“What do we do with this?”

Packing materials strewn around us, my fiancé and I stared at a beautiful glass pitcher that a friend had just gifted us for our wedding. It was elegantly engraved with the letter of my fiancé’s surname. It was a surname that, in a few short weeks, neither of us would bear.

I had long held that I wouldn’t change my name after marriage, and my fiancé, who felt strongly that he wanted to share a single last name, nonchalantly announced one day that he would take mine. With that casual statement, the patriarchal assumptions that I had long critiqued and attempted to hold at bay tumbled in: I felt guilty; I felt responsible; I felt like I needed to clean all this up and make things easier for everyone by relenting. Nevertheless, we agreed that he would take my name. We slowly started to come out about our future as the Humphreys.

All the while, I continued to feel on some warped, instinctual level that in this dimension of our life together I had already failed him. I had made his journey more difficult by refusing to take his name. I resented our culture for constructing the narrative that so pervasively argued that the role of a woman is to make a man’s life easier, and I resented myself for buying it on this gut level.

Although many friends and family welcomed the news of my fiancé’s name change happily (or, at least, quietly), others confirmed our fears by urging him to “be a man,” even suggesting that this “show of power” on my part at the beginning of the marital relationship was a sure sign that I would eventually finish the “humiliation” by leaving him. We thought we had put the conversation to bed, but as we admired the mislabeled gift before us, it was apparent that we had not. Some months later, we still find ourselves engaging this subject with family, friends, and, occasionally, strangers.

Marriage remains fraught with social expectations and norms well beyond changing surnames. Our contemporary sociopolitical portrait of marriage is changing, but often it continues to be associated with overly simplistic renderings of security and stability. It is associated with tax breaks, with sexual stagnation, and with the boring and at times infuriating rhythm of day-to-day life. Much of our popular culture continues to use the marital relationship to represent our culturally expected settling, the transitional moments when hopes, dreams, and freedom give way to the demoralizing grind of office jobs and inspiration-sucking responsibilities. This narrative not only elides the true gift of commitment and friendship that marriage aspires to but it also strongly imposes cultural, economic, and political conventions onto our common imagining of marriage, conventions that often impede or misdirect embodied Christian discipleship.

To be sure, marriage can lead us to fruitful introspection—to find comfort in the arms of another who vows to love and care for us, who will be a refuge and a support. However, when the stability and confidence that comes with a healthy, supportive, caring relationship is conflated with the stability that comes as a reward for unthinkingly complying with sociopolitical and economic norms, it dangerously wears away at our impetus for engaging in radical critiques of social, political, and economic systems that disenfranchise vast swaths of the local and global population. This essay is an attempt to bring together the potential benefits of love and affection in committed romantic relationships with an interpretation of Christian discipleship that involves radical commitment to living the kingdom values of justice and mercy today. It envisions marriage as a locus of transgressive stability and stable transgression.

For my new husband and me, our faith and commitment to marriage find their fullness when they empower us to go out into the chaos of the world seeking and spreading God’s justice and God’s love. The feminist Christian reflections I offer here on marital identity are grounded in my most intimate relationships and concerns—this essay gets to the heart of the classic feminist proclamation that “the personal is political.” I write it graced and burdened by the particularities of my body and context: I am a white, North American, Catholic, middle-class, feminist woman, and each of these factors informs my experience and understanding of marriage. It also must be said that our marriage is new, that we are young, and that we are exceptionally fortunate not to be directly affected by poverty, illness, or the broad denial of our basic human rights. Thus, while I seek a richer understanding of marital identity, I do not claim this marital identity as a definitive or universal goal; I merely intend to pose an alternative to the misguided norms and false promises that are often contained in our narratives of marriage.

Saying “I Do” to a Fraught Institution

My own relationship to the institution of marriage is complicated by the fact that it has long trafficked in suffering and subjugation. Marriage has a history of misogyny as a tool of patriarchal control. It has been withheld from queer couples by both church and state. It has been manipulated and abused through white supremacist policies such as enslavement, mass incarceration, and merciless immigration policies that have violently interrupted the marriage and family relationships of black and brown Americans. And in our current era of the wedding industrial complex, the pathway to marriage and the re-formation of identity within it is often paved by economic systems of excess and exclusion.

In the Roman Catholic Church—my tradition—the two interpretations of marriage that have dominated in church teaching and culture have aligned with these sociopolitical and economic patterns. On one hand, marriage is associated with controlling sexual desire and activity. In this interpretation, married life is for those of us Christians who don’t commit to the purer vocational path of celibacy. On the other hand, marriage is also held up as an uncomplicated domestic ideal that reflects the church’s vision of gender complementarity.1 Although this second vision is less suspicious of sexuality and sexual activity—at least in the form of vaginal sexual intercourse oriented toward conception—it continues to define the Christian marriage relationship in terms of classic feminine ideals (e.g., passivity, nurturing, and empathy) and masculine ideals (e.g., activity, providing, and protecting).

Throughout Christian history, members of the status quo have appealed to Scripture to support the sex-focused, highly gendered conception of marriage that we still see today in Catholicism. Within the writings of Paul, marriage is described as a conditional good, a committed legal agreement that places parameters around what was understood as the insurmountable temptation of sexual pleasure: “For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Cor. 7:9 NRSV). And yet even in this passage, we find the early Christian suspicion of marriage as a second-order choice for those who haven’t lived up to the higher moral order of bodily asceticism: “I say this by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind” (1 Cor. 7:6–7). In the same breath that this Pauline argument acknowledges married and celibate life as two different manifestations of divine gifts, it also posits married life as the morally inferior manifestation.

A few hundred years later, Gregory of Nyssa’s “On Virginity” names sex and marriage as the root of suffering in mortal life. He notes that the ultimate goal of marriage is the pleasure of companionship but suggests that such pleasure is impossible given the marital frequency of anxiety, jealously, and grief. Moreover, he insists, the concerns of sex and marriage distract those involved from training their attention on God. Marriage, then, is a potential boundary to sacramental encounters, to recognizing God in our lives. The pursuit of a virginal life and an end to reproduction become signs of the kingdom whereas marriage and sexual activity are correlated with the fall, namely the distortion of the relationships between humans and God, other humans, and the rest of creation.2

John Chrysostom, a contemporary of Gregory, writes very differently of the role of marriage in a Christian society. In his words,

The love of husband and wife is the force that welds society together. . . . Because when harmony prevails, the children are raised well, the household is kept in order, and neighbors, friends, and relatives praise the result. Great benefits, both for families’ states, are thus produced. When it is otherwise however, everything is thrown into confusion and turned upside down.3

He goes on from this claim to defend Paul’s infamous command for wives to be subject to their husbands, explaining that the relationship between husband and wife is parallel to the relationship between Christ and the church. Although Chrysostom cautions against the ill treatment of wives, claiming that no steady relationship is maintained through fear, he also claims that wives must “be subject in everything to their husbands, as to God.”4 In this way the church father propels the traditional narrative that men’s existence more closely resembles God and that women are more damaged by the human capacity for sin. Although Chrystostom rejects violence within the marital relationship, he establishes quite clearly the (divine) lordship of the husband over the wife and this assumption of domination within the marriage.

Augustine’s writings about marriage come only a few years later, but they differ in their focus, as Augustine was explicitly engaged in two prominent theological controversies. Against Manichaeism and extreme asceticism, Augustine defends marriage as proper to human experience—that is, intended by God before the fall. Against Pelagianism, he stresses the inevitable sinfulness of any sexual act and ties the good of sex—and by extension, the good of married life—almost exclusively to procreation. Along the way, Augustine loses track of the companionate view of marriage he had hesitantly developed elsewhere.5

Augustine’s view of marriage, like Gregory of Nyssa’s and John Chrysostom’s, shows signs of two major themes in Christian thinking that remain influential to this day. The first is a Platonic tendency to separate the spiritual from the physical and to then subordinate the physical to the spiritual. We see this most clearly in Gregory’s account of marriage, but despite avoiding the most extreme renderings of this dualism, Augustine also allows suspicion of the body and bodily desire to lurk in his writings. And the second long-lasting Augustinian theme is the sense within this framework that the spiritual and the physical were gendered: masculinity was associated with spirit and logic, and femininity was associated with bodies, materiality, and emotion. This continues the trend in Chrysostom’s work of associating men with God while associating women with the church; women are the passive receptacle of God’s activity and leadership. And with Augustine, marriage remains an object of suspicion—of fleshy temptation—even as society continues to ensure that it will be the primary identity marker and vocation for white women.6

This tendency, which celebrated the celibate male cleric as the closest thing to a perfect Christian vocation, reigned in Catholic Christian thinking until the Second Vatican Council. In the council’s Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (Lumen Gentium) the first evidence of a new way of thinking about marriage and family emerged with an emphasis on the “domestic church”:

Christian spouses, in virtue of the sacrament of Matrimony, whereby they signify and partake of the mystery of that unity and fruitful love which exists between Christ and His Church, help each other to attain to holiness in their married life and in the rearing and education of their children. By reason of their state and rank in life they have their own special gift among the people of God. From the wedlock of Christians there comes the family, in which new citizens of human society are born, who by the grace of the Holy Spirit received in baptism are made children of God, thus perpetuating the people of God through the centuries. The family is, so to speak, the domestic church. In it parents should, by their word and example, be the first preachers of the faith to their children; they should encourage them in the vocation which is proper to each of them, fostering with special care vocation to a sacred state.7

Although this shows a distinct shift in the ecclesial language about marriage and a break with earlier interpretations of marriage as a failsafe for the sexually weak, it continues to view the married couple only as a precursor to a nuclear family and not as a fundamental relationship outside of the parameters of children. There is beauty in the way the council merged the Scripture and the sacrament, and their motives in refashioning this doctrine seem appropriate, yet the image of marriage presented here is too perfect, perhaps tinged by the nostalgia of celibate men who have not fought with a partner about who last did the dishes or spent the wee hours of the morning cleaning up after a sick child. That is to say, although this passage takes family relationships seriously in the life of the church, the bishops missed an opportunity to truly reflect on the sacramental potential of marriage and family life as we experience it, with conflict and exhaustion as well as support, encouragement, and care.

Moreover, when we call marriage a “domestic church,” it is easy to imagine family dynamics that mirror the hierarchal ordering that is so apparent in many Christian churches, particularly in the Roman Catholic Church. Within this framework, men/husbands/fathers rule over women/wives/mothers, and parents rule over children. This depiction easily brings to mind Chrysostom’s interpretation of marriage as a relationship that relies upon women living as subordinates, in that it champions social harmony over just partnerships.

In the recent Apostolic Exhortation on the Family, Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis recognizes Christianity’s historical tendency to romanticize or generalize about marriage, writing that “At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and al­most artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and prac­tical possibilities of real families. This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite.” Despite this awareness, the pope proposes perhaps the most idealistic model for marriage, one based on the inner workings of the triune God: “Seen this way, the couple’s fruitful relationship becomes an image for understanding and describing the mystery of God himself, for in the Christian vision of the Trinity, God is contemplated as Father, Son and Spirit of love. The triune God is a communion of love, and the family is its living reflection.”8 Although there is nothing inherently wrong with orienting the marriage relationship toward an understanding of divine communion, it does not serve as a corrective to the nostalgic idealism that Pope Francis laments about earlier ecclesial descriptions of marriage and family. In fact, Francis continues in the church’s tradition of providing two extreme interpretations of marriage: as a second-class Christian vocation, the only alternative to which is celibate religious life, or as a reflection of the order and mission of God and the church, a view of familial and social stability that betrays the messiness of reality and champions the subjugation of women to men.

Marital Stability for Disruptive Discipleship

Because both of these historical (and current!) conceptions of Christian marriage are seriously flawed, my husband and I were left wondering what might better encapsulate the gift and task of a marital partnership in the Christian tradition. Would it be possible to identify resources in the tradition and in contemporary scholarship that challenge these assumptions about marriage that pervade the religious and sociopolitical sphere in the United States?

As a newly married person, I’ve been disappointed at the lack of theological reflections on marriage that help couples navigate the major shift in identity from single to married and how this transition can positively affect how we understand ourselves as disciples in a world that is pervaded by distortions of justice and love. Pope Francis highlights these distortions in his writing about the damaging role of an inhumane economic system on the vast numbers of families who live in poverty, and he prioritizes such concerns in the life of the church as we strive to be a church of the poor.9 In the context of that ecclesial aim, it is worth asking whether the marital relationship can be a locus of sacrament and discipleship, oriented toward the impossible task of living in solidarity with a people and a world in pain. That is to say, can marriage be holy?

This question points us to the sacramentality of marriage, a theological principle that can enrich our understanding of how marriage can shape and shift conceptions of discipleship and vice versa. To call marriage a sacrament is to claim that it brings participants into the intimate and immediate presence of God in a particular way. To be clear, I don’t intend to speak of sacrament only in a legalistic, ritualistic sense but also to describe those mundane realities that make real the love of God to us. Rick Gaillardetz offers one image of the marriage as sacrament when he writes, “Marriage offers an opportunity to experience in a most intimate and sublime way the comfort and solace in the arms of a spouse who commits himself or herself to use without condition.”10 This image of marriage—of unconditional presence to another in the face of crises big and small—is familiar and deceptively significant. We can catch glimpses of the seeming impossibility of God’s love for creation in the willingness of another to say that we are good enough, despite all of our faults and failings and imperfections and despite the looming eventuality that we will one day lose each other.

Then marriage asks us to turn this sacramental encounter outward to the world—to be an active member of the local community, to participate in ministries about which we are passionate, to provide nourishment and care to our family, and to open ourselves and our relationship to be transformed by these practices. The experience of sacrament—an encounter with God’s love—is an impetus to become a symbol of God’s love to others. In a sermon on the Eucharist, Augustine famously says, “Become what you see, and receive what you are.”11 Although I have critically engaged Augustine elsewhere in this text, his contribution here is fundamental to Christian—particularly Catholic Christian—understandings of sacrament. Augustine’s words tell us that in the Eucharist we not only receive the body of Christ but also become a part of it, empowered to live as Jesus did. The sacramental capacity of marriage offers the same challenge and hope.

That my spouse changed his name has become, for me, a perfect metaphor for marriage’s capacity to be one form of sacramental discipleship. Although his decision was motivated, in some part, by a desire for stability and cohesion, it also challenged us both to rethink the standards for our relationship and our capacity to live differently—perhaps more justly—in a world that often sets up roadblocks to such change. I am sure that in the years to come, as we meet new people and form new relationships, most people will assume that our shared last name was originally his. In the end, this small protest, this radical yet hidden show of love, will be swallowed up by cultural norms. But the challenge of discipleship invites us to do much more as we consider the stakes of religious and civic involvement, community building, and the pursuit of justice and peace. We hope our defiant, common surname is only a small and initial dimension of a long marriage that makes God’s grace real in the world each and every day. Within the fraught history of marriage and within the messy entanglements that constitute particular marital relationships, we are challenged to subvert the marginalization that often resides in the status quo through sacrament, to grow the love shared within our relationship and send that love outward to God and all of creation with vulnerable hearts that long for justice. In this aspirational, experiential cycle, marriage becomes a paradoxical experience. The very relationship that promises stability and security also becomes a relationship that calls us out of cheap and easy comfort and into a life of radically uncomfortable and radically joyful discipleship.

  1. Although gender complementarity has long been attributed to Scripture, contemporary constructions of gender in my Catholic denomination are largely indebted to the teachings of Pope John Paul II who delivered a series of “theology of the body” lectures in the late 1970s and early 1980s that were later published as an influential book. These lectures have little official authority, but their philosophical framework of gender and sexuality has become the standard for all official church teachings.
  2. Gregory of Nyssa, “On Virginity,” in Ascetical Works, trans. Virginia Woods Callahan (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1999), 13–14 and 46–47.
  3. John Chrysostom, “Homily on Marriage,” in On Marriage and Family Life, trans. Catharine P. Roth (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1986).
  4. Ibid.
  5. See Elizabeth Clark, “Augustine on Marriage,” in Feminism and Theology, eds. Janet Martin Soskice and Diana Lipton (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003), 245–57.
  6. I use the word white here to recognize that in Western history, and particularly the history of the United States, women’s confinement in marriage was primarily an experience of privileged white women. Women of color, especially African American women, were routinely forced to work outside the home because of unjust economic necessity. These circumstances were even more pronounced given how many African American men fell victim to white violence such as lynching, job discrimination, and mass incarceration.
  7. Lumen Gentium, no. 8.
  8. Amoris Laetitia, no. 36; no. 11.
  9. “In many ways, the present-day economic situation is keeping people from participating in society. Families, in particular, suffer from prob­lems related to work, where young people have few possibilities and job offers are very selective and insecure. Workdays are long and oftentimes made more burdensome by extended periods away from home. This situation does not help family members to gather together or parents to be with their children in such a way as to nurture their relationships each day” (Amoris Laetitia, no. 44).
  10. Richard R. Gaillardetz, A Daring Promise: A Spirituality of Christian Marriage (New York, NY: Crossroad, 2002), 12.
  11. Augustine of Hippo, “On the Day of Pentecost,” in Sermons, vol. 7 of The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, trans. Edmund Hill (Hyde Park, NY: New City, 1993), 297–98.