If Not Marriage, What Is “At the Heart of the Gospel?”

So, to complete the thought that ended yesterday’s post, is Union University president “Dub” Oliver right that “marriage is at the heart of the Gospel?” I don’t think so, and neither does theologian Kyle Roberts:

"Together for the Gospel"
Licensed by Creative Commons (James Thompson)

The conservative Christian rhetoric about “biblical marriage” has, for quite a while now, struck me as close to idolatrous if not exactly that. If marriage is “the heart of the gospel” why didn’t Jesus marry? If you want to answer that Jesus did marry, because he is the “bride” of the church (his groom), then well…that’s hardly anything like “traditional heterosexual marriage.” Or, why didn’t Paul marry? If you want to answer that he did marry (as some scholars suggest), why didn’t he talk about his marriage and uphold it as a model to follow?

Like me, Kyle thought that the very Christian unity that Union was breaking “is actually quite closer to reflecting the ‘heart of the gospel’ than is any particular moral stance on marriage (Jn 17:21).”

But perhaps we’re parsing things too finely. Are we getting too worked up over Oliver’s claim that marriage is “at the heart of the Gospel”?

If not, then a follow-up question logically suggests itself:

What is at the heart of the Gospel?

That’s the biggest type I have available in my WordPress toolbar because the question couldn’t be more important.

Dub Oliver
Samuel W. “Dub” Oliver – Union University

I can’t believe that Oliver was simply being sloppy with language: his rhetorical choice to place (a particular understanding of) marriage “at the heart of the Gospel” is meant to justify separation from the two Mennonite institutions, Goshen and Eastern Mennonite. By implication, he is saying that they have departed from the Gospel itself. So I assume he would reject my argument that Union itself is doing terrible damage to Christian witness by rashly and perhaps unnecessarily breaking the unity of a Christian fellowship — he is broadly suggesting that Eastern Mennonite and Goshen are no longer “Christian” colleges. (Certainly not “evangelical” colleges, since whatever else they are, evangelicals are those who proclaim the Evangel, the Gospel.)

One commenter on the blog’s Facebook page thought we were making too much of this — in his mind, “Gospel” is synonymous with what’s of “primary” importance and what’s “clear” in Scripture. (That which, to hearken back to Mark Bruce’s widely read guest-post on sexuality, is not “uncertain.”) I disagreed: “For example, I think Scripture is pretty clear that we ought not to steal, but that law is not ‘the Gospel.’ To place marriage – however clearly defined in Scripture — ‘at the heart of the Gospel’ displaces who is actually at the Gospel’s heart.” In other words, my assumption is that any Christian understanding of Gospel must be Christo-centric. (And like Kyle, it seems to be passing odd to place marriage alongside an unmarried Christ at the Gospel’s heart.)

And if you think that only a Pietist would say that the person of Jesus Christ and our experience of him lies “at the heart of the Gospel,” consider this, from one pope quoting another:

I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”. (Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (that is, “The Joy of the Gospel”) quoting his predecessor’s introduction to Deus Caritas Est)

Oddly enough, the National Association of Evangelicals doesn’t even use the word “Gospel” in its statement of faith, but I suspect most evangelicals would use its language of “salvation of lost and sinful people” or “[Jesus’] vicarious and atoning death” if pressed to articulate what lies “at the heart of the Gospel.”

But some evangelicals think that “the Gospel,” while surely christological, is about more than salvation. Scot McKnight, for example:

McKnight, The King Jesus GospelThe gospel is to announce that the Story of Jesus, who is Messiah/King, Lord and Savior, fulfills or completes the Story of Israel. It is the good news that God’s promises have now been realized in Jesus Messiah, Lord and Savior.

…the soterian (Greek word for salvation) gospel is a message of how to get saved from sins and how to be properly related to God. In brief, the apostolic gospel makes the Story of Israel and the Story of Jesus first, and not my personal salvation, and makes personal salvation second. I distinguish the two because our current models of the gospel — and here I ask that we consider what we tell people who we think are not Christians — do not sufficiently pay attention to how the New Testament talks about the gospel.

The Gospel Coalition defines “the Gospel” in these terms:

We believe that the gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ—God’s very wisdom. Utter folly to the world, even though it is the power of God to those who are being saved, this good news is christological, centering on the cross and resurrection: the gospel is not proclaimed if Christ is not proclaimed, and the authentic Christ has not been proclaimed if his death and resurrection are not central (the message is: “Christ died for our sins . . . [and] was raised”).

Or you might find some inspiration in the Christian Century‘s 2011-12 series of blog posts in which twenty-three authors tried to sum up the Gospel in seven words. For example, Lutheran pastor-writer Nadia Bolz-Weber suggested “We are who God says we are” and church historians Grant Wacker and Martin Marty proposed, respectively, “Christ offers new life for all” and “God, through Jesus Christ, welcomes you anyhow.”

Your turn now: What, in your words, is at the heart of the Gospel?


8 thoughts on “If Not Marriage, What Is “At the Heart of the Gospel?”

  1. Thanks for raising this important question. When I read Dub Oliver’s statement that marriage is at the heart of the Gospel, it did make me wonder how one decides which moral issues are and are not at the heart of the Gospel. Just because Scripture commands or forbids something does not mean that prohibition/command is at the heart of the Gospel. However, it seems to me that marriage is a gospel issue in a way that other moral issues are not. This is because of Eph. 5:31-32:

    “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and “the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.”

    These verses seem to indicate that the complementarity of a man and woman coming together in the union of heterosexual marriage is analogous to the Gospel in a way that other moral issues are not. Thus, marriage is an institution designed to point beyond itself to the relationship of Christ and the church. When marriage as God designed it is tampered with, an important metaphor for the Gospel is also blurred, and thus the gospel itself is blurred along with it.

    I’m still thinking through this myself, but that is my present understanding. And I assumed that Oliver’s statement that marriage is at the heart of the Gospel was likely based on Eph. 5:31-32, though I could be mistaken. I would benefit from hearing your feedback on my thoughts. Thanks.

  2. Thanks, Eric. I think you’ve pointed to the best biblical argument for anything approaching the “marriage is at the heart of the Gospel” argument. I wish Oliver had at least articulated some of this nuance in his statement.

    Still, I’m not persuaded that we’re talking about a “gospel issue” (which I take to mean something like “at the heart of the Gospel”). I’m not sure a historian is the best person to offer any kind of sustained biblical-theological response, but at the risk of embarrassing myself, here goes:

    1. As you say, marriage here is a metaphor for the union of Christ and church… Is that union itself “the Gospel”? Closer to it, perhaps. (It points to the importance of self-sacrificial relationship for the Body of Christ, which is exactly why Union’s action bothers me so much.) But if I can make a too-simplistic response: if marriage was so important — at least metaphorically — why would Paul himself not talk about “the Gospel” at this point, as he does at several other points in this epistle and others? Wouldn’t Paul have then explained why marriage or what it represents in Eph 5:31-32 is so crucial to the gospel of 1 Cor 15:1-11? Why wouldn’t Paul talk about the Gospel in his longest discourse on marriage (1 Cor 7:1-16)?

    2. If the problem here is the danger of “blurring” the Gospel, doesn’t telling people that “marriage is at the heart of the Gospel” itself muddy the waters and make people think that the things we normally associate with an evangelical understanding of the Gospel might not be so central after all? To me, the only reason to use the phrase “the Gospel” here is a polemical reason: simply saying (as you’d expect from the context of the statement) that marriage is an “essential” or “primary” issue struck Oliver as insufficiently powerful, so he claimed that the Gospel itself is in danger because of what Goshen and Eastern Mennonite did (and because the CCCU failed to act quickly in response).

    3. But let’s assume that he truly believes that marriage is a “gospel issue”… Isn’t this understanding captive to a certain cultural-historical moment? Did Billy Graham ever teach that marriage was at the heart of the Gospel? Did Edwards or Wesley, or Luther or Calvin? Or any of the great apologists of the Early Church? (I don’t expect yes to any of those questions, but I might well be wrong.) I would probably take Oliver’s claim more seriously if he represented a Christian tradition that views marriage as a sacrament…

    For that matter, this is not the first time that the institution of marriage has undergone change and challenge, even in American history. Yet when, for example, divorce rates begin to increase in American society, did evangelicals argue that “marriage is at the heart of the Gospel”? When states earlier passed laws banning interracial marriage, did evangelicals warn that the Gospel itself was under attack?

    1. I had a similar discussion about Eph 5 with The Gospel Coalition’s Justin Taylor on Twitter. While I’m not sure we convinced each other of anything, I did appreciate him pointing me to an article unpacking “gospel issues” by D. A. Carson: http://themelios.thegospelcoalition.org/article/what-are-gospel-issues. I doubt Dr. Carson and I are on the same side here either, but his unpacking of “gospel truth” as polemic vs. truth claim was certainly helpful, as was his warning about historical/cultural/social location influencing our perceptions of what is Gospel.

    2. Thanks for the response Chris. A few thoughts that come to mind about what you’ve shared:

      1. Whether or not Paul talks about the Gospel in Eph. 5:31-32 depends on how one defines the Gospel. Defining the Gospel comprehensively and concisely is not easy. I’ll take a stab at it and say that the Gospel can be summarized as “Jesus has returned the kingdom of God to this earth.” That seems consistent with Jesus’ gospel proclamation at the beginning of his public ministry in Matt. 4:17 and Mark 1:15. The life, death and resurrection of Christ are the means by which he inaugurated the kingdom. Justification through union with Christ is the means by which an individual becomes a member of the kingdom. In Eph. 5:31-32, Paul speaks of the union of a husband and wife as a metaphor for Christ’s relationship to the church; thus he uses marriage as a metaphor for union with Christ. While I would not say that union with Christ is the sum total of the Gospel, it is an important facet of the Gospel.

      2. You raise a good point here that I had not thought of before. When we say “marriage is at the heart of the Gospel,” this equates an illustration of the Gospel with the Gospel itself, as if the gospel = marriage. Further, it may suggest that a person becomes a Christian or remains a Christian by holding to a particular view of marriage. I would not deny that a person is a Christian because they endorse same-sex marriage, though I do believe it to be a theological and moral mistake (and Christians are often mistaken, as I am sure I have many theological and moral imperfections). There is another perspective to consider here too: what the phrase “marriage is at the heart of the Gospel” communicates to single Christians. It does not seem that such a phrase creates a welcoming atmosphere for them in the church, yet Paul held singleness in high regard (1 Cor. 7:25-35).

      3. I would be interested to find out if anyone in church history taught that marriage is a Gospel issue. I agree that there have been other challenges to marriage that could likewise be called gospel issues but have not been (as far as I know). If same-sex marriage is a Gospel issue, so are divorce, polygamy, pornography, and domestic abuse (emotional and physical).

      Thanks for sharing the article by D.A. Carson. I am glad he has addressed the question of what constitutes a Gospel issue; I’ll have to read it in the near future when I get the chance.

      1. Thanks for raising the question of what our focus on marriage communicates to those who aren’t married, Eric. A single friend said just this last week, but it had slipped my mind. And I appreciate your response to (1)… One thing I’ve taken away from this and other conversations is that I struggle more than I should to sum up the meaning of “the Gospel.”

  3. If marriage is a gospel issue because of Ephesians 5, shouldn’t monarchy be a gospel issue also? God-as-king is a much more widely used metaphor in scripture than the Lord as our groom. Have we rejected Biblical authority by rejecting monarchy? I don’t mean this to sound snarky. I just think scriptural analogies of earthly to heavenly relationships can be quite complicated in its implications.

  4. I am concerned that the tone of the debate over marriage inadvertently alienates single Christians, especially gay Christians committed to celibacy. Mark Yarhouse has said that gay Christians in the church have become casualties of a culture war, and I agree. Also, I too struggle more than I should to sum up the Gospel. That’s why I appreciate you raising the question of what constitutes a Gospel issue; the question forces us to clarify our understanding of the Gospel.

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