Plastic language, plastic marriage

I guess it is no surprise that the gay community are pressing for a change to the definition of marriage in the Commonwealth Marriage Act. I have been rather more surprised at the number of ‘ordinary Australians’ who apparently (at least according to the media) support the change. I have been absolutely amazed at the buzz amongst some quarters of the Christian community that we should lay down and die on this one.

But perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised and amazed.

Because we are relational beings at core, our sinfulness is probably seen more dramatically as we get closer to our core relationships. Sin against marriage is a key part of that inner evil that Jesus said spews out of our black hearts to cause damage in the external world (… sexual immorality… adultery… sensuality… Mark 7:20–23).

The picture gets worse, of course, when our Bible tells us that the devil actively opposes marriage (1 Cor 7:5; 1 Tim 4:1–3). This must be part of his core business, since he has been at it from the beginning. When he originally lobbied to get sin into the world, he did so through the first marriage (Gen 3:1-6). And when death also entered the world through sin, it immediately placed its scars upon future marriages (Gen 3:16). I imagine the serpent was smiling.

What a strange mix this brings. Our inner sinfulness leads us to oppose all things good, especially things at the core of human relationships—especially marriage—and to act as if a greater good is found elsewhere. Meanwhile, external satanic attacks gently undermines community perceptions of the goodness of God’s gifts (see Gen 3:4-5) and transforms them so that even the gift of marriage becomes viewed as a strange, restrictive, passé, or even oppressive relationship.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised that many don’t want to hold onto marriage defined as male and female. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so amazed that many Christians don’t seem to care enough to oppose this change of language.

After all, there has already been massive slippage in the definitional area relating to marital terms. Presumably starting as a tongue-in-cheek usage, a couple who have been simply ‘going out’ but cease to have this connection update their Facebook page to say they are now ‘single’ again—as if they were no longer single when they were ‘an item’. The presence of de facto marriages have exerted pressure on the politically-correct to call all couples ‘partners’ or ‘spouses’, thus deleting the presence of those who are actually married from the community’s language. Even the divorced or widowed can be referred to as ‘single’, despite the fact that their years of marriage have so affected their mental space and personal identity that it will never be the same as that of someone who had never married at all.

On the other hand, the Bible realistically describes various human relationships, showing the way towards healthy language (which breeds healthy thought and healthy practice).

On the negative side of the ledger, there are the sexually immoral, the fornicators, adulterers, the practitioners of homosexual relations, and the married who abstain from sexual relations with their wife/husband. If we are in one of those categories, we may not like the label, for it forces us to be what we have become, but at least it is clear. And it is just as clear what God thinks of such practices. They are so destructive of human life that he promises to judge the perpetrators—unless, of course, they embrace the forgiveness and renovation of life found in Jesus Christ.

On the positive side, there are those who have never married (the single), there are those who are married, there are those who are widowed, there are those who are divorced. Each is a distinct category of person, experiencing life and the grace of God in distinct ways. The clarity of the language enables each ‘class’ to ask: how do I now find the grace of God in my circumstances? What has he in store for me when life is like this?

I guess I should not be surprised that our inner sinfulness and Satan’s external willfulness has done such a good job on western society’s attitudes to marriage that our language has changed like plastic—and may change further unless the Lord shows Australia some more of his famous grace and mercy. It saddens me, however, that even within the Christian community, there are echoes of the world’s language. Don’t we realize that God’s grace flows through another kind of vocabulary?

9 thoughts on “Plastic language, plastic marriage

  1. Whilst you’ve made good points about the importance of marriage, and the importance of considering the labels we apply to things, I’d like to suggest that even the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman is a loose one.

    As a Christian, I believe that marriage is between a man, a woman, and God. In this light, I struggle to stand against ‘gay marriage’, when, in effect, marriage between two unbelievers is considerably different from the marriage I see prescribed in the Bible.

    At the end of the day, I don’t think clinging to the present definition of the word really achieves anything. It makes Christians seem almost bulldog-ish and blind in their defence. I think time would be much better spent highlighting a relationship between the man, the woman and God, instead of trying to hold on to the shadow that is merely “between a man and a woman”.

  2. Hi Fabian, and thanks for commenting. It’s really good to get the perspective of the Christian in the pews (and for everyone else, since Fabian sits in the pews of the place I preach in, I know he’s a fair dinkum bloke).

    You know what biblical marriage is, but you struggle to know whether it is worth standing against gay marriage, particularly (I think) because you see the definitions are already so loose in the secular arena. As Peter suggested, there are quite a lot of Christians like that now.

    To see if I can test your position a little, I wonder if I could challenge your distinction between ‘Christian’ marriage (my label, but what you call the man, the woman and God) and the ‘shadow’ (your label, merely a man and a woman).

    I am imagining you may be referring to Jesus’ words in Mark 10:6-9, where he quotes Gen 1:27 – God made us male and female – and Gen 2:24 – in marriage the man leaves parents, is joined to his wife and the two become one flesh. In particular, Jesus’ own conclusion in Mark 10:9 comes to mind, where he says,

    Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.

    Here is the third party you refer to in marriage: God!

    But here’s my question for you?

    Does Jesus’ definition of marriage only apply to believers? He certainly believed it applied to all Jews (presumably including those who did not combine the external benefits of knowing God’s Law with faith).

    But in fact, he’s basing his conclusion on the creation account in Genesis 1-2, where Adam and Eve stand at the head of all humanity, and so it seems it would be natural to think that this definition of marriage applies to all their descendants, not just those of the godly line (Seth), not just to believers.

    In other words, marriage is a ‘creation ordinance’, not a ‘redemption ordinance’. It belongs to all humans, but all humans would be wise to understand the way the Creator has ‘wired up’ marriage. Otherwise, they will be living ‘against the grain’.

    To put it another way. Does not God join together as one flesh two unbelievers when they marry, as much as he joins together two believers, even if the former couple do not realise it?

  3. More broadly, Justin Taylor over at his blog on the Gospel Coalition website, linked to John Piper’s article on this topic, recently written in light of his state (Minnesota) legislature’s decision to send to a referendum an amendment to make it explicit that marriage is only recognised there as being between one man and one woman.

    Piper’s thoughts are worth reading.

    Justin Taylor also writes,

    (For a compelling natural-law argument that “it is in the public interest for law and policy to take cognizance of [marriage] and support it,” I recommend this article by Robert P. George.)

  4. Hi Sandy
    I presume unbelievers will say: there is no such god and therefore such beliefs have no bearing on our marriages.  They would probably object to you expecting them to follow the precepts of your religion for the same reasons you would object to being subject to Sharia.

  5. Hello Brian, and I agree unbelievers would dispute whether Christian beliefs should have a bearing on their conduct.

    Of course, my comments here are directed towards Christians, such as my friend, Fabian. I am attempting to persuade Christian people that the way God has wired up marriage applies to all people not just to Christians.

    But when I am speaking into the public arena, as it were, I take a twofold approach:

    (i) I openly admit that as a Christian my beliefs are shaped by the Bible, accepted as God’s Word, and that the Bible defines marriage as heterosexual and that the alternative to marriage is celibacy.

    (ii) I also admit that I do not expect that non-Christians would be persuaded by that, although I might add that I think it wise for them to hesitate before dismissing the morality of the Judea-Christian worldview which has been such a positive force for good in our world.

    However I try to argue that reserving marriage as the exclusive union of one man and one woman for life is good for our society on the basis that others might evaluate independently of their religious commitment. I did this the other day with a politician, and we had a very helpful discussion.

    For example, I said…
    1. Many people thoughtlessly claim all discrimination is wrong. But actually we discriminate all the time, for example, on the basis of age, children are prohibited from certain activities, men cannot claim certain benefits that apply only to a mother and so on.

    2. In other words different situations may justify different treatment. I argue that marriage between a man and a woman is a different situation to a same-sex union, and this can justify some different treatments.

    (Personally I think a relationships register to ensure just treatment in regards to inheritance, property rights, default powers of attorney, and so on, is a very appropriate response for same sex unions, as well as for other types of union, such as single brother and single sister who live together all their life.)

    3. Whether we think our biology has come simply from evolution, or by design, most people agree we would be foolish simply to ignore our biology.

    4. Allowing for exceptions of medical technology, it still requires a woman and a man to produce children, and that will remain the case for the vast majority of circumstances. Here is an obvious qualitative difference between a same-sex union and a heterosexual union. The former can never produce a child. The latter has that potential inherently. Here is a reason to treat such unions differently.

    5. Acknowledging that there are exceptions for various circumstances such as single parenthood, and that individual homosexual parents may prove to be very good parents, most people would agree that it is still preferable for a child to be raised by a mother and a father, with the complementary strengths and natures they bring. That is the ideal we should aim for, though we may not always attain it. Here is an additional reason to privilege marriage between a man and a woman.

    6. The state has no business legislating in regard to a whole range of personal relationship matters (including sexual relationships). The reason it legislates in regards to marriage is to encourage high standards in regards to the protection of children and because the family is the building block of society.

    7. The fact that marriage – between a man and a woman – has been recognised as being in special category for treatment almost universally across cultures and through history should cause us to pause before removing that special treatment.

    I realise these arguments are clearly not accepted by all people. I am aware of some of the objections to them. But this is a blog comment, not a scholarly article with footnotes. I am just sketching the sort of directions one might go in the public arena, as a Christian trying to persuade the public in general and lawmakers in particular that keeping the traditional definition of marriage is a good thing. 

    The link to Robert George’s article gives more.

  6. I pretty much agree with Sandy, so I won’t say much, except to raise the point I raised in an earlier topic.  Robert George mentions it in this paragraph in his article:

    To those arguments, I will here add an additional reason to reject the idea of same-sex marriage: The acceptance of the idea would result in a massive undermining of religious liberty and family autonomy as supporters of same-sex marriage would, in the name of equality, demand the use of governmental power to whip others into line. The experience of Massachusetts as well as foreign jurisdictions is that once marriage is compromised or formally redefined, principles of nondiscrimination are quickly used as cudgels against religious communities and families who wish to uphold true marriage by precept and example.

    Maybe many “ordinary Australians” (whoever they are) might support the change, but I suspect they’d be horrified at the propaganda that could then arise to be taught to our kids in school, with the full backing of legal authority.  Well I guess this might provoke some sort of backlash, but here in Oz it would be unlikely to lead to a Minnesota-style referendum on this question.  More likely it would be a case of the horse being well and truly bolted.

  7. I don’t see it, Percy. I don’t see that a discussion on whether marriage is redefined so that two homosexuals can marry… “attack” on “traditional” marriage. But I fail to see it as an attack on MEN in any way. Opening marriage allows some men to enter into a legal contract (the idiots) that suits their way of life. So it expands the rights of some men.

  8. Good on you Peter for standing up for the right cause and being honest.

    I fully agree with you, and I hear what your’e saying about the apatthetic and lukewarm attitude of many believers out there toward this issue at the moment.

    This deeply saddens me.

    This is a serious issue and a lot more is at stake here than simply a change in name or cultural value.

    I believe that we as the church need to step up and take a determined and steadfast stand on this.

    Keep up the good work.

  9. Just a quick historical point, Peter – Modern Christians often point to the widespread use of the term ‘partner’ as evidence of changing attitudes to relationships. However the term ‘partner’ has a long tradition of use within marriage – I can point you to the loving letters of many eighteenth-century evangelicals who addressed their spouses as ‘my dearest partner’ etc. I think the meaning of the term has shifted since the eighteenth century, with the increasing use of that language in business – and undoubtedly it has been used for political reasons, as an alternative to husband or wife. However, it has a strong and meaningful history within Christian traditions of marriage – for good reasons, I believe, since it speaks to the shared duties of marriage – I would be reluctant to abandon it!

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