Redefining Marriage

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This morning in our series on the Bible and current issues I have been asked to consider the subject of Redefining Marriage. That is obviously current because of the Government’s proposals to redefine marriage to include same-sex unions. But to approach this with the right attitude, can I say, at the outset, two things.

First, none of us should have an attitude of being “holier than thou” in regard to sexual attraction. Dr Vincent, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, once wrote: “In God’s view I suspect we are all sexual deviants. I doubt if there is anyone who has not had a lustful thought that deviated from God’s perfect ideal of sexuality.” Christ alone was perfect. Hebrews 4v15 says:

“We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way [presumably that includes sexually], just as we are--yet was without sin.”

So he understands how people can fail. He understands sin, he forgives sin, but he never condones sin. And by his Holy Spirit he can strengthen us to deal with temptation.

Secondly, we must make a distinction regarding the English word “judgment”. We must distinguish between judgment as evaluation and judgment as condemnation. The latter for us is wrong, as God alone can judge in the sense of “condemn”. So Jesus said (Matthew 7v1), "Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” But in Galatians 6v1 you read:

“Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.”

You must always recognise sin for what it is. But do not then be condemnatory of the sinner. If you are trying to help someone else to repent, always say to yourself: “There but for the grace of God go I!”

Well, so much by way of introduction. This morning I will be referring to Mark 10v1-12. But I will be referring to other passages as well. And my headings are: first, WHAT IS MARRIAGE? secondly, WHAT IS REDEFINING MARRIAGE? and, thirdly, HOW SHOULD WE REACT?


Let me list at least four truths about marriage.

First, it is a universal institution. Heterosexual couples bearing and raising children in a relatively durable union have been found universally in history and around the world. And because marriage is a universal institution that is why there are not two sorts of marriage – one for the world and one for the church. No! What happens in a church wedding is that, one, God is called to witness to the vows of the couple and not just family, friends and the registrar; and, two, the vows contain the words, “according to God’s holy law”. So the couple are promising quite overtly to live in their marriage (their part of universal marriage) as God intends and Jesus and his apostles taught.

Secondly, marriage is a divine institution. Jesus was so clear. As we heard from Mark 10, he taught the early Christians to go back to Genesis 1 and 2 for an understanding of marriage. And we can see from Ephesians 5v31 how they did just that. So what is Genesis saying? Well, it tells us the first commandment to the man and the woman is (Genesis 1v28) …

“… be fruitful and increase in number.”

It is about having children. Then, in Genesis 2v18 you read:

“The LORD God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’”

So it is also about companionship between a man and a woman. For the creation of Eve is the creation of a woman for a man, not a man for a man, or a woman for a woman. And then Genesis 2 verse 24 says:

“For this reason a man [and ‘man’ is singular - so marriage is an exclusive union between two individuals, not more] will leave his father and mother [leaving is a definite and public event – not a private one] and be united to his wife and they will become one flesh [their union is sealed through sexual intercourse, but note, this comes after that definite and public leaving and so rules out all pre-marital sexual intercourse; people not called to marriage are called to celibacy].”

Marriage is, therefore, a divine creational institution, built into the fabric of human existence. It is not a chance political structure. Individually, it is a socially recognised and socially endorsed setting up of a new social unity within which children will be raised.

Thirdly, it is a necessary institution. Jesus himself added to those words in Genesis 2v24 that we read in Mark 10v8-9:

“So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore, what God has joined together, let man not separate.”

This means that the union must be life-long. For society’s good, for the couple’s good and for any children’s good, marriage is necessary as a permanent institution. And note that in marriage it is God who is doing the joining, not the couple. He is joining together a man and a woman in a supernatural bond. And Jesus said, “let man not separate” that bond. Yes, he realised that sometimes “man” does. But here he says that is wrong and the subsequent remarrying is wrong. So marriage is necessary because of its permanence – and not least for security for the children.

But it is also necessary as a permanent institution. The old Book of Common Prayer Marriage Service says that marriage is “an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency – (that refers to Genesis 1 and 2 before the Fall. And the Fall is recorded in Genesis 3)”. “An estate” (or “an institution”) is an important word. For marriage is not simply a relationship. Rather it is the God-given institution to assist the couple’s relationship. As an institution (with rules and structures) it is that within which a couple work out their relationship. It is like a protection or fence that is still there even when the relationship is not strong. An institution has a life of its own. So it can act on those within it. And marriage does just that. It can help and strengthen the couple. That is why marriage should not be corrupted. So marriage is a necessary institution.

Fourthly, it is a fragile institution, for marriage can be corrupted. Genesis makes it clear that marriage is to be a permanent and exclusive heterosexual union of one man and one woman. But as you read on in the Bible soon you see marriage degenerating into polygamy and with men having sex with women outside marriage, female incest and homosexual sex. All of these the New Testament makes clear are wrong. Sadly, throughout history marriage and sexual relationships can get corrupted. That is why at certain times laws are passed to protect marriage.

Just before Jesus’ birth it was such a time in the Roman Empire. So the Emperor Augustus in 18 and 17 BC brought in laws to encourage marriage and for people to have children. He also made adultery a crime. So never think sexual and marital decadence is a one way street and inevitable. Societies can try to reform and do reform. This happened as a result of the evangelical revival in the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain. But unfortunately that period of moral recovery did not last long into the 20th century. Certainly in the last third there was moral decline, with moves now afoot in the 21st century virtually to destroy marriage. Yes, I believe it is as serious as that.

Let me explain why as we move on to our second heading WHAT IS REDEFINING MARRIAGE?

We must be clear as to what it is we are being asked to redefine. One definition can be understood, again, from the old Prayer Book marriage service. That says of marriage …

“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 [illicit sexual intercourse]; 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.”

Today’s world is more and more treating marriage solely from the perspective of that third reason - adult emotional satisfactions. So Cranmer, who was behind the old Prayer Book, is a good corrective.

For, first, the Service is saying marriage is for “procreation” - for the conception and birth of new human beings - following Genesis’ first commandment to the man and woman. Marriage presupposes that a man has no trouble being a parent of a child by impregnating a woman. For that is instinctive. But a man needs to be helped to stay with that woman and support her as a husband. And as a Father he needs to be helped to care for his children. For a man, that is far less instinctive. But the institution of marriage (on average) provides that help. It strengthens the bond between the man and the woman and the children.

Secondly, the old service says marriage provides for legitimate sexual pleasure.

And, thirdly, it facilitates the couple’s mutual love and care.

But marriage is now being redefined by excluding the Prayer Book’s first two reasons for marriage, namely, one, the procreation of children and their nurture and, two, its being the only legitimate environment for human sexual intercourse.

Without formally redefining marriage, over the last forty years the elimination of marriage as the only legitimate environment for human sexual intercourse, has happened subtly and progressively, in Britain and West and among a world-wide global intelligentsia. This is through all sorts of social interventions or attacks - legal, educational, therapeutic and cultural (in terms of the media and entertainment). And this has already had disastrous effects on couples and their children especially. But such degeneracy was never positively enshrined in an Act of Parliament. It has been a general drift, with some legislation helping that drift.

Now, however, it is proposed positively to destroy the old conception of marriage and re-invent a new one. For it is being proposed to define marriage exclusively as an institution that provides “mutual society, help and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity” – or the equivalent in modern words.

That is to say, just the third essential of the old Marriage Service’s three essentials is proposed for a new definition for marriage. It is proposed that marriage is to be simply a public institution that helps personal commitment in the interests of equality for same-sex couples, whose sexual activity the Bible teaches is, in the phrase of the Anglican Bishops, “especially dishonourable”.

Mary Gallagher puts things like this:

“The traditional understanding of marriage [is] ‘Marriage is the exclusive, enduring sexual union of husband and wife, where the couple promises to care for each other and any children their union produces.’

The revisionist view is that: ‘Marriage is the loving, caring union of any two people.’”

If that is the case, same-sex couples, of course, are entitled to be “married” (in inverted commas). And all this will have to be taught in our schools, including the fact that most probably monogamy will no longer always mean sexual exclusivity. But in redefining marriage the government would be re-institutionalising it into something altogether different that is not really marriage. It will be an institution that no longer is a mechanism for helping husbands and wives, as mothers and fathers, to be faithful to one another and in the bringing up of their children. The government would try to help parents in other ways, no doubt. However, to think these “other ways” would be better than supporting traditional marriage is surely supreme arrogance.

So what is being proposed is an erosion of a universal, divine, necessary, but fragile institution. But this is for 1% or at most 2% of the population (such are the government’s figures for homosexual persons in this country). And only a smaller percentage of these want same-sex marriage. But you say, “will this redefinition not be able to sit alongside the old definition.” No! It seems not to do so elsewhere. Let me explain.

The reason for this proposal in the first place is “equality”. An analogy might be helpful. It is quite fictitious. But it is something like someone wanting to join a Japanese evening class of Sunderland University, paid for by Nissan, in a small village in County Durham near to the Nissan works. For Nissan want more Japanese speakers. However, there is one man in the village who likes socialising but has no ability for learning languages. But the only social event in the village is the Japanese evening class.

So he complains that Sunderland University are not treating him equally. In effect, he claims, they are excluding him from meeting with this happy bunch of people once a week because he cannot learn Japanese. Sunderland University are then persuaded there is no difference in this non-language learner’s commitment to socialising from the commitment to socialising of the language learners. So to be equal and inclusive they then decide to open the Japanese evening class to all, with Japanese just an option. It is now really a social club, but, for tradition’s sake, still called “the Japanese Evening Class”.

But Sunderland University’s budget means they soon have to stop hiring the Japanese teacher in favour of local entertainers and musicians. For these are more inclusive - both language learners and non-language learners like entertainment and music. The problem, however, is that Japanese is no longer being taught!

True, a few of the language-learners meet in a private home once a month and hire their own Japanese teacher. But then this group complained that as the Japanese evening class is no longer teaching Japanese, it no longer was helping Nissan in its objective who were the funder of the evening class. Fearing an all-time shindig with Nissan, Sunderland University in response accused the group of holding a “destructive” view, hoping to silence them..

Please be assured that Sunderland University in reality is most reasonable. But, also, in reality it does put on Japanese evening classes. My wife goes to one! And that fictitious analogy is relevant. For Massachusetts in the USA was the first US State to have Gay Marriage. But a court ruling there has ruled that it is homophobic and “destructive” to say marriage is intimately connected with the child’s good by having both its natural parents looking after it in a secure relationship. Let me quote how it was argued:

“The ‘marriage is procreation’ argument singles out the one unbridgeable difference between same-sex and opposite-sex couples, and transforms that difference into the essence of legal marriage … [In restricting marriage to heterosexuals] the State’s action confers an official stamp of approval on the destructive stereotype that same-sex relationships are inherently and inferior to opposite-sex relationships and are not worthy of respect [that fails, of course, to distinguish respecting ‘people’ from what they do - ‘their relationships’].

I must conclude. I do so with our third and final heading, HOW SHOULD WE REACT?

Let me make just three comments.

First, we should be alert to deception. Ephesians 5v6 referring to immorality, impurity and greed, says:

“Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient.”

We should be alert to deception in this whole area relating to sex and marriage and, now, same-sex “marriage”. I was first (and forced to be) involved in the homosexual debate through being on the General Synod of the Church of England’s Board for Social Responsibility in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Since then I have taken more and more seriously Paul’s words, as a result of personal experience. Let me cite just a small recent example.

The Times newspaper (13 June) had a headline “Gay marriage backed by 70% of Britons”. The report then claimed this was based on “a new poll.” This “YouGov poll of 2000” for Stonewall was conducted between 28 November – 5 December 2011. Interviewees were asked for responses of support or opposition to the statement: “The Government intends to extend the legal form and name of civil marriage to same sex couples [note that phrase ‘civil marriage’ which is somewhat confusing],” This showed 71% support (but with the “don’t knows” removed). But this was not “a new poll”.

For there has been a more recent ComRes poll of 2000 for Catholic Voices conducted 23-24 February 2012 – three months later. This followed the start of the Coalition for Marriage and the new awareness of the issues. And it had a much clearer question. It found 70% agreed, 22% disagreed and 9% registered “don’t know” in respect of the statement: “Marriage should continue to be defined as a life-long exclusive commitment between a man and a woman.”

When I wrote a short letter to The Times pointing out this latest evidence, of course, it was not published!

Secondly, we must be aware that, as Paul teaches (2 Cor 4v4) …

“… the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

And this blinding seems to come as our social environment generates deceptive plausibility structures (as the sociologists call them). These mean people are conditioned to feel, for example, that same-sex “marriage” is reasonable. But this “reasonableness” so often has little to do with logic or what is plainly right.

It has much to do with social conditioning, which today can come through powerful voices in education, the media, the law, the therapeutic services, and, sadly, some in the church. That is why rational arguing will only get you so far.

But it is still necessary, as is campaigning - which we must continue. So as Galatians 6v9 says,

“Let us not become weary in doing well, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

And do not be weary through opposition and abuse.

However, unless the Holy Spirit of God opens blind spiritual eyes, people will not see. That is why prayer is absolutely vital at this point of time. It is the Holy Spirit alone who will bring conviction. So pray for him to empower you. And pray for him to convince and convict those with whom you talk about and discuss these new proposals of the government to redefine marriage.

But, thirdly, and finally, remember none of us can have an attitude of “holier than thou”. None of us is too good to need forgiving or too bad to be forgiven. Through his Cross Jesus Christ forgives all sin. But you need to seek that forgiveness and not deny that sin is sin.

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