outgrowth of his sense that Christ comes before social conformity, useful when they point Christians beyond the patterns of the world. What Paul is doing is orienting away from what may appear natural and customary and towards a new life framed by Jesus. In the case of the Ephesians text, the key issue is holiness in accord with the manner of Jesus and not gender identity.

How This Might Move the Debate Forward

Gay wedding a by Stefano Bolognini.JPGWhat does this new life mean for the dualities Wright sees in Genesis 1? Instead of making clear lines of connection between the lives we live now and the lives we will grow into, Paul repeatedly emphasizes that a personal and cultural break is taking place. As Rowan Williams has recently pointed out in his illuminating volume on the Apostle; when Paul speaks of the Church he does so in the context of the breaking of a new ‘heavenly’ reality[9], yet it is not altogether clear how this new cosmos will adequately resemble the old one.  Indeed, the Church ‘is living in the overlap between the present and the future, between two worlds, beyond the constraints and injustices of the present social order.’[10] It must be said then that the Church is a process, not of the uncritical acceptance creation as it stands, but a constant negotiation. What Paul is attempting to discern is which aspects of the created order serve the will of Christ, and which prevent the Gospel from being heard. In this vein, Williams has called Paul’s notion of ethics one of manifestation[11], because it does not depend on notions of purity (demarcations of social belonging) but rather, on whether it appropriately expressed the person of Jesus Christ at work in the world. This contest between ethics of purity and ethics as transformation is explored in Galatians 2:11-13, where Paul rebukes Peter for his refusal to eat with non-Jews. Custom and tradition must now give way to the actions of God in Jesus.

It is evident however from Paul’s testimony, that he does not develop a coherent set of ground rules for such negotiation. The man who believes that the categories of gender are suspended in Christ is none-the-less convinced that it is unnatural for men to have long hair (1 Corinthians 11:14)[12]. He is still wrestling as he writes about what a new identity in Christ means to him and the communities he serves. Yet this is frequently not how Paul has been treated by Christian ethicists. Instead of recognising what Albert Schweitzer called the ‘interim ethics’[13] of the early Church, texts like Romans 1 are being treated as exhausted statements of Christian attitudes to sexual morality, when they are in fact the product of a tense and open-ended dialectic between the old and new, worked out on the level of cases (as Paul’s letters amply demonstrate). Paul was clear regarding the pressing questions he must answer, but the answers themselves are part of the unfolding of a new creation. As Oliver O’Donovan summarises the character of this unfolding process:

Our identities, the Gospel tells us, are given us in Christ risen from the dead; they are to be found within that lordly humanity which stands before God in ‘the last Adam’. Other identities, whether national, class or whatever, are relatively secondary. But there can be no fundamental divisions within that restored humanity. Even the division between male and female is, from the point of view of Galatians 3:28, eschatologically suspended, although given back to us as an element of restored creation for us to interpret.[14]

So, the theological task is more complicated than merely keeping intact the identities we see in Genesis 1, but making manifest a new creation, where marriage is not supreme, gender is not of vital significance and where procreation is not the primary means of belonging.  What does this mean for a Christian account of marriage? Here Williams’ notion of manifestation comes into play. The question for the Church is not, are same-sex marriages allowed under the terms of a tightly understood doctrine of creation, but can such social arrangements express the Kingdom inaugurated in Christ? If we look at the rest of the New Testament, it is quite possible to conclude that we can. The Jesus who acknowledges ordained status of marriage, suggests that “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple” (Lk. 14:26). Moreover, the Jesus who criticises the Pharisee for not sufficiently upholding the commandment to honour father and mother (Mark 7:10) suggests that those who follow him are his ‘mother and brothers’ (Matt 12:47-9: Mk. 3:33, Lk.8:21). These two incidents make the same point. Jesus’ notion of what constitutes community is not limited by familial ties but is grounded on new senses of care and intimacy (the nucleus of disciples). Might we see this new model of  intimacy expressed in the lives of committed same-sex couples? As the product of liberal modernity, same-sex marriage is not based on prior tribal ties or procreative connections but is a freely chosen identity. Doesn’t this echo the kind of attitude that Jesus calls for among his disciples who have declared victory over the habituations of the Powers?   Many will continue to insist that a negative answer to all of these questions is the only response possible in the context of the doctrine of creation. But as I have suggested here, the doctrine of creation is not the only theological imperative which needs to be considered. At the very least, consideration of often neglected aspects of Paul’s thought may progress our theological discernment beyond the barren proof-texting of Genesis 1 and Romans 1, towards a much fuller and richer analysis of our faith and of the human condition more generally.

[1] Hendrik Berkhof, Christ and the Powers, trans John Howard Yoder, (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1953: 1977), p. 22

[2] Berkhof, Christ and the Powers, trans John Howard Yoder, (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1953: 1977), p. 30

[3] Berkhof, Christ and the Powers, p. 24

[4]  Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament, Volume 1, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), p. 5.

[5] Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament, Volume 1, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), p. 5.

[6]  Matthew Schmitz,  ‘N.T. Wright on Gay Marriage: Nature and Narrative Point to Complementarity’, First Things, July 14th, 2009,

[7] Galatians 4:4

[8] See Eugene R. Rogers, ‘Doctrine and Sexuality’ in The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender

  1. Adrian Thatcher, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 61-62

[9] Rowan Williams, Meeting God in Paul, (London: SPCK, 2015), p. 79

[10] Williams, Meeting God in Paul, (London: SPCK, 2015), p. 79

[11] Williams, Meeting God in Paul, p. 75

[12] Paul’s use of ‘nature’ refers to what is right and customary. This provides a useful hermeneutic key to the proper meaning of Romans 1’s condemnation of ‘unnatural’ relations. See Alan Wilson, A More Perfect Union? Understanding Same-Sex Marriage, (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2014), p. 76

[13] See Robert H. Stein, The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings, (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p. 97

[14]Oliver O’Donovan, ‘Homosexuality in the Church: Can There be a Fruitful Theological Debate’, The Way Forward?: Christian Voices on Homosexuality and the Church, ed. Timothy Bradshaw (London: SCM Press, 1997: 2003), p. 29


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