This post will need to start with a few caveats. First, it will be simply impossible to address all the nuances of marriage and culture in what I want to achieve and in an effort to keep things clear I am going to lump a lot of seemingly contradictory social practices together without making any moral judgments. This is not a post about What Should Have Been/Should Be, but more What Was/Is. Second, this is not intended to be a theological defence of Christian Marriage. There are plenty of those out there if you want to go and look them up, and I’m going to be operating on the assumption that the Christian definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman for life under God is both biblically defensible and internally consistent. Third, I am aware that there are many other religious and cultural groups other than Christians who support the man-woman pattern of marriage, but as I am a Christian writing in the context of a Christianized culture I don’t feel that I can speak for them directly. Nevertheless, I am sure that many people with whom I don’t share similar faith may still agree with some of these arguments. Everyone good? Smashing...
The debate over the legitimacy of gay marriage is very recent. If you were to go back twenty years it was only in very radical corners that the topic was even mentioned. The vast majority of gay people accepted this as natural and so their apologetic approach reflected this – “Marriage is for straight people, but gay relationships are special too. We don’t want to destroy marriage, but give us the respect that you would give any other couple and we can get on together just fine.” I am in my mid-30s and I can remember when this was the mainstream gay rights position. It dovetailed nicely with the progressive views on relationships that had come out of the 70s, which had rejected any notion that the State or Church should have any business in defining relationships and declaring who was or wasn’t “living in sin”. It was the philosophy presumably held by our famously unmarried former Prime Minister Julia Gillard – at the very least it seems to explain why she was hesitant about backing the push for marriage redefinition.
Then something happened. Around five years ago gay marriage became a serious political issue. Of course, there were already a number of legal protections in place and gay couples had for a while enjoyed “wedding ceremonies” at churches that were happy to participate. But that became not enough. The progressive philosophy had done a three-point turn. Now the State was obligated to give any relationship that did not have equal legal and social status with marriage these same rights. Civil Unions were not enough – it had to be marriage for any two people who wanted them.
This change by itself was not all that surprising. In many ways, it was the logical conclusion to the normalisation of homosexual relationships that had been going on for some time. But two things were surprising: the extent of mainstream public support for the change and the speed at which that support was mustered. This is not a social change being driven by the 3% of the population who are homosexual, but a change that is supported by the fundamental views on the nature of relationships and marriage in a substantial proportion of the wider community. Our culture is now working on some vastly different assumptions about these matters than their parents (or even their older siblings). So how do we understand this?
It’s beyond my ability (or I think anyone else’s) to pinpoint exactly how this change occurred. Who is responsible – the internet, social media, HBO, the Rolling Stones? I can’t even begin to untangle that ball of fishing line. But what we can do is examine the What of the situation in regards to change. But first we need to consider some sociological factors along with our theology.
One of the main problems is that in the public debate the conflict is often painted in terms of Gay Marriage vs Traditional Marriage. I have seen advocates for both sides use this distinction. The problem is that it is simply not accurate or helpful to couch the issue in this way. Nevertheless, I propose that there are three different philosophies of marriage at work here that aren't always easily identifiable in the public rhetoric with the tension between them generating the conflict.
The first is Cultural Marriage. This is a society’s general view of what marriage is, how it is established and how it should be practiced. It starts with questions of Suitability – are the two people of culturally appropriate age, social status, caste, eligibility, race or cultural group and so forth? Will this match bring honour or shame on the extended family? Do the couple have appropriate levels of commitment/love/money to merit the approval of society? Then there are questions about the Wedding – what do these people have to do to make their marriage culturally valid in the eyes of society? Do they need to be blessed by a priest? Do they need to parade through the streets? Does a special sacrifice need to be offered to the gods? What vows need to be taken? Does the celebration need to last a week or can you do it in an afternoon? How many other people need to be involved? Finally, there are the ongoing practices and behaviours that mark out a Good Marriage – are they acting in a way that is consistent with the values that people expect of a married couple? Are they sexually faithful? Does he make enough money to support his family (and does that matter)? Does her behaviour bring honour to him? Is there violence in the home?
Cultural Marriage can vary greatly across time and place. My wife and I have joked that if we had been born 100 years earlier our marriage would have been impossible because of the differences in our natural social class - she would have been a lady in a Society house and I would probably have been working in the stables. The basis for a great trashy romance novel certainly, but it would have been a scandalous marriage. Fortunately, times have changed and our relationship could be affirmed by our culture. The particular society also sets boundaries for Cultural Marriage. A small and isolated village would have very defined ideas as to what a marriage should look like, but in a large multicultural city there are going to be a range of ways that a marriage may be culturally affirmed with perhaps only a few taboos.
Our second category is Legal Marriage. This involves questions of whether people are permitted in a legal sense to marry, have the conditions for legal recognition been met, and the regulating of the privileges and obligations of being in such a relationship. It is sometimes argued that the State being involved in marriage is a recent invention (indeed, the Jensens appear to argue that prior to the mid-18th Century the State had no role). However, I believe this is not accurate and doesn’t take into account the range of ways that Legal Marriage can be administered. True, formal legal statutes and government departments to manage such matters are fairly recent, but chiefs, princes and magistrates were often called upon to make legal judgments on family matters. They may have appealed to “natural justice” or established precedent, but Legal Marriage has been a long-standing reality.
Note that this category is not concerned with what should be done for a marriage to be valid (cultural or ethical), but what is obliged to be done in order for the marriage to be officially sanctioned. For example, a modern couple may be very much in love and there will be no problem financially, but if the prospective bride is only 13 then there is no way for that relationship to be formally registered. This example also points to a connection to the first category – the Legal is shaped and defined by the Cultural and its precepts must reflect the morality of the culture around it if it is to be regarded as just. Regulations around the age of consent and the conditions by which that consent has been recognised have varied over time, as has the standard of proof by which a divorce may be obtained. Each change in the legal regulations was reflective of a cultural shift about appropriate standards that had already taken place. Not everything that is Cultural becomes Legal (e.g. there is nothing about wedding cakes in the Marriage Act though their universal acceptance could lead you to think that they were an official requirement). Overall, government regulates what it feels that it needs to in order for the varied acceptable cultural practices to continue and leaves the rest up to us.
Finally we have Christian Marriage. Contrary to what many believe, this is not a wedding that takes place in a church. In fact, I have conducted several purely Cultural weddings (though in Christian form) and most of that which goes on in a wedding between two committed Christian people is merely Cultural. Christian Marriage is fundamentally a theological commitment that recognises God’s eternal purposes for marriage from the Beginning and which undergird our Cultural and Legal categories. It affirms that the pairing of male and female was God’s good plan in Creation (Gen 2), that our conduct within it speaks of our new relationship in Christ (Eph 5:22–33), and that our commitment to the relationship is eschatologically realised in the coming of Christ in the Kingdom (Rev 21:1–5). Many people may partake in a Christian marriage ceremony but are not committed to nor will they practice Christian Marriage. But those of us who have put our faith in Jesus and are married by necessity will. And it is this form of marriage that Christians wish to see as effective and emulated in our society. When we say that we want to “stand up for true marriage” we are not saying Man+Woman In A Church (because many people already do that), but rather Live In Christ. Whether you've said your vows in a cathedral, walked around a table, had a large family celebration, or just registered your union with a magistrate makes no difference - what matters is the bigger Gospel story which your marriage testifies to.
So we have these categories of Cultural, Legal and Christian Marriage. Where exactly is the conflict? We may be forgiven for thinking that this is a matter of Legal vs Christian, but on reflection I've come to the view that this is not really the case. In fact, the primary debate is what legitimately belongs in the Cultural and how the Legal is being used to implicitly affirm or exclude. More on that next time...
P.S. For those wanting some concrete examples of the differences between Cultural and Legal Marriage, here is a link to an episode of one of my favourite podcasts which deals with ancient Roman wedding customs. The presenter doesn't use these categories, but he does outline clearly the differences between who Could and who Should have married in the Roman period. Plus, it is interesting to see how some of the ancient practices have adapted and persisted into the modern era. Enjoy!