Marriage Will Not and Cannot Save You

Though I’ve been in Oxford for two weeks, I’ve been paying close attention to the goings-on in American evangelicalism. Particularly, I’ve been following the case of Douglas Wilson and the controversy surrounding his blessing of a marriage in his church between a known, convicted pedophile and a young woman who had undergone a very short courtship with the man. Wilson, throughout his defenses of his actions in this particular case, has repeatedly commented that he believes marriage – a romantic relationship with a person of the opposite sex one’s own age – acts or somehow creates the environment in which a pedophile may be either cured or otherwise deterred from the attraction to youth.

I think the revelation here – the belief in marriage as a salvific action, a sacrament that not only embodies Christ’s sacrifice but also provides a cure for the sicknesses of sin within our lives – is particularly important. Marriage is, in the minds of evangelicals, a particularly important – if not central – phenomenon. A woman who marries in the conservative evangelical church is undertaking a vast array of roles in which she bears the responsibility for any failing or problems on the part of her husband. We’ve seen this partially in the response to the salacious revelations about Josh Duggar, in the questions of what Anna should or should not do now or what she should or should not have done prior to his infidelities.

And we’ve seen it in the past in response to almost any infidelities or failures of the family within the marriage. Divorce is the result of feminism. Child abuse is the result of female failures to rein in the male ego. Infidelities are the result of women not having enough sex or “letting themselves go.”

Marriage – or more narrowly, a sexually available woman who remains looking like her 20-year-old self throughout marriage and does not challenge her husband outside of acceptable, previously proscribed manners – is the cure for all that ails the church. Women are simultaneously quite powerful and demonized in the current theology, as exemplified in the treatment of a known pedophile and his wife at the hands of their church in a small town in Idaho. The wife is the cure for his pedophilia. The wife is the answer. And the wife, as a human being who cannot control another person’s sexual sins, is the reason such protections fail.

So everything, in the end, comes down to women and their (in)abilities to be the cure for all men’s ills. It is not the grace of God, not the blood of the cross or the resurrection, but the very human, very fallible person who must take on this extraordinary burden.

And this, ultimately, is why this neo-reformed, complementarian theology is not gospel. With as much as Doug Wilson talks about this pedophile being forgiven by the blood of the lamb and the drastic confrontation with grace that must happen for redemption, his actual praxis falls on the shoulders of a young, sheltered woman who was married off after two dates. Such theology places the work of redemption, the work of grace, on the backs of equally fallible humans. A human construction – marriage – becomes the central salvific mechanism of a faith supposedly centered on the words of a God-man who never actually married.

But we know from Paul and from Jesus himself that marriage, though sacramental, is not something each human must experience in order to be saved, and it is not itself a cure for sin.  Marriage is a sacrament in the sense that caring for the marginalized is a sacrament – it is that which flows out of a belief in Christ, not that mechanism by which that belief occurs. And it is this backward progression that plagues the majority of this neo-Reformed, neo-conservative theology throughout the United States, most potently exemplified by Wilson’s dismissal of any and all criticisms of his “good” work.

It is thus that we can conclude, without compunction or hesitation, that such theology is damaging, harmful, and not the work of Christ. If married to another human being, we are not saved through that marriage but marriage is then baptized as a means through which we understand the Other. If unmarried, our status as members of the Body, working for justice for the marginalized and speaking from the margins, does not change.

It is not marriage that is salvation. It is the identification of Christ with the oppressed, with the human condition, with our very human incarnations. And this, ultimately, is why we must reject any theology that demands a romantic relationship as a sacrament or proposes that an adult sexual relationship is somehow a cure for personal sins. We are better and bigger than that.