does the church perpetuate a hierarchy of relationships?

A response to the Uniting Church in Australia’s discussion paper on marriage

In recent months, I have been writing a response to the Uniting Church in Australia’s discussion paper on marriage, specifically from the perspective of a single person. I could have offered my opinion on whether or not same gender marriages should become part of the tradition – for the record, I look forward to the day I can preside at such a wedding as a Uniting Church minister (Val Webb offers a response focussing on the same gender marriage issue here) – but there was another set of questions burning hotter for me in response to the interpretation of the biblical story the is offered in the discussion. 
As I have given shape to my response to this very specific element of the discussion, I have been grateful for open, honest conversations with other single folk in the Uniting Church and other traditions. This is what I have submitted to the national conversation on marriage. 
As a preface to my comments, I want to affirm the way in which the discussion paper affirms the beauty of the marriage ceremony and relationship, with comments such as:

‘Marriage is one of the ways in which human beings are able to respond communally to God’s love, God’s presence, God’s promise.’
‘Marriage is a union between equals’
‘Marriage provides an environment of mutual faithfulness, respectful love, tenderness and delight.’
‘The married relationship – like every other part of the Christian’s life – should bear witness to the coming kingdom of God.’

I particularly appreciate the way it describes the moment of union as the mysterious joining of two people through the speaking of promise – it is not the rings, it is not the minister, it is the mystery of giving voice to love and commitment that forms the bond, forges the covenant. This is beautiful. For an ordained minister, the laying of hands and voicing prayer during the ordination service is such a moment of embodied covenant-making.

It caused me to wonder if there may be some ritual of affirmation for one who feels called to a vocation of celibacy in the protestant church, like the rituals available to celibate religious in Catholic and Anglican traditions, that we could develop and offer? But as I pondered this possibility, it occurred to me that few folk with whom I have spoken would want to commit to a lifetime of celibate singleness. On further reflection, we may observe something of a cultural shift away from life-long commitments in general – marriages themselves are less likely to be ‘for life’, and career paths wind across a number of vocations or expressions across a working life. Even so, what ritual could the church offer to affirm and acknowledge those who feel called into singleness, for a season if not for life?

We see in the discussion paper that ‘the married relationship is to contribute to the wider flourishing of society … symbolised by the presence of the community at the marriage service.’ Thus, if ‘to make a promise of lifelong love and faithfulness to another person is one way of accepting responsibility for the wider community of which one is a part,’ how do we affirm and support, as a community, folk for whom singleness is the most life-giving way of ‘accepting responsibility for the wider community of which one is a part’?

The discussion paper on marriage is not a document about singleness, but my concern is that it epitomises marriage in a hierarchy of human relationships. In this privileging of marriage we see reflected a wider cultural ignorance of celibates and the particular gifts they offer for the health and wellbeing of our communities.

How might Christians think about sexual relationships in an integrated way?

On sexual faithfulness, the discussion paper acknowledges that in the past, celibacy was celebrated, even held to be a preferable state to marriage. Marriage was blessed by God, but celibacy was ‘seen as an even more blessed form of sexual life.’ And we might note that Jesus himself – though perhaps not explicitly stated one way or the other in any of the four gospel accounts – is portrayed as a celibate single man. It would appear that singleness was part of Jesus’ acceptance of his responsibility for the wider community of which he was a part – the kin-dom[1] of God.

‘Each Christian was seen to have a sexual vocation, either as a married person or as a celibate.’
Today, it seems to me that we have reversed our thinking, so that marriage is preferred, and celibacy is, if not actively disparaged, then certainly not celebrated or affirmed as a valid sexual vocation – more as a desirable state before marriage. The discussion comments go on to name the question around non-married sexual relationships, and how the church views the status of these relationships, but leaves singleness or celibacy out of the conversation from that point.


Perhaps the church’s conversation about marriage needs to be a broader discussion of sexual vocation or sexual integrity. Perhaps we need to bravely name the breadth of ways in which sexuality is expressed with integrity. (Jason John calls for such a discussion in his response to the paper here)

In conversations with other single folk, it has become apparent to me that we are unsure of the place of celibacy, of singleness,[2] in the Uniting Church. We do not talk about the range of reasons for and experiences of singleness in the church – but we do, as a church, perpetuate a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) expectation that the goal for each person’s sexuality is partnership. In some parts of the church partnership is widely affirmed for de facto and even homosexual couples as much as for heterosexual married couples. However, as mentioned above, the discussion paper reflects the dominant theological and sociological privileging of the married relationship within the church’s thinking and practice.

It does so primarily through its interpretation of Genesis 1.

Statements such as

‘Life-long covenantal union reflects God’s loving nature in a unique and irreplaceable way’


‘in marriage we can glimpse certain truths about creation (because the union between man and woman reflects something of God’s nature) and of redemption (because faithful covenant reflects something of Christ’s love)’

place marriage between a man and a woman at the epitome of a hierarchy of human relationships.

‘The Christian understanding of marriage has always been shaped by the scriptural passages of Genesis 1 and Ephesians 5, with their profound articulation of the mysterious role of male-female duality in God’s creative and redemptive work. While some Christians today advocate for same-gender marriage, the foundational importance of these passages cannot be dismissed.

‘If ever the Uniting Church was to redefine marriage to include same-gender partnerships, it would remain theologically impossible to bypass this deep scriptural tradition in which male-female duality and male-female union are located right near the heart of the divine purpose.’

May I offer an alternative interpretation?

What if these passages are not about male-female duality (and dualism is rarely a helpful approach to discourse), but about mutuality?

Mutuality[3] is the ‘condition or quality of being mutual.’[4] It is reciprocity, giving and receiving respect from one to another and in return. I see mutuality as linked to the key biblical tenet of ds6j6, (hesed/ lovingkindness).[5] This is a relationship in which the fullness of being of each person is affirmed and nurtured by each. God shows hesed for humans, humans show hesed towards God, and towards each other.[6]

That our femaleness and our maleness are the major distinctions between humans – whatever cultural, religious, philosophical, age, colour distinctions we make, humans are male and female (though for a small number, even this is contentious). And when Paul talks of the falling away of human distinctions between ourselves, he names dualities of slave/free, Jew/non-Jew, male/female. Even God doesn’t ultimately see the maleness and femaleness of humans – simply, and profoundly, our humanness.

What if the celebration of humans together as male and female, offered in these portions of scripture, is an example of the vast variety of differences between humans? What if this is a celebration of those differences as necessary for the wholeness of humanity (we cannot all be eyes and expect to be a healthy body – as in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, ch. 12)? What if ‘God created them male and female’ is not about duality, but mutuality? Could we not receive this as a poetic metaphor for the necessary diversity of humanity?  

God created humans as relational beings, and the fact that humans are made in the image of God is evident in the way in which we, together, reflect God. Our inherent relationality – not our genderedness; our inherent giftedness for love – not a particular kind of love, just love; our invitation into a relationship of mutuality with God – not our place in a hierarchy of creation as almost God – this is how we reflect the image of God. Together. In the myriad webs and networks of human relationships. All of them.

And to make a promise of lifelong love and faithfulness to another person is one way – one of many possible ways – of accepting responsibility for the wider community of which one is a part.

An example might help.

My story is that I am a storyteller, poet and ordained minister. I feel strongly that itinerant ministry is an inherent element in the way I will live into this vocation and identity – being single supports this. I feel strongly connected to and available for the communities in which I serve as storyteller, poet and minister; but for my health and wellbeing, the time I spend with others must be balanced with considerable time alone. There is therefore no energy for an intimate life partner, for experience has shown me that this detracts from my health by taking energy from community or self, or both. It may be that I haven’t discovered a person with whom intimate life partnering is energising. And many in my circles want to add that caveat to my claiming of singleness – that it is for now. Because our cultural (within the church and beyond) expectation is that all humans seek a partner, and we’re more likely to see a homosexual person in relationship as more ‘normal’ than a heterosexual person who chooses to be single.

But it may be that, like many religious sisters and brothers of other Christian traditions, even perhaps like Jesus, I accept my responsibility for the wider community of which I am a part most healthily as a single person.

The discussion around marriage must, I suggest, be a broader discussion around sexuality, sexual vocation, and sexual integrity. And it must, please, invite the church to move from the long held position that all human beings are designed, destined, or doomed, to enter a heterosexual life partnership, and are flawed or incomplete if they do not.

* update: I have just begun to read Oriented to Faith by Tim Otto, which I think is a profoundly gentle and challenging gift to the church. He discusses things like celibacy, children, sexuality, sacrifice, humanity and community. He reflects a deep faith in God. I don't necessarily agree with everything I've read, but it is worth reading as a way of inviting ourselves to reflect on what we do think, believe, hope, for our church with regard to this conversation about marriage. 

[1] I use the term ‘kin-dom’, as found in the poetry of Bruce Sanguin, in recognition of both the biblical use of ‘kingdom’ as a radical contrast to earthly kingdoms of the day, and the need to use language that reflects today’s understanding of the realm of God as the radical kinship of all that lives.
[2]  The two are not necessarily identical – for instance, one person posed the question of how one maintains sexual integrity as a single person who does not remain celibate?
[3] Sarah Agnew, ‘The Mutuality of Esther and Mordecai’, Honours Thesis, Flinders University 2013, 55.
[4] J.R.L. Bernard, A. Delbridge, D. Blair, S. Butler, P. Peters, & C. Yallop (Eds) The Macquarie Dictionary (Sydney: The Macquarie Library, 1997), 1422.
[5] Sarah Agnew, "Set Free to Be," Hesed is a quality that can be observed throughout the story of Esther: Song ("Heartless Bimbo," 60) notes this quality in the relationships between Esther and both Hegai and the King – and the word ds6j6 is used by the author in these contexts (cf. 2:17). Bottereck and Ringgren discuss the mutuality of the concept of ds6j6 (G. Johannes Botterweck & Helmer Ringgren (Eds). TDOT 5 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1986), 48.), though with an element of obligation not seen by others (e.g. Sakenfeld in Gleason L., Archer R., Laird Harris, & Bruce K. Waltke, (Eds) Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, vol. 1 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 305. God is brought into our relationships of ds6j6, as our ds6j6 towards each other inspires blessing from God TDOT 5, 50.).
[6] Song, "Heartless Bimbo," 60–61.


Craig Mitchell said…
Thanks Sarah. This is very nicely and thoughtful put. My ethics teacher said that you had to be called to be married or have children, that neither were default positions. I think you've raised really good questions for the Assembly Worship working Group, for example. I also believe that there would be many in the church who resonate with you thinking. My contribution is that you change the conversation by starting one, and i think you've done just that.
sarah said…
thanks Craig. I appreciate those comments very much

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