Tuesday, May 07, 2013


Most of the problems Christians have in society over the concept of marriage is due to the fact that what society (in general) calls marriage and what Christians call marriage are two very different things with exactly the same name. I'd suggest almost all of our problems surrounding marriage stem from the pathetic failure of the Church to affirm or delineate this difference, even to its members.

For Christians, yes, marriage is a safeguarding of sex - there's no way to get around it. We believe (even if our forefathers didn't, or at least didn't practice) that sex is best expressed in marriage. Now, I've only had sex with one person, so I'll readily admit my perspective on this is mostly theoretical. At the same time, when I did find that person to whom I'm married, I immediately regretted all of the physical intimacy I shared with other women. I did not regret those actions because they were wrong, per say, but because that intimacy is not something I can ever get back and I long to share all of my intimacy with this person I chose to marry.

Before we walk too far down this road, we must also caution against the overemphasis on virginity as one's primary value. Christians have screwed up here more often than just about anywhere else. We've so overemphasized the importance of abstinence that it's become an impossible dream, leading those who do have sex before marriage to just give up on the idea of chastity altogether since the mystical wall of sin had been broken. It's also caused a ton of hurt and pain for those people who've had no choice in the matter. How is an abuse victim supposed to feel if they're now damaged or broken in some way that others aren't?

So when I say I regret it, I say it not from the sense of guilt, but more as determination for the future, as one of many obstacles to be overcome in marriage. I think (hope) this reverses the stigma, making those intimate experiences we chose for ourselves more difficult than those chosen for us - at least that's the way it should be. And for the record, during most of my teenage years, if I could have figured out how to get myself into situations where sex was possible, I would have done it as often as I could. This is only a principled stand by accident and in retrospect.

All of that to say, sex is more than something physical. It is a sharing of one's self with another in ways that cannot be undone, only overcome. I suspect these effects can be lessened by increasing anonymity and avoiding emotional connections; I'm just not convinced the effects can be avoided entirely. Are we evolutionarily predisposed to multiple partners? Probably. It makes a lot of sense in perpetuating the species. At the same time, there's a lot of things to which we're predisposed that aren't all that great for us (like our insatiable need to consume salt, fat, and sugar).

But, of course, defining Christians marriage as the appropriate venue for sex doesn't make much sense on its own. Christian marriage isn't primarily about sex at all. Marriage, at least in ways it has developed in Christian history, is our attempt to embody the relationship God has for God's creation - that of absolute, self-sacrificial love.

Christian marriage is not about falling in love, it's not about fulfillment, it's not about happiness - although, hopefully, it does involve those things. When Christians get married, it's about finding another person you're reasonably convinced is committed to the marriage not someone who's committed to you. Our emotions and sexual drive often get in the way, which is why Christians submit their marriages to the Church for approval. We're not often (rarely, maybe never) the best ones to understand what's best for us; we rely on others for that input and give up, in some sense, our freedom to those who care about us and the Christian witness our marriage becomes to the world.

I think I lucked into this. I didn't have any of this understanding of marriage when I got married. I loved my (now) wife and I was committed to doing so even if it meant giving up everything that made me happy. That's already a step ahead of most people (most Christians even), but I didn't have any clue what we were doing or why it mattered if other people approved.

I'm married to my wife, but I couldn't really say I'm committed to her as much as I'm committed to marriage. If this relationship is an imaging of the self-giving love of God, it trumps all those times where I don't like my wife very much, when she's selfish or stupid or mean. I'm choosing to love her through those times not because of her, but because of what it says about God and ultimate reality.

I'm far more selfish and stupid than my wife will ever be, yet I'm quite confident she's committed to marriage and not to me - otherwise she would have left a long time ago.

Love is a choice. That's something we forget. Attraction or fondness or whatever we call the emotion that drives two people together (I like LUV!) is not love. You really can't base a marriage on LUV! That's something few people understand - Christians or otherwise - and likely why divorce rates are so high, again among Christians or otherwise.

It doesn't sound exciting or sexy or all that attractive. Marriage really isn't. It's messy and far more complicated than we could ever imagine.

Notice I haven't said anything about who can or should be allowed into a marriage. There's certainly some theological considerations to be made there (and not entirely of the orientation variety), but it's awfully futile to even begin them until we've gotten the first part of this down - and we certainly haven't. Not yet.

So when someone says western society has royally screwed up marriage as an institution, well they're absolutely right and also incredibly wrong. We've made marriage something it was never intended to be. The institution of marriage can and does remain strong for those who take seriously what it is supposed to be. Of course, that is a Christian perspective coming from Christian assumptions. There's no reason for someone whose assumptions differ to agree.

It seems like this dichotomy is behind all our consternation over marriage. Whether it was no-fault divorce in the 60's or gay marriage today, people, especially Christians are uncomfortable with the way marriage is being defined. I'd argue that has more to do with Christians losing a Christian understanding of marriage than it does with government or society losing it's way. You can't legislate love or LUV! You can't force a definition of marriage on anyone. At the same time, our (as in humanity's) track record hasn't been great. Perhaps it's time to understand the institution of marriage a different way?

1 comment:

Philip Heap said...

Insightful, carefully thought through and very helpful. Thank you Ryan for giving us your insights. I hope many will read and re post this article.