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In light of the news that New York is joining the small group of states that allow same-sex marriages, and in response to the fear-addled tweets of Al Mohler upon hearing the news, I wanted to repost this column I wrote for Patheos back in February. No matter your take on whether or not same sex marriage should be legal, this ruling is about equal rights, not the sacrament of Christian marriage. No government can legislate a sacred covenant; let’s celebrate equal rights. Here’s the column:

Almost six years ago, in June, my wife and I, with the help of some very loyal friends, were preparing for our wedding. We are the “do-it-yourself” type and that was reflected in our plans for the big day. This was a wonderful thing because, as our guest would agree, the day definitely felt like it reflected our personalities; but it was also difficult because where some couples enjoy the serenity of knowing all the particulars are attended to, we were running around like crazy people trying to attend to every minute detail. In the midst of this running around, however, we forgot to notice one important detail: the state of Massachusetts, like most states with some notable exceptions like Nevada, requires a three-day waiting period before a couple can obtain a marriage license. That is, you have to apply for the license and then, if you’re still serious about getting married, retrieve the license three days later. We didn’t know this.

So, on the Friday before our Saturday wedding we showed up at the county clerk’s office in Salem, Massachusetts, and requested our marriage certificate. This, we were told, was impossible. We pleaded with the clerk, noting somewhat sarcastically (on my part) that this was our first time. Finally, she told us sternly, like a high school teacher bending to pressure to change a grade, that there was a loophole. In order for us to obtain the license on that day we would have to stand before a judge and plead our case—that is, convince him we truly loved each other—and pay a fee.

We were desperate. We went to the courthouse, wrangled an appointment with a judge and stood before him, assuring him with everything we could muster that we were in love, and, with his permission, that we would really like to get married the next day. Fortunately for us, he was extremely friendly, and far more interested in our menu for the reception (being that our wedding was happening in a picturesque seaside town north of Boston, we were having a clambake). He granted us the necessary waiver and we invited him to the reception. And we paid the fee.

At the end of a long day of running around, we returned to my soon-to-be-wife’s parents’ house and told them our story. Then, my wife’s father, a seminary graduate, former pastor, and elder at our church, asked something I’ll never forget, “Why’d you bother with all that?”

What? Why’d we bother! Well, if we didn’t, we explained to him, we couldn’t get married. Calmly—as is his way—he told us that what we wanted was a Christian marriage, a commitment between ourselves, God, and our community, and that, quite frankly, God’s not all that interested in local government bureaucracy. The way my father-in-law is right so often has the tendency to infuriate, and never more than in this instance.

I thought of this story recently as I was writing a kind of cheeky post for Patrol, the blog I co-edit. Last Friday I came across a call to action piece by Focus on the Family’s Citizen Link, which detailed a recent interview that Rolling Stone magazine conducted with Justin Bieber. In it, they tried to get the self-professed evangelical Christian to comment on sex before marriage. As much as they tried, however, all they could get from him was variations on, “I don’t think you should have sex with anyone unless you love them.”

In my post I controversially quipped that when it came down to it Justin Bieber understood biblical marriage better than did Focus on the Family. I knew my argument was half-baked, and the piece was mostly meant to be a bit of Friday afternoon fun, but toward the end I did arrive at the lesson I learned that day from my father-in-law. That is, really—biblically—there is no such thing as premarital sex.

The logic goes thusly: if sex is the sacramental act that binds the covenant between a couple and God, then when a person has sex they are marrying their partner. I acknowledge that this idea bodes better for people who have married their only sexual partner, but it is like my father-in-law said, God doesn’t care much for government forms and the like. In light of this, I thought as I read Bieber’s quote, he’s actually spot on, even if he hasn’t completely thought through the ramifications of what he is saying.

One thing I love about writing and editing Patrol is that the commenters we attract are, for the most part, adept at picking out holes in writers’ reasoning and, rather than viciously exploiting them (with some exceptions), helpfully filling them in. This is certainly the case for at least one commenter there who pointed out that my assertion rightly carried marriage out of the domain of the government, but a bit too far into the domain of the personal. That is, he reminded me that marriage involves Christian community as well.

The implications of this understanding of Christian marriage are far reaching. Not long ago I found myself in a meeting with some top ranking members of a prominent conservative evangelical organization. In this meeting we discussed many things, in hopes of taking the ideological temperature of young Christians. Much to my surprise, and simultaneously not all that surprisingly, one of the representatives of that organization admitted that evangelicals seemed to be winning on abortion, but may have lost on marriage. That is, many polls show that young people are less likely to support abortion rights than previous generations, but are much more likely to advocate for gay marriage than their antecedents.

Though I took some exception with the way this assertion was framed—in terms of wins and losses—I acknowledge the truth that it captures. But, I wouldn’t call the fact that young Christians believe in equal marriage rights a loss. Rather, if we want to talk about marriage in terms of wins and losses, it seems it has been a losing race for as long as any young Christian can remember. Marriage in the United States is a sham. It is literally the prize one receives at the end of a game show. It is so far from Christian marriage as to be completely unrecognizable and yet, in the realm of gay marriage in particular, Christians fight for it like it’s the Holy Grail. It isn’t.

I recently surveyed the periodicals I most often read for evidence of what marriage looks like in America today. I found stories about applying economic theories to marital relationships, advice on filing taxes separately if you worry your spouse may be involved in some shady dealings, a story about Playboy’s Hugh Hefner’s marriage to one of his models a quarter of his age, and a rather moving story about a lesbian couple who decided to share a donor’s sperm in order to start a family (much like the plot of the filmThe Kids Are Alright, which I loved, by the way). And none of this even mentioned the divorce rate.

Marriage in America is a secular institution; it has taken a shape of its own and has been a separate thing from Christian marriage for a long time. Let’s stop fighting to save what hasn’t been for a long time, and what ultimately, doesn’t need to be. It is and has been a lost cause. I support any and all people who want to engage in government marriage and pray for God’s blessing on their lives. I’ll offer advice and recommend that they file at least three days in advance for a marriage license. But mine is a Christian marriage, bound not by the paper I paid extra for, but by the covenant my wife and I made privately before God, and publicly before our community. In that, no one else’s marriage, or divorce, or affairs, or “it’s complicated,” or any other relational situation has any effect on my promise.

Christian marriage, however, is worth defending. We believe it is an institution set in place by God. Government marriage is necessary too, but is free of the sacramental weight that Christian marriage carries. There are plenty of good reasons to be married in the government’s eyes, rights that should be shared by all, and tax breaks that, as the article I mentioned above points out, only apply to married couples filing jointly. In a country such as ours that promises equal freedoms to all its citizens, the benefits of government marriage must be available to all. But government marriages are easily broken, like any non-religious contract. Rather than lament this, or fight over who should have access to these opportunities, Christians should thank God that his covenants are far more lasting, and, ultimately far less expensive.

Originally published on February 23, 2011 at Patheos.com.


About The Author

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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0 Responses to Let Everyone Marry

  1. Brandon Edling says:

    Best write-up I’ve read on the subject. I plan on quoting this over the next decade or two. Giving you complete credit, of course 😉

  2. Joshua Keel says:

    Truly excellent, Jonathan.

  3. James Rearden says:

    I agree completely. My fiancee and I came to the same decision. We literally cannot afford a legal marriage right now. Does that mean that we cannot be married before God? That caused us to start questioning the existential foundations of marriage.

    I wonder how much of this is related to the intertwining of politics and religion? Would this have happened if the GOP didn’t own entire denominations?

  4. Rob says:

    Sex isn’t marriage. Sex is part of marriage. Sex is an ineluctably private act; marriage is the public recognition of that act. One cannot simply declare oneself to be married; one is declared to be married.

    True, the family (and the marriage bond) logically predates any legal recognition, but do we honestly think that a legal apparatus that intentionally divorces itself from a natural (and/or sacred) understanding of marriage won’t erode the institution itself? The only reason that the state has historically sanctioned and institutionalized marriage is to encourage and stabilize the sexual relationship that can result in natural procreation. The state has no interest whatsoever in sanctioning intimate relationships–such as those between gays–for their own sakes. In short, marriage isn’t just a celebration of love in either its purely legal or the purely Christian/ecclesiastical understanding. Thus, in the absence of a Church with coercive mechanisms to enforce marital vows which protect children and women–mechanisms the state still possesses, though it no longer remembers the reasons for them–what is the point of marriage anyway, especially as a purely civil institution? Such unimpeachable logic is precisely the reason heterosexuals like James are abandoning marriage altogether in droves, even apart from the travesty of no-fault divorce: why bother? We no longer see the reason for it.

    Speaking of which, James: It costs nothing except the nominal fee for the marriage certificate to stand in front a justice of the peace and be married. Stop rationalizing. (Oh no! I’m being judgmental!) Marriage isn’t about a lavish festival to impress your family and friends. It’s about gaining the community’s imprimatur upon your relationship.

  5. Joe Carter says:

    I’m glad to see Patrol is intellectually honest enough to finally come out in favor of polygamous marriage.

    Unfortunately, your biblical exegesis of marriage (That is, really—biblically—there is no such thing as premarital sex.) is still as inadequate as ever.

    • Fitz says:

      Joe, I’m afraid you’re going to have to do more than simply state that it is inadequate. Would you agree that sex is the physical sign of the marriage covenant between the couple and God? In all of the various “biblical” iterations of marriage, is that not a common theme?

      Polygamous marriage? I thought polygamy was being married to many people simultaneously. Certainly, though, there are plenty of examples of people who get married multiple times.

      • Rob says:

        Fitz (same Fitzgerald who penned the article?),

        It’s certainly true–or, to be more modest, I certainly agree–that sex is the “physical sign of the marriage covenant.” Indeed, a sexless marriage would be grossly deficient.

        But that does not in the least imply that sex is marriage, or that I am married if I have sex with someone I love. That’s like claiming that I can serve myself the Eucharist whenever I eat bread and drink wine, or that I can declare myself baptized if I sprinkle water on my head.

        That’s not how the sacraments work. Sex is an essential aspect of marriage, but it is not itself marriage. Marriage is a covenant that is publicly affirmed, either by the Church, by society, or ideally by both.

        Speaking of which, then, where on earth are you claiming justification for your statement that there is no such thing as pre-marital sex, Biblically or, better, Christianly speaking? What exactly is “fornication”?

        I have another major critique to offer later, but I’d like to see you parse more carefully the distinctions between sex and marriage, sacred and secular, pre- and intra-marital first. My impression now is that you’re engaging in a bit of “creative” exegesis for which you have no authority.

        • Rob, the language I use is, admittedly, controversial, but I really don’t think there’s anything controversial about the content itself. In the above essay I acknowledge that in order for the sacrament of marriage to be completed, the church/society must be involved. However, we agree that sex is the physical sign of the marriage covenant and, thus, whenever anyone has sex they are “covenanting” themselves to one another and to God. The reason why I say there is no such thing as sex before marriage is because once you make that covenant through sex, you’re two thirds of the way married.

          • Rob says:

            Having sex doesn’t make me married. The public recognition and imprimatur logically precedes and authorizes the private act of sex. Marriage is an institution as well as an act; one does not exist without the other. “Fornication,” for instance, is a properly marital act that has occurred outside the institutional boundaries of marriage.

            But now I’m confused as to your broader argument for gay marriage. If church and society must be involved in marriage, then why do you a) insist that God doesn’t really care about the state/politics and what they may say about the definition of marriage (which is odd, given your “progressivism” and its faith in the efficacy and responsibility to do a great many things that God would have us do) and b) argue that the form of marriage is irrelevant as long as two people are in love?

            Let me reiterate two assumptions that may (or may not) bear upon these questions: sex is procreative in nature, and marriage, civilly speaking, only exists to protect the fruit of procreative sex. Regardless of marriage’s myriad significations and purposes within the sacred understanding–symbolic of the Trinity, expression of love, etc.–the civil purpose of the legal institution of marriage is to protect children. Otherwise, we may as well dispense with the whole thing entirely and celebrate/recognize marriages solely “privately” within churches. The state has no public interest whatsoever in institutionalizing the relationships of any two (or three + ?) people who happen to love one another.

  6. Rob, I disagree that the public recognition must precede sex in order for one to be married. It seems entirely plausible that a couple can covenant themselves to each other and to God, before seeking the public’s recognition. In my estimation the Christian marriage commitment is between three parties, the couple, God, and their community. I’m not sure I would argue that signs of those covenants must happen in a particular order. When we do that, we get into the realm of imagining marriage has always looked as it does now, and I’m sure we’d agree that is not true.

    To your second point, I’m arguing that church and society must be involved in Christian marriage. And, I’m distinguishing between Christian marriage and civil marriage. This would be another debate if we were talking about whether a church must sanction same sex marriages. But that is not what is at stake here (and the much talked about provision in the New York law ensures that it will not be). What is at stake here is equal protection under the law for all citizens of the United States who wish to marry.

    Finally, there is no doubt that the legal institution of marriage originally existed to provide a civil space for procreation. It is naïve, however to argue that this is still the case. Civil marriage is not just about having children, and many people have children who are not married. The purpose of civil marriage has changed to where it is now mostly about ensuring protections for the two people in the relationship first, and then to any children they may have. Honestly, if you want to dispense with the whole thing and celebrate marriage privately in the church (as a Christian marriage only, without the civil component), go for it. As I stated in my essay, this is the form of marriage I’m most concerned about too. That being said, I am very happy to have the civil connection to bind my wife and I into a family unit in the state’s eyes. And I want for all people to have this same right.

    I want to say, too, I really appreciate your engagement with me here. I love having my assumptions challenged and I can assure you I’ve spent much of this morning considering your points.

    • Jonathan says:

      Rob, I also have to disagree with your definition of sex–its quite restrictive! If sex is ONLY procreative in nature, that makes all sexual intercourse that is had not with the intention of procreation simply not sex (by definition). A definition of sex must be able to include anything that we still want to deem “sex” (including non-procreative sexual acts, and sex involving any form of contraceptives).

      And also, it is simply false that “marriage, civilly speaking, only exists to protect the fruit of procreative sex.” Why then, is divorce so easy to come by? (Or at least much easier than it was 200 years ago). That is legal action that has terrible results for children, and yet the government permits it without issue. Marriage, then, cannot simply be only for children (not to mention that children are not required to be produced by married people!) because there exists legislation to reverse it at the desire of the husband and wife! We must be able to say the legal right of a civil union is in many ways for the two parties desiring such union and not only their children.

  7. Patrick Sawyer says:

    This post and comments are interesting but I wonder if some of what has been said is extraneous to the central concerns and argument Christians have against same-sex marriage. A few thoughts:

    Several characteristics must be operative and in place for something to be considered a “human right”. One of those key charcteristics is there must not be a violation of moral principle for the “right” to be established. God has decreed that same-sex marriage is a violation of moral principle. God has established that marriage is only between one man and one women (Gen 2). Not 2 women, not 2 men, not 1 man and 2 women, etc.

    To go further, God has made sex to be central in marriage (Gen 2, 1Cor 7). God has condemned same-sex sex (Rom 1, 1Cor 6). So same-sex marriage, which contains same-sex sex, is doubly egregious from God’s point of view.

    Thoughtful Christians do not want America to be a theocracy because God does not want America to be a theocracy. There is no theocracy currently on earth (notwithstanding the false claim of some in the Muslim community). Again, thoughtful Christians have no interest in theocratic rule in America. They simply recognize that any culture or society is better served when it’s foundational institutions are in keeping with God’s design. If God is, which He is, then this MUST be so. Under the providence of God, American Christians live in a representative republic. God presses them to be “salt and light” in society (Matt 5). A key way they attempt to be salt and light is by voting and supporting legislation that is in step with God’s design. The other side of this coin is to NOT support legislation that would be at variance with God’s design, such as same-sex marriage.

    Supporting same-sex marriage does NOT grant a “right”, because same-sex marriage is, in point of fact, not a right. It is neither an inalienable right granted to all by God or a right afforded to Americans by the Constitution.

    It merely represents the institutionalization of a social construct that is at variance with God’s law. Naturally, Christians who care about the society in which they live (and the people in it) have no interest in seeing foundational societal institutions (like marriage) be codified in such a way that they are at variance with God’s design and benediction. So they vote accordingly, and rightly so.

    Successful same-sex marriage legislation represents an erosion of common grace in any society. This is not a small matter. In graduate school (secular), my cultural anthropology classes underscored the centrality of marriage and family to any society. How we, as a society, handle the institution of marriage speaks volumes about our nation’s soul and future.

  8. Jackson says:

    A homosexual man or woman already has an equal right to marriage. A homosexual man is free to marry the woman of his choice. A homosexual woman is free to marry the man of her dreams. Homosexuals have always had equal legal access to marriage. To frame the issue as one concerning equality under the law is clever but misleading. The push for so-called “same-sex marriage” is fundamentally about re-defining marriage.

    • Timothy says:

      With all due respect, that sounds a little nonsensical. Of course a homosexual man/woman could marry someone of the opposite sex, but isn’t that a little silly?

      Isn’t there also sometimes penalties for those who do so? (If, say, a homosexual man married a woman so that she wouldn’t be deported?)

      You say the push for “same-sex marriage” is about re-defining marriage. It is, but Jonathan’s post is precisely about how Christian marriage as defined by God is not a state run and regulated institution. The United States of American can’t touch *God’s* marriage.

      Which raises the question, for me at least, (and I’m addressing this to Jonathan) if we shouldn’t be worried about current legislation’s affect on ‘true’ marriage, what about the ramifications of legalized same-sex marriage on our perception of marriage as defined by God?

      If same-sex marriage is bad, then won’t it have negative effects culturally, effects that will affect Christians as much as everyone else.

      I’m not actually necessarily opposed to legalizing same-sex marriage, but I still think it’s a good question to ask.

      • Jackson says:

        Timothy, the point I am making is that homosexuals have always enjoyed the legal right to marry in our country. I make this point in the context of the following assertions made by Jonathan: “No matter your take on whether or not same sex marriage should be legal, this (NY) ruling is about equal rights …” “No government can legislate a sacred covenant; let’s celebrate equal rights.” And in response to a commenter Jonathan explains, “What is at stake here (in the NY ruling) is equal protection under the law for all citizens of the United States who wish to marry.”

        The often repeated claim that homosexuals are denied equal rights when states choose not to recognize their relationships as marriage is misleading because it conflates legal access with personal preference. When someone freely chooses not to exercise a legal right they in fact possess, it is misleading to label that free choice as a denial of equal rights (think of the right to vote, and the many who in fact possess that right but choose not to exercise it). I hope this makes more sense now.

  9. Timothy says:

    God forbid we bring actual Biblical text(s) into this debate, but doesn’t 1 Corinthians 6:15-17 define marriage, at least in some sense, as mere sexual union?

    Paul admonishes the Corinthians not to join with a prostitute because “the one who joins himself to a prostitute is one body with her.” He then proceeds to quote the “two shall become one flesh” passage from Genesis. What are we to make of that?

  10. Patrick Sawyer says:

    Given the recent couple of comments it’s important to keep in mind that homosexuality is ultimately a choice. It is NOT genetically determined, like skin color or gender. It is a free choice. Now, as with many dispositions and preferences (such as an angry temper or a laid back attitude) it seems that hereditary, at times, can play a small part in influencing homosexual behavior. We know this through the study of twins. When one male twin is gay, 15-20% of the time the other twin is gay, as compared to about 3% of the general population. But this also demonstrates that a male twin – with an identical DNA sequence to his gay twin brother – 80 to 85% of the time is NOT gay. Underscoring that homosexuality is not hardwired by DNA, it is ultimately a choice. This fact bears heavily on any discussions about supposed discrimination and the privilege to marry.

    And briefly, restrictions on marriage also apply to heterosexuals. A man can’t marry 3 women, no matter how much they all love each other (and need/want the legal benefits). An 18 yr old girl can’t marry her 14 yr old boyfriend even though they go to the same high school and have known each other since kindergarten. As with any privilege, restrictions abound.

  11. Luke says:

    previously i’ve read some fantastic articles on Patrol, but this one was unfortunately a let down.

    really disappointed in this article.

    How should christians respond to freedoms of the world that God calls sin? Obviously – if it’s a civil union, in a democracy that’s for the government to decide.

    But, should Christians vote for equal rights for individuals in society to lie – as well as to tell the truth? One can’t escape the breakdown in society which occurs when sin is present.

    Though the duty of the church isn’t to condemn, it is to vote for God-given ideals such as truthfulness, heterosexual marriage (and other things).

  12. Joe M says:

    “No matter your take on whether or not same sex marriage should be legal, this ruling is about equal rights…”

    Gosh, pontificating that might make Olasky blush. What the law allows it essentially approves. This ruling is about validating as legitimate a certain lifestyle. You only have rights to do things the state thinks are legitimate options.

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