Voices > Soul Food

Selling our birthright

The culture shifts, but the church does not have to go along

Issue: "Day scare," Jan. 10, 1998

A clean line was drawn over the airwaves. The caller, presumably a lesbian, was attacking the basic definitions and foundations of society. (Booooo!) The talk show host was defending the standard of traditional marriage. (Yaaaaay!) Marriage is personal and private, she claimed. No it isn't, he countered, or not entirely. It's also a public commitment with legal ramifications. But two people in love, she whimpered. If they're in love, it's cruel not to let them ... Then where do you stop? he asked. Three people in love? A man and his dog in love? A brother and sister in love? She lobbed sickly, sentimental volleys that just cleared the net; his returns were swift and firm, with a satisfying thunk. "Well," she said finally, all her arguments stalling on that one little word. "Well ... if marriage is such a sacred commitment, how come there's so much divorce among heterosexuals?"

Thunk. From the twice-divorced host, a rare half-second of silence. True, it was diversionary, maybe a bit nasty, and not quite on the point. The main argument is that "gay marriage" is still a contradiction in terms, an affront and a stab to the heart of ordered society. Snide comments about hetero divorce are mere ad hoc distractions. Or are they?

We like to defend our standard by pointing to the definition of marriage. "Look it up in any dictionary," we say. "It's always defined as the legal union between one man and one woman." But definitions are not airtight, nor (in the secular arena) are they delivered once for all. For society as a whole, definitions evolve over time in response to popular usage, new thought patterns, and pressures both political and social.

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In the secular tradition, marriage was established as a heterosexual union for the children's sake, for conceiving and raising them, and ensuring paternity so that titles and property could continue through generations. Marriage also offered protection to women and stability to men. But aside from its heterosexual character, the definition of marriage varied throughout the ancient world: Polygamy was acceptable in the East, divorce common in the West. When Christ established his church, a biblical definition of marriage was established with it: the legal union of one man and one woman for life. Although agape love was supposed to characterize such a union between believers, romantic love was not considered the sole justification, or even the most important one.

For the state, marriage composed the foundation for political stability; for the church, it was the core institution for the rearing of successive godly (or at least churchly) generations. For practical if not spiritual reasons, church and state agreed on this standard for at least 1,700 years. The idea of marriage as a lifelong commitment dug into western consciousness until divorce was unthinkable except in cases of extreme violence or perversion, and perhaps not even then. Some couples lived in misery, some in contentment, and the vast majority learned to make the best of their situation, accepting happiness and misery in turn. On their humble shoulders, Europe climbed more or less steadily out of the Dark Ages and into a dominance not only of worldly power but also of invention and ideas.

One of those ideas was the galloping individualism pioneered by Rousseau, popularized by the Romantics, and given a "scientific" polish by Darwin. This rising self-consciousness has led to an increasing appetite for personal satisfaction at the expense of personal responsibilities.

Traditional marriage was one of the last holdouts against individualism, but when it collapsed in the West, it collapsed with stunning speed and a resounding crash: almost a millennium in the making, scarcely a generation in the fall.

Definitions are painfully constructed, thoughtlessly squandered. Although secular influences have precipitated our culture's headlong charge toward easy divorce, the responsibility for maintaining a biblical definition of marriage rests with the visible church.

In this issue as in many others the church has followed rather than led, accepting society's judgment of romantic love and self-fulfillment as the rationale for marriage. By destroying half the definition (lifelong commitment), we have undermined the other half. When the perceived cultural imperatives of a heterosexual union (such as passing down land or title) no longer apply, the door to such aberrations as "gay marriage" stands wide open.

Should we be surprised?

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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