“Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage.” So sang Frank Sinatra in 1955.
I love it when people get married, especially in church. It is wonderful to see a man and a woman express their love for one another by making promises before God, embarking on a journey to commit to one another for life, the beginning of the creation of the new family. I very much look forwards to the time when I will be able to marry people (as a vicar, that is), and will be praying that their marriage will indeed be one of love.
However, when recently reflecting on the Coalition For Marriage’s petition against the redefinition of marriage as anything other than “the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others,” it struck me that the petition mentions nothing of love.
In a sense this shouldn’t be surprising, in that those defending the traditional view of marriage are not, ostensibly, arguing against two people of the same gender loving each other, but against the legal institution of marriage being altered. It seems to me that legal terminology is more to do with matters such as adoption rights, inheritance, benefits and whether or not you feel someone is discriminating against you than love.
For many Christians, it is also the religious institution of marriage that is at stake in the government’s proposal. In the eyes of Christians, marriage is not just something that society came up with, but God. Most traditionalist Christians believe that God ordained marriage as a union between one man and one woman, who show fidelity to one another through sexual union (and don’t have sex with anyone else) and who seek to raise a stable family in the context of this relationship. This can be supported by the statement in Genesis 2:24, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (quoted by Jesus in Matt 19:5-6)
But the question I want to ask in part one of this post (the topic is too big for me to express my thoughts about in one go – sorry!) is, is marriage the ultimate expression of love? Hear me out on this. I am an idealistic optimist. I recognise that marriages are flawed, but I see it as the intention of people who marry to aspire to give themselves to one another through faithful sacrificial love. But is marriage always the carriage that follows the horse of love? Is the only way two people can express their complete intimacy to one another through a marriage, and is the love between two people of the same gender (friends or civil partners) somehow of a lesser quality because they are not married?
There are numerous ways in which people define marriage. (I think that is why politicians are struggling when thinking in terms of redefining it, as no one seems quite sure what the original definition was first off).
The Coalition for Marriage’s petition defines marriage as “the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others.” But what then would be their definition of a gay marriage, so redefined, that they are objecting to? In shorthand (leaving polygamy aside for the time being), if it is merely the reversal of this definition, it would seem to be, “the voluntary union for life of two men or two women to the exclusion of all others.” Which sounds to me suspiciously like a civil partnership, by another name. However, the Coalition For Marriage’s website makes it clear that “Civil partnerships already provide all the legal benefits of marriage so there’s no need to redefine marriage. It’s not discriminatory to support traditional marriage. Same-sex couples may choose to have a civil partnership but no one has the right to redefine marriage for the rest of us.”* So the argument seems to be, that homosexual civil partnerships are one thing, but heterosexual marriage is something else. A marriage and a civil partnership are different. Fair enough.
So what are some Christian definitions of marriage? As someone training to be an Anglican vicar, I probably ought to be much less muddled in my definition of what marriage is than I actually am. But for what it’s worth, I think there are several different definitions of marriage going around in Christian circles, which is where half the confusion seems to be arising. Let’s look at some:
1) Marriage is a lifelong union, instituted by God, between one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others. It is consummated by sexual union, and is the only valid context for sex. It is the context in which children should be raised and nurtured.
2) Marriage is a public commitment, made in the eyes of God, where two people declare their love and commitment to one another to the exclusion of all others. It is blessed by God.
3) Marriage is the context where two people can most fully express their unconditional love and fidelity to each other. Within marriage, two people are able to physically express the level of their intimacy through the most intimate bond ever – that of sexual union. It is in the context of marriage that two people are able to most fully give their love to another individual and receive love from them in return.
Definition one, I would say, is the traditional view of what Christian marriage is. Personally, I think I am in broad agreement with this view, that marriage should be exclusive, and the context for rasing children, and the proper context for faithful sexual union. For me, this is what the Bible sets out to say when it explains marriage. The conservative in me says that the Bible intends marriage to be heterosexual, and that homosexual sex is wrong in God’s eyes. The liberal in me wants to say that it is actually promiscuous, lustful behaviour that the Bible primarily speaks out against, and that a gay marriage, if permissible, should aspire to those qualities of fidelity and providing a stable family unit. I confess my internal jury is still out on this one.
Definition two could apply to a blessed civil partnership – it need not be called a marriage. It says nothing of sex, and could be celibate. What it does promise is that the couple will aspire to loving faithfulness, and exclusivity. I can’t see as there are any Christian grounds for opposing such a union, yet sadly some Christians seem vehemently opposed to even a civil relationship of this nature.
Definition three is in my view, seriously flawed. It implies that for all individuals to know true love (which lets face it, every human desires), marriage is vital (as is sex). It idolizes marriage too much as the least lonely and most desirable state for all individuals, a form of idolatry that the modern protestant church seems to sadly succumb to. But the supreme example of love is the sacrificial love of Jesus, who died for our sins. Jesus was the most loving being ever to have lived, yet he was single and celibate. Another Biblical example is the example of David. David was married to several women, and lusted after and raped Bathsheba, but he also sings that Jonathan’s non sexual love for him was greater than that: “Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.” (2 Sam 1:26)
I would be interested to know what others think on this topic before I write part two of this post, and in particular, what married people think, as I am writing from a single point of view.
*A statement which inadvertently seemed to alienate same-sex couples in civil partnerships from signing the petition, by assuming they are not “us”.