Understanding Marriage image

Understanding Marriage

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The last few years have seen considerable debate about same-sex marriage, especially between evangelical Christians and non-Christians. This debate is evidence of vastly different understandings of marriage between the two groups. Or so you would think.

In his recent book, Mere Sexuality: Rediscovering the Christian Vision of Sexuality, Todd Wilson argues that we actually face a very different problem: Christians and non-Christians do not have vastly different views on marriage; they are actually sharing the same view of marriage, and that is a precarious position for the Christian who believes that the Bible restricts marriage to opposite sex couples.

Wilson notes that in recent decades there has been a huge shift in understandings of what marriage is and argues that the church has gone with the flow of this shift. The view which is now held in most of society and the church is what he calls a ‘companionate’ understanding of marriage.

On this understanding, marriage is primarily about companionship – a deep, intimate, lasting relationship with another person… [M]arriage is an enduring commitment you make to another person because of an intense emotional connection you have with that person … [This view] is rooted in a sense that marriage fulfils our emotional and relational needs in a unique way that will last in intensity and power for a lifetime (pp.78-79).

There’s no doubt this is the view of wider society, but it’s also the view of many Christians. Think of Christian books, sermons, wedding ceremonies, wedding reception speeches, anniversary Facebook posts and more. 

But the biblical understanding of marriage is so much more than the companionate understanding; it’s about a ‘comprehensive union’.

According to the biblical and historic Christian view, marriage is a one-flesh union. It is not just an emotional bond or a relational connection you feel with someone. Rather, it’s a specific kind of union – a one-flesh union. It is a union of heart, mind, spirit, and body … It is a comprehensive union in which people join together not only mentally, emotionally and spiritually but bodily as well (pp.79-80).

Thus, marriage requires both exclusivity and permanence, not because of feelings, but because of the comprehensive union at the heart of marriage. (I was recently explaining the comprehensive union understanding of marriage to a couple soon getting married, and when they got it, they said with relief, ‘That takes the pressure off. It’s not about us keeping up some feelings. The marriage is there to help us stay united however we feel’. Exactly! The marriage covenant is the scaffolding which holds things together so you can keep working on the feelings).

But why does it matter if Christians and non-Christians are sharing the same understanding of marriage, so long as Christians are living God’s way and exhorting each other to do the same?

Well, it matters a lot. Under the companionate understanding of marriage, Christians have no reason to object to same-sex marriage other than to say, ‘Because God says so’. But that has no persuasive power to those outside of the church or indeed to many inside the church, and it doesn’t make the Bible’s teaching seem like good news to same-sex attracted people, which surely it must be. This matters.

If bodily union isn’t an essential part of your definition of marriage, then you won’t have a basis—again, apart from citing Scripture—for opposing same-sex marriage. If marriage is about finding your soul mate or sharing life together with your best friend, there’s no reason two people of the same sex can’t do that and be married, according to your definition. Apart from quoting the Bible, your only argument against this type of marriage is, well, personal preference (p.89).

If we want to truly love same-sex attracted people we need to be believing, speaking and living out the beautiful picture of God’s plan for human marriages: a comprehensive (re)union of man and woman. Only then will living God’s way make sense. Only then will it be good news for everyone. (And it will probably help our marriages quite a bit too!)

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