What Really *Is* the Institution of Marriage?

What Really *Is* the Institution of Marriage? July 14, 2011

A friend and colleague recently challenged me with the question, “What is the institution of marriage, anyway?”  The essential points of her critique were (1) marriage is more of an evolution than an institution, insofar as the forms of marriage vary and always have varied historically and culturally, and (2) the “institution” of marriage most cultural conservatives defend has been the basis for the oppression of women, the unmarried (single mothers especially), children born outside of wedlock, and generally anyone who does not conform to the preferred vision of domestic bliss.  This post is about the nature of marriage, from a Christian perspective; the next post will be about the goodness and the import of marriage thus understood.

A Stradivarius is a violin made from by a member of the Stradivari family, especially Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), out of spruce, willow, and maple, with some minerals and a varnish such as vernice bianca (gum arabic, honey, and egg white) likely used to treat the wood.  The strings, of course, are made of horse hair.

On a merely material level, a Stradivarius is nothing special.  Its elements are crude.  Wood, egg white, and horse hair.  Yet these very ordinary materials are fashioned together in extraordinary ways.  If the whole violin were made of spruce, then it would not transmit sound in the way it does.  The ways in which the elements merge together, the wood and the minerals and the varnish, are based in the physics of sound and materials: the density of the wood shapes the quality of the sound, the tightness of the string and the size and shape of the chamber craft its resonance, and so on.  And the elements and the exquisite way in which they are grafted and crafted together, are teleological; they serve a purpose, in this case the creation of music.

In the traditional Christian view, marriage is similar in at least three respects.  First, marriage is the uniting of elements that are fundamentally, naturally and beautifully different. The Christian tradition has not seen male/female differences as merely cultural constructs.  While there are always cultural factors in how masculinity and femininity are expressed and valued, there are always also natural — which is to say created and ordained, purposeful and beautiful — factors distinguishing male/female and masculinity/femininity.

In fact, this view of sex and gender differences is inevitable given the Christian understanding of human nature.  Unlike several Greek schools of thought, for instance, the Jewish-Christian tradition understands the body and the spirit as indissolubly united.  (This is a bit of a simplification for space purposes, but correct enough as a generalization.)  The Christian scriptures look forward to a bodily resurrection — and to “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23) — because we would not be ourselves, who we are, apart from our bodies.  Ergo, given the bodily differences (which today we would understand to include especially hormonal and other neural differences) between the sexes, other differences are inevitable.  While we do have freedom to shape our character over time, we begin with fundamental differences, and those differences are intended by God and an essential part of the mystery of God’s will for our lives.  This does not mean that all women must be “feminine” as any one culture understands that term — indeed, a culture may understand the “feminine” in a false and oppressive manner, and disentangling the cultural from the natural is no easy matter — but it does mean that there are natural differences underneath, and those differences (not necessarily the cultural roles) are worth acknowledging, affirming and celebrating.

Second, in marriage the different elements of male and female unite in a complementary, creative and purposeful way.  We are irreducibly relational creatures.  We are all created for relationship — relationship with God, with friends and community, and in many cases with a spouse and children.  Now, something important needs to be stated here: not all people are meant for marriage.  The Christian tradition teaches very clearly that some are called to remain single in order to pursue the calling God has for them.  The rest, however, and the vast majority, are meant to unite with a person of the opposite sex and become ‘one flesh’.

In the Christian view, then, it’s nonsense to say “I need to find myself before I get married.”  It may be necessary to gain a stronger sense of what you believe and value before you make a lifelong commitment.  But for those who are meant for marriage, you will not find yourself in the fullest and most meaningful sense until you find yourself married.  You will not find your greatest fulfillment, your fullness, until you are made whole with another into one flesh.  We tend to think of ourselves in atomic terms, as particles bouncing around in a void.  Yet we’re more like a wave/particle duality; we do have qualities and boundaries unto ourselves, but we are also substantially shaped and constituted by the cloud of relationships around us.  You are not you alone.

When you find a spouse, you are finding one of the greatest tools that God will ever use to shape you, and one of the great vessels of God’s grace into your life.  I’m speaking here of what marriage is intended to be, and what it can be (at least in general) when two individuals are seeking and submitting to God’s will.  And here’s the rub: the male will be complemented and enriched, edified and humbled, challenged and improved by the female, just as the female will by the male.  Traditional Christians have long believed that this is a part of the natural order created and ordained by God; the male is meant for the female, and the female for the male, for companionship, for sanctification, for refuge, and for bringing new life into the world.

Men and women enter into a lifelong commitment both for their own sakes (so that they can be themselves and give themselves in complete security) and for the sake of any children they might have.  Not all married couples have children, of course.  This does not make their marriages any less valuable.  But it also doesn’t change the fact (from the Christian perspective) that marriage in general is intended, among other things, to provide children with a safe, stable environment, and one in which they can learn to understand, love, and be loved by both men and women.  It is, to my mind, one of the sublime mysteries of Christian doctrine that a relational (Triune), self-giving (sacrificial) Creator God invites his children through relationship and through their self-giving to participate in his constant task of creating and preserving, nurturing and maturing new life.

Third, the church traditionally has taught that the natural bond and creative complementarity of male and female is rooted in the created order. Marriage is a social contract (a covenant between two people), but it is not a social construct.  Marriage is an enduring social arrangement (an institution) ordained by God, rooted in the different ways in which God has created us, and intended by God as a sacrament of his grace.  We are not free to redefine marriage any more than we are free to redefine the laws of physics.  We might call something else marriage, but that will not make it so.

When I look at human history, what impresses me is the remarkable continuity in what marriage has meant across time and across multiple cultures.  There are variations, to be sure, including some important ones (like polygamy or concubinage), but the most important variations almost invariably served the interests of those in power.  Some Christians have believed that polygamy was necessary at some times in biblical history, and may be acceptable in some circumstances (amongst jungle tribesmen, for instance) where mortality rates are high, or etc.  Others believe that figures like Solomon were simply wrong and sinful in taking multiple wives and concubines.  In any case, the model of marriage has been remarkably stable in the Judeo-Christian tradition for two-thousand years.  Even outside that tradition, almost every culture has had something like marriage; and the greatest variation is over the issue of polygamy, but many Christians simply see (and condemn) modern polygamy as a case of men behaving badly.  And for Christians, it doesn’t particularly matter whether other cultures have gotten it right, or even whether their own history represents the ideal well, but whether the institution and ideal of marriage emerges from scripture and church teaching.  Falling short of the ideal is not, in itself, reason to scuttle it.

There.  I’ve said about as much as I can say in a single blog post about the nature of marriage.  More will be said about its nature in the next post too, when I consider whether the institution of marriage is good and worth defending in the current context.  For now: Christians traditionally have seen marriage — like a Stradivarius — as the uniting of ordinary elements in such a way that their union, precise because of their fundamental and natural differences, serves for the creation of life, beauty and goodness.  We are made and most of us are intended to find wholeness and fulfillment in binding the male and female together, and in their mutual self-giving to ‘create’ and protect and nurture new life.

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  • I never could buy into swinging or polyamorous “open relationships” because the partners do not remain together. I never could buy into homosexual relationships because though they may remain together, they aren’t capable of producing children.

    I believe in permanent unions between men and women that produce children, what I would call “marriage”. God is all about creating permanency — or things that remain. The only difference between fornication (unlawful sexual relations) and marriage (lawful sexual relations) is the idea of a permanent union.

    God wants men and women to come together, becoming one flesh — and He wants them to remain together and continue to become one flesh. The marriage covenant’s purpose is to state that spouses will remain together permanently.

    When two people come together and make love, the love demonstrated and generated is intended by God to continue on forever. It is supposed to remain. The marriage bonds keep people connected (and gathered) so that they continue to nurture and grow the love generated between them.

    We ought not come together and make love and then leave — nor come together and make love in a way that is not capable of growing that love through children.

    I used to think that I believed in the nuclear family (one husband, one wife, and the resulting children) because that was the only marriage family I had been shown.

    No longer. Now I believe in the tribe, which is a group of adults bound to each other by covenants of marriage and the resulting children — or a multihusband-multiwife tribe.

    • Nathan Smith

      Justin – I don’t understand why producing children is necessary for permanence…

      Ok, having said that, I now realize that there is a kind of intergenerational permanence that comes from producing offspring. But then it does seem like there are other ways to achieve this: adoption, developing a career, mentoring, counseling, pastoring, nurturing a neighborhood or business, charitable projects, artistic creations… In other words, there seems to be any number of activities that human beings in committed relationships could engage in that would create a loving permanence that essentially flows from and confirms the reality of the relationship.

      Why deny the real possibility of marriage (i.e., fulfilling the purpose of a permanent union of two people in love) to same-sex couples?

      • OK — so my response to your comment had to be posted as three separate comments that didn’t get posted under your comment here as I would have liked.

        To read my response to this just scroll a bit down.

        I think if you say “sex” too much, the moderation thinks you’re trying to sell it rather than trying to talk about it.

        In any event — they are down there.

    • Anonmymous

      So infertile couples shouldn’t be allowed to get married? If a gentleman, say, was injured in a roadside bomb and his genitalia was mutilated beyond repair?

      Or women with ovarial cancer? Or menopausal women who couldn’t find a soulmate prior to that point in their lives?

      And I suppose that TS/TV persons are just completely out of luck?

      Your narrow definition of marriage leaves a lot of people out in the cold.

      • Timothy Dalrymple

        If you had read carefully, you’d note that I dealt with this objection.

      • Anon — your narrow characterization of what I wrote leaves me out in the cold.

        I find it hard to believe that you actually think I was including women who’ve had ovarian cancer when I wrote: “I believe in permanent unions between men and women that produce children, what I would call “marriage”.”

        Homosexual pairings are intrinsically unable to produce seed after their own kind — injured men and women are a different category altogether. Unless you’re implying an IED injuring your genitals ought to be considered equivalent to same-gender attraction?

    • Actually, most of the polyamorous families I know are in long term relationships. Polyamory is not the same as either serial monogamy or promiscuity.

  • Also — I noticed you used the term “polygamy” when it seems you mean to say “polygyny”.

    Is it still “men behaving badly” when polyandry is allowed?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Polyandry is extremely rare, whereas polygyny is still common across significant swaths of the globe right now. So most of the time we’re referring to polygyny when we’re talking about polygamy…Would it have been more precise to say polygyny at that point? Perhaps. I could go either way.

      • Most people will probably know what you meant. From an LDS context, we’ll typically use “polygamy” exclusively for referring to the mid-to-late 19th century practice of polygyny among the Utah saints.

        The -gamy just means marriages — so I guess “poly+gamy” works for either polyandry, polygyny, or both. It was just that your “men behaving badly” comment made it seem like the issue was with polygyny specifically — not polygamy in general.

  • Nathan Smith

    This is a strange line of thought, Tim. First of all, I am puzzled by your claim that Judeo-Christian thought has consistently held that the body and spirit are “indissolubly united.” There is some sense to this, and certainly the doctrine of the resurrection of the body accords with it, but these issues have in fact been hotly contested throughout the history of Christianity. Indeed, the indissoluble unity of body and spirit would seem to present a bit of a problem for the immortality of the soul given the obvious impermanence of the body. And the supposed resurrection of the body presents myriad problems for any natural account of bodies (consider the cells of one person that decompose, fertilize grass, are consumed by a cow, and then consumed by another human — whose body do those cells belong to?). But, nevermind…

    The bigger question I have is that, as your Stradivarius example suggests, you seem to be aiming for some kind of “formal” relation that gives marriage its essence, i.e., it’s not the materials but the way they are put together. But then you go on to say that, no, the material is also essential. Ok, fair enough. But obviously not in the same way. If the sound produced by the Stradivarius could be reproduced with some other combination of materials, if the form could be achieved in different matter, that would not make the sound worth less, would it? The traditional (Thomistic) view would be to say that certain kinds of matter are specially fitted to receive certain forms. So, the matter is essential in its receptivity to the form. I think this makes good sense. But we would still have to clarify what exactly is the form of marriage. And you haven’t really done that. You have hinted that it might involve reproduction (again, this would be the classic, Thomistic line). But I’m not sure that holds water. Is that what you want to say?

    Or, did you mean to emphasize that the special form of marriage is love, or, as you also indicate, the realization of your true self through a relationship that affirms who you are and allows you to develop. Well, if this is the case, then what do you do with those folks who clearly and thoughtfully feel it would be impossible for them to realize their true self, their core identity and sexual development with a partner of the opposite sex. Perhaps you think they’re just mistaken. But why? Is it because you’ve seen into the “order of nature” and understand that no male human being could possibly be fulfilled by a long-term relationship with another male human being? I hear hubris knocking…

  • Where in the New Testament does it say or imply that “the vast majority are meant to be married”?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I don’t believe it does, Brian. I’m drawing more here from Genesis and from general conversations about marriage throughout the OT and NT, where the assumption seems to be that this is an institution ordained by God and intended in general for his children, with exceptions for those who are called to other things (whether they choose not to marry for vocational reasons, or just never find a spouse).

  • David

    This is a great topic! This link to Ligon Duncan’s weighty, Scripturally-based, culturally relevant talk on “The Ordinance of Marriage,” would make a great addition to this discussion for those interested: https://www.cbmw.org/Journal/Vol-8-No-1/The-Ordinance-of-Marriage.

  • EH?


    I think that there are many things that are right about this. However, I think that you have a “blind spot,” in this, that marriage is somehow entirely about the male-female couple, without taking into consideration the communal element that every marriage is, and must be. Lauren Winner has a compelling article about this:


    Yes, there is a complimentary element to it, which I won’t dispute, but there is also a socially affirming element to it; a community must be able to affirm that a couple is married, and an authority for that community confirm it (i.e., certificate, license, captain’s log entry, etc.).

    I think that this is a fundamentally important issue today, when a minority position is being pushed upon a community through the courts, or through the smallest of majorities in a legislative body, but without the tacit affirmation of the community as a whole in which it takes place.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Good point. Thanks for the reminder,

  • Makarios

    ” We are not free to redefine marriage any more than we are free to redefine the laws of physics.”

    This depends on what you mean by “we.” If you mean a Christian church, they you may well be correct. If you mean a pluralistic state that prohibits the establishment of religion, then you are wrong–at least, you are wrong on the grounds that you suggest. You are free, of course, to argue that “Marriage is an enduring social arrangement (an institution) ordained by God, rooted in the different ways in which God has created us, and intended by God as a sacrament of his grace;” but, in a non-theocratic, pluralistic state (whose citizens include people of many religions, as well as people of no religion), purely religious arguments should be given no weight in the shaping of law or public policy.

    • BCKemp

      I concur. To what extent is the reverse, then, also true? That is, to what extent should public policy and law have sway over religious communities? If you determine that the institution of marriage, as recognized by and overseen in a pluralistic state, must be free of purely religious support, to what degree must religious communities accept the pluralistic definition and underpinning of such a marriage? And can the state, by logical extension, force a religious community to violate its ethos by not only accommodating but accepting a secular marriage that is lawful in the eyes of the law?

      • Anonmymous

        Have you even read the First Amendment to the Constitution?

        The government can’t “force” a religious institution to perform a marriage any more than it can force a religious institution not to.

        Case in point: Christian denominations have been performing homosexual marriages long before it gained traction with legislature.

        • russ

          But the government can force individual Christians to perform illicit marriages, abortions, artificial insemination of lesbian couples, and to otherwise “participate in the sins of others.” As long as they leave the churches alone the pastors won’t care.

      • grendel

        Not sure I follow, does the legal availability of divorce violate the rights of Catholics?

      • Makarios

        BC, I must respectfully suggest that you are not talking about reality. Here’s an example for you: in every one of the United States, married couples are allowed to divorce, and the ex-spouses are free to marry others of their choosing in a civil marriage. The Roman Catholic Church does not permit people who have been civilly divorced to marry in the church, and nobody is forcing priests to perform such marriages. Similarly, nobody is forcing priests to officiate at same-sex marriages.

        The country in which I live has permitted same-sex marriages since 2005. To date, no “traditional” marriage has been destroyed as a result, not a single church has fallen down, and not a single minister of religion has been arrested for refusing to officiate at a same-sex wedding.

        • BCKemp

          Your example simply points to the difference in the terms of the contract: one is legal, the other religious. I never disputed that the difference existed. That being said, the law clearly does disallow certain relationships: for example, polygynous marriages. Witness the challenge in US Federal court this past week of a state statute to that effect. What makes that different given that it does in effect discriminate against a specific religious community? Pluralistic society is no more unaffected by bias than religious communities.

          My point is not that “traditional marriage” (whatever that means) is in jeopardy or that pastors will be jailed or that believers will be fed to the lions. My point, I suppose, is that the law is ultimately written and interpreted and re-written by human beings. And that law, much like society, evolves. (Much to the consternation of those who think the Constitution is a tablet written in stone and can only be interpreted by those who have studied the Founders in a particular way.) To say that I’m not reflecting reality may be valid, I grant you. Today. Tomorrow may bring something neither of us expect.

    • russ

      Even a pluralistic state that denies the authority of God and passes perverse laws just to show its contempt for God is not really free to do so. It will come under God’s judgment in history. I suspect America will serve as a case in point in our life times. Theocracy in the sense of God’s active government of the world is our ultimate reality.

  • Nathan,

    To answer your last question first — I wouldn’t deny homosexual couples the right to permanently cohabitate as a sexual couple. To me, the whole thing wrong with the US “gay marriage” debate is that we’ve assumed the State has the right to go around “defining” and “licensing” marriage in the first place.

    A “license” is legal permission to do that which would otherwise be illegal. Should a State has interest in *certifying* that a marriage covenant has taken place between two people [like a notary]? Sure. But dictating what that ought to look like and charging for the legal permission to do it? Not so much.

    My religious tradition teaches that: “…whoso forbiddeth to marry is not ordained of God, for marriage is ordained of God unto man…”

    Ideally, I’d like to see any two people who choose to agree to live permanently as a marriage couple with each other, formalized however they see fit, be able to declare that such a covenant has taken place. They could apply for a notarized declaration that such a covenant took place, or not. Others would be free to accept that marriage ceremony or not [for instance, I could see some landlords, employers, etc. not willing to recognize gay marriage or LDS temple marriage or polygynous/polyandrous marriage, etc.]

  • Nathan — [continued b/c of this site’s spam moderation, also the comment posted here at the bottom instead of under your comment as a reply per the same reason]:

    God recognizes all covenants, contracts, oaths, vows, performances, connections, associations, or expectations that are made among humans both for time and for all eternity, regardless of who or what entity or entities ordained them [whether it be ordained of men, by thrones, or principalities, or powers, or things of name, whatsoever they may be] as being perfectly valid and binding until the parties are dead, at which point such contracts, etc. have an end. Should any contracts, oaths, etc. be made/entered into by the Lord or by His word — then they may continue after men are dead.

    To answer your first question — about why homosexual marriage does not create permanency — I try to always square what I write against the scriptures first. And scripturally-speaking, I can’t interpret the word “marriage” as meaning anything other what than it meant at the time the revelations were given — therefore marriage means only that union between a male and a female, not between same sexes.

    However, with that, I can only conclude that God approves of and commands men and women to come together via marriage covenants. Since the revelations are silent of the subject of cohabitating homosexual unions it doesn’t necessarily mean that same sex marriage is not valid (or moral) in the eyes of God.

  • Nathan — last one — I apparently have a strong, spam-like quality to my writing:

    The only thing that keeps me from being able to buy into homosexual relationships is the law of chastity, which is that no woman will have intercourse except with a husband to whom she is legally and lawfully wedded and that no man will have intercourse except with a wife to whom he is legally and lawfully wedded.

    In this case, for me, the law of chastity does not prohibit a man or woman from entering into a homosexual marriage, but it does stop them from justifiably having relations with each other. It is sex that validates (or consummates) a marriage. Therefore, homosexual marriages are invalid in the eyes of the Lord, at least as far as I understand the scriptural laws we currently have. The Lord may reveal more later.

  • Wow! You really hit the nail on the head! Great article.

  • Listening to the youth, and a fair amount of us older folks, as well, one begins to see a common thread of thinking as it relates to a) original sin, if they are Christians, or b) human nature, if they are of a more secular stripe. This popular school of thought is simply this: you are the way you are because that is the way God/Nature intended and that makes who or what you are good. And, to deny what you are is bad. In other words, you exit the womb, a fully realized human being and any deviation from that or criticism of whom or what you are, contradicts your innate perfection. Ultimately, what this does is to negate any responsibility for who you are or what you do and, even more devastating to society, to remove any claims of moral authority.

    Nowhere is this view of human nature more succinctly encapsulated than by Lady Gaga in her song, “Born This Way.” The song, as it was intended to be, has become something of an international anthem for homosexuals attempting to come to terms with their sexuality. With lyrics like, “don’t be a drag, just be a queen” and “cause baby you were born this way/ no matter gay, straight, or bi/ lesbian, transgendered life/ I’m on the right track baby” its easy to see why the song will probably be blared from loudspeakers at every gay pride parade from now till the end of time.

    The song has also been picked by anyone attempting to justify themselves as being what they are because that was the plan all along. No act that I perpetrate can be considered truly wrong if I was born to do it, right? One can almost hear the lyrics being quoted in court rooms as defendants plead to juries, “Have mercy on me. After all, this is the way I was born!”

    In a secular sense, what Gaga and her acolytes are pushing is a sort of dumbed down version of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s view of human nature. Mankind is essentially good by nature and it is the expectations and condemnations of society at large that binds the individual with the mores and restrictions that inhibit them from being fully who they were meant to be. And, the great battle of life, is to break free from the morality of the crowd (e.g. traditional Judeo-Christian ethics) and to regain the innocent perfection with which you were born.

    I can understand how a secularist would buy into this philosophy. But, what truly amazes me is the number of self-professed Christians who adhere to a version of this, as well. Again to Gaga:

    I’m beautiful in my own way

    ‘Cause God don’t make no mistakes

    I’m on the right track baby

    I was born this way

    Don’t hide yourself in regret

    Just love yourself and you’re set

    I’m on the right track baby

    I was born this way

    The correct idea that God doesn’t make mistakes has been twisted and perverted to justify nearly any sort of human choice or action. “If God made me, and He made me as I am, then I must be as He wanted me to be and, therefore, perfect.” It doesn’t take someone with a higher degree in theology to see the faulty logic in that manner of thought, but it seems to have become an accepted dogma amongst many believers. It’s a sort of ‘Christianized Rousseau” that puts forth than man is born perfect and only becomes corrupted through interaction with others and, again, through the values and institutions of tradition. The idea of Original Sin and the notion that, yes, you may have been born that way, but that doesn’t necessarily make that good, is thrown out the window. And, with it, goes any obligations of conduct or morality that the individual doesn’t feel is innate to their own personal value system. In other words, you are what you are and you can do what you want, because that is the way you were born.

    Essentially, what Gaga and others who think like her, represent is another attempt by mankind to usurp God’s moral authority. Even attempts to give her philosophy the cover of religious language doesn’t change the essential fact that what “Born This Way” is attempting to do is to wash away man’s sins with faulty logic, to justify man’s every action and thought under the banner that everything is permissible if its done with love. Regardless of how we are born, God intends so much more for us, and The Gospel According to Gaga won’t get you there.

  • You should have more appropriately titled this “What really is the traditional Christian institution of marriage.” The body of your text would support that title.

    I (and millions of others) don’t really care what the Christian version of marriage is, outside of some intellectual curiosity, it should have no effect on me.

    I do care when the concept of a “christian marriage” becomes ingrained in the statue law. Simply because I choose not to register my sex partner at the local county seat should not mean that I pay a different tax rate than my neighbor. Getting “married” entitles one not just to preferential (and sometimes negative) tax consequences, but also to a plethora of other government benefits.

    When I served in the Army I saw young men and women, who performed the same job as myself, same pay grade, etc, yet received upwards of two times the pay. All these benefits were because they had registered their sex partners and registered children with the S1 shop. That is not how it is supposed to be. Same work, same pay, same taxes, same benefits, etc…

    I understand that many Christians (as well as many Jews in my community) are terrified by the change in “legal” marriage. They are right to be. Christians should work towards getting the government out of marriage. It will not be long until poly-amorous family units receive the same government handouts that I abhor for traditional family units. By then the entire institution that you speak of will be damaged so badly that the participation rate will fall far below today’s levels. At some point the separation of marriage and state will have to become as ingrained in our culture as the separation of church and state.

  • I agree with your opinion and a few others here. These excuses for sin using love as the reason to be able to do what ever you want and not be obligated to except any responsibility for your actions is a crock of bull.Evil will always creep in slowly and like the snake bite you at unawares, so that is why we are to put on the full armour of Christ so we can withstand the evil of this day.Humanism is the real killer it has crept into our system in schools first and now even doctors believe lies.They are very educated in the things of the world but not to wise of the things that really count like eternal life and the penalty of sin. God never makes mistakes!

  • Kubrick’s Rube

    I’m not a Christian, so my views on the nature of marriage are irrelevant to this branch of the discussion.

    However, since you paired the words “Christian” and “tradition” six times, I’d be curious to read at some point your take on why divergent (or emergent, I suppose) viewpoints within Christianity are wrong in their approach. For example, Patheos blogger Fred Clark posted the following (within a larger piece) on Thursday:

    “Tradition can be like the proverbial finger pointing at the moon. The point of the pointing isn’t to direct the eye toward the finger, but toward the moon — to get you to look in the direction the finger is pointing. I think the trajectory of that direction is more important than the tradition of the finger itself.

    “Such concern for trajectory is a very Pauline approach. Or, for a more recent example, it’s very much like the way Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to the “authority” of the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” the great Virginian slaveowner Thomas Jefferson wrote. A strictly modernist approach to that statement, or any approach based mainly on tradition, would conclude that it could not possibly mean what King insisted it must mean. But King wasn’t obsessing over the finger, he was looking in the direction it was pointing.

    “This contrast between tradition and trajectory, between finger and moon, is probably a more useful way of describing the dispute between Christians like myself and those Christians who believe — sincerely — that my advocacy of GLBT equality is dangerously wrong.”

    Oh, and good job bringing Hemant Mehta to Patheos.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      When I refer to “traditional Christian” teaching or “Christian tradition” on something, I’m often just noting that not all Christians historically or presently have believed such things. If I said “Christians have always believed that marriage should be X,” some readers would object “Historical Christian X did not believe X,” or “I don’t believe X; are you saying I’m not a Christian?” So I was not trying to appeal to an authoritative tradition as I was trying to distinguish what I was describing from variants historically and today.

      I don’t know if Fred’s distinction is as helpful as he thinks it is. What is the moon, in this case? God’s self-revelation in Christ and the Word? If so, then Christians who oppose SSM would say, yes, tradition merely points toward the revelation that indicates the will of God for sex and marriage. If the moon is just God, detached from revelation, then we’re essentially free to make up a God who serves our own moral and political predilections. The same consequence follows pretty easily if the finger/trajectory metaphor is used to dispense with concern for authorial intent. Anyway, no one in the conversation thinks the focus ought to be on the ‘finger’ of tradition. We end up back where we started, with differences in how we understand the authority of scripture and differences in what we believe scripture teaches.

      I don’t know how much I want to get into the biblical arguments in this series…we shall see. It’s hard to bracket the biblical arguments, but it’s also a quagmire that takes forever to work through. I’m sure I’ll say something about it.

      • Kubrick’s Rube

        From a biblical standpoint (if nothing else), I actually tend to find the socially conservative interpretation to be the stronger position- just as from a biblical standpoint I tend to find the economically liberal interpretation (as made by Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, etc) to be stronger. (I also think the Bible prioritizes the latter over the former, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

        As for Fred’s “moon” analogy, I take it as a basic “letter of the law” vs “spirit of the law” argument. (I’d recommend his three-part series “Sex & Money” where he lays out his reconciliation of the Bible and the terrain of the modern world, if you’re interested in a fuller explanation.)

        I find this a good attitude in general, and as a liberal agnostic I’ll take my allies where I can find them, but as a biblical approach it certainly holds the danger of veering one into wishful thinking territory- or as you put it, “mak[ing] up a God who serves our own moral and political predilections.”

  • Rhonda

    Excellent article. Marriage is ordained by God as union of a man and a woman. That is what marriage is. Any other combination is not marriage. As far as married childless couples go, they are just as married as those with children. Marital fidelity serves to contain sexual activity, protecting the couple from disease and the emotional damage done by adultery.

    I think some of the polygamy practiced through the ages was justifiable based on things like wars, when many men were killed leaving wives and children with no support. To be someone’s second or third wife might be the difference between life and death for a woman and her children. That’s just a guess, but I think it’s true. On the other hand, in today’s world, at least in the West, there is no justification for polygamy. In the polygamous culture of the Fundamental Latter Day Saints, for instance, many boys are simply thrown out of the community, because there would be too many men in competition for wives.

  • Tim, my question to you is simply this (and it really is a question):

    I’m gay and partnered. While you have made a case for “traditional marriage,” I guess I’m trying to find out where someone like me would fit. Where do those of us who don’t fit into the usual understanding of relationships fit? Can evangelical Christians find a way to recognize relationships of same sex partners?


    • Timothy Dalrymple

      This is a tough question, Dennis, a really tough question. I wrestle with this a lot. I’m writing up my next installment, which is “Is Homosexuality Wrong?” Would you mind if I led off with this question? I don’t have to mention where it came from.

      I hate to put you off, but writing a sensitive response would take me a long time, and I would essentially be rewriting the piece I’m nearly done with. So if you don’t mind waiting a couple days, I can get you a more considered reply. But please let me know whether I might lead off with this “question from a commenter.”

      Thanks and God bless,


      • Tim,

        I don’t mind waiting a few days. Take your time. And feel free to lead off with my question.


        • Timothy Dalrymple

          Thanks, Dennis.