What Changes the Meaning of Marriage?

What Changes the Meaning of Marriage?

            I listened to a very intriguing conversation last night at my church.  One of the older members, who was married over fifty years before her husband passed away, was commenting on something a younger person had said.  This person has chosen to get divorced because “I just don’t feel like being married anymore.”  “And that’s so sad, it seems to me,” said the woman telling the story.  “Because, what can you say to that?  You can’t argue with that.”

The truth is, you can’t argue with that.  You can only argue with reasons.  When I was a kid, people got divorced for reasons.  You had to have a reason, usually, before the courts would let you have a divorce.  Not so anymore.  Now, you can get a divorce just because you feel like it. I know not every state has “no fault divorce” in law, but even states like California take some pretty vague excuses, like “irreconcilable differences.”  And regardless of the reason you may or may not have to give the judge, you don’t need any reason for your friends.  There is no social stigma attached to divorce, so you can just do it because you’re bored being married.

It didn’t used to be that way.  I’m not saying right now whether that’s good or bad; I’m simply making an historical observation.  I’m also drawing attention to the oft-repeated claim that this is “a Christian nation,” founded by Christians on Biblical principles.  And if you want to know the Christian understanding, it is this:



2 Some Pharisees came, and to test (Jesus) they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.’ 7 “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”




For much of our history, this was the understanding of marriage.  It is still preserved in the traditional “church wedding” ceremony, in the phrase “as long as you both shall live.”  Even entirely secular people, who have no inkling of what that might mean, still go to the effort to have a “real church wedding” where these words are intoned.  That is what marriage was about.  That is what sex was about.  Contraception led to a decoupling of sex from pregnancy, as would-be President Santorum has complained; but the real problem, the real social revolution isn’t that.  Once, sex led to pregnancy, and pregnancy led to marriage, and marriage was a life-long commitment.  If you wanted to be a good member of decent society, you got married and raised your children together.  It is often said that we can’t legalize gay marriage, because that would change the meaning of “marriage.”  Or more personally, the speaker sometimes says allowing gay marriage would change the meaning of his or her own marriage.  But if anything has changed the meaning of “marriage,” it is this idea of easy divorce.  I once read a news story that perfectly reflects the paradigm shift:  A young Hollywood debutant gushed to the assembled reporters, “I’m so excited to be getting married for the first time!”  Not surprisingly, she was divorced within a year.  The meaning of marriage has changed.  The meaning of my marriage has changed.  Once we all knew that the archetypal marriage was a lifelong commitment; now we simply assume that marriage, our own included, will end in a legal dissolution.  We still say the marriage “failed,” but soon I’m sure we’ll even give up that sort of evaluative language.

A prominent Christian marriage counselor once said that whenever someone comes to him thinking of divorce, his first question to that person is, “Who do you know who is getting a divorce?”  And he says that, usually, they have a close friend or family member who is divorcing.  Divorce is contagious.  You see one marriage near you go under, and you start to wonder about your own.  You see someone else becoming single again, and you start to consider it as a possibility for yourself.  On the other hand, no one wakes up one day, says, “Gee, if Bob can be gay, maybe I should think about it too.”

Would gay marriage change the social concept of “marriage?”  Sure; but so what?  Lots of things change the meaning of “marriage.”  It changed when it stopped being arranged by parents, as it was throughout the early days of Christianity.  It changed when it stopped being a contract between male and female to agree to produce children and raise them together, and became a commitment based on mutual love.  It changed when common-law marriage stopped being “common” and church marriage became the norm for everyone, not just nobles.  Anytime society changes, the meanings of central concepts change.

What changes the meaning of my wife’s and my marriage, what challenges the meaning of our marriage is the growing social acceptance of serial monogamy.  Heck, there’s almost social pressure against life-long marriage these days.  Barney Frank doesn’t threaten the viability of heterosexual marriage.  Ronald Reagan did.  No one considers “turning gay” because a prominent liberal politician is openly gay.  At worst, someone who was already gay decides to be honest about it.  But now, even Christian conservatives have an iconic role model who was divorced and remarried.  When conservatives start to feel like the marriage is falling apart—-and every marriage feels like that at some point—-they can’t really escape thinking, “Well, how bad could it be if Reagan did it?”  That’s the real difference.  That’s why Newt Gingrich is not defending the sanctity of marriage; Newt, Rush, and the other conservative serial monogamists are destroying marriage for everyone.  The unfaithful conservative changes the very meaning of “marriage,” from a life-long commitment to something optional, something you can rush into and out of as you wish.  The divorced liberal—well, if “liberal” means  “individual rights over community standards,” then by definition what “those people” are doing doesn’t matter much to “us.”  But when those who are “us,” who are even our leaders and role models decide to change the meaning of their own marriages, that changes the meaning of ours.

Now, the whole social context of marriage has changed, irrevocably, and not for the better as far as the institution of marriage is concerned.  Even if every gay in America had gotten married, in a lifetime and exclusive bond, that would not have changed the meaning of my marriage as much as the fact that marriage is now normally short-term, optional, and expedient.  Because there’s one thing that gay marriage could never have done:  change my heterosexual marriage into the minority option.  Reagan, Limbaugh, Gingrich, and the other defenders of morality have helped make my lifelong, monogamous relationship an endangered species.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

7 Responses to “What Changes the Meaning of Marriage?”

  1. Heather Says:

    The most powerful testimony for me came from John Bell, when he talked about a woman whose past had included a lot of sexual aggression and rape against her, and the only men she could experience true peace with were her gay neighbors. Although this is out of the direct scope of the above discussion, since this is a post directed mainly at the elements of society that oppose loving unions of any sort simply because they’re labeled “gay”, I do believe that it is important to add to the discussion my two cents, which is that human sexuality can always be good or bad, depending how the person(s) involved use it. I believe that there are plenty of cases where a loving homosexual couple produces good fruit together, and that there are plenty of cases where a heterosexual couple produces bad fruit. Bad fruit in a sexual relationship would be dominance, abuse, greed, lack of investment/care in the broader community, and many other things that a couple together can have a greater impact in than a person working alone. A couple that produces good fruit does the work of God better than they would alone-two become one, and two go farther than one. They produce peace, happiness, generosity towards others, and the love multiplies and multiplies. Heterosexuals sometimes point their fingers at “the other”, saying “that’s wrong,” when marital rape, domestic violence, and other forms of bad fruit exist and pose a much greater threat to God’s Kingdom on Earth than does homosexuality. Jesus told us to judge based on the fruit that is produced, and although there is no one perfect group of good-fruit bearers, any good fruit that comes from anywhere should be celebrated, because there’s too much other darkness out there to start imposing human-made limits on something we will never fully understand in this lifetime.

  2. Nemo Says:

    A day might come when the word “human” is expanded to include chimpanzees and monkeys, but it doesn’t make humans as they are now called any different.This is how I view the change of the word “marriage”. Marriage between a man and a woman, and the same-sex relationship, are different in nature. I’m not saying that one is superior or inferior to another, but they are different, and calling them using the same name doesn’t make them the same.

    Heather mentioned “fruit” in her comment above. I find it a bit amusing and ironic, because one of the differences, some have argued, between marriage and same-sex relationship is that the latter doesn’t bear “fruit”. I have quite a few friends who either are or support homosexuals, but none of them Christians, and I’ve always wondered how Christians reconcile their belief with homosexuality.

    • philosophicalscraps Says:

      Hopefully Heather will chime in; she could do a better job on this than I. I can tell you that many Christians do, in fact, support gay rights to some degree, and many support blessing same-sex unions. For example, some years back when UMC ministery Rev. Jimmy Creech was charged with heresy for blessing same-sex unions, his congregation supported him and he was in fact exonerated of the charges. Today, the ELCA, Episcopal Church U.S. the PC(USA) and several other Protestant denominations either support the ordination of homosexuals in a committed relationship, or at least allow individual churches to make the choice if they would accept a gay pastor.

      The use of “fruit” of course is ambiguous. Genesis 2 says, “Be fruitful and multiply.” However, Jesus said, “By their fruits you shall know them,” referring not to children but to good works. In my own college experience, I saw my roommate go from being a very neurotic professing heterosexual Catholic with an interest in the occult to being a clean, well adjusted transgendered pastor in the Metropolitan Community Church (because the Presbyterians would not have ordained her at that time). Which would God want more: a bad Catholic who struggles to live as a heterosexual despite self-loathing and constant disappointment, or a transgendered woman who actively seeks to serve the Lord and do good for society?

      Leaving aside the rather significant theological/dogmatic issues for the moment, this is a multi-faith nation, with a Constitutional ban against the government endorsing any particular religion or endorsing religion over unbelief. We can’t enforce Christian teachings on divorce upon non-believers, or even on professing Christians who (like Newt Gingrich) marry and divorce as casually as they replace an old car. Is it politically moral to enforce some Christian traditional values (like heterosexuality) and not others? Theologically, it seems inconsistent and hypocritical; socially, it seems immoral. However, if I can throw Gingrich in jail for divorcing his sick wives, and Santorum in jail for not selling all he has (a considerable fortune by my standards) and giving it to the poor (Mark 10:21) then I’ll discuss enforcing Pauline ethics on society. As it is, enforcing the rules Jesus actually asked us to follow is denounced as “socialism” while things never mentioned by Jesus and only occasionally discussed by Paul are apparently the only things true Americans/Christians should care about.

  3. Heather Says:

    What has been traditional marriage has changed many times over human history. It has been largely a socio-economic arrangement between two families, and if we were to transport ourselves back to what is called the “Early Modern Era”, the 17th and 18th centuries, we’d find ourselves faced with a definition of marriage completely different from our own. By changing the definition of marriage from one mainly concerned with a man and a woman and the economic concerns of childrearing, to one about two people who love and commit their entire selves to the other has been developing for centuries.  Tom Jones by Henry Fielding is one of the first stories of a young couple overcoming impossible societal constraints in order to marry according to their hearts, written in the mid-18th century.  At this point, we are at an undeniable point where the common, unspoken definition of marriage is one that includes personal fulfillment and love. There’s nothing that I see in that which is different for same-sex couples.  After all, aren’t there are infertile couples and people who don’t want children living in what would be called marriage? 

    When I talk about a person’s “fruit”, I am talking about the impact that person has on those around him or her. A homosexual person has every opportunity to have a positive impact as a heterosexual; to disagree is to espouse the idea that homosexuals are sub-human, not as good as “us”. To say that a homosexual couple can’t do good in the world is the same thing.

    A Christian who supports same-sex marriage does so because s/he believes that Jesus came into the world on the side of love, and “not to condemn the world”. We are taking the side of the oppressed which we see as heritage of God’s mission on Earth. We also see love and fulfillment for all people as being part of God’s plan for humans and human sexuality. I think that a lot of us come out on the side of equality because we’ve witnessed the damage done to young homosexuals by a scared and bigoted society, and whatever else we may believe or think, we’re at the very least sure that this can’t be God’s plan for human love and interaction. If you make loving your neighbor your first priority in life, a different kind of interaction and a new conversation takes place. Homophobia has long been with humans, however it is not one native to Christianity and was considered as wrong by early Christian groups. There was a time when this issue was a pagan one, and I think it’s high time for Christians to banish homophobia back to a non-Christian corner.

  4. Nemo Says:

    There are many aspects of marriage, biological, personal, social, and ethical etc. They have always been part of marriage and though there have been change in emphasis, the essentials have not changed over the centuries, to me at least.

    The bare minimum of marriage, i.e., the biological aspect, is preservation of the individual (i.e., his set of genes). Projected on a larger scale, it is the continuation of the family line, and the survival of the people and the nation. Marriage is not just an affair between two individuals, but it concerns members of the two families, and even of the two races. I think this is why, in the Bible, marriage between pagan idol worshipers and God’s people is strictly forbidden.

    Come to think of it, Tolstoy’s famous line “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is right on, Because for a marriage to be happy, almost every aspect of marriage would need to be in place, and if one aspect goes wrong, it would make an unhappy marriage.

    Homosexual relation is missing the essential aspect of marriage, so to me, it is different in nature.
    (to be continued)

  5. Nemo Says:

    On the one hand, I agree with the principle of separation of church and state, and consider it pharisaical to enforce Christian teachings on non-believers; OTOH, even from an atheistic pov, it doesn’t make sense at all to equate marriage with same-sex relationships.

    (As an aside, if we want to acknowledge and reward loving and committed relationships, why not promote friendship, which most likely lasts longer than the other two nowadays? If two friends decide to adopt and raise children together, shouldn’t they also get tax credit as couples do?)

    To love and respect someone doesn’t mean to agree with all his opinions and endorse all his actions. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, But the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” If I’m not terribly mistaken, the traditional Christian position on homosexuality is to “love the sinner but hate the sin”, because it is condemned in the Bible, both OT and NT. So I’m very curious to hear from those who support it, their rationale for it.

  6. jasonmsilverman Says:

    “The Bible contains six admonishments to homosexuals and 362 admonishments to heterosexuals. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love heterosexuals. It’s just that they need more supervision.” –Lynn Lavner

    On a more serious note, it is actually quite difficult to discuss issues around sexuality and marriage in the Bible, as modern understandings of both are light-years away from norms when both testaments were written. Even the term “homosexual” is a 19th Century coinage. In fact, in my opinion, most studies from both angles are done rather poorly. One needs to move from the ancient texts to the modern situation, rather than the reverse.

    To address the issue of the post, the theology of sexuality in general is something the church has largely failed to address in any meaningful manner, which means that any understanding of marriage which is predicated on an understanding of sexuality is going to be shaky at best.

    At present, in my thinking, there are several questions which ethically need to be asked of any relationship: is it coercive? is there an imbalance of power? is it consonant with a well-rounded life? is it in the best interest of both people involved?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: