Marriage: What It Is Reveals What It Isn’t (And A Review Of ‘Same-Sex Marriage, A Thoughtful Approach…’)

September 3, 2014 § Leave a comment

Whatever side of the same-sex marriage debate you are on, you should be clear about how you define marriage. We have to know what it is to hold any kind of position on what it isn’t.

IMG_5667Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet‘s new book, Same Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage is a excellent articulation of the definition of marriage, Biblically and otherwise, in light of the normalization and legalization of same-sex marriage. It outlines the challenges the Church now faces and offers a truly thoughtful response to this massive and unprecendented cultural shift. It’s an easy and insightful read with well-footnoted content laid out in a very sensible format.


Helping nail down an objective marriage definition is in my opinion the book’s most immediately accessible feature, and what makes it a much-needed apologetic tool for engaging a culture that is evidently very confused about the topic. It may be surprising to see how similar the definition of marriage put forth in Scripture is to the one recognized by governments and societies all over the world for millennia. Consider first the Biblical definition and purposes for marriage.

What marriage is:
One man and one woman (Gen. 2:24, Matt. 19:5, Mark 10:6)
Permanent (Mal. 2:16; Matt. 19:6Mark 10:9)
Exclusive (see above)

What marriage is for:
Companionship and help (Gen. 2:18, Prov. 5:18)
Procreation (Gen. 1:28, Psalm 128:3; Mal. 2:15)
A picture of Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:25-27; Rev. 19:7-9; 21:2,10)

What if we leave out the Bible? Over the long span of history, cultures around the world, religious or not, have most highly regarded the very same type of marriage. With the exception of the past few decades in a few countries in the West, the marital union of people of the same sex was virtually unheard of (and still is rare globally). Practically, the complementary relationship between men and women is pretty obvious to most. For thousands of years and in everywhere in the world before the year 2000, one-man/one-woman marriage was simply nature and the norm. Anything else was the exception.

Overall, societies have always regarded marriage unions as permanent. Divorce is ancient, but was never the ideal or the goal in any marriage. Many gay marriage advocates argue that the high divorce rate among heterosexual couples shows that the traditional match-up may not be so ideal after all. The problem with this argument is that divorce is and has always been an example of a failed attempt at marriage. In fact, divorce is not part of marriage; it’s the end of marriage. Divorced people are not married, so divorce can’t really be an argument against traditional marriage. If anything, it’s an argument for the fact that we get many things wrong.

Around the world throughout history, societies have considered the marriage union to be an exclusive relationship. Husbands and wives are not considered free to wander in and out of the commitment. Couples do unfortunately cheat on their spouses, and this is another example of marriage done incorrectly. Marital infidelity is a broken promise. Like divorce, it’s never the ideal and never in the plan at the outset of a marriage.

384665_10151077252490206_580591893_nNatural marriage has always been in part about companionship and how one completes the other for the good of family and society. Love and romance are happy features in most marriages, but it is not a fundamental purpose. Proverbs says to “rejoice in the wife of your youth,” but the Bible doesn’t emphasize feelings of love as a condition to lifelong marriage. Likewise in the secular world, what couple applying for a marriage license is ever asked by the clerk, “How do you feel about each other? Are you sure you’re in love?”? As Sean and John note, “The government does not care how a couple feels (its not on the form), but rather how they fit into the larger social context.” (pages 25,158) To the state (here in the US and most other governments), feelings of love and romance take a back seat to other more lasting purposes of the union.

What are the purposes of marriage that the state is really interested in? The fact that most traditional marriages produce children, and the ideal (supported by study after study) that children are better off with both a mother and a father. The companionship of marriage plus children makes a family. Every society seeks good replacements, and so governments encourage and even incentivize marriage as a way to ensure children become good and productive adult members of society. Families are the basic building blocks of civilization. Granted, not every marriage produces children, but every human being on earth comes from a mother and a father (and generally fare better growing up with both).

Secular society will on the whole have little interest in the picture of Christ and the Church that marriage bears, but this picture is the result, not a precondition, for Biblical marriage. The criteria that the Bible sets up for marriage are pragmatic and mirrored almost intuitively by every culture for all time, up until very recently.

photo copy 2And just as you can’t get a pie with just sugar, any of these criteria alone do not make a marriage. The sexual union of a man and woman can be done without being married. All kinds of relationships are permanent (as are markers and glue). Boyfriends and girlfriends can be exclusive. Companionship can be had with any human and most animals. You can hire a “helper.” And we can make babies without, except for the opposite sex pairing, any of the above conditions being met. A marriage is a marriage when all of these are in view or at least categorically possible.

While the case for traditional marriage can be argued very well without using the Bible or religion, we will never really know WHY we have always recognized (not invented) one-man/one-woman marriage without starting at the foundation. Even Jesus, when fielding a question about divorce from the Pharisees (Matthew 19, Mark 10) went straight back to the design phase, quoting Genesis 2.

“Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” He replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’a and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Notice that the Lord answered a question about divorce (which is not actually marriage) with the fundamental origin and purpose of marriage. If we know what marriage is, we can always identify the many things it is not—divorce, cohabitation, gay marriage, polygamy, or whatever else might come down the pike.

For Christians, our appeal has no real authority without the Word of God as the foundation for marriage, but the fact that societies everywhere around the world have historically validated the same kind of marriage outlined in the Bible is affirmation of God’s design of a very good thing.


That is more or less where my understanding of marriage has landed after a bit of refinement from reading  Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage. But back to the book: Get it and read it. In addition to clarifying what marriage is and why it matters, Part 1 of the book outlines the societal shift that has happened in recent decades and recounts the history of recent changes in views on marriage. Part 2, What We Can Do For Marriage goes into the Christian responsibility for marriage, learning from the “gay liberation” agenda, some serious introspection with a call to repentance, things churches can and should do, and answers to common questions.

Throughout the book are brief interviews with with other Christian authors and otherwise notable folks addressing key issues related to marriage. For example, on page 88-89, Eric Teetsel fields several questions on What Same-Sex Marriage Means for the Church’s Role in Culture. Very insightful.

It was very interesting just how influential one book could be to the gay movement. After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90’s by Marshal Kirk and Hunter Madsen (1989) was a playbook for many in the movement (Chapter 8, pages 90-98), which outlined a 3-step process to change public opinion: Desensitize the public to the gay culture, portray anti-gay voices as bad guys “without reference to facts, logic or proof,” and convert the public through propaganda. It worked. Lessons to learn from this kind of movement are that sometimes a good story is better than a good argument. We have great stories to tell about life-long, natural marriages, and we should be telling them.

The emphasis that the authors put on the need for introspection and repentance by the Church was a surprise for a book written as a defense of marriage, but it’s warranted and appropriate. Christians corporately need to self-examine our motives and our approach, past and present, in how we treat our gay neighbors. Biblically, we are called to tell the truth about marriage and sexuality, but we are called to do it out of love and respect for gay people as fellow image-bearers of God. We need to humbly admit we’ve made mistakes before moving on. Here are a few questions from Sean and John (page 106):

• Have we told inappropriate jokes that slander or dehumanize gays and lesbians?
• Have we condemned another, using their homosexual sin to justify and coddle our own heterosexual sin?
• Have we physically or emotionally abused someone because they identify as gay?

MarriageIsAlreadyEqualThat said, most of the arguments put forth in defense of same sex marriage are flat out fallacious, most notably Strawmen (replacing the actual argument with one that is easier to defeat) and Ad Hominem (attacking a person’s character instead of the argument). We need to be aware of this and respond with well-reasoned answers (but “do so with gentleness and respect.”–1 Peter 3:15). We need to be aware of manipulative buzzwords, like discrimination, and realize that “not all discrimination is wrong. It’s often appropriate and necessary.” (pg. 26) The authors walk us through some “What if” scenarios and close with appendixes providing answers to pertinent questions and common challenges, including “Isn’t opposing same-sex marriage the same as opposing interracial marriage?”, and “Don’t you believe in marriage equality?” and the complex question (a trick question that assumes something not necessarily true), “Why do you hate gay people?” (pages 155-160).

But Christians have had their share of fallacious arguments in this debate. On John Stonestreet’s Breakpoint program, he featured a letter from a Christian condemning something she called “the Argument from Ickiness.” This is summed up in the sentiment “Being gay is icky, and the people who are gay are the worse kind of sinner you can be. Period, done, amen, pass the casserole.” Aside from being ignorant and wrong, this argument relies on pure emotionalism and zero rationale. For the past 30 years many who spoke against homosexuality have generally not had a real argument against it, but a childish “Yuck” reaction. After the influence of media and pop culture had finally succeeded in normalizing homosexuality by portraying gays as ordinary people looking for love like the rest of us, it led a lot of people, gay and straight, including our vice-president, to conclude that “I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.” The Argument from Ickiness was all many had against the movement, and it didn’t work anymore.

Sean and John’s book brings to light not only a right-headed rationale against gay marriage, but a right-hearted compassion for gay people—a clear answer for the need for both grace and truth that Christ calls us to. Marriage affects everyone eventually, and there is not a single Christian who will escape the question of what marriage is and the need to respond with a definitive position on same-sex marriage. This book is an incredible source for equipping Christians for what is here now and what lies ahead.

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