The definition of marriage

The following is an idea that I’ve had in the file for months — I figured I’d get around to it eventually.  But all the controversy surrounding the overturning of California’s Proposition 8 kind of brings it to the front burner.

To recap the situation for non-Californians and/or people who don’t follow sexual politics: in November 2008, Golden State voters, by a small margin (52% to 48%) passed Proposition 8, aka “the California Marriage Protection Act.”  It amended the state constitution’s Declaration of Rights, saying that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”  The proposition overturned a California Supreme Court ruling from earlier in the year, allowing people of the same sex to marry.   (Full disclosure: I voted for it, too.)  Needless to say, Proposition 8’s victory generated some controversy among homosexual activists and those who support them, many of whom were quite vehement in their denunciation of the vote.

(As an aside, you know who probably was most responsible for Proposition 8 passing?  Barack Obama.  No, really.  Obama’s presence on the ballot, naturally, caused a huge increase in the number of African-Americans going to the polls that election — and African-Americans voted in favor of Proposition 8 by something like a 7-to-1 margin.  Bet you’ll never hear Keith Olbermann or Sean Penn bring that up.  Or, for that matter, Bill O’Reilly or Randy Thomasson …)

Well, the opponents of Proposition 8 sued, and last week federal district court judge Vaughn Walker ruled the proposition unconstitutional, citing the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  (The Fourteenth Amendment, incidentally, was voted into the Constitution during Reconstruction to protect newly freed black slaves.  That 7-to-1 margin makes more sense now, doesn’t it?)  However, at present he hasn’t formally entered his ruling and is allowing for further motions from both sides.

So now supporters of Proposition 8 — including most American evangelicals — are the ones up in arms, decrying the ruling as an attack on the institution of marriage.  One person I’ve read said that pretty soon one will legally be able to marry one’s dog or cat, at the rate things are going.  (No, I’m not kidding, someone said that!)  Regardless, the case is expected to be appealed to the Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals, and whoever loses there will undoubtedly appeal it again to the Supreme Court; that’s how these things usually go.

In the midst of all this, I have a question: What is the definition of a marriage?

I mean, that would be central to the issue, wouldn’t it?  How you define marriage would determine whether or not you are for or against Judge Walker’s ruling.  If your goal is to “protect” marriage (apparently the intent of Proposition 8’s drafters, given its title), it would delineate the territory you’re protecting.  And I don’t think too many of Proposition 8’s evangelical supporters would object to an appeal from Scripture for a definition, so let’s go there.

It seems to me that the basic definition resides in the account of the first marriage, in Genesis 2:24, when Adam was introduced by God to Eve: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”  Jesus cited the same verse in Matthew 19:4-6, adding, “So they are no longer two, but one.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no man separate.”

So I think we have a working definition here — according to the Bible, marriage is a permanent, lifelong union between a man and a woman, made one entity in the sight of God. (It also comes close to the definition of marriage in Roman Catholic theology, so there’s an extra precedent.)  One man, one woman, ’til death do they part — that acceptable to you?

If it is, then the arguments against Proposition 8 fall flat, and “same-sex marriage” isn’t marriage at all.  However, if that definition is acceptable, then a huge percentage of heterosexual marriages in the American church aren’t marriages at all, either.

Read those again — a permanent union.  A lifelong commitment.  No exit signs posted except the one at the cemetery gate.  That’s what the Bible, for the most part, says about marriage.  But is that really how we treat marriage in the American church?  Not according to George Barna and other pollsters, whose studies show that the divorce rate among those who claim to be “born again” is roughly the same as those with no religious affiliation at all.  Not according to my own informal observations, given how many marriages between Christians I’ve seen break up in the nearly 23 years since I gave my life to Christ.

That passage from Matthew 19 I quoted earlier?  The context was that some religious folks were quizzing Jesus on whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife.  (You’d think that Malachi 2:16 would’ve been enough for them.  Apparently not.)  After His answer, they pressed Him further, and He added, “anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”  In short, unless your spouse has broken the Seventh Commandment, no, you can’t divorce her — and if you do and remarry, you’re breaking that commandment!

Adultery (“marital unfaithfulness”) is one of only two reasons clearly stated in Scripture as reasonable grounds for dissolving a marriage.  The other (see 1 Corinthians 7:15) is if a Christian is abandoned by an unbelieving spouse — and even there, the Apostle Paul hedges it with the caveat “I say this (I, not the Lord).”  Furthermore, between verse 10 and verse 14, he gives three separate admonitions against divorce.  (There may be a third grounds, not as clearly mentioned: physical abuse.  I’ve heard Jack Hayford, among other preachers, argue from Scripture that it’s legitimate; I don’t recall which verses they cited, but would still tend to agree pending further study.)

Now … of the divorces among couples where both spouses claim to be Christians, what percentage were because of adultery, abandonment or abuse?  I don’t have statistics — and if you know of any, do let me know — but if it was even 20%, I’d be shocked.  Almost all the ones I hear about are due to “irreconcilable differences” — legal-ese for “I just don’t want to be married to you anymore.”  If that is the only “reason” given, then it clearly wasn’t a permanent or lifelong union.  And therefore, according to a Biblical definition, it’s wasn’t a marriage at all.

Peter DeRosa is a former Catholic priest turned historian and novelist.  Several years back, he wrote a funny novel called Pope Patrick, centering around a future Pope who shakes up the Vatican establishment.  There’s an interesting conversation between the Pope and his American secretary, Frank Kerrigan, that pertains to this issue at hand.  Frank has just mentioned to Patrick that the cardinal archbishop of New York had requested the Pope write an encyclical on divorce:

“Does New York want me to condemn divorce or approve it?”

Patrick often used Frank as a sounding board for his own views but this question was stranger than most.  “How could you not condemn it?”

… The Pope answered, “No?  What, then, is marriage?”

Frank called to mind a definition from moral theology.  “An exclusive lifelong commitment of man and woman to each other for the sake of children.”

“Do most Americans have that in mind when they wed?”

Frank shook his head.  “Lifelong?  No.  Children?  Many exclude them altogether.”

“Cardinal Burns should be happy, then.  These folk are not really getting divorced because they were never married.  They are only dissolving their adulteries.”

Read that last paragraph over and you’ll see what I’m getting at.  If married Christians are not committed to a permanent relationship with their spouses, dissolvable only under circumstances of death, adultery, abandonment by an unbelieving partner, or maybe physical abuse, then they’re not really married at all — not according to God’s Word, anyway.  What they have is no different from what Ellen DeGeneres and her “wife” has.  It is only, as the old quote says, “a sort of friendship recognized by the police.”  And it’s no more holy in the sight of God than a one-night stand.

So how about this “modest proposal”?  How about we, as people of God, let the government do whatever they darn well please with what it recognizes as marriage — but at the same time get our own house in order, and perform and recognize within our own councils only those marriages which are lifetime commitments between a man and a woman?  How about instead of trying to get the world to act like the church, we start working on trying to get the church to act like the church is supposed to?  What if we stated up front to anyone who wants to be married in the congregation, “either do it for life or don’t do it at all — and we will hold you to your promise”?  Maybe some people would leave.  Maybe some would sue.  And maybe, just maybe, some would start taking their vows more seriously and not following the bad example of so many other Christians (including many high-profile ones) who divorce and remarry as if there are no consequences in earth or Heaven.

And if the state says, “you have to perform marriage ceremonies for gay couples, or else,” we can tell them we’ll choose “else.”  We might lose non-profit status, maybe even some buildings.  Better to lose a sanctuary and gain our souls, serving God rather than man just as Jesus’ apostles told the authorities in Acts 5:29.  They didn’t have their own buildings, or 501 (c) iii status, or all the other government-sanctioned accoutrements that the American church takes for granted.  They were actively opposed by the government, and pretty much had nothing but God and each other.  And all they did was turn the world upside down.

Because if American church leaders and members are going to continue to allow the formation and dissolution of adulteries and call it “marriage”, while at the same time pushing “marriage protection acts” to be enforced on those outside the church … well, sorry, but that dog don’t hunt.  And we deserve all the scorn the world heaps on us for our hypocrisy.


7 Responses to The definition of marriage

  1. Inglan says:

    What about marriages that are lifelong that don’t include children?

  2. Daniel Eng says:

    Thanks for this insight, I really appreciated reading your thoughts on the issue of marriage. Divorce and adultery are more of a threat to the institution of marriage than we think.

  3. Ray Anselmo says:

    The part about children was the definition from Catholic moral theology, not the definition I drew from Scripture. I think you’re okay. However, if you’re a devout Catholic, you might want to discuss it with your priest, just in case.

  4. Marshall says:

    The Inventor of love, weddings and more, presents marriage as something alien-freakish to Californians: life-to-death commitment that includes written provisions for having two or more wives! [“If he takes to himself another woman, he may not reduce her food, her
    clothing, or her conjugal rights.” Exodus 21:10]
    (Still think a man who puts away a wife for adultery can’t marry one who hasn’t?)
    Like the masses, casual-secular (“evangelical”) Christianity holds a dance card for a lesser marriage, while even Bible beat attempts to define or institutionalize marriage [a mystery] always make it lesser so. The State(s) would rather unload from it altogether. What a nuisance! How can magistrates administrate what exists between God and man with a woman?
    Marrying marriage to civil order has provided a false front for sickly domestic relationships, while “free love”, easy divorce and fruitless unions uncover old national nakedness: there have been “gay marriages”, zoological unions, gold fevered infatuations and other worthless things amid California since before her Union entrance in 1850.
    Genuine marriage needs no “protection”: true marriage is indelible. Like “Christian”, marriage is often a word applied as a label branding. You & I will always need to look beyond the labels, and to the contents of each one. If mislabeled, just leave it where you found it?
    [Revelation 22:11]
    Very soon, the Judge of the Earth is coming to clear the shelves and torch that mall.
    “The church” is full of the world, which is full of adulteries and unable to be administrated back to Jesus Christ or His Marriage. A rule won’t function; not even a pulpit majority can be found for the Truth. They sure ain’t gonna divorce the building or the 501 for what they don’t love more.

  5. Dairl says:


    I’m not going to bother arguing with you about the same-sex marriage issue itself, as I think our views are polar opposites, and our attempting to debate it would probably create more heat than light.

    I did want to point out that, when you try to define marriage in this essay, what you are talking about is marriage as Christians define it (or should define it, or should practice it, or whatever). However, the fact remains that marriage is also a *legal* relationship, under the auspices of the state–and therefore the state can define it however it chooses (through the processes of legislation, the judiciary, etc.).

    Since there is no established religion in the United States under the First Amendment to the Constitution, it doesn’t matter how the Bible defines marriage, at least as far as the legal definition of marriage is concerned. Churches and other religious institutions can still perform, sanctify & bless marriages (or refuse to do so) according to their own rules; and that is as it should be. I’m unaware of anything in the recent court ruling that would require churches to perform same-sex marriages. It would be extremely unwise of the government to attempt to do so, anyway.

    Christians can, of course, debate what the legal definition of marriage ought to be within their own states and nations, and argue for their own points of view. But as you so rightly point out, they might do better to get their own houses in order, and do whatever needs to be done to support and uphold healthy marriages within their own ranks, before they try to point fingers at same-sex couples (who, after all, simply want the same legal protections and advantages of marriage for their own loving, long-term relationships).

    Yours sincerely,


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