Birch Smith, Hillsdale College, 2017
Part III: Why the Battle For the Definition of Marriage Was Not Worth Fighting
It is likely that there are few things I could say that would be more controversial within the Christian community than this: the battle for the definition of marriage, so often seen as one of the defining cultural issues of the day, was almost entirely a wasted effort on our part. And, no, this is not a piece on recognizing the inevitable current of the world and simply giving in to it. What I intend to argue is that, through a poor understanding of the language and concepts involved in the discussion, the issue was in fact never very important. If anything, our own understanding of marriage may have erred, and needs to be corrected.
Suppose that, for whatever reason, the English language had developed in such a way that words like ‘crime,’ ‘felony,’ and the like had never come into existence, and that the only word we had to express the concept of wrongful action was ‘sin.’ In such a world, there would of course be religious ‘sins,’ exactly as we have the concept today; but there would also be civil ‘sins.’ Sometimes, the word ‘sin’ could describe an action in both senses; sometimes it would be one or the other. At first this would have the potential to cause significant confusion; and even though ways would eventually be found to clarify the meaning of the word, the language would still be very imprecise on this point.
Thankfully, we have a multitude of available words to express precisely what sort of wrongful activity we mean, but our example is very similar to the current state of the word ‘marriage.’ In a religious sense, of course, marriage is the unification of a man and woman before God, pledging to sacrificially love one another for the entirety of their lives. It is a holy commitment, a divine institution, and a picture of Christ’s love for the church, His bride. In a civil sense, however, it is little more than a legal status that confers certain rights, privileges, and duties on each spouse, as well as on the newly created family unit. The unification, and resulting confusion, of those two disparate concepts within the same word has artificially created most of the debates around marriage today.
We must remember that most non-Christian cultures around the world, and throughout history, have had some similar institution for the joining of two individuals and the creation of a family unit, and it is interesting to note that in most cases (even in societies open to non-monogamous and heterosexual sexual activity) such an institution was reserved for male-female union, and the clear purpose of the creation of a family and continuation of a bloodline. [Here there is a great deal of room for a natural-law argument about the essential role that reproduction, or at least the potential for reproduction, plays in the proper definition of marriage, but that’s an argument for another time.]
That fact is significant because it adds a nuance to the traditional claim that marriage is God’s institution, God’s creation, and therefore we must fight to make sure it stays the way God intended it. There are two senses in which may be true to say that marriage is God’s creation, both with important implications. It is worth our while to examine what those are.
First, marriage may be God’s institution in the sense that God has created human beings with a certain fixed nature, and that nature happens to be such that it is fitting for a man and a woman to be united in marriage, for the creation of a family and the raising and proper education of children. It can also be mentioned that God intended to establish this pattern clearly, in the account of the creation of man. As I mentioned above, that is a (lengthy) argument that cannot be properly treated here, so I will say no more on the subject.
The second sense in which it may be said that marriage is God’s institution is that it is a structured institution, with certain procedures and rules, specifically given to his people. In this sense his institution of marriage is applicable to all, but only properly enforced on acknowledged Christians. That is to say, it is appropriate for a church to discipline members of its body who fail to follow scriptural principles, and thus fall into sin, but not to apply punishment to unbelievers. Sin is a Christian concept, following Biblical rules, and in this sense is only applicable to Christians. Of course, we as Christians understand that God will eventually punish all sin, but we are not God, and we have no authority over those who are not fellow believers. We are nowhere obligated to make all of society conform to all scriptural institutions; those are for the Church. In fact, marriage is the only such institution that we attempt to impose on the culture at large: baptism, communion, etc., while equally understood as sacred institutions, are clearly understood to be rightly practiced within the church. Marriage, as defined by God, is no different.
Thus marriage, in its other (historical) forms, is not a divine institution in the second sense; and although it may be a divine institution in the first sense, it does not necessarily follow that we have sufficient reason to impose the one woman, one man formula on society as large, even if it is the structure that is most fitting for human beings as such.
We must next ask what the alternative, civil conception of marriage entails. The civil, legal definition of marriage revolves around a certain set of rights and privileges that have, more or less arbitrarily, been attached to marriage. Those include, broadly and not exhaustively, joint-filing benefits; the ability to share certain benefits, insurance, leases, etc.; lower or eliminated taxes on various forms of property transfer or sharing, including inheritance; right of attorney and other family or next-of-kin rights; and certain custodial arrangements. These things are simply procedural, legal rights that bear no possible logical association with the Biblical institution of marriage.
Advocates for homosexual marriage have claimed that they were being denied the right to marriage. If we adopt the religious meaning of ‘marriage,’ they are wrong: there is no right to participate in a (legally) voluntary religious ceremony, especially if one does not follow the religion in question, any more than one has a right to receive communion or baptism if a minister or priest is not willing. If we adopt the civil meaning of ‘marriage,’ it becomes difficult if not impossible to deny the validity of their claim. The legal rights that have come to be associated with marriage bear no relation to its religious purpose or meaning, and there thus cannot be any reason for even the most committed Christian to deny them to anyone.
The legal rights that have come to be associated with marriage bear no relation to its religious purpose or meaning. Click To Tweet
The simple solution would be to divorce anything of legal significance from the term marriage, and either make everyone designate the holders of those rights specifically (not an overly complicated process), or broaden the definition of civil union, or some similar term, to include all forms of partnership for legal purposes. Christians can keep the sanctity of marriage, and its definition, as a strictly Christian institution with no broader cultural or legal significance; and can also without difficulty engage in whatever legal process necessary for setting in order their legal rights and status, as they wish.
The term ‘marriage’ should never have been invested with the panoply of extraneous legal implications. Click To Tweet
The term ‘marriage’ should never have been invested with the panoply of extraneous legal implications, the privilege of which Christians have, for far too long, been accustomed. Marriage, if it is understood truly, possesses its true value as a holy institution and a vow taken before God and the fellowship of believers, and does not require additional cultural and legal support to provide its significance. If we believe it does, and if we waste our efforts to ensure that we, and we alone, are the recipients of that legal status, we fail to understand marriage truly and value it properly. We invite discord and strife where it is not necessary, and defend a ‘truth’ that we ourselves have created through our lack of understanding. Let us, rather, focus on creating and fostering healthy, loving marriages within our own communities and before God, by whom and through whom they truly are sanctified.
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Latest posts by Birch Smith (see all)
- What Do Christians Actually Need to Take Away From the Genesis Creation Account? - August 30, 2017
- Guest Post: Natural Law and Marriage - July 1, 2017
- Guest Post: A Christian Case for Social Liberalism – The Battle For Marriage - June 19, 2017