The New Purpose of Marriage
Don't like gay marriage? Don't get one. My gay marriage doesn't change anything about your straight marriage. We're not altering the definition of marriage; we're expanding it. These new rights don't take away yours. So don't try to deny them to us.
The startling rise in public approval for gay marriage depends on such simple appeals to intuition. Look at all these happy gay couples. Why not invite them to join the party and get married? It's not like straight couples have done such a good job of commending the institution. Besides, what consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedrooms is their business alone.
To our highly individualistic Western culture, only libertarian arguments make any sense, even to many Christians. Personally we might say homosexuality is a sin; but what right do we have to impose our values on anyone else? If they aren't harming anyone else, then who can deny their gay marriages equal protection under the law?
Such questions have put Christians and other religious and even secular moral conservatives on the defensive. So it's surprising that Liza Mundy in her new cover story for The Atlantic, "The Gay Guide to Wedded Bliss," would threaten to forfeit the tactical advantage of supposed neutrality. She argues that gay marriages tend to be happier and more intimate, so straights can learn from them. Mundy even acknowledges the critics may be correct after all that gay marriage will change marriage for everyone. All to the better, Mundy writes: "by providing a new model for how two people can live together equitably, same-sex marriage could help haul matrimony more fully into the 21st century."
What exactly does she mean by these changes for the better? She means most basically that gay marriages erode differences between the sexes. There are no gendered roles and responsibilities. Men who love caring for babies and doing the laundry should do what feels right. Women who don't like to cook should work late instead. She believes that when we unshackle marriage from traditional expectations, we'll make it more appealing to the growing number of young adults who forsake the institution altogether or delay it much later than previous generations. And same-sex couples are already making marriage cooler, she says, leading to "nuptial fever" and a rush to the altar.
But a new definition for marriage demands new wedding ceremonies, Mundy observes. New same-sex rites devised by the Episcopal Church do away with fathers giving away brides. Now, sponsors present both spouses.
"The new service does not ground marriage in a doctrine of creation and procreation," says Gary Hall, an Episcopal priest who serves as dean of the Washington National Cathedral. He told Mundy that he hopes the same-sex liturgy will reshape the standards for all Episcopal weddings. "It grounds marriage in a kind of free coming-together of two people to live out their lives."
Lest readers think Episcopal ceremonies will hardly affect the rest of us, she turns to Delman Coates, pastor of a predominantly African American megachurch in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. While debating homosexuality during the state's recent vote to sanction same-sex marriage, Coates says he challenged Christians to change their views of what the Bible teaches about divorce and premarital sex.
"He does not condone illicit behavior or familiar dissolution, but he wants the members of his congregation to feel better about their own lives," Mundy explains. "In exchanges like these, he is making gay marriage part of a much larger conversation about the way we live and love now."
Apparently the bedroom isn't so private after all. Nowhere is the possibility of changing marital norms for all more tense than the debate over monogamy. Mundy cites research from Vermont that shows 15 percent of straight husbands admit to sex outside marriage, compared to 58 percent of gay men in civil unions and 61 percent of gay men in committed partnerships. Personally, Episcopal priest Hall says he would not marry a couple who did not plan to be monogamous. And he expects marriage to "critique" some gay practices, though it's not clear how.
"How do we speak credibly to people about their sexuality and their sexual relationships?" Hall asks. "We really need to rethink this."
Indeed, even if we disagree with Hall's prescription, we can agree we need better thinking about marriage in a rapidly changing society. Whether or not the Supreme Court will decide this summer to legalize same-sex marriage across the nation, democratic momentum points toward a future where these unions take their place alongside other new norms, such as unmarried cohabitation and bearing children out of wedlock. A Pew Research Center poll released Wednesday revealed that in 2011, 44 percent of single mothers had never been married, up from 4 percent in 1960.
Long before same-sex marriage, no-fault divorce and birth control drastically shaped attitudes about marriage by eroding social stigmas against unmarried parenting, cohabitation, and sex outside marriage. Gay marriage may be a big step, but it's only the next step in a staircase that doesn't end here. And with each new step, we see that you can't change the definition of marriage for some but not others. No-fault divorce, as we can see from history, didn't force anyone to get divorced. But it removed permanence from the definition of marriage and pressured everyone, including churches, to rethink their views on biblical teaching. Likewise, gay marriage does not force anyone to become gay. But it cements the already popular belief that marriage has nothing to do with creation or procreation.
You need not claim Christian faith to understand what's at stake in the debate over gay marriage. Harvard University professor of government Michael J. Sandel, writing in his bestselling book Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do, questions whether we can welcome gay marriage on purely libertarian, nonjudgmental criteria.
"In order to decide who should qualify for marriage, we have to think through the purpose of marriage and the virtues it honors," Sandel writes. "And this carries us onto contested moral terrain, where we can't remain neutral toward competing conceptions of the good life."
To be sure, every Christian will be forced to choose sides. And we'll need the courage to stand by God's vision for marriage. So when asked about the purpose of marriage, our vision of the good life, let us point to Genesis 2:24, cited in Ephesians 5:31: "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." In Ephesians 5:32, the apostle Paul explains, "This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church." So for all the other good purposes of marriage—affection, support, stability, child-rearing, among them—ultimately Christian marriage points to the gospel. Specifically, Christian marriage reflects God as husbands love their wives "as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word" (Eph. 5:25).
Few children today will grow up and see this love in action. Nearly half have parents who aren't even married. So we cannot be surprised they have little idea what marriage should be. Yet we respond with hope that when they meet a Christian couple, they see the difference and hear the hope of the gospel. Broken homes are a mission field. They call us first to compassion, not judgment.
As we embrace this commission, we recognize that quoting Ephesians 5 won't do us much good in public arguments over the government's definition of marriage. So we return to Sandel: what is marriage for? What is the purpose? Hall, the Episcopal priest, argues that marriage is a "kind of free coming-together of two people to live out their lives." Using Mundy's description, we see marriage as a negotiated arrangement between two people looking to support one another for a time and not exclusively. Shared responsibilities, divided evenly, relieve some of life's burdens.
Without even citing the explicit example of Christ's sacrifice for the church, we can still argue that marriage requires far more of ourselves than the new definitions betray. Love demands 100 percent of each partner. Marriage based on needs and affection will struggle to endure when the needs change and the affection fades.
When we lost the permanence of marriage, we lost the purpose. And now, as we lose the transcendence, we lose the transformative power of union. Any two people can partner together for support in childcare, housecleaning, finances, and sex. But it takes a true marriage to turn two into one all-giving whole.