With all the attention and discussion that has occurred recently over the topic of same-sex marriage, another article on the issue might provoke nothing more than a reluctant sigh. Some of us may very well be growing weary of what seems like an endless bombardment of arguments and opinions on the matter. Hasn’t everything that needs to be said already been said? Maybe. And yet, for all that has been said, it is amazing how little clarity has been offered to some of the fundamental issues that undergird the whole debate.
There are two particular questions that I have seen remain relatively unaddressed amidst all of the discussion. Two issues that are at the heart of the whole matter. First is the question of how to define what marriage is (and thus is not). Second is the question of whether marriage and its regulation (or lack of it) is a matter of law. If Christians are to sustain any legitimate argument against a revisionist definition of marriage, they will have to be able to answer these two questions well.
A modern revisionist definition of marriage would contend that marriage is simply an emotional union that exists between two people who love each other and desire to share their lives with one another. This understanding would view marriage as thus being for any two individuals (or more than two for that matter). This definition also, interestingly enough, offers no real distinction between marriage and friendship.
However, cultures throughout human history have believed marriage to be about more than an emotional union, or maybe better said, about more than just love and companionship. Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert George, in their book What is Marriage? offer a definition of marriage that reflects how it has been exclusively understood up until this particular moment in history. They contend that marriage is first, a comprehensive union between two people, one that joins both body and mind (mind referring to purpose). Marriage is about more than an emotional union, but is one that joins physically/biologically as well as for a common purpose, specifically procreation.
Second, if marriage is a comprehensive union of body and mind to the end of procreation, then marriage is inherently linked to children and family life. The new life that comprehensive union creates must be protected and provided for. Marriage thus, in both its intent and in its fruit, is connected to the creation of and care for children.
Third, the responsibility placed on parents to provide for and care for children necessitates permanence and exclusivity in marriage. If marriage is linked to family life and the rearing of children, permanence and exclusivity provide the order and structure needed within the family unit for children to grow and mature properly.
These three components, comprehensive union of body and mind, connection to both the creation of and provision for children, and the need for permanence and exclusivity, comprise the traditional or historic understanding of marriage. One can see the vast difference between this definition and the revisionist definition. One can also see why redefining marriage is necessary for those in, for instance, the same-sex marriage camp. Same-sex partnerships are incapable of comprehensive union as defined in the traditional understanding. Furthermore, because they cannot produce children they are not inherently, or naturally, designed for family life. And finally, while there is no logical reason why same-sex partnerships cannot be permanent or exclusive (or that many very well are), the evidence reveals that same-sex partnerships, generally speaking, are far less permanent than heterosexual partnerships.
It needs to be acknowledged that as Christians, we would see marriage as being more than this in several regards. Marriage is a covenant made before God. Marriage is a picture of the Gospel and the relationship of Jesus and His bride, the church. Marriage is ultimately defined and understood based on the authority of God’s Word. So there is more to marriage biblically than one will find in this definition. But marriage according to the Bible is certainly not less than this understanding of it. Each of these three components is consistent with what the Bible presents regarding marriage and family. A definition such as this provides apologetic weight with those who reject any biblical or revelational authority.
Now to the second question: should marriage be a matter of law, regulated by the state? To be brief, if one holds to the traditional definition of marriage then the answer is yes, and for one simple reason. Children and the production of new life is an inherently social and thus public issue. If one thinks that it is not, they need look no further than present day Europe. The birthrate has continued to drop in Europe for decades, even reaching an astounding 1.1 household birthrate in nations such as Italy. However, this lack of children has left Europe without a sufficient population base to support their economies. Thus, European nations have had to loosen immigration laws to draw in people from other countries. This phenomenon has led to massive shifts in the socio-economic climate in Europe. So children certainly have an impact on public issues. To take it even a step further, children may very well be the most precious resource a given society has at its disposal, and their development is often the most important factor in a given society’s future.
Girgis, Anderson and George are again helpful in addressing this question as well. The role of the state is to serve its citizens by protecting the common good not only of individuals but also the society as a whole. And since children and their development play a significant role in the common good of a society, marriage must be a matter of concern for the state, regulated by laws that protect and preserve the common good. The revisionist definition seeks to relegate marriage to an understanding that eliminates those elements that impact the public sphere of life and confine marriage to what is personal, namely the emotional connection between two individuals. As such, it is argued, the state should not infringe on what does or does not constitute a marriage (ironically, their desire is still the regulation of marriage by the state. T hey just want the state to enforce their own definition rather than their opponent’s. It’s much like the relativist who argues there is no absolute truth, all the while making an absolute statement in doing so. Their definition of marriage is a definition they want enforced by the state as well). However, if one holds to the traditional definition of marriage then state regulation is both acceptable and good.
There is no question that the revisionist view has gained substantial momentum in recent years. Still, Christians should take heart. The traditional view of marriage, one that Christians can honestly and boldly stand on, makes a compelling case that is difficult to refute. May the church continue to labor for what is both right and good, for the glory of God and the good of all peoples.