Marriage and the three-way light bulb

A reflection on the Living in Love and Faith process


I happen to like three-way light bulbs. They make it possible to have background light for casual conversations and bright light for reading at night. Unfortunately the bulbs and sockets are quite finicky and I keep having to replace them. To be honest, I think the difficulty is that electric current is an on-off kind of thing, and it would be best to conform the circuitry accordingly.

It’s the same way with marriage. OK, this is an imperfect analogy, but it may be relevant in today’s society where it seems anything goes except binary sexuality and life-long monogamous marriage of a man and a woman.

Two key texts in the Bible define God’s institution of marriage this way:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28)

Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:23-24)

This creational pattern was affirmed by the Lord Jesus Christ, who said:

“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6)

Marriage is the “on switch” in human sexuality, and of course that on switch may lead to the multiplication of the human family through children (and grandchildren). It may also go haywire if used against the instructions of the Maker.

The “off switch” is the single state, and this can include single and seeking (courtship), single by divorce, death, or disability, and dedicated singleness (celibacy). Jesus affirms the single state when he blesses widows and orphans and so-called “eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:12).

In recent years, some churches have tried out a “third way” as an alternative to marriage or singleness. The two main forms of this third way are cohabitation and same-sex unions.

Of course, both of these practices have existed throughout history, but only recently have they sought legitimation and blessing by the church and state. The idea of “same-sex blessings” was proposed by the Episcopal Church in the late 1990s, which caused me to write a book titled: Two Sexes, One Flesh: Why the Church Cannot Bless Same-Sex Marriage. I argued that same-sex “unions” cannot be blessed because God has designed sex for male and female only.

In 1998, the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops agreed in an overwhelming majority, stating that “in view of the teaching of Scripture, [this Conference] upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage” (Resolution I.10 on Human Sexuality”).

Now in 2023, bishops of the Church of England, the “mother church” of Anglicanism, is trotting out once again a three-way model of marriage, singleness, and a third way for same-sex and opposite-sex couples who are “living in love and faith.” The church will be providing special liturgies for such couples. These rites will be available for clergy and bishops as well as lay people. The bishops claim biblical warrant for the third way, but the examples of David and Jonathan and Ruth and Naomi are hardly convincing. Failing that, they fall back on general exhortations to “love one another, as I have loved.”

When the British Government was debating rewriting the civil marriage law a decade ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury proposed this third way for the society as a whole, and the Parliament instead authorized same-sex marriage as the law of the land, in effect saying: “Sorry, we find your notion to involve a distinction without a difference.” They were right, of course, but the result has been, ironically, that more and more men and women are simply “living in love and faith” without the benefit of marriage at all.

Three-way light bulbs can work with complex circuitry. With God’s institution of marriage, it’s got to be on or off.