Marriage is under threat, and particularly so during the last 50 years. The introduction of reliable contraception in the 1960s and the casual sex revolution that resulted greatly undermined marriage. Despite some good points, the ‘no fault’ divorce law reform of the 1970s further weakened marriage. Additionally, modern reproductive technologies mean that we can now obtain children without sex, let alone a marriage. In light of all this, marriage no longer seems as important an institution.
Statistically, marriage is on the decline. The 2006 Australian Census reported that the number of officially married Australians fell below 50% of the adult population for the first time in decades. During that same decade, the number of divorced Australians increased by 45%, while the number in de facto relationships sky-rocketed by over 60%. Although the more recent 2011 Census showed that the rates of increase in divorce and de factos relationships had slowed, it’s because these situations had become so much more common. So now less people bother to get married, and less people stay married.
Marriage as a man-woman institution with a clear connection to children—as we knew it across almost all cultures down through the ages—is also under pressure. For decades now, gay and lesbian lobby groups, along with others, have pushed to redefine marriage and family life. For example, in 2006 the Australian Capital Territory Parliament passed the Civil Unions Act, allowing two people regardless of sex, to enter a legally recognized union, with ceremonies, and for this union to be treated the same as marriage. A month later, the federal Cabinet disallowed this legislation, because it contravened the Marriage Act, which in 2004 had made explicit what was long understood, that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. More recently, in 2012, after vigorous debate, the Australian Federal Parliament rejected a private member’s bill to legalize same-sex marriage.
In 2013, the UK Parliament passed a bill for same-sex marriage, promoted by the Conservative Party Leader, David Cameron. Currently around 20 nations around the world have legislated for some form of same-sex marriage. In Australia, there are again private member bills for same-sex marriage before the Federal Parliament, including one sponsored by the Leader of the Opposition. Whether you approve or not, it’s clear marriage as traditionally understood is under pressure to be redefined.
In an opinion piece on the ABC Religion blog (R Scruton & P Blond, ‘Marriage equality or the destruction of difference?’, ABC Religion and Ethics, 4 February 2013. Viewed 21 September 2015), Roger Scruton and Phillip Blond responded to the UK debate. While I don’t agree with all of what they said, it is exceptionally well written for the general public. They introduced it in this way:
This debate has created many divides across and between religious, civil and advocacy groups—the most unpleasant of which is the demonising of those who question the merits of same sex union as if it were self-evidently homophobic to have reservations about the current proposals. But throughout all of the debate, recognition of the value and worth of marriage has been assumed rather than discussed. Those who advocate the extension of marriage to same sex couples have been very strong on the value of equality but almost silent on the nature of marriage they want equal access to. Whereas those who defend marriage as it is currently defined seem unable to say exactly what its value and worth is and why the institution would suffer from extension to same sex couples. A meaningful discussion about the value and purpose of the institution of marriage itself has not taken place. So, beyond the specifics of the Government’s proposals, we here want to ask: What is marriage, and why does it matter?
So how does the Bible define marriage, and does its view coincide or otherwise with other views in the public arena?
Exclusive, lifelong, gendered union
According to the Bible, marriage is an exclusive, lifelong, gendered union. One excellent place to see this comes in Matthew 19, where Jesus answers a question about divorce. In context he is opposing easy divorce. But at the heart of his answer, in verses 4-6, is his view about marriage as lifelong in intention:
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.
People sometimes state that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. However, that’s not correct. When he addresses the topic of marriage here he quotes from the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, Genesis 1. That is, he goes back to the way the world is wired up; his comment “from the beginning” is talking about the original pattern. And the pattern says God made humankind “male and female”. He emphasizes the fact of two genders. Then Jesus immediately quotes the second chapter of Genesis to say that it’s for this reason—of maleness and femaleness—that a man will leave his parents and marry a woman. These words make it clear that marriage is to be gendered. The one alternative he gives is singleness and celibacy, which Jesus exemplified!
So all people (especially those that follow Jesus) need to realize that marriage is to be gendered. They must respect the fact that the husband must be a man and the wife a woman. Men and women are equal but different. Equally in God’s image. Equally valuable. But to some extent made differently, and to some extent for different roles. In Genesis, man is made from the dust, woman from his rib. Man is the first worker. Woman is his helper. A full discussion of this awaits another time. But in modern terms, the most obvious difference is reproductive and relative physical strength, though modern brain science also generalizes about other differences. Two sexes, not one.
These words also make it clear that marriage is not something casual, but an intimate union. Matthew 19:5 says the man will hold fast to his wife; the two become one flesh. It’s the language of union, and in verse 6 Jesus comments, “God has joined [them] together”. God is the ultimate marriage celebrant. The union is not just a secular legal status. We’re talking about absolute reality. God makes them one.
Furthermore, this union is to be lifelong and exclusive, because in verse 6 Jesus says no-one is to separate them. No-one is to come between them. Not their parents. Not their friends. Nor their careers. Certainly no other sexual partner. That’s what we mean by exclusive. Marriage excludes the option of other sexual partners for life. Ordinarily, you can only marry another person should your first spouse die.
Oriented towards Children
There is a second essential part to the Bible’s view of marriage. Marriage is inherently oriented towards children. Sex certainly bonds a couple together. But it’s also procreative. It’s for making you close as a couple and for making you parents. Again, we can see this from the passages we referred to earlier. Jesus talks of the two becoming one flesh in marriage. Clearly the sexual relationships lies at the heart of the oneness in flesh. But when he refers to God creating us male and female from Genesis 1, the immediate context in verse 28 tells us God blessed man and woman together to be fruitful and increase in number. We see the importance of this in a later passage, Malachi 2:15-16:
Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”
It’s clear what God is seeking from those who are joined in marriage. That is, godly offspring. Sadly, a hateful divorce not only breaks your marriage promises but also threatens the spiritual wellbeing of the next generation. Positively, the oneness that sex brings to spouses in marriage has a direct connection to God’s desire for the next generation to love him. The basic New Testament assumption is that parents must provide for their children: material needs, and spiritual.
Children are not just an after thought. For this reason, it always worries me when friends are asked to pray at a Christian wedding, and among all the good things they request, they forget to ask God to grant the couple the blessing of kids. We must never accept the way some people speak of children as an optional lifestyle choice, whose costs are weighed against career and travel ambitions, etc.
There’s one more aspect to a biblical definition of marriage: covenant. The question can arise whether a de facto marriage could be a marriage in God’s eyes. A big part of the answer comes from seeing marriage as a covenant. That’s clear from the reference in Malachi 2:14, just prior to the passage above:
But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.
Your wife is your wife by covenant. This explains God’s distress with an easy attitude to divorce. It’s covenant unfaithfulness, promise-breaking.
But what is a ‘covenant’ in the Bible? It’s a binding contract entered by promises from two parties. Or you could take the more scholarly definition brought to my attention by my friend and colleague Lionel Windsor, namely: “an elected… relationship of obligation under oath”. (L Windsor, ‘What’s the precise meaning of the word ‘covenant’ in the Old Testament?’, Forget the Channel, 26 January 2010 (viewed 29 September 2015): http://www.lionelwindsor.net/2010/01/26/whats-the-precise-meaning-of-the-word-covenant-in-the-old-testament/)
By ‘elected’, we mean you’ve chosen the relationship. Contrast a parent-child or brother-sister relationship. They exist regardless of the preferences of those involved. By ‘obligation’, we mean you’ve agreed to some particular conditions for the relationship; both parties make promises. By ‘under oath’, we mean that some sort of solemn sign or ritual is used to formalize the covenant. This marks public clarity about the relationship.
It’s this last element that helps clarify why Christians are not comfortable with de facto relationships. Two people could make private promises on a beach, even of exclusive, lifelong commitment. They could swap rings. So I might concede that some de facto relationships are irregularly contracted marriages. But an official, public ceremony—whether civil or religious—removes any uncertainty in what’s said, and hopefully what’s meant. The wider community supports the covenant.
Most de facto relationships are nothing like that. There are no promises. No clear-cut choices. No covenant sign. So no real marriage. Just often highly conditional love and uncertainty. Sometimes one partner—often the woman—thinks the relationship is forever, but the other thinks it is for a time. The degree of commitment always differs. Not as long as we both shall live, just as long as love shall last, and statistics bear this out.
The bipartisan Australian federal parliamentary report, To have and to hold, reviewing the wide body of research in this area, indicated that de facto relationships are marked by lower rates of happiness, and also break up more often than marriage. (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, To have and to hold: Strategies to strengthen marriage and relationships, Parliament House, Canberra, 1998.) There is also strong statistical evidence to show that those who live together before marriage have a higher chance of divorce than those who don’t. Although it’s unpopular to say so, the statistics on permanence and exclusivity are worse for gay relationships. This is acknowledged and even celebrated by some Australian gay activists like Dennis Altman and Simon Copland.
Christians then are saying it is not only right and biblical, but also honest and practical to acknowledge that God has designed marriage as a covenant relationship, between a man and a woman, naturally oriented towards child-rearing, and marked by mutual promises of exclusive, lifelong commitment.
Hostile to sexual immorality
This is why the Bible is hostile to all sexual immorality. Now I’ve deliberately chosen a strong word: hostile. Hebrews 13:4 says God will judge the adulterous and the sexually immoral. That’s the two words that cover sex outside marriage and sex before you’re married. Jesus also listed these two words—adultery and fornication, as older translations put it—as sin alongside greed, gossip, idolatry, theft and pride, etc. You may not agree with Jesus, but honest liberal scholars admit the Bible outlaws sex before and outside marriage, including homosexual activity. They might say it’s wrong. But they admit that’s what it says.
But why is sex before or outside or marriage so problematic? Presumably as Hebrews 13 says, because it dishonours marriage and ruins the marital bed. Why? Because it undermines the oneness of marriage, present or future. As 1 Corinthians 6:16 reminds us, you are becoming one with whomever you have sex with, even if it’s a prostitute. Let me speak frankly to our youth with some advice from Carl Thomas. (C Thomas, ‘5 reasons to keep it buttoned up until you are married’, XXXchurch, 30 October 2014. Viewed 29 September 2015). Sex that’s just ‘in the moment’ is often sex where consequences are not considered. It leads to mistakes. Which leads to regret, which can never be undone, though it can be healed. Further, it’s hard going á la carte when you marry if you’ve been used to a smorgasbord. The impact of sexual history means there will always be unfortunate comparisons.
I know this may sound counter-intuitive in a day and age where consumption rules, but if your only frame of reference for sex is with your spouse (sex that’s special and intimate), then it’s generally going to be pretty good, and you are not going to be worrying about what else you may be missing out on.
By contrast, one of Australia’s most respected social commentators, Hugh Mackay, expresses his moral philosophy in Right and Wrong: how to decide for yourself as: “The right answer for me may be different from the right answer for you”. (H Mackay, Right and Wrong: How to decide for yourself, Hodder Headline, Sydney, 2004, p. 237.) When he applies it to relationships, this means:
When it comes to sex, what do we regard as an acceptable interpretation of the ideal of fidelity? Do we mean being faithful to a sexual partner—i.e. having that person as an exclusive partner for as long as the relationship lasts? Or do we mean being faithful to ourselves—to our sense of what we believe in, what’s right for us, what values we want to uphold? (Ibid., p. 122.)
… married people will occasionally fall helplessly (and ‘authentically’) in love with someone else and feel that to ignore such powerful attraction would actually be wrong for them, even though they may feel that leaving the marriage would, in most respects, also be wrong. (Ibid., p. 120.)
Hugh Mackay revels in his high status as a social commentator. But at this point I believe he is dangerous. His recipe for sex—whatever’s right for me—will just produce more broken relationships, more hurt people, more damaged children.
Rather, if one has been swindled by temptation like this, they should stop before the damage is compounded. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 makes it clear that sexual sin cuts us off from the kingdom of God like any other sin. But verse 11 holds out great hope for forgiveness:
And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
The Bible is clear: Jesus can heal you of sexual sin. Jesus can clean your life up. That’s why he died for you. That’s why he sent his Holy Spirit. Jesus loves to forgive, if only you’ll turn from sin and put your trust in him.
Indeed, this is one other reason Christians believe marriage is so special. It’s because in the Bible a husband’s love for his wife is an analogy of God’s love for his people. The prophet Hosea says that God loves his people even though they’ve been unfaithful to him, adulterous in their idolatries. God’s love is not conditioned by the recipient’s failure to perform. I know this is a belief particular to Christians, but marriage is sacred since it reflects the gospel truth that, as a loving groom, Jesus sacrificed his life for his dear bride, the church.
The ‘conjugal’ view vs. the ‘partnership’ view
Now having made that critical gospel aside, let me say how well the biblical view of marriage fits with what is often called the ‘conjugal’ view of marriage in public policy discussions, as opposed to a ‘partnership’ view. For example, just about the best secular ‘natural law’ case for the traditional view going around is “What is Marriage?”. (S Girgis, R George & RT Anderson, ‘What is Marriage?’, Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, vol. 34, no. 1, 2010, pp. 245-287.) The authors define marriage as the comprehensive union of spouses: bodily and sexual union; with special links to children, inherently oriented by its opposite gendered union, towards conception and child rearing; committed to the norms of permanence, monogamy and exclusivity.
This conjugal view is contrasted to a mere partnership view, based on a romantic connection leading to a more or less contractual approach to mutual care that may or may not be oriented to child-rearing, permanence, monogamy, or exclusivity.
Or here is what Scruton and Blond say:
Put simply, there are two competing ideas of marriage at play in the current debate. The first is traditional and conjugal and extends beyond the individuals who marry to the children they hope to create and the society they wish to shape. The second is more [private] and is to do with a relationship abstracted from the wider concern that marriage originally was designed to speak to. Some call this pure partnership or mere cohabitation.
The latter view is what marriage is becoming: a dissolvable contract between two individuals who partner purely for the sake of the partnership itself. It has little or nothing to do with children, general education or social stability… The partnership model is one shared by many heterosexuals and wider society, and it is this that has done much harm to the institution of marriage…
Marriage in this conjugal view is a sexual union of husband and wife who promised each other sexual fidelity, mutual caretaking and the joint parenting of any children they may have. Conjugal marriage is fundamentally child-centred and female advancing. Lone motherhood, which is bad for both the woman and the child, is the evident manifestation of the contemporary separation of marriage and parenthood. (Scruton & Blond.)
They suggest the ‘partnership’ view fails to acknowledge fundamental facets of human life: the fact of sexual difference; the enormous tide of sexual desire; the unique ‘social ecology’ of parenting which offers children vital and fundamental bonds with their biological parents; and the rich genealogical nature of family ties and the web of intergenerational supports for family members it provides. To quote again:
Conjugal marriage has several strengths which partnership marriage does not. It is inherently normative, which is fundamentally good, for it stabilises and secures people in their most profound relationships. Conjugal marriage cannot celebrate an infinite array of sexual or intimate choices as equally desirable or valid. Instead, its very purpose lies in channelling the erotic and interpersonal impulses between men and women in a particular direction: one in which men and women commit to each other and to the children that their sexual unions commonly (and even at times unexpectedly) produce. A political indifference to this normativity reflects a culture that chooses to ‘do nothing’ about sexual attraction between men and women. The outcome of which is a passive, unregulated heterosexual reality and multiple failed relationships and millions of fatherless children.
Not every married couple has or wants children. But at its core marriage has always had something to do with societies’ recognition of the fundamental importance of the sexual ecology of human life: humanity is male and female, men and women often have sex, babies often result, and those babies, on average, do better when their mother and father cooperate in their care. (Ibid.)
2. Defending marriage
So how can we defend marriage, conjugal marriage? I believe we need to defend it in society as well as in the church. We’ve already given some lines by which a secular argument can be advanced, alongside our biblical convictions for defending true marriage.
But why should we defend marriage in society, in the public arena? Isn’t it said that we can’t or shouldn’t legislate morality for unbelievers? Others suggest tactically, missionally, it’s a bad idea to fight a losing battle.
But marriage is a creation ordinance rather than a redemption ordinance. It belongs to all human society, not just the church. As those with dual citizenship, fundamentally in heaven but also in our own nations and societies, like the exiles in Babylon, we are to seek the welfare of the cities we find ourselves in. The conjugal view of marriage is good for everyone, especially for children.
In God’s providence, he has placed us in a democracy that invites us to participate in the political process, as citizens, who are free to be Christians! So what do we do? I think we plainly state our biblical reasons for our beliefs as clearly as we can. But alongside that, we also try to give an account that supplies plausible reasons independent of religion for upholding the conjugal view of marriage.
As the Bible says, we pray for all those in authority, including those we disagree with. We write to them, and in doing so we write cogent, clear, polite letters, in the main of no more than one page. We try and write early in the debate, if we can. And we persist over time. I recall a series of letters with the local MP in my last parish. He was initially uninformed and wavering on the stem cell issue. It took three letters from me (and no doubt many others) interacting with him, until he was able to come to a position, against destructive embryonic stem cell research.
We try to engage with the research and alternative arguments, refusing to only fight weak ‘straw men’, yet being sceptical of the ‘assured results’ of research. These have often proceeded from strong pre-existing ideological commitments. We also remember that this can be true of us as believers. We check sources carefully for ourselves, and are cautious about just parroting party lines.
We also learn how to ask good questions of the alternative visions. For example, the revisionists have been good at saying what marriage is not. For example, they say it is not inherently opposite gendered, and it is not discriminatory in whom it admits. But the revisionists have been poor at defining what marriage is, which they mostly only bother to do rarely and vaguely. So ask them to explain what marriage is. Push for a proper definition. Then on the basis of their definition, ask them to explain why the state has any business in legislating to honour romantic and sexual partnerships. You may ask them why, on their definition, marriage should be restricted to just two partners, and so on.
But as well as urging parliamentarians not to redefine marriage, we also want to see them work to defend marriage by strengthening it. We must encourage governments to put more money into marriage enrichment and mediation services. We support efforts to reform family law, in ways that might strengthen marriage, protect children, and if it’s appropriate where there are difficulties, to increase the chances for reconciliation.
In the church
However, we also need to defend marriage within the churches. We need to keep expounding the good of a biblical, theological account of marriage within the faith. I understand that our youth have never known a time when society thought anything else of homosexuality other than that it’s perfectly acceptable. We need to compassionately encourage those with gay relatives, or promiscuous children, or their own failed relationships, as to the truth and goodness of the biblical vision.
We need to teach that singleness is not a disease, and that celibacy will be the normal way of life for all Christians post-puberty for many periods of life. We need to teach that neither sexual expression, nor even our orientation, is the essence of our humanity or identity. We are human; we are male and female. We are married or single. Most importantly of all, if we are believers, we are children of God.
We need to teach an absolute “No” to any bullying of those we deem immoral. Remember that the same Lord Jesus who challenged the woman caught in adultery about her life of sin also protected her from the stone-throwing bullying of the self-righteous (John 8:3-11). Disapproval of the lifestyle does not need to mean harshness or personal rejection. On the other hand, deep compassion and true kindness does not require us to approve a morality that we know the Bible identifies as sin.
But pastors and leaders, as you teach on marriage in public ministry you also need to consider how to strengthen individual marriages. What is available for marriage preparation, for marriage enrichment, for marriage counselling? What are the practical threats to marriage in our contemporary congregations from busyness and careerism, through financial pressures and materialism, or by pornography and naivety or foolhardiness about emotional intimacy with people of the opposite sex to whom we are not married? What training or mentoring do you need in this?
We do not expect Christian morality from those who are not Christian. But you do need to think about those who wish to follow Christ and experience unwanted same-sex attraction. Such people exist. Sometimes some change of desires takes place. Thankfully, some such Christians like Wesley Hill, Rosario Champagne Butterfield, and Sam Alberry have spoken and written about their experiences. Pastors and church members alike need to consider how to understand, to listen, to care, and to offer support, including positive warm same- and opposite-sex friendships. Almost all of us are strugglers with our sexuality one way or another.
So how can we Christians defend the institution of marriage? Andrew Cameron and Tracy Gordon make an insightful comment:
If such redefinitions continue, then marriage will become another area where Christian communities will hold out hope to a lost world by living out something different, just as many of us currently do when we try to keep sex for marriage, or bring pregnancies to term, or express the supremacy of Christ in public. (A Cameron & T Gordon, ‘What Makes a Marriage?’, Social Issues Committee of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, 2 June 2004, (viewed 21 September 2015): http://socialissues.org.au/issues/what_makes_a_marriage/)
The best advertisements for marriage are people who honour it personally in their lives.