The gay marriage debate in Australia has reached fever pitch. As I’ve participated in the debate my concern has shifted from the rights and wrongs of gay marriage per se (although that’s still and issue for me), to the subtle redefining of marriage itself.
I believe that culture is important in theology. We need to listen to culture, engage with it and learn from it, but we are not beholden to it. For the Christian, culture is secondary to Scripture and stands alongside church history, among other things. Unfortunately, I think, we’ve become very beholden to culture in this debate and we need to reclaim a Christian understanding of marriage.
One of the foundational principles of the ‘pro’ case for gay marriage as I understand it, and probably the view of many heterosexual couples as well, is that marriage is a personal matter between two loving adult. Heterosexual couples don’t have a monopoly on love and what right does anyone have to keep two people from expressing their love through marriage? On the surface it seems like a reasonable argument, but the Christian view of marriage is much deeper and richer than that.
Of course, love is a foundation to a successful marriage. One only has to read Song of Songs in the Old Testament with its steamy allusions and laden romance to see that. But Christian marriage is not only about love. The problem is that when we make love the basis for marriage we wind up with high divorce rates. Jesus was strident in his opposition to divorce.
Christian marriage is a covenant. Jesus taught that marriage is a God-ordained union that no one should separate (Matt 19.1-10). The marriage bond is spiritual, a mystical union between two people that some how reflects the relationship between Christ and the church (Eph 5.25-33).
While less of an emphasis in the Protestant church, marriage has also been understood in terms of its role in both conceiving and raising children. The need for both a mother and father is a key plank in the ‘heterosexual marriage only’ camp. It’s a hotly debated topic and for my part there is so much vested interest in the debate that I take any research with a pinch of salt. Although I’m no statistician, it seems to me that it is simply too early to compare the relatively small and comparatively short-term data-set from homosexual parenting. In any case, it is really only with the sexual revolution since the 1960’s that we have had the luxury to start thinking differently about marriage in relation to family and children. Between more or less reliable contraceptive methods and advanced fertility technologies, sex and conception no longer must be related. Unlike a generation ago, a couple can have sex without fear of an unwanted pregnancy. Conversely, it is possible to have a child without sex being part of the equation at all. As with so much of our lives, technology has had a huge effect on our sexuality, for better and for worse.
Historically in the West, and still in many cultures today, marriage has had less to do with the union between two lovers than a social institution that binds families and communities together and provides social stability.* We see this in the practice of arranged marriages in some cultures, or the bygone Western practice of a suitor asking a woman’s father for permission to marry his daughter.** (The two could elope, but at great social cost.) Practically, this meant that there was a sharing of labour as a couple could divide the domestic and economic duties between them.
So we see marriage as romantic and relational, yes, but much more. It is covenantal, spiritual, social, familial and, arguably, biological.
As a church we need to consider what our religious and social heritage teaches us about the broader meaning of marriage. Christian marriage, and arguably marriage in general, is not simply about the romantic inclinations of two people. It is much, much more. None of this, in itself, is an argument against gay marriage or that we should impose a Christian view of marriage on society. It is a plea to have a developed and informed view of marriage.
* As a result it wasn’t expected that a marriage would meet all of a person’s emotional needs. Although faithfulness in marriage was the expectation, both partners had a web of relationships with family, neighbours, friends and workmates so that the marriage partner didn’t have to bear the crushing weight of expectation as friend, co-labourer, confidant and lover that cripples many modern marriages.
** This isn’t to idealise all aspects of our history and other cultures, there’s plenty that’s wrong. However it demonstrates that marriage has not always been viewed simply a personal matter.