On safeguarding marriage  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , ,

The February 2011 Harper’s Magazine noted two facts that on their face seem contradictory, but on reflection make a great deal of sense. On the one hand, there is a 1 in 2 chance “that an unmarried American under thirty says marriage is ‘becoming obsolete.’” That is hardly a new finding—I’ve heard the identical thing from young adults for years—but it is worth noting. On the other hand, Harper’s notes of those respondents, “Chances that he or she wants to get married: 19 in 20.” This too is not new information, but important if we are to understand our neighbors.

I am a Trinitarian, which means I believe that relationship is part of the very fabric of reality, essential to what is really real. We were made for community, for relationship because we are made in the image of the one God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This means God did not have to create to have a relationship, since he is in relationship from all eternity. So, as his image bearers, no matter how much we idealize individualism we yearn for community, and we cannot stop that yearning. And even when those relationships have proven disappointing and have painfully fragmented we yearn for them because to be alone is not, as God has noted, “not good,” and that is something that resonates deep within our souls.

I often hear that as a Christian I must rally behind political efforts in defense of marriage in order to guarantee that society defines marriage only as the union of one man and one woman. I hear that if this is not done marriage itself will decline in significance for the next generation.

This is something that begs to be discussed as an exercise in discernment. So, to do that, I will assume a position opposing this proposition with five points—and invite your comments.

My first point is that I’ll need a better reason to get involved in this political effort because the decline of marriage’s significance is old news. It’s already happened. And the idea that passing some law or amending the Constitution will halt that decline seems to me to be highly doubtful at best.

I would add, second, that I suspect passing some law or amending the Constitution will have a distinct effect, namely, it will bring the gospel into disrepute. The effort will be seen, not as a stand for truth or for something that is natural to human flourishing, but merely as a power play by Christians to impose their preferences and values on everyone, including those who do not share their beliefs.

Third, when I need the proper definition of marriage I will turn to Scripture and the church, not the State. I understand the historical sequence of events that led to the present moment so that church leaders (pastors and presbyters) are agents of the State when officiating at wedding ceremonies. Things have changed since that unfolded, however, and now we find ourselves living in a pluralistic society where a number of different definitions are applied to what is considered a true “marriage.” In such a setting, fighting in the public square for a biblical definition of marriage to be the law of the land seems to me to be an unwise choice. We would be better served, it seems to me, to quietly insist that it is the church not the State that is the proper authority to define marriage and to act accordingly. And this might require us to refuse to act as agents in officiating at weddings, insisting instead the State recognize legally those the church declares married. The traditional Christian ceremony of marriage begins with an affirmation: “The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.” The State, in this understanding, is entirely secondary. If the State happens to agree with Scripture and the church, fine and good, but if not, so what?

Four. I would challenge the notion that mistaken definitions of marriage by the State will weaken the institution of marriage. Have we perhaps been seduced by modernity to think too highly of the State? History shows that opposition by the State strengthens the church and we have no reason to believe it will be different this time. Yes, it is true that many in society whose morality is reduced to what is legal will be so affected—but their problem, from a Christian perspective is not primarily a mistaken understanding of marriage but the fact they have made the State into an idol.

And finally, I would argue we should concentrate on modeling loving relationships between husbands and wives before a watching world. Our goal should be to so strengthen Christian marriages that secularists and other non-Christians, yearning for healthy unions in a broken world, look around for models to follow and are shocked to discover it is Christians—who would have imagined that!—who lead the way. This would require much grace and much effort, since sadly, this is not at present the case. If by grace we begin to be such a model, we need to be certain that when they come to ask us about it, they will hear about the gospel of grace, not techniques for successful relationships.

And that, this alternative perspective would argue, is the best way to safeguard and commend marriage in a pluralistic and broken world. What do you think?

Sources: “Harper’s Index” in Harper’s (February 2011) page 11; Genesis 2:18.

This entry was posted at Tuesday, April 10, 2012 and is filed under , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


I like what you've said, though I tend to either agree with or be instructed by you, so perhaps not the dialogue you're looking for.

But I'm even more impressed by the articulateness of what you haven't said in constructing these points.

April 10, 2012 at 10:58 AM

Thanks for your kind words.

April 10, 2012 at 12:55 PM

Fascinating. So, just for the sake of argument, mind you, I'll assume a position, too.

To wit. Dear brother, you are guilty of a using an old debating trick: the false dichotomy, otherwise known as the either/or fallacy.

Either I get a better reason to engage my culture on this issue or I don't need to get involved; either I amend the constitution and bring the gospel into disrepute or I stand on natural law; either I turn to the Scriptures or to the state; either I make the state my idol or retreat into the church; either I strengthen marriages or engage in politics.

Are those really my only options?

April 10, 2012 at 2:11 PM

Greg, my good friend.
Your post made me remember all those times we'd be at your house, or mine, we'd talk, and argue and yell at each other, laugh and then go trout fishing. Such sweet memories. Miss you.

But to your rebuttal. So clever of you, but in fact I have a solid position behind my opening statement, which was designed to get the conversation going. To wit, We live in a pluralistic and globalized culture, and one in which both processes are increasing with no sign of slowing down. This setting calls for a shift in our efforts in the public square because working for the public good (essential for just governance) will mean we cannot merely seek to promote what is best for our (evangelical) tribe. So, in fact we will find that these colossal changes in our culture do seem to present dilemmas for us, which will need to be resolved by going back to basics.

To take your last point as an example: the position I am adopting would argue we must strengthen marriages and model true community/relationships because it is central to our calling as God's people. In this way we become what Schaeffer called a "pilot plant." AND we engage in politics, not to ensconce our beliefs into law but to work open-heartedly for the common good for all. This may, in terms of marriage law, require compromises that to our biblical understanding of marriage, but we need not fear that since we will also be working to promote the understanding that the State is not supreme in all things, and must not be allowed to position itself such.

Now, yell and then let's meet in Chatfield and catch some trout.

April 11, 2012 at 2:10 PM

Thank you for your post and the thoughtful conversation it is sure to provoke. It leaves me with some questions as to the scope of what you are addressing.
-Is your intent to focus mainly on whether Christians have an obligation to see such legislation made? I ask because I would understand that the governing authorities do have a responsibility to hold up God's created order (whether they recognize it or not) and the creation norm of marriage would seem to be part of the civil order they are called to uphold (as opposed to something like orthodoxy on the doctrine of atonement). I take your blog not as an "out" or pass for civil authorities, but as a reordering of Christian priorities in how they seek to address the issue of marriage (i.e. If your hope for marriage is in the state's authority, then you are vacating Christian responsibility to faithful witness and making the state your Savior). Have I understood your thrust correctly?

Then generally, and to the commenting audience, what are the some helpful means of demonstrating sexual obedience and marital fidelity to a watching world?

April 12, 2012 at 8:45 AM

I wasn't shouting this time, brother. I promise. To tell you the truth I wasn't even certain this was a position you actually hold, but rather yet another of your "discernment exercises". And in my response I wasn't rejecting the proposal per se as much as responding to the way the proposal was made.

When I was a good pietistic young man I was told all sorts of things would bring the gospel into disrepute. For example when I was 17 I was told that quitting the high school football team would do this. I know it sounds ridiculous, but in small town Alabama where football is king, rejecting football meant fewer people took you seriously on any subject, including the gospel.

Of course, the gospel itself didn't suffer by my choice, but my credibility did, at least in the eyes of some people. Which brings me to what I think to be an important distinction.

What really brings the gospel into disrepute? Hypocrisy, saying one thing and doing another. Even post-moderns see it as toxic. Touting the sanctity of marriage while getting divorced really does bring the gospel into disrepute.On the other hand,if I take a position that is biblically sound but socially unpopular, I may be thought disreputable, but that's quite a different thing.The first type of disrepute is defined by the Lord, the second by our culture. The first I'm called to avoid as if it really is toxic. The second? Well, lets just say, disrepute- like beauty- is very much in the eye of the beholder.

Which brings me back to the subject at hand: should I do what I can to strengthen marriages? Sure. It's one of the hardest jobs I face in my role as elder. Should I work to redeem and restore how our culture views marriage, legally and in the media? Sure, but the toughest question you raised is, "How?" That's the question that is most practical, most interesting, most important, most divisive, and, of course, the most fun to discuss. Thanks again for raising it.

Alas! There are no trout in Texas!


April 12, 2012 at 3:55 PM

I do apologize for not responding sooner to keep the conversation going. My excuse: wife in the hospital for six days while we were in CT, supposedly on vacation. Not what we expected. Thankfully, she is over her pneumonia and beginning to recover, our dear friend and assistant, Anita drove our car out there to help bring her home, and I am back at Toad Hall. Home never felt so good.

May 4, 2012 at 11:25 AM

Excellent questions and ideas.

It is true that government, as a sphere of creation made by God, is called to pursue justice, and true justice will never be contrary to God's word expressed in both creation and Scripture. That will certainly remain the Christian's concern as we attempt to be faithful as citizens within the political realm of life.

My concern in this blog post is to wrestle with the question of what Christian faithfulness looks like when the society has become so pluralistic that a biblical understanding of marriage becomes a minority view and perhaps is no longer used as the standard for legislation.

My proposal--which I suggested to encourage thoughtful debate--is that trying to achieve one good (a proper understanding of marriage in law) might become an impediment to a far greater good (a fair hearing for the gospel) if this political effort conflates Christian faith with a conservative political agenda. If the state misunderstands marriage that is sad, but hardly a tragedy since I look to the church to define it rightly.

So, no I am not giving the state a pass. I would urge church bodies--as the Roman Catholic bishops and my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America have done--to issue pastoral letters urging the state to do justice. But trying to use power politics to enforce a Christian understanding in law in a pluralistic culture, I am arguing, might prove to be counterproductive.


May 4, 2012 at 11:39 AM

Just realized I did not respond to your last question. It's a good one, how to demonstrate marital and sexual faithfulness to a watching world.

John Seel has correctly noted that most evangelical voices seem to argue for "famine": no sex before marriage, no sex for gays, the emphasis always on the No. Yet this is not how the Scriptures present human sexuality, where it is seen as a good gift of God and reflective of our relationship with him through Christ. So, we must change how we talk about it and teach on it.

With so many broken homes, mentoring of young adults with warm hospitality by flourishing couples must become a central ministry.

And Wesley Hill's fine book, Washed and Waiting, should get a wide reading.

Theses are just a few ideas, not a program.

May 4, 2012 at 11:49 AM


I have such sweet memories of those healthy, vigorous debates when we were younger. And the trout here remain rigorous, too.

Your example is not quite to the point, since it involves individual choices (which we will always face) versus the problem of having the gospel brought into disrepute because of a society-wide association of that gospel with a particular political ideology and party. In an online interview with CT Ross Douthat says "it has to be possible to be Christian on contentious cultural issues without making it seem like Christianity is just an appendage of the Republican Party." That gets to my point, and the concern behind my proposal.

If the question is, might faithfulness lead to disrepute in the eyes of the world? Then the answer is Yes, and I don't think much discussion on the point is necessary. My question is, can disrepute occur needlessly because the gospel is in bed with a political agenda that obscures the gospel without solving the issue behind the political concern? Again, my answer is Yes.

Trying to wrestle with what that means is the hard part.

May 7, 2012 at 8:57 AM

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