Thursday, December 13, 2012

Marriage: what's up for grabs?

Amidst all the sound and fury around redefining marriage this week, I've been trying to work out what I think. The Ugley Vicar has already pointed out a lack of clear thinking in government about what marriage is, and what it is actually trying to do. 

So much of the debate seems to come down to whether or not marriage is a 'given', an institution, something which exists independently of our efforts to define or redefine it. And if it is a 'given', how much of that is up for grabs, and how much of the nature of marriage can be tweaked from culture to culture? So the Church of England, for example, has moved from a set of marriage vows where the wife promises to 'obey' and the husband to 'worship', to creating an alternative symmetrical set of vows, to taking the symmetrical vows as the norm. 

Here's Dietrich Bonhoeffer Marriage is more than your love for each other. It has a higher dignity and power, for it is God’s holy ordinance, through which He wills to perpetuate the human race till the end of time. In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to His glory, and calls into His kingdom. In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more that something personal – it is a status, an office.

This sense of an office is part of the furniture of Christian thinking, whether we are thinking about leadership in the church (apostles/bishops etc.) thinking about power (kings, prophets, the place of the law), work and rest (sabbath), or relationships. There are some 'givens' which God has put in place, for our good and for the good of community and the planet. Even in secular terms, we still recognise a 'vocation', that sense of a call which comes from beyond you to take a particular place in society as teacher, healer, carer, pursuer of knowledge etc.  

Postmodern liberalism, on the other hand, doesn't recognise any givens. Everything is a social construction, everything is up for grabs. Inherited institutions, from the monarchy to the Lords to the church to marriage, carry no intrinsic authority, and have to justify their existence on the same terms as everything else. All is merit and practicality. And there's plenty to be said for this. I would much rather have a competent Bishop than one who says 'I'm the bishop of (insert), this is what I do', to justify any action. 

The political and cultural outworking of this is the extension of free choice into any and every area of life, from conception to cremation. The battle over assisted dying is the same as the battle over marriage, is individual free choice sovereign, and does anything else trump it? The proponents of euthanasia, consistently led by the BBC, will not let this one drop until they win it. 

However the flipside of this is that any principal that liberalism appeals to must be a social construct as well. You can't reject all 'given' social institutions, and then insist on innate and given moral values. The notion of 'equality' which the government is currently appealing to is a social construct too, and just as open to challenge as the institutions it is used to challenge. 

The Biblical description of marriage - the exclusive and life-long union of one man and one woman, instituted and blessed by God - is consistently affirmed from Genesis 1 to the arrival of the 'Bride' in Revelation. It is a microcosm of the human race, a reflection of the love of God for his creation, the ideal context for having and raising children (though the Bible wouldn't recognise our nuclear family, operating as an independent unit from any form of community or clan). There are things that are like marriage: a parents commitment to their children is (hopefully) life long, there are deep friendships which offer companionship, there are extended families who support the rearing of children. Marriage doesn't have a monopoly on the social goods it embodies. But that doesn't mean that other relationships which carry these social goods need to be renamed 'marriage'. 

This is not simply a matter of equality, or justice, it's a deep philosophical and cultural issue about the very structure of existence. Are we simply making it up as we go along, or is there some kind of a structure to human existence and society which actually needs to be respected and worked with? It doesn't strike me that this week has made these questions any clearer, or helped us to resolve them. 

Other bits worth reading:
Peter Ould has several posts
God and Politics notes that ignoring the public response to the 'consultation' is seen as a badge of honour by the Equalities Minister. 


  1. David, what do you think of the affirmation in the OT of other forms of marriage? (I'm thinking polygamy of course.) By affirmation I mean its presentation as an apparently common practice without negative connotations, and also OT laws which appear to endorse it.

  2. That's an interesting one, and you could see in it an affirmation in the Bible that institutions can evolve over time: the New Testament seems only to endorse monogamous marriage ('a husband of but one wife' etc.). If there is an evolution, it seems to be towards a tighter, more exclusive picture of marriage. It also means we then get into the status of women in the Bible (also an evolving picture) because that bears directly on marriage and how it works as a social institution.

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  4. Comment reposted here as it only gave my first name -
    Thanks for a really interesting blog. I’m not so sure that the OT is as affirming as Big Dan suggests. John Goldingay in his commentary ‘Genesis for Everyone’ when he is discussing the situation between Leah, Rachel & Jacob says: “Genesis does not suggest polygamy is immoral, though it does recognise that its origins back in Genesis 4 were questionable; the notorious Lamech was the first polygamist. And ... it does show how unfortunate can be the outworkings of polygamy. Israel’s experience of polygamy is comparable to much western experience of divorce.” By which I think he means that
    divorce today produces all sorts of painful family situations even though we accept it without affirming it. I certainly don’t get the sense from reading the OT that it wants to celebrate polygamy.
    Mark Adams

  5. Often we hear the idea that "just because the Israelites did it, it doesn't make it right" - i.e. despite being God's chosen people they were flawed and made bad decisions. However, when this happens, we often see correction being given to them in the form of the Law. (You'll probably ask me for an example now, sorry I don't have one to hand but could probably find one; hopefully those of you with better Biblical knowledge than me may know what I'm talking about. :) )

    However, if the definition of marriage as one man and one woman is so fundamentally essential to God's vision of human society, I'm pretty amazed that the Law is silent on the definition of marriage. If the Israelites were so clearly defying God's plan, I would have expected there to be some words of correction. I don't see any of this (do correct me if I'm wrong).

    The most obvious example of polygamy of course is the 12 tribes being begotten from a polygamous marriage. I don't think there is any comment on the rights or wrongs of that.

    BTW David if you're accepting that institutions can evolve over time, then why not evolve them further? The status of women has moved on further since the writing of the NT books, so I don't think you can claim that the NT model should be the place where we stop.

  6. David, there is no such thing as "The Biblical description of marriage" — that's a myth invented by conservatives. There are, however, many biblical depictions of marriage: good overview here: The Varieties of Biblical Marriage.

    By all means refer to the Pauline ideal of marriage for church leaders as one man, one woman, which the church has subsequently accepted as a model for everyone; but please don't kid yourself that there's a single biblical description of that hallowed estate...

    ... and as Big Dan has said, why should that Pauline ideal be regarded as final?

  7. How about Jesus ideal? Mark 10:7, one man, one woman, one flesh. A Christian reading of scripture requires that we don't simply place the Old Testament alongside the new and declare that God is equually happy with everything presented there. God's revealed will develops, his salvation develops, it's an unfolding story. We may as well ask why should the incarnation, cross and resurrection be regarded as final. You'd be hard put to find a single reference in the New Testament which backs any view of marriage other than an exclusive monogamous relationship between two people.

  8. I'm very uneasy about the state trying to define and control marriage, and in fact behaving as if it had the power to create marriage. That is why I believe that The State should get out of the marriage business | Notes from underground.

  9. David - re Mark 10:7 - personally I don't think that from this statement you can extrapolate that Jesus only supports one form of marriage. I know it's done all the time, but I don't buy it. Jesus was quoting scripture to emphasise the sanctity of the marriage bond. But you're assuming that his answer also extends to the question of what forms of marriage are valid. That wasn't the question asked.

    You suggest that perhaps God's will in this area has developed over time. I assume you don't literally mean that God has changed his mind, but perhaps he allowed certain lifestyle choices at some points in history as a means of teaching. But in that case, why bother with the law at all?

    Overall, it strikes me that if the definition of marriage is (a) such a big deal, and (b) has been decreed by God outside of any societal laws, then one would expect to find it clearly stated in scripture. The absence of this definition strongly suggests to me that it's not as cast in stone as many would have us believe.

  10. Looking at what Jesus teaches about marriage (and adultery, which itself depends on what you think marriage is), he seems to be pretty clear that marriage is an exclusive union of 1 man and 1 woman. He didn't need to define what was 'valid' as marriage because it was taken as read by him and his listeners.

    Speaking personally, I can't imagine my wife taking very kindly to the suggestion that monogamous marriage is 'not such a big deal', either in theory or in practice. Marriage is surely one of the biggest deals there is?

  11. What I said was that if the *definition* of marriage is such a big deal, why isn't it defined in scripture in black and white? I wasn't talking about the big-dealness of the institution of marriage.

    So if the definition of the valid marriage form had changed by Jesus' time, such that his listeners would take it as read, presumably that had occurred as a result of cultural shift?

  12. yes, so the question is, how was God involved in that cultural shift, and was it a cultural shift towards what God wanted for his people in the first place? Once culture reaches an 'ideal' point in its thinking or practice, any shift after that is decay. Not all change is progress.

    The New Testament isn't a legal document, but it's pretty clear what it thinks marriage is: the exclusive monogamous union of a man and a women, and the proper context for sexual intimacy. This undergirds the teaching of Jesus, Paul, the imagery of John in Revelation, etc.

  13. It's a shame we can never know how God was involved in the cultural shift, as scripture is silent on the matter. We can only guess, and then we generally fill in the blanks in line with whatever we already believe.