There are a lot of people who will tell you that marriage is on a pretty unstable foundation in our culture. Often it’s said from an anti-same-sex-union agenda, but it’s also been said in appeals for monogamy and the sanctity of marriage. Rather than dig up some statistic to make a point, it seems easier to simply acknowledge that marriage is not widely regarded with the assumed longevity that it once was. And that, I think, is the sentiment that was behind Andrew Jones’ comment that Tony Jones’ call to stop performing marriages was unorthodox and threatening to marriages.

I talked about all this before, back in January 2010 when those posts were still current, and those are the posts that caused a series of heated email exchanges involving Tony, Andrew, Bill Kinnon, me, and others. Julie (Jones) McMahon posted comments on some of these posts saying essentially that Tony’s personal situation was driving his theology of marriage. (There were other more specific allegations of his affair as well.) One of Tony’s emails to me sticks in my mind as attacking and vitriolic, a kind of reactionary off-the-handle assault to get me to remove some things from my blog, which, at the time, I did. In the last two weeks, I’ve said far more, and been much more specific about all of that here on my blog. I haven’t heard from Tony, though — I presume he knows that this has become too big to beat down again with a few fierce emails.

At the time we were all pretty busy deciding whether or not there were any End of Life Directives for the emerging church, so Tony seemed at the time to be off on a tangent. Tony called on clergy to stop acting as agents of the state in performing legal marriages, and summarized a progression of five points of his argument:

  • There is no “historic” institution of marriage; it has been a fluid concept for thousands of years, changing with time and across cultures
  • Our society has determined that monogamy is good, so we incentivize it in various ways
  • It’s a plain reality that gay and lesbian couples are among us, and they’re not going away
  • So let’s afford them similar incentives toward monogamy by allowing them to enter the binding contract that we call “legal marriage”
  • This will not implicate what any congregation or denomination considers a “sacramental marriage”

His preamble to this list states that he wants to make a separation between legal and sacramental marriage because of “the growing discomfort that many of us have that legal marriage is available only to some responsible adults who are in monogamous relationships.” He doesn’t say who “many of us” are, but presumably he’s referring generally to supporters of same-sex marriage. I’m not sure why he inserts the concept of monogamy here — the preamble and the isolated bullet points make it sound like he’s getting at problems with the concept and ways around it, but he actually argues from that position later that same-sex marriage should be offered as an incentive for monogamy. He later wrote and released an eBook on the subject, There Are Two Marriages: A Manifesto on Marriage. I haven’t read it, for three reasons: (1) I got the thrust of his argument from his blog; (2) I have issues with the underlying motivations; and (3) I don’t want to contribute even the 79¢ to Jones’ coffers.

To address his reasons that clergy should accept his proposal,

  • You don’t begin a theology of marriage with the observation that various cultures have had different ideas about what it is over time. When you’re doing christian theology, what matters is the biblical text and the history of its interpretation in the church. We have a faulty beginning here.
  • Monogamy isn’t just good, it’s biblically mandated. See previous point.
  • Let’s call this one axiomatic.
  • While a congregation or clergy member may not intend to imply anything by refusing to perform the legal aspect of marriage, it seems unthinkable that nobody would infer something from it — the obvious being support for same-sex marriage.

So none of that holds any water as far as I’m concerned. His actual proposal is that there are two distinct marriages, one that’s sacramental in the eyes of God and the Church, and one that’s legal in the eyes of the state. I don’t buy this either — it’s almost the marital equivalent of saying you haven’t received the Holy Spirit at your conversion because you didn’t speak in tongues. But that’s another argument.

If you live with someone as a couple for a period of time (which may vary between jurisdictions, but 2 years is my understanding), the state will eventually say, “Look, you two are as good as married — we’re going to treat you as equivalent-to-married for all intents an purposes.” This is what’s known as common-law, and it is a form of marriage. And in many cultures (to use Jones’ rubric), it is the recognized form. That is, the community sees you as married, so you’re married. Maybe there was a ceremony, but likely no papers. In my mind, that’s still both kinds of marriage in that culture — it’s both sacramental (the ceremony) and legal (the community rule). The two can’t really be separated.

There’s been a suggestion that Tony’s theology of marriage arises out of the circumstances of his affair with and remarriage to Courtney Perry, and this is where the problem comes in. Jones and Perry were sacramentally married in July 2011 by Doug Pagitt, after their divorces from previous spouses were final. They were legally married in November 2013, and Tony officiated a same-sex union at the same time. From this we may infer that he’s back to acting as an agent of the state in officiating legal marriages.

As noted by the Washington Post, “what Jones proposes is, at the minimum, impractical.” Lisa Miller’s article there calls his position “muddled and retrograde”, and writes,

Finally, there’s the question of motivation. Jones has griped publicly about the lasting trauma of his own 2009 divorce. “I got married in the state of Minnesota by the stroke of a pen,” he said. “To extricate myself took 14 months and thousands of dollars, and here the pastor has no authority.”

First off, I think it’s only logical to assume there was more to it than the stroke of a pen, as though he was a passive bystander to the union. If that’s really all there was to it, Jones has a fundamental misunderstanding of marriage that goes back many years. More likely, he’s minimizing it in this quote for his own purposes. Extricating himself was his own decision, which he said he was driven to because his then wife was “bat-shit crazy.” Evidently he absorbed none of what he should have learned from Stanley Hauerwas About Marriage. (And for the record, Julie McMahon is not in the least bit crazy. Tony Jones, on the other hand, is a clinically diagnosed narcissist. I’d say therefore he’s the crazy one, but evidently I have more respect for mental illness than he does, so will try to avoid the pejorative term at least in this instance.)

In any event, there are some serious issues with his marriage theology.

1. It’s Uncompelling. The reasons he gives that clergy should adopt his stance are not that convincing, as I’ve outlined above.

2. It’s a Manifesto, not a Theology. The ebook defense is appropriately titled a manifesto on marriage, not a theology of marriage. In other words, it’s a call to action or a “battle cry” and not a biblically-based concept of what christian marriage is intended to be. Perhaps those of us who respond to it as such are giving it too much weight, and too much attention.

3. It’s Thin. The entire ebook is only 3,300 words. I’ve written longer blog posts that are better-supported than this, and on this point, I am not at all exaggerating. (This post is almost 2,500 words. My series on this blog defining what missional is ran some 70,000 words including some rather long posts, and is referenced in Craig van Gelder’s The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation) I’m not saying quantity equals quality, but I’m certain that more than 3,300 words have been written about what’s wrong with Jones’ manifesto. The point here is that it’s not well thought-out and not well-defended. You can write good theology with proper support for an argument on a blog, but with this topic, Jones has not, and publishing it as an ebook doesn’t make it any more credible.

4. The Motivation is Suspect. The “Two Marriages” tag on Jones’ blog yields a handful of posts describing his manifesto, and they’re largely about his own situation. (Shouldn’t be a surprise for a narcissist!) The whole concept seems to be triggered by something in his own divorce-and-remarriage experience rather than founded in biblical theology. In this sense, it’s reactionary, and one has to ask why this manifesto is needed.

5. It’s Inherently Situational. Not only does it seem to be triggered and fueled by his own situation, it seems that it only lasted until November 2013 when he officiated the legal union of a same-sex couple; his blog doesn’t mention it again after that. If marriage should be dualized as he describes, it’s rather odd that this call would be dropped so quickly. If it only has to do with same-sex marriage in Minnesota where he lives, why issue a call to clergy in the nation? And having done so, wouldn’t the manifesto stand until same-sex marriage was legal in every state? Apparently not.

So basically, if this dual form of marriage only applies in certain circumstances and not across the board, if it arises culturally and not biblically, and if it’s so thinly supported even in its most comprehensive format, it’s not a very weighty notion at all. Really, there’s not much there to commend it. Jones has an interesting idea or two along the way, but on the whole, it falls flat.

So why bother?

It sparks a question for me, which is what to do with the theological work of someone who has fallen morally. There are really three possibilities: (1) ignore the moral failing and evaluate the theology on its own scholarly merit; (2) discount any of theology in the area of the moral failing but accept the rest; or (3) throw it all away.

Different groups have taken any of these approaches at some point. At first blush, it seems one might want to land in the middle ground, not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but at the same time, not accepting everything. A strong case could also be built for option #1, to simply evaluate the theology on its own merit and consider it carefully. But there’s actually reason to suggest that #3 or a modified form of it might not be an irresponsible tossing out of the baby with the proverbial bathwater. The fact of the matter is that if a person’s theology in the area of a moral failing can be seen to have been adjusted to allow for the failing (see option #2), then there’s a demonstrated willingness to read one’s own wishes into the text and prop up a flawed conclusion. Sadly, this casts a bad light on everything else they’ve written and makes it suspect.

On the other hand, a theologian who fails morally and then comes clean to admit their failing without any attempt at adjusting their theology to accept the failing has demonstrated an integrity at least in how they approach their theology. There may be similar instances where when a circumstance befalls someone, they search out scripture and arrive at a conclusion that is not a unique position but which makes sense of their circumstance and what actions are permissible from there. Here I would speak primarily of divorce and remarriage. At one time, this was a binary position for christian leaders — if divorce, then no ministry, or no remarriage, or both. Over time there came to be exceptions which permitted remarriage and/or ministry. I have known theologians and clergy who have found themselves in the circumstance of divorce, and in many cases through no discernable fault of their own. What they have done is to search the scripture on these matters and try to understand God’s heart in it. In every case, to a person and regardless of their previous position, they came away with a set of circumstances where divorce and remarriage were permissible and where there would be no impact upon eligibility for positions of ministry. What none of them came away with was an entirely new theology or manifesto on marriage. Every one of them gained a very considered and defensible position which was documented for their own study or compiled as a referenceable research paper written to scholarly standards.

Two kinds of persons know Him: those who have a humble heart, and who love lowliness, whatever kind of intellect they may have, high or low; and those who have sufficient understanding to see the truth, whatever opposition they may have to it.
— Blaise Pascal, Pensees, Sec. IV

This comes down to a simple fact: to do theology of any kind, one must approach it humbly and be willing to entertain the idea that not only their belief, but their action may yet require adjustment in order to come into alignment with the truth. I’d suggest that when a theologian or similar christian leader, pastor, or spokesperson demonstrates a willingness to bend their theology in suspiciously convenient ways, then all of their theology bears extra scrutiny.

When a theologian or similar christian leader, pastor, or spokesperson demonstrates a willingness to bend their theology in suspiciously convenient ways, then all of their theology bears extra scrutiny.

To be fair, none of what I’ve said here is a “smoking gun” of theological adjustment for Tony Jones’ idea of marriage to accommodate an affair, but I think there’s enough of a case to be made that he has in fact modified his stance on marriage to accommodate his actions. His writings and remarriage took place after his divorce, but the concept of a difference between a legal spouse and a sacramental one was present in his language (and in Doug Pagitt’s) during his divorce from Julie McMahon, according to Julie. Julie refers to a “spiritual wife” rather than a “sacramental wife”, which Jones makes a big deal about in his published response to her, but this is truly just a red herring as he tries to control the narrative — so there’s no need to get caught in a semantic game when the intent is clearly the same here. In my mind, this calls into question all of what Jones has written and said theologically, since he’s demonstrated a willingness to bend the theology to make the interpretation of his circumstances acceptable. Add this to Jones’ Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and you’ve got the makings of a theological shipwreck. I for one would not have wanted him as a Theologian in Residence around my place of worship.

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