We live in an age of hedonic marriage. The unconscious perception of marriage as an institution is something akin to “legally-sanctioned boyfriend and girlfriend,” an arrangement that lasts as long as both are “happy.” Under this view, augmenting personal happiness is the core function of marriage. When it ceases to provide sufficient novelty and enjoyment, it is jettisoned. (Often this leads to blowing up an established family, ejecting the other party from the home, and collecting cash & prizes from them under implicit threat of violence from the state. All people are sinful and would likely do such things if properly tempted, but in our current legal climate this is overwhelmingly done by women.) Marriage is seen as some kind of bucket-list item rather than a serious institution meant to create a family. Something ordained by God has become transformed into nothing more than a vendible commodity, to be enjoyed for a brief time if desired and then disposed of. What an unspeakable tragedy.
Redefining words can be a theological statement. (Actually, it can be arguably claimed that every statement is theological.) People used to ask why Christians were so upset about same-sex marriage when “it wasn’t hurting anybody.” The answer is that it was a sad reminder that our culture is changing the definition of marriage from “man and wife” to “a pair of (currently) willing adults,” which is not what marriage is. In forcing us to deny the truth, they may as well force us to deny Christ; the reason we worship Christ in the first place is because he’s the True God, not because he’s the “Useful God.”
Similarly, that our government equates “father” with “current boyfriend” in terms of taxes, child support, etc. is yet another assault on the truth. What is seemingly a question of semantics is actually the conceit that objective, universal truth does not exist and “morality” is simply whatever we can get away with.
You don’t have to be an Anglican to appreciate the impact that the 1662 Book of Common Prayer has had on English-speaking Christians for the last 400-ish years. Of course your tastes may be different, but I have always appreciated Early Modern English prose and verse.
Anyway, I bring this up because I think it’s possible that the divines who lived at that time, imperfect yet not blinded by the spirit of our age, may have something to teach us about marriage. Allow me to quote from the Form of Solemnization of Matrimony:
DEARLY beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this Congregation, to join together this man and this woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee; and is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all men: and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.
First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.
Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.
Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.
Into which holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined.
In summary, the BCP says that marriage is ordained:
and further, it is not to be taken in hand unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly or to satisfy carnal desire. This sounds a lot different than what you see in popular culture. Conspicuously, I find no reference to unmodified “happiness.”
So is marriage some kind of cold business-type relationship? Hardly. If you aim at the true goals for marriage (start a loving family, create a safe harbor against the world and sin, help and comfort each other throughout life), you’ll find that real and lasting happiness will result: the kind that can only come from following God’s design. Aim for mere “happiness” and you’ll end up with nothing - as you will in all other hedonic pursuits.
Here are some common criticisms directed against the institution of marriage by modernists.
The notion of lifetime monogamy comes from a time when the average life expectancy was less than 40. It’s simply unrealistic to expect people to stay together or even stay friends over an 80+ year lifespan.
This assertion of shorter lifespans in the past — which is used to explain everything from divorce to cancer rates — is based on faulty reasoning. Yes, it’s true that the statistical average lifespan was a lot lower 100 years ago. However, it’s important to understand that most of our “increased average lifespan” is due to the dramatic decrease in infant and early childhood mortality — thanks to sanitation, antibotics, vaccines, etc. (Yes, I know some vaccines have problems… that’s another discussion entirely.)
But back in the old days, if you managed to pass through the childhood disease gauntlet, you had almost as good a chance to live to a ripe old age as modern people do. Look at your own family tree. You’ll probably discover — as I did — plenty of people who lived to ripe old ages, with little or no medical care. And the ones who lived til their 80s or 90s, stayed married til death did them part.
Simply put, the “average lifespan was 40” doesn’t mean everyone dropped dead at 40. An equally simplistic picture, but one which is much closer to the truth, is to say that half the population died as infants, and the other half lived to 80, hence the “40 average.”
Ok, so some people think it’s a sin or whatever to have sex outside marriage or to raise children without being married or to divorce when you’re unhappy and drag your kids along to two or three other marriages. But how can they tell me what to do? That’s a moral thing, and morality is subjective.
I’ve pointed out before that morality cannot exist apart from teleology and that it is objective, so I won’t rehash those arguments here. Yet I will demonstrate that, even absent any religious motivation, there is a very good reason that rules for marriage were established. As with traffic rules, you ignore them at your own peril.
Early rules of morality were rational. Morality wasn’t arbitrarily made up by men to control flighty, helpless women; it promoted (and still does) the kind of basic order that ensures a future for civilization. And yes, “economic” is the correct word – not in the modern sense of a complex “economy” full of variables and conditions, but the basic economics of survival – natural consequences. Some of the most wise words I’ve ever heard, came from an econ professor at a liberal arts college. “Every decision is an economic decision, an analysis of cost and benefit.” In a world of surplus resources, it’s easy to become oblivious to the real costs and real benefits of our actions.
Religion and, by extension, marriage, is just a control mechanism from medieval times that lets the powerful meddle in our lives. I’m going to do whatever I want instead because I’m a free man!
Who’s more free? A drug addict or someone who’s not a drug addict only because his society makes it difficult for him to get started?
It’s interesting to note that the very root of the word “religion” is ligare, a Latin word meaning to bind, as with a cord. (From ligare we get our word ligament.) Unlike what you’d see with a con perpetrated on unsuspecting peasants, the word to describe what we do in service to God and man was intentionally chosen from the beginning to mean “something that binds.” Any well-adjusted adult knows that discipline is essential for a good life. The Christian takes it even further: he does not seek to gratify his every desire as a base hedonist; nor does he attempt to fully detach himself from all thoughts like some mystical Eastern ascetic. Rather, he meditates on the things of God and seeks to order his thoughts rightly.
Don’t be deceived - plenty of modernists dress up their arguments in religious language. The irony is, they’re right. God is love. Marriage is about love. The problem is that they haven’t the first clue what love really is.
Love isn’t something you feel, it’s something you do. Love involves sacrifice and serving the other. The childish modern preoccupation with needing constant novelty and excitement and butterflies every moment for a “romantic” relationship to be valid is tragically misguided. A husband and wife are already as close as two people can be - through the mystery of one flesh. Love in this context will of course result in much affection and enjoyment and laughter. Love in marriage creates an immensely comforting safeguard from the cares and worries of the world. Far from being some fleeting target that must be chased, it often permeates so completely the souls of the man and woman involved that they may spend hours at a time blissfully sitting by the fire without needing to speak one word aloud.
(credit Dalrock for most of these insights)
What the moderns and postmoderns (and sadly, most modern Christians) have done is place romantic love above marriage. Instead of seeing marriage as the moral context to pursue romantic love and sex, romantic love is now seen as the moral place to experience sex and marriage. This inversion is subtle enough that no one seems to have noticed, but if you look for it you will see it everywhere. (If I had been thinking clearly I would have named it as one of the enemy’s stealth weapons. SW1 comes close.)
Lifetime marriage, with separate defined roles for husband and wife and true commitment is what makes sex and romantic love moral in the biblical view. In our new view, romantic love makes sex moral, and the purpose of marriage is to publicly declare that you are experiencing the highest form of romantic love. Thus people now commonly refer to a wedding as “making our love official”.
In contrast, within Christian sexual morality there is the marriage bed, and then there is fornication. The new, false version of sexual morality replaces that with the female preferred form of promiscuity (serial monogamy). Fornication becomes moral if it there is “commitment” (male investment) and romantic love involved. What this does is ensure that the promiscuous female can secure investment from the men she has sex with. If this were instead feral male sexuality presented as morality the rule would be that sex was moral so long as the woman was willing to be part of a harem. In reality, there is no commitment on the table here: only two parties engaged in promiscuous sex. Our feminist culture teaches us that promiscuous sex is moral if men agree to play the promiscuity game on the woman’s terms. How many people do you know who would even notice a problem with this?
I would guess that 99% of pastors would be astonished if they could understand how intensely beautiful biblical marriage actually is, in all of its profound simplicity. Instead, when many preach from Ephesians 5 or 1 Corinthians 7 (if they even do so), they have to sprinkle in a generous amount of “Oh, I know the Bible says”submit to your husband," but what it REALLY means is …" They keep trying to put ketchup on lobster to cover up the taste. Marriage is of course complex, but if you follow the incredibly simple rules set out in the NT it is something of intense beauty, what engineers and mathematicians refer to when they say “elegant”.