This topic has wearied many, and the legal and political situation differs for readers in different places, but many pastors and leaders who read our ideas feed at GoThereFor.com continue to indicate that equipping their people to understand and speak when the topic of marriage definition comes up is one of their most pressing needs.
This article has been adapted from Sandy’s speech as the mover of a motion defending the classic biblical understanding of marriage, which passed overwhelmingly at last October’s Synod of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.
God is the ultimate marriage celebrant. Our Prayer Book marriage services—the only services by which Anglican clergy are authorized to conduct marriages—says, “What God has joined together, let no-one put asunder”. These words are repeated after the couple’s vows as part of the minister’s declaration of marriage: “Those whom God has joined together let not man put asunder”. Indeed, if the couple chooses either the Gospel of Matthew or the Gospel of Mark as their Bible reading, you will hear those words for a third time!
God is the ultimate marriage celebrant. The union is not just a secular legal status; marriage existed before nation states and their laws. With marriage, we are talking about an absolute reality: it’s God who joins people together in marriage. A society can redefine marriage in its rhetoric and laws. But we cannot redefine the ultimate deep reality of marriage.
But what is biblical marriage?
If you want to know what Jesus thought about marriage, go to Matthew 19. As Creator and Lord, what he said is both right and very good for us. In context, Jesus was opposing easy divorce, but the heart of his answer in Matthew 19:4-6 showed that he viewed marriage as gendered and lifelong in intention:
He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
Here, Jesus quoted Genesis 1:27, going back to the way the world was wired up: God made humankind “male and female”. Jesus emphasized the two genders. Then he immediately quoted Genesis 2:24 to say that it’s for this reason—maleness and femaleness—that a man will leave his parents and marry a woman. These words make it clear that marriage is gendered. The one alternative Jesus gave is singleness and celibacy, which he exemplified. (The most together man who ever lived was single!)
There is a second essential part to the Bible’s view of marriage: marriage is inherently oriented towards children. Sex is for making you close as a couple—and for making you parents. It’s worth noting that the verse immediately following Genesis 1:27 (which Jesus refers to in Matthew 19:4) is the verse where God blessed the man and woman and directed them to be fruitful and increase in number (Gen 1:28). The oneness that sex brings to spouses in marriage has a direct connection to God’s desires for the next generation (see Mal 2:14-16).
Children are not an afterthought. We must never accept the way some people speak of children—as though they are an optional lifestyle choice, whose costs are weighed against career and travel ambitions. We care about marriage for the good order of society and, especially, the welfare of children.
There is one other reason Christians believe marriage is special: in the Bible, a husband’s love for his wife is an analogy of God’s love for his people. Now I know this is a belief particular to Christians, but marriage is sacred since it reflects the gospel truth that as a loving groom, Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, presenting her as a radiant bride (Eph 5:25-27). Clearly in this relationship, the two parties are not identical or mirror images in their identity or roles.
But how do we defend this classic view of marriage? Here are some tips.
Now more than ever we need to defend marriage within our churches. Recall that our youth have never known a time when family break-up is anything else but typical (though sad). Remember that sex before marriage is generally encouraged in society. Understand that society sees homosexuality as perfectly normal. So we need to encourage with compassion those with gay relatives, promiscuous children or failed relationships about the truth and goodness of the biblical vision for marriage.
Also recall that post-puberty, celibacy will be the normal way of life for all Christians for some and even many periods of their lives. We need to teach that sexual expression is not the essence of identity. As humans, we are God’s image-bearers, precious to him. We are male and female, married or single. Most importantly of all, if we are believers, we are children of God—brothers and sisters of Christ.
We need to have zero tolerance for the bullying of anyone we deem immoral. They are no more immoral than we are. In fact, they are just like us. For example, I am sure that most gay fathers and lesbian mothers want to be the best they can for their children. Heterosexual parents can stuff up big time too. In encouraging us to pray to God as a heavenly Father, Jesus himself said, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11). In other words, most fallen parents try to do their best for the kids.
Remember that the same Lord Jesus who challenged the woman caught in adultery about her life of sin also protected her from the stone-throwing bullying of the self-righteous (John 8:1-11). Disapproval of actions does not need to mean harshness or personal rejection. In addition, deep compassion and true kindness does not require us to approve a morality that we know the Bible identifies as sin.
No child should be picked on, full stop. Children are rightly taught at school that it doesn’t matter if another kid’s parents are gay, single or divorced; Muslim, hippies or Jehovah’s Witnesses; poor or rich upper class twits. There is never any good reason to bully or pick on each other.
Research advanced by lobbyists say that kids raised in same-sex partnerships do no worse than other kids (see, for example, the Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex Families—ACHESS). Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd trumpeted this research when he announced his change of mind a couple of years ago. I say read the research methods for yourself: ACHESS only went for a couple of years, so it has no longitudinal validity, which should be critical in studying child development and welfare. But you don’t hear any cautions in the results the study is already claiming. Yet its methodological limits included non-random sampling, with self-reporting from self-selecting participants from targeted gay and lesbian communities, a small sample size and no proper control group. Honest researchers should know it’s ethically dubious to claim that this study proves kids raised by same-sex couples are happier and healthier than others (as the Washington Post headline suggests!)
In contrast, Mark Regnerus’s paper in the July 2012 edition of the peer-reviewed journal Social Science Research reveals (from studying large, random, population-based samples) that children do best as adults on multiple counts and across a variety of domains when they spend their entire childhood with their married mother and father, who are in an intact relationship, compared to all other family situations. He himself notes some limits to his work. But Sydney University Professor of Law Patrick Parkinson’s review of the literature, For Kids’ Sake, also showed that on average and against all other family types that it has been possible to measure against fairly, kids do best when raised by their own mother and father in an intact relationship. This is a social good that public policy, like our marriage institution and laws, should model and encourage.
There are signs that people who are not Christian agree with this idea too: recently, feminist Germaine Greer decried the marginalization of motherhood implied by gay parenting. Even Elton John, despite being in a gay marriage, previously admitted that for his son, who was born via donor egg and surrogate mother, “It’s going to be heartbreaking for him to grow up and realize he hasn’t got a mummy” (source).
The new tolerance (so-called) demands that no-one disagree with current political correctness. But tossing accusations of bigotry just chills free speech. It may silence people, but it doesn’t change anyone’s heart. We need the old tolerance—that is, disagreeing peacefully and defending the right of those you disagree with to hold their own views. We must advocate that any political compromise should have robust protections of freedom of conscience and religion, not just for clergy, but for public servants in marriage registries and for those involved in the wedding industry. I commend those discussions by, for example, former Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson who, although in a gay partnership himself, wants Christians and others to have significant freedom to follow their convictions lawfully.
Nevertheless, I also say to Christians, “Get used to being called a bigot. Following Jesus has never been easy. Have courage.” In a vigorous democracy, we have freedom to express our views. We need to accept that sometimes people are rude and aggressive. Our job is to speak the truth in love.
But isn’t it said that we can’t or shouldn't legislate morality for unbelievers? Friends, marriage is a creation ordinance: it belongs to all human society, not just the church. As those with dual citizenship (in heaven, but also on earth), like the exiles in Babylon, we seek the welfare of the cities in which we find ourselves in (Jer 29:7). And the classic view of marriage is good for everyone, especially for children.
In God’s providence, he has placed us in a democracy that invites us to participate in the political process—as citizens who are free to be Christians! So write to your politicians. Be clear, cogent, polite and concise. (The Social Issues Executive Committee has some good suggestions on how and what to write.) State the biblical reasons for your beliefs as plainly and as clearly as you can. But alongside that, try to give an account that supplies plausible reasons independent of religion for upholding the conjugal view of marriage. In addition, pray for those in authority, including and especially those you disagree with. (1 Tim 2:1-2; cf. Rom 13:1-7).
Why defend classic marriage? Here’s my 30-second Daily Telegraph version of the argument: Redefine marriage and you redefine family. Legislating for same-sex marriage institutionalizes and even idealizes the denial of a child’s own mother or father. And that’s not fair.