The Sanctity of Marriage
Marriage is an essential building block for the functioning of society. Throughout Scripture, family units, or ‘houses’ are seen as part of the basic building blocks of society. Marriage is an institution that provides stability for both clan and a nation; it is intended by God to be a place of nurture for children and a place of love and peace for members of a community, and for Christians it is the model used to explain the mystery of Christ’s relationship to the church (Eph 5:25-32). It is not, therefore, something to be tampered with lightly, nor re-defined casually.
In Genesis 2, the Lord says: ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him’ (v18). It continues: ‘for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh’ (v24). Although these verses do not purport to define marriage, they do describe its origin, and are therefore crucial for understanding the Bible’s teaching on marriage, which is both heterosexual and monogamous. This precludes all notions of homosexual marriage for both genders (Exod 22:19; Lev 18:22f cf Rom 1:26f). Some heterosexual unions are also prohibited (Lev 18:9-17; 20:11-21; Deut 22:30; 27:20-23), and bigamy, though evident in the Old Testament, is not ideal (Lev 18:18; Deut 17:17), being portrayed negatively (Gen 16:4ff; 21:10) or deemed problematic (Deut 21:15-17).
There are three principal purposes for marriage arising out of this: (i) the procreation of children; (ii) companionship, and (iii) sexual union. Marriage is a covenant before God, which is explicitly confirmed by Jesus when he states that marriage is that which ‘God has joined together’ (Mt 19:26). When Christ met the Samaritan woman and asked about her husband, he affirmed the truthfulness of her reply when she said she was unmarried (Jn 4:17b-18), thereby not recognising cohabitation as a marriage. Jesus refers to being ‘yoked together’ (Mt 19:6; Mk 10:9), meaning a profound union. The marriage covenant was designed by God to last until at least one of the spouses dies (Rom 7:2), though it could be severed by divorce.
Genesis 2:24 (cf Deut 24:4) contains the idea of the indissolubility of marriage, but exegesis of the terms ‘leave,’ ‘be united to,’ and ‘one flesh,’ is necessary to evaluate this. The word Hebrew term for ‘leave’ points to the establishment of a new unit in society. It is the word used in reference to religious apostasy (eg Deut 28:20; 31:16), and links with breaking the Covenant that Israel had with God (Deut 29:24). The word translated ‘cleave’ or ‘be united to’, in interpersonal relationships denotes the idea of commitment, loyalty, or close proximity. The crucial point of interpretation is contingent on the word translated ‘flesh’, which suggests that the first marriage was regarded as a kinship (‘flesh and blood’) relationship which supersedes all such blood relationships, even that of parent-child. It depicts the consequence of their bonding, which results in a new person. There is the element of full personal intercommunion of husband and wife at all levels of their lives.
In a postmodern world of moral relativism, the biblical ideal remains that marriage is an institution designed by God to form a lifelong relationship between one man and one woman. In today’s world there is a genuine concern for meaning and value in relationships, which is a concern for the quality and very soul of a relationship. Homosexuality and incest are simply perversions of the marriage covenant, not valid marriages, despite the recent actions of certain legislatures. Cohabitation, however, while traditionally viewed as fornication, may be viewed as a marriage insofar as there is an intention to meet the biblical criteria for marriage. In this context, ‘fornication’ may be perceived as the practice of casual sex; cohabitation can constitute a loving, stable relationship – indeed, some couples who are cohabiting may have a better ‘marriage’ relationship than many who have legal married status. It may therefore be termed an ‘embryonic marriage’, noting the only omission may be the lack of a formal ceremony and public recognition. Whether it ought to be recognised in law through the tax and benefits system is, however, quite a different matter. Yet Mr Cameron wants to recognise ‘gay marriage’, but not heterosexual cohabitation. This is profoundly flawed.
Scripture teaches that any sexual relationship makes a couple ‘one flesh’ (1Cor 16:6), with indications that the union is more than physical. Adultery forms a ‘one flesh’ relationship between two people who do not have a marriage covenant with one another, thus damaging the ‘one flesh’ relationship between the husband and wife. Genesis 2:24, and the implication of a ‘profound union’, suggest that when two people have sex, they become closely joined, helping to explain why extramarital and ‘casual’ sex is such an egregious sin, and ultimately destructive to society.
The Conservative Party is right to embrace marriage as the solution for addressing the problems of social decay. As Iain Duncan Smith has concluded, its demise contributes to high crime rates, low aspirations, low educational attainment and high dependency on the state. Michael Gove has Cranmer’s prayers as he battles for children, schools and families, not least because, as Professor Rowthorn writes: ‘children from broken homes generally do worse on every significant measure than those raised in stable families. They are more likely to leave school without qualifications, more likely to end up in prison, more likely to be poor, and more likely to raise children in broken homes themselves’.
And this is, by the way, a moral issue. It is fatuous to pretend otherwise, and deceitful to assert that it is not.