No one can really redefine marriage

Last week I read a report about philosophy professors who believe the debate about marriage is over. For many (perhaps most) of them, the question has been settled. There is no rational basis to privilege the union of one man and one woman in our laws and culture. To do so is the equivalent of bigotry. Or so these professors believe. And that is why many of them are no longer treating it as a matter up for debate. Conversation over.

It struck me that while many people in our culture will evade this discussion in a similar way, that doesn’t close the issue. Why? Because an ostrich with his head in the dirt doesn’t actually make the sun disappear. The sun shines as ever, no matter how much one closes his eyes to it. Likewise, marriage really is the covenanted union of one man and one woman with a unique connection to procreation and child-rearing. That truth about marriage remains the truth, no matter how much people try to pretend that it is not. The evidence of that truth will persist and will explain—perhaps better than anything else—the pain of brokenness of those who deny it.

Even the atheist is God’s atheist. His life and being are no less defined by creational realities than anyone else’s. He might try to evade those realities, but he can never escape them. As Kipling has it, the gods of the copybook headings will have the last word.

Recently, a friend of mine was travelling abroad and had a conversation about marriage that says it all. He is an evangelical Christian, and he shared the following anecdote with several of us who are as well. At his request, I’ve changed some of the incidentals to preserve the anonymity of the author. This is worth your time to read as it allows us to glimpse what is really going on inside our neighbors who have supposedly given up on marriage. Read on.

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When I travel, one of my favorite activities is to find the city’s most quintessential barber shop for a hair cut and beard trim. Today, I did just that in Shanghai, where my family is stationed for seven weeks.

I sat next to a Brit in his mid-30s. Like most of his countrymen, he was a big talker. And as I relaxed into my chair quietly, he didn’t give me much of a choice but to listen to his conversation with his barber.

He described his life stage candidly: Like many in this city, he is a workaholic. He recognizes it, acknowledging to his barber that he works obscene hours for his tech startup. He’s hoping his hard work will propel him into a leadership role in the company. In describing his work obsession, he noted that he actually missed his sister’s wedding because of a work engagement.

His barber–a mid-30s single female–gave him a hard time for missing her wedding. He acknowledged he should have made it, but also noted that the marriage likely wouldn’t work out. He already had one divorced sibling and expected her to follow in the same path.

This led him into a diatribe on the institution of marriage, a view his barber affirmed. He described it as an “antiquated establishment.” He noted that it simply doesn’t make sense for the modern professional. “Nobody wants that sort of permanence anymore… people change their minds.” He then went on to say that he’d like to eventually have a family, but that he’s “not even close” to settling down. His barber generally agreed. Marriage is a mirage.

His barber went even farther: “I have heard of some people who are married and have kids in their 20s. In their 20s! Can you believe it?”

At this point, I spoke up. It was the first thing I had said since giving my barber my preferences, which are pretty simple for balding dudes (“short”).

“I love my marriage,” I said. “I married my sweetheart at the sweet age of 25 and she makes me and our lives so much richer.”

They both laughed warmly, surprised to learn I was listening in on their conversation. Like someone seeing a picture of a swarm of cute kittens, they asked all sorts of questions about our marriage and kids, cooing at the quaintness of our little lives.

The Brit then shared that he feels marriage is alive in America, but dead in Europe. He suggested the reason for the American affection with marriage was related to our nation’s Christian ethos. He said Christianity was a relic in Europe and so too was marriage.

I challenged him that marriage is an incredible gift and joy, even if it can be hard work. The conversation ended on a somber note. He lamented, his voice trailing off, “I know. The truth is, in my quiet moments, a great marriage is exactly what I want. It’s what all of us want.”

“We’re just waiting for our prince or princess on the white horse,” his barber chimed in.

To the married gentlemen: Your marriage is not just your own. It is an advertisement to the West. It is a picture our sophisticated, secularized, educated global peers are looking at with curiosity and even unspoken desire. Deep down, it’s wired into humans to crave intimate relationships. Even in a city like Hong Kong–with all the glitz and energy and power of Manhattan–“it is not good for man to be alone.” Adam had it all too, but his heart was unsettled.

To the unmarried gentlemen: God has given you this season of singleness for His reasons and purposes. It may continue for all your days–only God knows–but if you sense he has wired you to be married, stay in the hunt. Hang onto hope amid the challenges of the single life. And cling to your family and close friends who can help to bring the sort of community and belonging God speaks to in Genesis 2.

14 Responses to No one can really redefine marriage

  1. Ryan Davidson January 26, 2015 at 12:20 am #

    I would suggest that there’s something of a class difference on marriage. Among most white-collar professionals outside of the South, views of marriage are probably pretty consistent with those espoused by Gary Becker in “A Theory of Marriage.”

    In one sense, that probably explains the lower divorce rates among wealthier, college-educated professionals. But it’s not exactly a view of marriage that one would describe as romantic.

  2. Don Johnson January 26, 2015 at 3:18 am #

    My hope was that government get out of issuing marriage licenses and instead issue civil union licenses, which then could be extended into marriage by a group, such as a faith group. That way it would hopefully be clear on religious liberty. I now think that jope is too late, but perhaps get a government to issue a civil marriage license, which then a religious group could extend to a religious marriage as they understood it.

  3. Christiane Smith January 26, 2015 at 8:44 am #

    At my age, and from a strong ethnic background, I view marriage not so much through the ‘romance’ lens now.
    We have entered the period of our lives when our partnership is critical to our strength and well-being, physically and emotionally. We married in the Church and I held to that through many storms; and now in our twilight years, it has more meaning to me than ever before as the trials of illness are given to us each in turn.
    To paraphrase the novelist, ‘ I look up and he is there. He looks up, and I am there.’

    For us, the time of cherishing has begun. I hope it lasts a while longer, if that is God’s will.

  4. Christiane Smith January 26, 2015 at 10:16 am #

    in the end, it is for Christians to define ‘Christian marriage’ by how it is lived . . . it’s that witness that may be most needed now

  5. Ian Shaw January 26, 2015 at 11:00 am #

    It is like Manifest Destiny all over again,
    except, instead of taking and consuming everything in their paths for God,
    they do so with the same fervor and sense of entitlement for their new god…themselves.

    • James Bradshaw January 26, 2015 at 5:01 pm #

      Ian, so you suppose most people put half of their assets at risk and take on the financial burden of raising the biological children of someone else because they “are their own god”?

      It’s sort of a strange way to express selfishness, isn’t it?

      • Ian Shaw January 26, 2015 at 5:55 pm #

        James, it was a sentiment regarding the general societal change, focusing more on the self, rather than anything else. Whether it be those pushing an agenda to “do whatever you feel”, the promise of self-selfishness is the means to happiness, or a loud few voices in society that pursue legal change to what are and what have been (as Denny put) creational realities.

        But to your point, while societal arbitrary law (as Schaffer claimed) and popular opinion may condem me and claim me as a bigot for not acknowledging a same-sex couple who wish to raise a non-biological child as their own and while it pains me to see others ensnared in sin, as I once was but for God’s grace, my beliefs in God’s word remains firm.

        As far as selfishness, that’s just another form of idolatry-putting something else, including yourself, in the place where God and only Him should be.

  6. Dal Bailey January 26, 2015 at 8:55 pm #

    Well, it’s not surprising what Satan will do to further misguide the blind. Speaking of marriage, I found out last Sunday, the pastor (intern) would leave our church as he agrees with PC(USA) on the gay marriage\ clergy issue.

    So sad to see such intelligence wasted.

  7. George Eager January 26, 2015 at 9:24 pm #

    Over and over Paul advises against marriage, stating that marriage is a sort of safety valve to avoid sexual sin, but is best avoided if possible. “I wish that all were as I myself am…To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am.” (1 Cor 7:7-8); “Now concerning virgins…it is well for you to remain as you are” (1 Cor 7:25-26). Paul states that in recommending singleness he wants to spare us the anxiety that comes with marriage.

    “Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that” (1 Cor 7:28b).

    Now lots of folks will give reasons to ignore 1 Cor 7, to propose work-arounds, to suggest “that was then, this is now”, and in general to justify what they want to do anyway. The two most significant figures in early Christianity were both single, in a culture where this was very far from the norm.

    • Ryan Davidson January 27, 2015 at 12:47 am #

      Good point, George. Paul’s depiction of marriage is a far cry from the prevailing view in conservative evangelicalism, where marriage is generally viewed as a playground for the expression heterosexual desire.

    • buddyglass January 27, 2015 at 9:47 am #

      It seems pretty clear (to me, at least) that Paul was being facetious when he said “I wish that all were as I myself am”. Not least because it would have spelled the end of humanity within a generation. Though, if he thought Christ was coming back within his lifetime then that might not have been a concern.

  8. buddyglass January 27, 2015 at 9:37 am #

    “No one can really redefine marriage”

    True. At the same time, governments can and do redefine marriage with respect to the law. Because no government can alter the true definition of marriage, however, and because U.S. governments are only adopting a legal definition that improperly broadens marriage (rather than improperly restricting it, as has been the case in the past) relative to its true definition, I’m not especially concerned.

    • James Stanton January 27, 2015 at 5:45 pm #

      This has been my position for some time. The US government is not a moral institution and the US constitution is by no means a moral guideline on the level of the Bible. We may prefer that governments and laws reflect our values in all things but we are not entitled to this while living in the world.

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