“I Do” Three Ways

It was about seven years ago when I told my girlfriend (now wife) I believed two of the most important questions I will have to answer in the near future are:

  • “How do you feel about women preaching in church?” and
  • “What do you believe about homosexuality?”

I’ve been thinking about those questions ever since. Mind you, this was before every other addition to the blogosphere was tagged “homosexuality.” So I’d like to think I was ahead of the curve! At the least, I made a lucky guess… All I knew was that both of these simple-and-yet-potent questions revolve around issues of gender, power, sexuality, religion, and what it means to be human… All at the same time! A hyper-static combination, if you ask me! Anthropology is always anything but simple. To answer either of these two questions is to give a hint to many other answers lurking in the background.

Finally after all these years I’m getting around to answering those questions myself, in my own words. For me, the following is the first step: Constructing as best I can a delineation of the three primary ways people in our society view marriage. A delineation like this is helpful for me personally because when I can see the primary definitions of marriage side-by-side I can then more effectively contemplate which view I am most drawn to, and why. At the end of the day, I can’t even begin to answer the above two questions until I answer the most basic question implicit in both and which illuminates the others: What should I mean when I say, “Marriage” (and why?)? ALL else is just shadows and dust.

When people ask me either of the “women in ministry” or “homosexuality” questions, they are (usually without knowing it) primarily asking me what I think it means to be human. Of course, almost no one knows how to immediately answer that question, for good reason. Reticence is appropriate here. This isn’t only a controversial question – this is a basic question! It’s likely this is the very reason my heart starts beating faster every time the topic comes up. When I answer these questions – I’m not just talking about a particular gender or a particular sexual orientation. I’m talking about what I think it means to be human. And that is one of the most difficult and important questions to answer.

But, like I said, no one really knows how to adequately begin to address such an overwhelming question, especially in a line or two. Especially me. Yet I want to. At least, I’d like to try. So for the sake of the questioner, I have to strategize. I ask myself, “How should I go about answering this complex question?” And moreover, how can I answer that more basic question… the question behind the question that must be answered in order to answer the question that started it all?! Well, it seems to me, if you want to make progress with me on this point – ask me what I believe marriage is, and why. In order to answer this question, I have to put my anthropology to use. This isn’t just ethics, it’s applied ethics. This is where my unconscious bias’, my abstract hypothesizing, and my subjective-limited experiences can be seen as they really are. This benefits everyone, even me. Thus, me explaining what I believe about marriage will not only help you understand where I’m going with the other two questions, but the answer to this question will help you understand why I answer the other questions the way I do. Essentially, reflecting on what we believe marriage is will help us to reflect on what is its purpose – and this helps us to answer all the tertiary questions that are a part of the entire anthropological equation. So this is where I have to start:

Three Mutually Exclusive Definitions of Marriage:

The Traditional (Conjugal) View of Marriage: Marriage is an emotional, bodily and spiritual union of peoples distinguished by its comprehensiveness (begun by consent and sealed by sexual intercourse) and thus inherently flows toward procreation and out into the wide sharing of family life and to lifelong fidelity. This is a relationship that calls for permanence and exclusivity.

Potential Strengths: 

  • This is the overwhelming majority view that has long informed the laws, literature, art, philosophy, religion and social practice of human civilization.
  • When followed, history shows this type of marriage relationship is good (most social scientists would say ideal) for children, spouses, and the greater community.
  • Very structured…clear expectations, requirements and limitations. This is why in this view marriage must be limited to one man and one woman since marriage is defined as a relationship that inherently brings organic bodily unity. Organic unity (as expressed in coitus) is only possible between one man and one woman at the same time.
  • This view sees marriage as most importantly fulfilling the dual need of companionship and what that leads to: The need of families to be dedicated to another for the sake of the public good. In an increasingly isolationist age, one can appreciate this notion purely for its aim.
  • Marriage is a public institution for the common good so marriage is meant to benefit not just spouses, but the entire community.

Potential Weaknesses:

  • Represents a somewhat old-fashioned and antiquated understanding of love.
  • Exclusivistic. In this understanding, no such thing as different “types” of marriage. Vis-a-vis Aristotelian logic, proponents of this definition argue there is no such thing as “gay marriage” since no gay peoples can fully “unite organically” in coitus and thus there is no true biological coordinational good of the parties formed in the act of sex. Lack of coordination toward a single (at least hypothetically) procreative end = lack of an aspect inherently required for marriage to be what a marriage is – that is, a comprehensive union. So there is no such thing as a marriage between anyone else besides one man and one woman.
  • It doesn’t actually work too well – consider current divorce rates.
  • Perhaps companionship is overrated. It certainly doesn’t always feel good. At least not when it’s always with the same person.
  • Does not speak of the importance of the individual desires or satisfaction level of both individuals.

The Revisionist (Progressive) View of Marriage: Marriage is a loving emotional bond distinguished by its intensity. It is sealed via a publicly recognized contract. This bond needn’t go beyond the partners and fidelity is based on one’s own desires within the arrangement. The goal for each person involved is personal fulfillment.

Potential Strengths: 

  • Reminds us that an “ought” should not necessarily be derived from an “is.” More specifically, just because marriage has not traditionally been understood this way doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be understood this way in the future.
  • Allows more freedom by theoretically opening up the door to all sorts of loves within marriage. This is polyamory at its finest. If marriage is an emotional union which fosters emotional activities, and if emotional activities are increased with more people, then why limit marriage to only two people (or to two people of the opposite sex)? As well, why privilege a permanently committed relationship if that type of relationship is less immediately emotionally fulfilling? Available here are many more avenues for fulfilling emotional fulfillment within the marriage contract itself!
  • Highlights the importance of pleasure and delight within a marriage relationship since it is these things which are the foundation of the marriage in the first place.
  • Less pressure to have children and less stigma when you don’t, since in this definition procreation is not basic to a marriage or its purposes.
  • Definition is very flexible/maleable. In this view, things like, organic bodily union; an orientation to procreation; permanence and exclusivity are all merely optional to the marriage agreement. Openness and flexibility are the shining descriptors of this viewpoint.
  • Since self-fulfillment is an end goal everything can be discerned through that lens. Allows each person to wield ultimate autonomy and demand centrality even within a marriage relationship of two parties.

Potential Weaknesses: 

  • Loss of inherent connection between marriage and raising children. As the connection between marriage and parenting is obscured, it would diminish the social pressures and incentives for spouses to stay with their children. The overwhelming evidence from the best and most current psychological, sociological and biological research shows this is not a move in the right direction since under most circumstances it is most advantageous to parents, children, and the greater society when children are able to live with both of their biological parents.
  • Lack of inherent gender differentiation within marriage can lead to a diminished understanding of the differing gifts each gender usually provides to children.
  • Could potentially lead to a drought of deep friendship. If marriage is simply a more intense degree of friendship, then unmarried people could be seen as not just different, but as less (or at the least, as settling for less). This view of marriage cannot distinguish marriage from companionship besides in degree.
  • On this view, we are allowing the government to regulate friendships – albeit intense ones. Most are not comfortable with the implications.
  • Potentially turns marriage into a self-centered system that mirrors the individualistic goals of Western societies. When one makes happiness the objective of a relationship, the other person is often reduced to an object whose purpose is to produce happiness.
  • Relational aspect of sex diminished. In this thought-world sex is primarily a vehicle for self-expression or self-actualization. Sex is a way to be biologically served, but not so much a way to emotionally serve another. At what point is another person minimized into being defined by their ability to pleasure the other? In this model, how do we make sure sex is not simply a vehicle for simply self-gratification which often leads to exploitation of the other?

The Biblical View of Marriage: Marriage is first-and-foremost a sacred spiritual metaphor. Defined in Scripture as the monogamous union of a male and a female in a lifelong covenant to one another which is to be characterized by fidelity, sacredness, exclusivity and an ongoing dialectic of sameness and difference. This relationship is a model of mystery since it reflects both the relationship of divine love within the Trinity and the covenantal love God initiates with all people. In essence, marriage is to be a picture of the Gospel of God. Through it God intends to expand His community and increase the Kingdom of God on earth for the sake of all peoples everywhere.

Potential Strengths: 

  • Takes marriage beyond a companionship model to a partnership model. In this model spouses are free to love each other in a spirit that is completely self-giving and hence able to love and enjoy the other person without fear of rejection, abuse or domination or without having to put either of the two parties in the center of the relationship.
  • Not reliant on inward commitment or outward act, but is based on and survives through each person living for the God who loved them first.
  • Releases the marriage partners from the sexual performance orientation characteristics of contemporary society. Although sex is to be a major aspect of this type of marriage it isn’t what cements it. It is a celebration of what it already represents.
  • In this view the responsibility of marriage is inherently other-focused and is less obsessed with distinctions such as “married,” “single,” or “divorced” since all humans no matter their status have a similar mandate for life.
  • Commitment to the family of God and to individual transformation is central to this story, not self-fulfillment or immediate happiness.
  • This view does not offer a choice between fulfillment and sacrifice but rather mutual fulfillment through mutual sacrifice (Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, 47).

Potential Weaknesses:

  • Inherently religious. No laws could or should be based on such a definition.
  • Could not be applied very widely because this view assumes the parties involved believe Scripture has the final word on such topics. Most people don’t believe that.
  • Not enough stress on the personal needs of each person in the relationship. At the least, this is inconvenient.
  • Heavily theoretical. Not necessarily the most practical way of looking at things.
  • “Close-minded” – This definition follows the definition of Scripture. But should our modern cultures be beholding to such an ancient view as this?
  • But where do I fit in all of this? Sure, hypothetically, it’s good if a good God is happy with my life. But isn’t marriage also about ME? Could this view lead to a tendency to individuals getting  “walked on” for the greater good of society?

Which definition do YOU prefer, and why? That is the question we all must ask. The rest is all just shadows and dust!