I am a Christian. I have identified this way since my early teens, out of my own choice. I was exposed to church very early in life, but it took a while for me to find God on my own, away from all the pomp and circumstance of a church. It was through music, in the middle of nowhere, and it changed my entire life.
But I didn't want to be a Christian who just parroted everything I heard in church or from Fox News or from other people. I wanted to take in whatever wisdom people had for me, but didn't want to just adopt other people's views without reason. So I turned to a friend of mine, the man who was playing the music that made me curious about finding God. I asked him how I could find out what being a Christian meant. He dug into his bag and pulled out a book.
"This is the only words of God, Jesus, or their original Disciples and Followers we have. This is everything about Christianity we have left. Forget everything you were told about being a Christian until you have actively read this book, thinking about the words and stories as you read them, taking notes. Then we will help you answer any questions you have."
It was a modified Young's Literal Translation of The Bible. The forward explained that the original YLT version of The Bible sought to accurately represent each original Hebrew word individually with English. This meant that the sentences were broken and jumbled, but gave accurate meanings of the original intent. Where other translations would just say "Love" for all the Hebrew words for love, the YLT version would specify whether it was brotherly love, erotic love, or Godly love.
The modified book I had been given also organized the whole Bible into Chronological order, and summarized some of the simpler historical records, such as genealogies and geography. This made the Bible easier to read, since everything took place on a constant timeline, and made some of the non-essential historical events and family records short. It was meant to be read over six months, with a few chapters a day. But I was working at a summer camp at the time, and had some time to kill.
So I read that book twice through, referencing a normal New King James version of The Bible for help and filling two spiral notebooks with my horrible handwriting. I tried my best to read it as a story, absorbing details, filling in, remembering, referencing, studying. Over three months I was able to find out what the original instructions were for Christians. It stripped away years of confusing sermons and other people's opinions about what it meant and laid it out bare.
I found out so much. I was relieved when being a Christian was presented as a daily choice, not a magical moment that you accept God into your life and feel him enter your soul. I was overjoyed to learn that just because I didn't speak in tongues, it didn't mean I wasn't a Christian or had no spiritual gifts. I was intrigued by God's love of music, and fascinated by His simple explanations that He was not a vending machine, and that bettering one's self would take effort on their part, and not him magically granting you more patience or courage. I was able to form my own opinions and beliefs based solely off of these words and notes, while listening to other people's wisdom and experiences for practical advice and deeper understanding to incorporate, but only after keeping the original text in mind. I am not trying to claim that my views are perfect, but I actively tried (and am still trying) to keep the original biblical text as the ultimate guide to my Christian walk, above other people or my own thoughts.
One of the areas that I really sought information for was marriage. I hadn't considered it up until that point, but as soon as I started to try and understand everything from this basic point of view, forgetting what I had been told was true and trying to find out the real truth, I had to consider that maybe God's original intent wasn't for marriage to be a ceremony endorsed by the state of wherever, with a dress made by David's Bridal and a rented tuxedo and cake and pomp and circumstance and birdseed and overpriced photographers and catering. I wanted to know how people were married before this, and even before the Jewish traditions of marriage outlined in The Bible. The parties they threw and the ceremonies they observed were even more elaborate than the ones we use today. How did people marry before then? Surely God would want people to marry, procreate, and all that jazz well before civilization had developed enough for traditions to emerge! So I went digging.
And I found something that I've been leaning on for several years now, and something that I am now reconsidering as true. So what follows is what I believed, and afterwards I'll explain a little bit about why I'm not as sure, and have a new theory given to me by someone I look up to spiritually.
I believed that sex was equal to marriage. I believed that to be married, you just had to have sex. This would marry you to that person, forever. It seemed to fit very well! It explained how people were married before all our ceremonies, in a simple little way. I even used this with my wife, who I consider myself fairly married to. We talk about our legal marriage and our spiritual marriage as two separate things, since we didn't wait until our wedding to have sex. It also fit in very well with the cute saying of "making love".
There were passages in The Bible that seemed to support this, notably a passage that talks about Jesus meeting a woman at a well who has lived with several men and says that she "has many husbands". There were a few others that could be stretched to fit this definition of sex that I found after thinking about it and deciding that that was my explanation. I posed this to people as my own opinion, and other people seemed to support it and agree. I was comfortable with this idea, and felt that it worked well.
I had problems with this theory, though. What about people who are paralyzed below the waist? What about people who are sick and unable to have sex, or have some kind of physical or mental handicap that prevents them from being sexually active? Did I really believe they weren't married? It didn't feel right, but neither did my excuses of "Oh, God knows their situation and will make an exception." I also had no answers for rape victims. Did I believe that there was an attack that caused marriage between the victim and assailant, and that God would allow that? What about the godly men and women in the bible who practiced polygamy or polyamory? Why didn't they get the memo, even though they were older and had been Christians for longer? Some of them even communed with God on a personal basis. What was going on there?
Fast forward to two weeks ago. I was working a small event for couples. This group was an offshoot of a larger church, and on this particular day our senior pastor had decided to drop in for a bit and speak briefly. He was fond of this group and was all smiles walking in, happy to be there. This was an amazing speaker, and someone I admire spiritually. He is eloquent, and his wisdom is incredible. I've taken many things he's said to heart, and I am better for it. So when he got onstage and began speaking, I paid attention.
He began by introducing himself and telling a joke, talking a bit about his own marriage and their adventures. The whole audience chuckled politely at his humor.
He cleared his throat and began. "I want to take you all back to basics a little bit. I want to talk about what marriage is."
I perked up even further. Back to basics, ignoring social stigmas, from an amazing teacher? Yes please!
"I spent far too long imagining that marriage was all about the ceremony, the party, the wedding, and it kept me from reaching my full potential as a husband."
Mhmmmm, pastor. You are speaking my language. I started to get a little bit cocky, waiting for him to affirm what I believed.
"I didn't appreciate my wife, or our partnership. Our beliefs about marriage as an idea caused friction between us. We felt entitled, as if one day spent in a dress and tux in front of a preacher suddenly made our relationship deeper."
Oh yes. Come on. I'm waiting for it! Tell them about the sex thing!
"Some more radical Christians have taken to believing that in order to be married, you must follow Jewish customs for the wedding. Some others believe that all you have to do is to have sex, treating it as a sacred act that bonds you in spirit. Even others think that just cohabitation is enough to be married. But this is not the full story."
I'll admit I got some tunnel vision. I honestly panicked a little bit. I had been wrestling with doubts for the past few months about my beliefs on marriage, and someone I admire saying that those beliefs was like a nail in the coffin. My ideas had flaws, undeniable flaws.
"Marriage is meant to be a reflection of the church and Christ: a daily commitment and ever-present decision and lifestyle. You must wake up and live your life for your spouse. You must decide every day that you will be a reflection of God's love, as much as you can in this imperfect life, to your spouse. And they are to do the same back to you."
That made sense. I had replaced one physical action, the ceremony and wedding and everything that came with it, with sex. But sex is just another physical action. Sure, our sexuality and desire and intimacy that stems from it is deep, beautiful, and diverse, but conventional sex between a heterosexual couple (which is mainly what The Bible addresses) mainly involves a simple physical action of sliding a penis into a vagina.
No physical action can equate a spiritual and emotional decision to be together with your partner, a daily renewal of your desire. I chose to follow God daily, to always hold out my hand to Him, to sing songs to Him. Why would I believe that this same relationship of constant re-commitment and mindful partnership wouldn't be the basis of marriage? Why would I think that one physical action, albeit one with strong emotional bonding effects, could be held higher than a soul-bond, one that you constantly decide to follow and not break off? Why would I believe that our relationship was deeper because I put my penis inside of my lover's vagina and slid around a bit? What would make us deeper, bring us closer, was to try and emulate our relationship with God
It hasn't been easy to reconsider these beliefs. But I believe in the wisdom I heard, and I already had questions and situations about my old beliefs that made me uneasy about them. I look forward to exploring this more, but for now, I am content with sex being sex and marriage being a reflection of my ongoing commitment to being a Christian.