I now pronounce you husband and wife.
With words like these, churches and nations have been solemnizing unions between men and women for at least centuries, possibly millennia. Today marriage has been called into question from every direction. From some quarters we are asked to discard a so-called antiquated social tradition accused of being everything from a medieval male property right to a legalized form of prostitution. From elsewhere a cry has been raised to redefine the age-old relationship, to have marriages which are not one man and one woman but some other combination. Again and again we are asked why we, as Christians and as Americans, do not accept non-traditional relationships as just as valid as traditional marriage, deserving of the same treatment and respect heterosexual couples have perhaps always received from church and state.
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Faced with these questions, defenders of marriage often find ourselves pontificating with legalistic-sounding declarations of moral certitudes of which our society is no longer certain and which our opponents don't even recognize as valid; or possibly worse, we hem and haw about things that are unnatural without putting any real meaning to this. It is not so simple for most of us to give an answer as to why non-traditional marriages should not be allowed; our opponents have responses ready, and the secular world thinks we are impeding progress, or worse, displaying unjustified discrimination.
We have difficulty answering this question, though, because it is the wrong question, and we've failed to answer the right one. The right question, the question we should be asking and answering, is much simpler. Why should the church solemnize and the state recognize traditional heterosexual marriages?
Once we see that this is the question, we also see that it is really two questions; that is important, because it has two answers. We need to know both why marriage is upheld by the church, and distinct from that why the government should be involved.
The Bible's reason for marriage appears in the first two chapters of Genesis, in the accounts of the creation of man. It's easy to miss this, because the passages that matter don't use the word marriage or the word husband; however, both Jesus and Paul singled out the Genesis account as the single Old Testament passage which mattered in understanding marriage.
One problem Christians have with these early Genesis texts is that we're not certain if they're true, by which we mean that we don't know if the events described actually happened the way they're described. That is not important here. At least since the time of Saint Jerome (one of the Church Fathers in the first centuries after Christ) it has been recognized that these chapters have the marks of a folk tale about them. Folk tales are a form of literature which convey truths, but not necessarily facts. If God used folk tales to explain the creation of the world and the creation of man, then it follows that there are truths here that we should understand, without being hung up over whether the facts are correct. For comparison, when we read the parables of Jesus, we don't wonder whether there really was a Samaritan who stopped to help a Jew, or a beggar named Lazarus who was despised by a certain rich man, or a shepherd who went searching for a lost sheep. We understand in those accounts that the stories might or might not be factual, but that we are to understand the truths within them. So too here, we should not be overly concerned with what parts of these accounts are facts if that's going to cause us to miss the truths they convey. Both sides of the discussion are guilty of this. To the one group, it would seem that once these are seen as just stories, they no longer are taken seriously and we miss what they were trying to say. To the other group, it would seem to be enough merely to demonstrate that the events recorded might have happened, without ever considering what that means. So without worrying about what really happened at the dawn of time, let us look for what God wanted to explain to us about it.
To quote the passage from Zondervan's Updated New American Standard Bible:
So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. The Lord God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man....For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:21-22, 24)
The ancient rabbis noticed quite a few things about this passage. Many have no doubt heard their observation that woman was not taken from man's head, that she might not be his lord; nor from his feet, that she might not be his slave; but from his side, that she might be his partner; from under his arm that he might protect her; and from near his heart, that he might love her.
Yet they also saw a deeper truth, one which sprang from comparing this passage to another, earlier in the book:
God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (Genesis 1:27)
Some of our modern interpreters tend to look at this passage and the other and see two conflicting accounts of the creation of man; the rabbis did not see it that way. Others view the account in the second chapter of Genesis as an expansion of that in the first chapter, but again this was not the way the rabbis took it. When they read that God created man in the image of God, and that God created man male and female, they quite reasonably concluded that God contained within Himself all that was male and female. They further concluded that man, as originally created, contained all that was male and female in one self.
Coming then to the second passage, they saw that God divided the one man, in whom both male and female parts existed, into those distinct male and female parts, the man and the woman. We had a single creature complete in itself, but God did not think it good for man to be complete in himself, and so sundered him into two parts.
Yet God did not eternally divide those parts. He made it possible for the creature to put itself back together. Husband and wife can again become man by that joining. Further, as Jesus put it when he quoted these verses, What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate. (Matthew 19:6b)
Thus the foundational reason why the church solemnizes marriages between one man and one woman is because God divided man into man and woman and ordained that those two parts could be brought back together into the one original creature. It is not about God letting different people come together; it is about rejoining what was divided. As I have elsewhere stated it, He made one into two so He could make two into one. He's not in the business of fusing things together that weren't made to go together; He joins man and woman, and we recognize this, because He separated them initially.
Paul gives us another reason, a perhaps deeper and more significant reason, for respecting marriage in this form. He tells us in Ephesians 5:32 that this scripture also gives us the image of the relationship between Christ and his church. That suggests that there is something inherent in the connection between a husband and a wife that illustrates for us what our relationship with God is like. Theologians in the twentieth century have made us aware that our understanding of God is based on analogies, metaphors, images of things we know that convey to us what we cannot know. God is not literally a biological father, but He is so like a father that He uses that image to convey to us truth about Himself. Every good father teaches us about God merely by being a good father, that we may look at what he is and gain understanding of how that is like God. Similarly, every bad father distorts the image of God and makes it harder for some to see what God is like. So too, the good marriage teaches us something of what our relationship with God is like solely through being an image of that which we can observe and understand. Yes, there are bad marriages, just as there are bad fathers, that crush our understanding of that image. Yet if we are to gain the benefit of seeing the image that teaches us these truths, we must not distort the image ourselves. The biblical model for marriage remains one man and one woman. The bridegroom and the bride, the husband and the wife, the male and the female coming together to be the one creature--these are the pieces of the image God gave us to help us understand, and these the things we confirm as true expressions of the pattern God wanted us to know.
Thus the church sanctifies heterosexual marriages for these two reasons: because God teaches that at the foundation of the world man was divided into male and female which He desires to bring back together, and because that restoration of male and female into one creature is the picture by which He wants us to understand our relationship to Him.
All of this is well and good for the church; but what about the world? Why should governments become involved in the confirmation of what is in its essence a religious matter? We do not expect or desire that congress should pass laws licensing our minsters, or certifying our baptisms, or authorizing our confirmations. Why should the state be involved at all in the recognition of Christian marriage?
The answer is that it should not be. In modern secular democracies, the state may not do anything for religious reasons, not even if they are good religious reasons with practical value. If the state is to recognize marriage at all, it must have reasons to do so that are not founded on religious principles or religious texts.
However, it does have such reasons.
In law we say that the state cannot make a law addressing any matter unless there is a legitimate state interest in that matter. The latter half of the last century has made it abundantly clear that the state does not have an interest in the sexual conduct of individuals, whatever we would like to think. Without something more involved, the state cannot interfere, for better or worse, in human relationships, be they friendships or something more.
However, the state does have an interest in the care of its children; and its children are our children, the children born to citizens of the state. It is children that the laws of marriage attempt to protect, both directly and indirectly; and it is that protection of children that justifies the recognition of marriage as a legal status.
This will surprise some, because we don't think of a marriage license as a license to have children; nor in this generation do we think that the state should have any say in whether or not we have children. Yet ultimately, from the perspective of the state, when two people apply for a marriage license, they are saying, we wish to be legally recognized as a family, and family means the possibility of children.
Yes, there are couples who marry who have no intention of having children, and there are those who cannot have children. Yet many who did not intend to have children do so, either because they changed their minds or because they were not careful. Many who cannot have children want (some desperately) to do so, and with advances in medicine some have succeeded. The state would indeed be prying into our privacy if it challenged every marriage license request, requiring fertility tests and certifications of intent. It makes it simple: if you are a man and a woman, you may apply for and receive a license to have a family, and to receive the status of family under the law, which status has certain benefits.
I say those benefits are for the children; yet many of them seem to be for the spouses. For example, what is the benefit to the children that a divorced spouse can receive alimony from the other spouse, even if the divorced spouse has no children? Yet the justification for the protections of the husband and wife from each other go directly to the protection of the children.
To raise children, it is often necessary to put the interests of the children above your own. One reason that we prefer to have children raised by two parents is so that they can support each other to the degree necessary that they can also support the children. It is often necessary for a parent to forego personal and career opportunities, and so limit future possibilities, in order to meet the needs of the children. Yet often these choices have irreversible effects: the parent who leaves a career-oriented job or passes up a promotion with a transfer because of the needs of the children cannot thereafter simply step to the place he or she would have been had that move been made. The choice is difficult. Yet it is even more difficult if the one faced with the choice must also be wary of the possibility that in ten years it will mean poverty. The legal relationship of marriage protects the potential parents from each other, so that if one makes sacrifices the other does not make, the other has a legal obligation to balance the scales thereafter.
It is patently obvious that people who are not married can and do have children. That is unfortunate, but perhaps unavoidable. For some, it is a decision to forego the legal protections available. For others, it is the failure to face the realities of their situation. The state sometimes struggles to protect the interests of these children. That it succeeds in doing so is not reason to eliminate the proven method of protecting children through the legal obligations to each other of those who agree to have and raise them. In fact, more and more the response of states to providing for the needs of the children of single mothers is to enforce upon single fathers some of the obligations of divorced parents, in the form of child support payments. Even in the dysfunctional case, the legal patterns of marriage serve well.
Non-traditional couples want to be given the same protections as married couples. It is patently clear that non-traditional couples are not coming together to have children, and are unlikely to accidentally do so. The state's interest in protecting children does not apply, and therefore the state has no business licensing, regulating, taxing, or subsidizing such relationships.
People in such relationships can find ways to have children. They can adopt. They can through other means obtain children. They can bring children into their new situation from previous relationships. These are exceptional means. Those who employ them are purposefully and intelligently doing so. Most if not all of the benefits of marriage can be arranged through other legal documents, including powers of attorney, advance directives, joint property agreements, wills and trusts, and contracts. Anyone who is adopting a child is perfectly capable of taking steps to create such legal protections and relationships if they wish to have them. The state provides other protections for adopted children. Yet ultimately non-traditional relationships are not normally about having children or raising a family; these are the exceptions. The state has no right to presume that a non-traditional couple is going to have children that require its protection, and thus no basis to intervene through licensing and other state recognition.
Given that it is possible for any two people to create the legal protections a marriage provides without being married, is marriage an unnecessary legal redundancy? Should we be rid of it as a legal status, as some in the secular press are suggesting? Ours is an overburdened legal system as it is. Having a full package of state-mandated protections to which any young couple can agree with one stop to one office reduces the potential burden there. It also prevents the possibility that a smorgasbord approach to protections might develop, through which one partner would not receive the protections needed through ignorance, neglect, or trust. For those who would seek such protections for a non-traditional relationship, the smorgasbord is the better approach. No package of protections will fit all such couples, and certainly not the one currently designed to protect the children of a husband and wife.
Thus we find that the only basis for the state to be involved in recognizing marriage as a legal status applies only to the traditional marriage between one man and one woman. Without a similar state interest, there should be no law passed regulating or recognizing other types of relationships. The state does not issue licenses to be roommates, or co-lessors of an apartment or co-owners of a house, or friends. It licenses people to have families, so that it can protect the children born into those families. Without that interest, it would not be in the marriage business at all.
By asking the right question, we come to the right answer. It is not a question of why we don't recognize homosexual and other non-traditional relationships as just as legitimate as heterosexual marriages. It is a question of why we recognize marriages at all. The reasons for which we do so do not apply to any other type of relationship. It follows quite clearly from that that no other relationship can be a marriage in either the spiritual or the legal sense.
That is not in any way prejudicial against those who do not wish to be married on those terms, any more than saying that a company that does not wish to sell stock cannot be a corporation, or that a person who has no children cannot claim children as exemptions on a tax return. It is simply saying that this is what a marriage is, and if you want to have a relationship that is different from this, call it something else.
Receiving his A.A. from Luther College of the Bible and Liberal Arts and his A.B. in Biblical Studies from Gordon College, M. Joseph Young served in radio broadcast ministry and taught undergraduate New Testament Studies at the Institute of the Great Commission before going on to earn his J.D. from Widener University School of Law. He is currently the chaplain of the Christian Gamers Guild, and has written several books and a wealth of articles on many subjects for sites throughout the World Wide Web.
This page is part of M. J. Young Net.