What is marriage? This is, perhaps, the million-dollar question in our modern, Western culture. The shape and form of marriage, more than any other issue, has dominated the metaphorical news-feed of popular conscience. At the heart of this fixation is the desire to redefine marriage as not simply a male-female union, but as a male-male, or female-female union.
The Logic of Marriage
Though the groundwork for such an agenda goes right back to Genesis 3, we must also recognise that at its heart is a subtle, yet seismic shift in the prevailing view of the meaning of marriage.
Until very recently, no other human society had seen marriage as anything other than a conjugal partnership—that is, a male-female union, inherently ordered to procreation and calling for permanent and exclusive commitment. Recently and subtly, however, marriage has come to represent an emotional partnership—that is, a loving, emotional bond, distinguished by its intensity and one that needn’t look beyond the partners in creating and nurturing a family. This shift explains why the catch-phrase associated with marriage redefinition—“Love is love”—has such powerful resonance in popular conscience.
However, as author John Dickson points out, “While all kinds of bonds of love exist in the world, only the lifelong bond of a man to a woman—and just one man to one woman—has the power to create and nurture a new family and so move the wider human family toward its unfolding history. Put another way, only a bonded pair of complementary sexes is able both to produce children and ensure they grow up in the care of their mother and father. These unique powers have been recognised and honoured throughout almost all human cultures by giving marriage a unique status and name.”
Indeed, it is for this very reason that the institution of marriage has been recognised, protected, and honoured by governments throughout human history, because, in the words of former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, “Intact and fully functional families constitute the least costly social welfare system yet devised by mankind.”
The assertion of this truth is not to denigrate single parents, or to suggest that the marriage of a couple unable to have children is somehow deficient or invalid. Of course not! Rather, it is to say that while divorce and childlessness are realities in a fallen world, these marriages were nevertheless “…oriented toward the same goal and thus bore witness to the intrinsic powers of this unique bond under normal circumstances.” [Dickson]
This is also why committed same-sex relationships have historically—until recently, of course—never been granted the status of “marriage” by human government. Because, even though same-sex relationships are a somewhat culturally accepted bond of love, such unions cannot, by definition, “…be oriented toward the same goal of creating human beings and ensuring that those human beings grow up in the care of their mother and father.” [Dickson]
Three Conclusions about Marriage
All of this leads us to three conclusions about marriage and the push to redefine it.
Marriage is a thing.
Marriage is not a changeable concept, it is not like play-dough that can be moulded into whatever you want it to be. Marriage, rather, is grounded in an objective fact of universal human reality—the complementary and procreative union of a man and a woman. In other words, marriage just is. Just like a man is, or a woman is, or a child is, marriage is. This is why, in the words of John Dickson, marriage, “…is not an arbitrary religious dogma but a precious and near-universal judgment of the human experience. It is not merely a claim that, ‘things have always been done this way’. Rather, it is an explanation of the logical rationale of why human cultures have privileged a particular vision of marriage.” Marriage is a thing, not a play thing.
Marriage has a purpose.
As we have already argued, the distinct purpose of marriage is to bring together a man and a woman in a complete, personal union so that issuing from their union might come more people. This might be called the procreative purpose of marriage. However, it is important to also recognise the two theological purposes to marriage.
Firstly, marriage is meant to reflect something of God’s nature.
A core truth of the Bible is that God is one (Deut. 6:4). This is not primarily a mathematical observation, that there is one God instead of two or five, but is, rather, an assertion about God’s nature. There is a unity to God. He is of a piece. Indeed, we see throughout the Bible that God is Trinity—he is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—three different persons. This means, though God is three different persons, he is also—in all that he is, does, and says—perfectly integrated. There is diversity and unity in the Godhead. This diversity and unity of God is reflected in ‘one flesh’ union of a man and a woman, known as marriage. The man and the woman are united, but not uniform, in the same way that God is united but not uniform. There is this same kind of unity and diversity, or same kind of oneness that comes when a man and woman are united in marriage.
The same is not true, it must be said, of a same-sex union. As Sam Allberry points out, “Two men, or two women, cannot become one flesh. They cannot become one in the way that God is one, and in the way that a man and a woman are one. They can have a union of sorts, but it is not the kind that is uniquely possible with a heterosexual marriage. This is not to say that commitment and faithfulness cannot be present in a homosexual relationship, or that these things exist automatically in heterosexual relationships… The issue is not the feelings of commitment two people may have for one another, but rather the kind of union God gives to a man and a woman when they become physically one. It is this complementarity that is fundamental to marriage. However else we may differ from one another in temperament, personality type, culture, and background, it is ultimately the joining of male-female that leads to the one-flesh experience.”
Secondly, marriage is meant to reflect the union between Jesus Christ and the church.
In Ephesians 5:31–32 Paul says:
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”
What he is saying, in essence, is that marriage is about the relationship Jesus has with the church, his people. In other words, like marriage is a union of two different, yet complementary entities, so Jesus’ relationship with his people is a union of two different, yet complementary entities. As Allberry argues, “The church is not the same as Christ, and Christ is not the same as the church. And it is because Christ is different to his people that he is able to draw them to himself, and be united to him.”
Human marriage, then, is a reflection of this supreme heavenly marriage between Christ and his people (see Revelation 21:1–8). And it is one of the reasons, at least within the Christian worldview, why it does not make sense to redefine marriage as between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman. Together they cannot reflect the union of Christ and the church, instead reflecting only Christ and Christ, or church and church.
‘Marriage equality’ is a misnomer.
The popular phrase ‘marriage equality’ is something of a misnomer. A clever and emotive misnomer, to be sure, but a misnomer nonetheless. Because marriage necessarily has boundaries. Marriage necessarily excludes some; it does not provide equal access to all. For instance, children cannot marry. Siblings cannot marry. There are numerous examples of existing restrictions placed on marriage.
This means, it is not actually marriage equality being advocated for, but marriage redefinition. If Australia was to allow same-sex marriage, it would not be a way of giving equal access to marriage, but rather a way of redefining what marriage is. Moreover, if we adopt the ‘marriage equality’ rhetoric, we must concede that even if same-sex marriage is allowed there will still be marriage inequality, as there is no talk of polygyny, polyandry or group marriage.
How Should We Respond?
So, how should we respond to the push to redefine marriage? How can we engage in this issue with God’s wisdom?
Below are a few thoughts.
Firstly, we must acknowledge that none of what we have discussed means Christians have the right to tell the nation what to do, or to enforce their views on marriage upon the state. We have no more special privileges in society than anyone else might have. We can persuade, we can pray, and we can serve, but we cannot enforce. Besides, if same-sex marriage is legalised in Australia, the sun will continue to rise from the East, and Jesus will continue to reign from heaven. The legalisation of same-sex marriage is not a portent of impending doom, but rather a symptom of living in a democratic state where all voices are given a hearing, even if those voices “despise God’s wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7).
Secondly, the legalisation of same-sex marriage will not change the mission of the church. We will continue to be a city on a hill, a light in the darkness, holding out the hope of forgiveness and new life in Christ. And, in fact, if the legalisation of same-sex marriage results in adverse socio-economic effects (as we believe it might), it will actually lead the church into new opportunities to be the church! It will give the church the opportunity to continue to do what Jesus has called us to do—to care for the widows, the orphans, and the outcasts—but now, perhaps, in new ways. It will give Christian marriages a prophetic edge, defined by Christ-like, sacrificial love and commitment. If same-sex marriage is legalised, the church will not cease to be the church, and the mission of the church will not change.
Thirdly, perhaps as we are forced to think about the biblical vision of marriage, God may open our eyes to see the way in which the church has, in many instances, made an idol out of marriage. The emphasis of the New Testament is not, perhaps surprisingly, on getting married. The emphasis of the New Testament is on being single-minded for the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 7). Think about Jesus, Paul, and Barnabas who were all single! Marriage is not the ‘be-all-and-end-all’! Devotion to Jesus is. And so we should repent of where we have idolised marriage by making too much of it, and in the process denigrating singleness and single-minded devotion to the kingdom of God.
Fourthly, as we continue to navigate our way through this issue, we must resolve to continue to honour LGBTI Australians and treat them as human beings made in the image of God. A recurrent mandate given in the Bible is to, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” This statement is made nine times in Scripture and in Galatians 5:14 the Apostle Paul says:
“The whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
In other words, everything in the Old Testament law, all those thousands of words, can be summed up in just 5 words—“Love your neighbour as yourself.” We need to consider, then, what it looks like to “love our neighbour as ourselves” when that neighbour is gay or lesbian, transgender, bisexual, or intersex? Christian compassion must lead us to see what life is like in someone else’s shoes, and then let that compassion guide our response.
Fifthly, and finally, none of this means we must remain silent on the issue of marriage and the push to redefine it. We can engage in this issue and attempt to persuade our nation as to the inherent goodness of marriage as a male-female union. Even though we do not have the right to force our society to uphold a definition of marriage as a male-female union, we can at least enter into the debate and propose why this definition of marriage leads to human flourishing and is for the good of human society at large. And, of course, while we do that, we must remain committed to following Jesus in the way of the cross, and to being able to profoundly love and profoundly disagree at the same time.
A Further Note on Same-Sex Attraction
Before we move on from this issue it is worth taking a moment to address those who experience same-sex attraction. If you are part of the church and experience same-sex attraction, please know that you are welcome at BPCC! It is a sad truth that those who experience same-sex attraction have often felt marginalised and unwelcome in churches. But the truth is we all experience disordered sexuality and sexual desires, whether homosexual or heterosexual. All of us are sinners in need of God’s grace.
In fact, pastor and author, Timothy Keller, has written that churches should feel more like a waiting room for the doctor and less like a waiting room for a job interview. At the job interview we endeavour to look as impressive and competent as we can. Weaknesses are buried and hidden. At the doctor, however, we assume everyone else is sick and needs help. We want BPCC to be a place where all people recognise they can receive love and help, and find the grace of God in the cross of Jesus Christ.
In order to help us do this, Sam Allberry, in his book, Is God Anti-Gay?, gives us four steps that we can all take to help those in our church community who experience same-sex attraction.
1. Make it easy to talk about
Sam says, the “key to helping people feel safe about sharing issues of same-sex attraction is having a culture of openness about the struggles and weaknesses we experience in general in the Christian life. By definition, Christians are weak. We are the “poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3). It is a mark of a healthy church that we can talk about these things, and so we need to do all we can to encourage a culture of being real about the hard things of the Christian life.”
2. Honour singleness
Sam wisely counsels us that, “Those for whom marriage is not a realistic prospect need to be affirmed in their calling to singleness. Our fellowships need to uphold and honour singleness as a gift and take care to not unwittingly denigrate it. Singles should not be spoken of as loose ends that need tying up. Nor should we think that every single person is single because they’ve been too lazy to look for a marriage partner.”
3. Remember that church is family
Sam reminds us that, “Paul repeatedly refers to the local church as “God’s household” (1 Tim. 3:15). It is the family of God, and Christians are to be family to one another. Nuclear families within the church need the input and involvement of the wider church family; they are not designed to be self-contained. Those that open up their family life to others find that it is a great two-way blessing. Singles get to experience some of the joys of family life; children get to benefit from the influence of other older Christians; parents get to have the encouragement of others supporting them; and families as a whole get to learn something of what it means to serve Christ by being outward-looking as a family.”
In the words of Hebrews 10:24: “…let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
Bray Park Community Church
What is Marriage? by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Andersen, and Robert P. George
The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy Keller
Is God Anti-Gay? by Sam Allberry
The Plausibility Problem: The Church and Same-Sex Attraction by Ed Shaw
Compassion without Compromise: How the Gospel Frees Us to Love Our Gay Friends without Losing the Truth by Adam T. Barr and Ron Citlau
Love into Light: The Gospel, the Homosexual, and the Church by Peter Hubbard