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.”