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marriageI’m concerned about evangelicals and marriage.

Don’t misunderstand. I don’t think we’re about to see a massive capitulation of evangelicals on same-sex marriage. There are good reasons to reject the notion that evangelicals will adopt revisionist interpretations of Scripture or abandon the global, historic witness of the Church.

What concerns me is the possibility of evangelicals “holding the line” on same-sex marriage while adopting virtually every other wrongheaded aspect of our culture’s view of marriage.

Just because most of the people in your congregation reject same-sex marriage does not mean that their vision of marriage is biblical. Many of the folks sitting in church pews every week are just as revisionist in their understanding of marriage as their friends with rainbow avatars on their Facebook. That’s why I’m less concerned about our churches caving on gay marriage and more concerned about evangelicals adopting the underlying, revisionist framework that makes same-sex marriage possible.

Same-sex marriage is only the tip of the spear when it comes to the differences between the biblical vision of marriage and cultural counterfeit. If we focus only on current legal challenges regarding marriage, we may overlook just how deeply formed we are by our surrounding culture in matters related to sexuality and marriage. We may miss the fact that we, too, view our relationships in individualistic and therapeutic terms. We may think we’re “safe” or “faithful” if we adopt the “right belief” about gay marriage, when in reality, we may be just as compromised as the rest of culture. We may take pride in ”holding down the fort,” while the fort has been hollowed out from the inside.

Just how has society’s view of marriage changed? Andrew Sullivan, one of the leading voices in the gay marriage cause, lays out several ways in which marriage has shifted in recent decades. Each of these shifts affects evangelicals.

1. Marriage as Temporary 

“From being a contract for life,” Sullivan writes, “[marriage] has developed into a bond that is celebrated twice in many an American’s lifetime.”

Sullivan is right to point out how, for many, marriage has become a means to serial monogamy rather than a lifelong partnership. The expectations and responsibilities of marriage have shifted as a result, which is why people no longer invest the vow “till death do us part” with the same significance and meaning it once had. Neither do people expect their families, friends, churches, or governmental institutions to hold them accountable to such a vow.

No surprise, then, that divorce is more common, prenuptial agreements shield people from financial losses, and “wed-leases” codify the idea that marriage is something to opt in or out of – a temporary arrangement.

A century ago, G. K. Chesterton wrote against those who wanted Christians to relax their standards on divorce and remarriage:

“The broad-minded are extremely bitter because a Christian who wishes to have several wives when his own promise bound him to one, is not allowed to violate his vow at the same altar at which he made it.”

Today, violations of our vows are commonplace, even in the church. We find it hard to talk to people with marital troubles because we have adopted society’s notion that sexuality and marriage are “private matters,” and not to be interfered with by anyone else, including church members or leaders. We may have gotten better at helping people pastorally through the aftermath of divorce, but we have much to do if we are to improve the conditions that would make divorce unthinkable in the first place.

2. Marriage as Emotional Commitment

Sullivan points out another way that marriage has changed:

“From being a means to bringing up children, it has become primarily a way in which two adults affirm their emotional commitment to one another.” 

Here, Sullivan articulates the essence of the revisionist understanding of marriage, one that many Christians, perhaps unknowingly, would affirm, even if they would substitute “a man and a woman” for “two adults.” The revisionist vision of marriage holds that emotional commitment is the foundation for marriage. Since Obergefell, the government now gives approval and benefits to any two adults who demonstrate emotional and romantic feelings for one another and are willing to enter into this commitment.

No longer is marriage the public institution that seeks to protect the ideal situation of children being raised by their biological mother and father for the perpetuation of society. According to the revisionist definition, marriage is about finding “the one” – your “soul mate” – and living as companions for life.

Evangelicals are no less influenced by this idea than our unbelieving friends and neighbors. We, too, have adopted the myth that we are made complete only when we find that perfect person who fulfills all our desires. Unfortunately, placing this much hope in marriage crushes us with too many expectations, and it clouds our vision to the point we no longer see how the love that led us to enter the covenant of marriage is protected by that same covenant when the feeling of being “in love” has faded.

3. Marriage as Personal Expression

Sullivan goes on:

“From being an institution that buttresses certain previous bonds – family, race, religion, class – it has become, for many, a deep expression of the modern individual’s ability to transcend all of those ties in an exercise of radical autonomy.”

Here we see how the expressivist philosophy of our culture changes the way marriage is perceived: it’s about the couple, not about anyone else. We can spot traces of this view in evangelical churches, where weddings are increasingly viewed as the personal expression of the couple, not the moment for a community to witness to a lifelong vow and take responsibility for holding the couple accountable.

Andrew Walker and Eric Teetsel distinguish between “inward” and “outward” marriages:

“Inward” marriages look inwardly to a couple’s happiness. In contrast, an “outward” view of marriage looks outwardly toward the value that marriage brings to society. Now, neither of these categories requires one category being set against another—again, this isn’t an either/or. But this inward-focused, or “Happily Ever After,” view of marriage—a view that treats marriage as a sexual and solitary social unit—is a view that we’ve all passively consumed inside and outside the church.

The Task Before Us

We underestimate just how much cultural cultivation we have to do if we think success is just getting people to say “no” to same-sex marriage. We need the wider narrative of Scripture, and the bigger picture of marriage, if we are going to make sense of Christianity’s vision for family.

When we share the same undergirding ideas about marriage as the culture, the Christian’s “no” to same-sex marriage looks arbitrary and motivated by animus toward our LGBT neighbors rather than being a part of a comprehensive vision of marriage that counteracts our culture in multiple ways.

We are not called merely to reject wrong views of marriage; we are called to build a marriage culture where the glorious vision of complementarity, permanence, and life-giving union of a man and woman, for the good of their society, can flourish. Rebuilding a marriage culture must be more than lamenting the current state of the world at multiple conferences a year. It must include the strengthening of all our marriages within the body of Christ: from the truck driver, to the police officer, to the teacher, and the stay-at-home mom.

Success is not having church members say gay marriage “is wrong.” Success is when the Christian vision of marriage is so beautiful that revisionist definitions of marriage “make no sense.”


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17 thoughts on “Are Evangelicals More Revisionist on Marriage Than We Think?”

  1. Richard UK says:

    “Success is not having church members say gay marriage “is wrong.” Success is when the Christian vision of marriage is so beautiful that revisionist definitions of marriage “make no sense.”

    Exactly and thank you

    And this applies to so many other things too – a stand against pornography, against greed (the only chance we have to give away our money is between now and when we die), against anger (where you and your opponent bleed – how much better is a gentle but not patronising smile).

    Why do we wave the stick of the Law around each others’ ears, when we can resist, even puncture, temptation by creative, wholesome alternatives? Lack of imagination?

    an

  2. Doug says:

    Excellent post Trevin! I would add sterilized marriages to the list. With the introduction and widespread availability of “the pill” in the early 70s, Christians along with the rest of society in effect “redefined marriage” as simply a man and a woman. Malachi tells us God specifically made Adam and Eve one, for the purpose of raising up disciples for Christ—a holy seed. We need to recapture the vision. A one man-one woman union with the intentional aim of avoiding children is no more Scriptural than a two man union. Both are an affront to our Maker.

    1. Gladys says:

      So you are saying that a marriage without children is not valid before God? What about couples that get married past the age of childbearing is their marriage an afront to God,.

      a marriage is a union before God whether or not children come or not

  3. Curt Day says:

    There are multiple problems with this article. For one thing, it seems to me that what we are called to do, according to this article, is to force the above view of marriage on all others in society regardless of their faith. For how else can we possibly build the above desired culture of marriage than to reject marriage pluralism and both practice and promote marriage intolerance.

    So, how can we accomplish such a task in a society with not only so many who do not share our faith, but also so many who share our faith, but do not share the above definition of marriage? Do we understand the position in society we must have in order to successfully create that kind of marriage culture? Do we understand how in successfully creating that kind of marriage culture we must marginalize those who see marriage differently? We have to note that the desired goal expressed in the article above demands more of us than to just provide good examples ourselves.

    Second, have we notice the exclusive-or choices presented in this article: marriage is for the raising of children vs marriage is for affirming an emotional commitment to one another and marriage as personal expression vs marriage as a community witness to a lifelong vow? Why must these dichotomies exist?

    Just perhaps what we see in culture are pendulum swings between these choices so that an overemphasis on a mutual emotional commitment is the result of a previous overemphasis on marriage revolving around child rearing. A similar pendulum swing occurs between the overemphasis on personal expression vs the overemphasis on community witness to a lifelong vow. The overemphasis in one area creates a desert because of the deprivation in the other area.

    So building a proper marriage culture means more than changing laws or instilling the above views into the minds and hearts of fellow Christians. It also includes looking into the mirror to see how we might be sabotaging our own efforts by holding to faulty definitions of marriage which do not account for the delicate balancing act that is necessary in creating good marriages. That is what the above article misses.

  4. Margaret says:

    Seems to me that unless we, as Christians, have a comprehensive understanding of our covenant union with Christ, we cannot understand the significance of the covenant vows of marriage we have exchanged with a spouse. Only through the Holy Spirit’s power can we fulfill these vows and it is not easy to be married or to stay married. A good starting place to learn about the covenant of marriage and understanding the commitment of “for better or for worse” would be to look at God’s example of Hosea and Gomer. It is a beautiful picture of how God pursues us, his sinful spouse, to stay in covenant relationship to him. Married couples should strive to exhibit this level of commitment to loving a spouse, reflecting his example. Without understanding God’s commitment to us, how can we expect married couples to understand the actual commitment they have made to each other?
    Regarding our culture, we seem to have lost the concept of of the sanctity of marriage a long time ago. God “gave us over” to the “freedom” of slavery to sexual sin long ago and we have finally reached a point of degradation that has captured our attention. What now? The lines are being drawn in the sand. Are you going to be a committed Christian, being transformed, sanctified, taking every thought captive, seeking Him in his Word, as you go through each day in life? Or are you going to be lukewarm, fraternizing with secular worldviews that draw you away from the fellowship offered by the Holy Spirit residing in you? Repent, turn back to God, and hold fast, remembering who you are and who He is…then teach others the same.

  5. Adam Shields says:

    I really don’t think that Andrew Sullivan, as much as I have appreciated him as a blogger, is someone that is accurately describing the way that Evangelicals understand marriage.

    A couple problems with Wax’s assumptions. First, the temporary thing. Yes people get divorced. What has changed is not that people think that divorce is a good, but that people no longer think that being in an unhappy marriage is better. I do not think culture assumes that marriage is temporary. No one getting marriage (or almost no one) really thinks that marriage is or should be temporary.

    I also think that while Sullivan is right that emotional commitment has been added into marriage as a primary value, I don’t think that is the only value. After all if there was no societal value in marriage then what is the purpose of the push toward gay marriage. The institution is valuable in virtually everyone’s eyes whether they are for or against gay marriage. And we can look back at scripture (primarily Song of Solomon, but also other places) to see that emotional commitment has been one of the foundations of marriage from the beginning.

    I do think there is a point to the third ‘personal expression’ idea. But I wonder if that is not more about the marriage ceremony than the actual marriage itself.

    With the exception of low income and low education Americans, divorce has been dropping steadily. Yes less people are getting married now, but that seems to be at least partially because there are more options for women to be involved in society outside of traditional marriage roles.

    And regularly church attending adults that are at least college educated and not in poverty have pretty low divorce rates (between 10 and 20% for first marriage.)

  6. R. Tillotson says:

    Excellent article. Keep holding out the word of truth, TGC!

  7. Bobby says:

    I’d suggest that our treatment of singles within the church is a reasonable barometer of whether our theology of marriage is biblical. After all, in I Corinthians 7, Paul uphold singleness as preferable to marriage.

    Any survey of single evangelicals would suggest that evangelical marriages, by that metric, are in trouble. After all, I know of few single evangelicals who are happy in their church situations. That’s largely because we have accepted an inwardly focused view of the family, i.e., the Freudian concept of the “nuclear family.” But nothing in Scripture suggests that the marriage is intended to form a nucleus. To the contrary, Christian marriage ought to be outwardly focused and inviting to third parties. See Leithart’s piece, “Intrusive Third Parties,” which appeared in First Things a few years ago.

    I do think that evangelicals have revisionist view of marriage, but not the one that Sullivan suggests. Rather, evangelicals have largely accepted a view of marriage bequeathed to us by Freudian social theorists and popularized in the late 1940s and 1950s. This may be a better model of marriage than the pragmatic one that emerged in recent decades. But it’s just as unbiblical, and just as revisionist of the traditional Christian understanding of marriage.

    1. Doug says:

      Paul’s dialogue in 1 Corinthians 7 has been the source of much “revisionism” regarding marriage, such that it has been used to contradict the clear word of the Lord in Genesis: “It is not good for the man to be alone”. Perhaps Paul was not giving advice on marriage as many bible chapter titles suggest, but instead addressing innate sexual desire. The Lord infused sexual desire in men and women when He said “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”. Paul tells us how to deal with this infusion; get married, lest sexual desire inescapably force its way out in illicit ways. To those rare individuals whom the Lord has exempted from sexual desire, Paul recommends singleness. Paul no doubt describes marriage as laden with troubles for which singleness is exempt, I believe he says this to counter the tendency of romantics to overlook this reality when entering into a marriage relationship. Paul points out the thorns to strengthen their resolve. Christ does the same when he bids us to count the costs of following Him. Certainly Christ is not trying to turn us away.

  8. Michael Johnson says:

    Even more striking is how evangelicals totally ignore Jesus’ biblical teaching that remarriage after divorce is adultery. Pastors ignore this clear truth, Christian teachers and leaders just plain ignore it as well. As long as we tolerate divorced people remarrying, irrespective of the narrow Matthew exception, we lose our authority to object to ssm.

  9. Melissa says:

    I am so tired of people saying it is not ok to be in love or fall in love or wait for the right person. I can tell you that you can’t just pick a person and say hey you come over here and let’s do this thing called life together. While emotions may fade or change that does not mean that there isn’t a “person” that God wants you to be with, to enjoy His promises to the fullest and complete His will in the kingdom. I am thankful for the one that God brought me… I don’t think my life would be as peaceful and loving without him and GOD knew that, After 23 years, I know to be with anyone else I would have not been as complete on the journey following Jesus without his love, Like Christ’s love. It has brought us both closer to Christ. To hap haphazardly say hey you are a christian he is a christian get together.. is a bit scary to me.
    Of course marriage is more than emotional commitment but God made us to be attracted to a person and compatible with. If I chose what to others looked like the “Best Church Going Kid” around I would have been miserable. (he was a fake) God made emotions and has emotions.
    What would be the right thing to say.. is take this marriage thing seriously, between a man, woman and God. It is a covenant, not to be taken lightly. Do not give up when emotions fade or looks fade or money dries up or health crisis happen. Keep your eyes to yourself and they are to be only for your spouse. Don’t get involved emotionally with the opposite sex. Commit yourself to Christ and each other. But don’t just say hey you.. let’s do this thing.
    Marriage is special, singleness is special. In both we should seek God, what He wants to teach us to bring us closer to His Son, Jesus, in our actions, thoughts and words.
    If my marriage can be an example of love and commitment that brings others to Christ then I have done the best I can in this world. If my four kids can see that marriage is serious, commitment, hard work and never an option, that is to reflect God’s love to the world then I have done a good job. And Yes that means find a good christian guy or girl to commitment to, not just pick one out of the crowd.

  10. Gladys says:

    The article says “According to the revisionist definition, marriage is about finding “the one” – your “soul mate” – and living as companions for life.

    Though i don’t believe in a soul-mate, i do believe that their is probably the most one or two people that one can have a successfull lifelong fulfilling marriage with. I have spoken to people that have been married 2-3 times and eventually one of the marriages sticks for life because they finally find “the right person”.

    I do believe that thier is a “right” person for everyone, not a soul-mate, but a person that will be compatible enought to be able to make a lifelong commitment, that will just not work with anybody else.

    I have been married 19 years, my husband and i have a very smooth trouble free marriage. Why is that? We are well suited for each other, that is just the way it works.

    You can’t make a couple be compatible and you can’t make a hard marriage become easier. It either works or it does not, i have seen it a lot.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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