Marriage and ‘Public Theology’

Image by Sabtastic
Image by Sabtastic

I’m doing a course at college at the moment called ‘Public Theology’, which is basically about how theology and the public sphere (e.g. politics, society) interact. Earlier this week I did a seminar on marriage, i.e. how the church should engage society on the topic of marriage. As regular readers will know this is something I’ve written a fair bit about here, so it’s a topic I’m interested in! I focused on the topic of same-sex marriage, because we had limited time and that’s the thing which I think is most relevant.

Anyway, this course has really made me think through the whys and the hows of engaging culture, and has probably left me with more questions than answers! In particular on the topic of marriage – why is it that Christians should stand up for the ‘traditional’ / Biblical view of marriage? 

One of the things I read for the seminar really struck me. Christopher Ash wrote a big book on marriage a few years ago. What he said about marriage as a creation ordinance was particularly interesting:

The created order is an ontological given, an objective reality. Our subjective freedom is to respond to that objective reality by conforming to it or rejecting it. When a society conforms to that order, the general truth is that blessing follows. For example, when a society honours parents, its days will be long in the land. When a society chooses to live out of harmony with that order, curse follows, and we see in family life acutely how the sins of the fathers are visited on the children down the generations.

Last year, I did a course on the Biblical Wisdom Literature. What comes across strongly in the Wisdom Literature – and especially in Proverbs – is the foundational assumption of a particular order in the world. Something like this:

  1. The Universe is ordered – life proceeds in accordance with a fixed order.
  2. Order within the world is learnable and teachable.
  3. By learning and aligning yourself with that order, you can achieve ‘success’.
  4. The source and foundation of order within the world is God.

Now, without wanting to go into too much detail those basic assumptions are expounded in Proverbs and questioned in different ways in the other wisdom literature, but the basic idea is that God has set up the world in a certain way.

This is very similar to what Christopher Ash said about marriage. Marriage is an ‘objective reality’, in the sense that God has established it in the world’s order. If a society aligns itself with that order, ‘blessing’ will follow; if society does not follow that order ‘curse’ will follow. In short, because “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Ps. 24:1), the way God created it matters and societies do not get to do away with it without consequences. Even if a society does not recognise God, they can still follow the order (although I think it’s probably true that the more Christians there are in a society, the more likely it is to follow that order).

Ash goes on to say:

[Marriage] was given to humankind in creation, it stands above human history and the human will, and finally it will be restored and transformed in the new heavens and the earth. No institution that is part of the created order can be destroyed by human disobedience. Human nonconformity leads not to the destruction of the order, but to judgement on human beings. No Christian movement needs to defend marriage: rather we seek to protect human beings against the damage done to them by cutting across the grain of the order of marriage  … When teaching ethics we are engaged in proclamation of a given order and appeal to men and women to live in believing obedience to that order in Christ; we are not engaged in a desperate attempt, like King Canute, to turn back the tides of social affairs.

This is helpful. Marriage is not an institution which needs defending, as if it’s something which is weak and flimsy which will disappear if society chooses to live without it. Rather, when Christians engage with the world on marriage they are proclaiming “a given order”, and prophetically calling society to obey that order ‘… or else’. Marriage is not something which will disappear if our society does away with the concept; in fact I’d say it was ultimately our society that is in danger of disappearing!

If you want some scary reading about how some of this is already working itself out, have a look at the Marriage Foundation. As far as I am aware this is not a Christian organisation, however it is set up and maintained by people who have noticed this ‘order’ in the world and how a move away from it by this society is impacting us. For example, in the Costs & Consequences section, the financial cost of broken relationships to society is estimated to be £46bn per year!

In general, I don’t know how much different the Same-Sex Marriage bill will make in the UK. There is evidence that same-sex marriage in other countries has led to a decrease in the number of people getting married. Whether it does or doesn’t make a difference, I believe the trajectory the UK is on is not a good one. To my mind, the answer is not tinkering with marriage legislation or tax benefits – the answer is returning to the way God has ordered the world. Christians needs to proclaim it, through word and through deed, through living out in our marriages what Christian marriage should be, and ultimately through proclaiming God’s lordship over all creation.

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” – Acts 17:30-31 (ESV)

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8 thoughts on “Marriage and ‘Public Theology’

  1. Hi Phill:

    Just a quick one: This link: decrease in the number of people getting married

    What is it? And where are they getting their figures from. Seems incredibly ignorant and bias.

    • “What is it? And where are they getting their figures from.”

      Have you read it? Although I’m sure you don’t like the organisation they do seem to quote actual statistics and research. See the footnotes for where they get their figures from.

      Peter Ould blogged about Spain a year or so ago.

      One thing which is interesting, which I mentioned when I wrote about marriage before, is the fact that same-sex marriage essentially severs the link between marriage and parenting. So after same-sex marriage is introduced many people may not see the point of getting married. It will be interesting to see what happens in this country – I know several people who’ve only got married when they wanted to start a family.

  2. hmmm bit surprised at you Phill. This source is absolute garbage.

    Executive summary is very very ropey with a lot of supposition and clever writing rather than actual facts…

    ‘same-sex marriage essentially severs the link between marriage and parenting’ –

    How so – fostering, adoption, surrogacy – all forms of parenting

    What about infertile couples, older couples?

    People get married for their own reasons, I very much doubt gay marriage will influence someone as to whether or not they do get married. Gay couples will get married for the same reasons straight couples do, including parenting.

    And if gay marriage is changing the reasons why people get married, maybe their idea of marriage was not as strong as they thought in the first place. Maybe they have some soul searching and thinking to be done.

    • “Executive summary is very very ropey with a lot of supposition and clever writing rather than actual facts…”

      An executive summary isn’t supposed to contain lots of facts, it’s supposed to summarise the data. The data is further down.

      At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what you or I think, or anyone thinks. The results will speak for themselves in a few years. We will both see.

      “How so – fostering, adoption, surrogacy – all forms of parenting. What about infertile couples, older couples?”

      You hit the nail on the head when you say ‘forms’ of parenting. They’re not the ideal. I’m not trying to denigrate adoption, for example, but there should be a primacy about a child living with its biological mother and father. In this country, for example, in law a child can’t be adopted unless natural parenthood has failed for some reason. There has to be a good reason for natural parenthood to be taken away before a child can be adopted.

      “maybe their idea of marriage was not as strong as they thought in the first place”

      100% agree with this. But this goes back to what I said last year about the definition of marriage. Many people haven’t realised it but the definition of marriage has changed, whether they believe it or not. Anyway, we’ve been through this before, no point rehashing old ground.

  3. – I know what an executive summary is and I stand by my statement including the ‘data’ below. This is a totally bias derogatory paper full.

    At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what you or I think, or anyone thinks. The results will speak for themselves in a few years. We will both see. – I agree.

    No body would argue that that’s the ideal, but we do not live in an ideal world. I’m not sure what point you are trying to make.

    So are you not in support of infertile couples marrying?

    • “This is a totally bias derogatory paper full.”

      Calling a paper biased and derogatory etc. doesn’t prove that it is. I think they might overstate the case but at the same time it seems to me there is some truth to their point.

      “No body would argue that that’s the ideal, but we do not live in an ideal world. I’m not sure what point you are trying to make. So are you not in support of infertile couples marrying?”

      Of course I am in support of infertile couples marrying. The difference is that heterosexual sex will normally lead to children UNLESS something prevents that from happening (infertility, birth control, etc). Gay sex will never lead to children, ever.

      In our NCT class, we met a couple who had been trying to have a baby for 20 years. I’m sure you know, or have heard of, couples who were told they were infertile but were still able to have children. Some friends of ours, similar situation – they’d given up trying for a baby but conceived at age 40. I also know couples who were using birth control but still conceived.

      So the fact that some people can’t / don’t have children doesn’t screw up the normal pattern of heterosexual couples having children.

      Also, I believe that children should have the right to live with their biological mother and father. This is why marriage exists (partly), to try and protect that right. It’s not just about two people in love, for the benefit of those two people, while it is convenient for them. It extends to the children as well.

      Anyway, I’ve said all this when I blogged about it before, so I’ll stop repeating myself.

      • I don’t actually have to prove anything, anybody with half a brain who reads it realises it’s absolute drivel written by the most bigoted homophobes around. I am not on my computer otherwise I would start quoting inconsistencys.

        Phill I really thought more of you.

        Also your argument is absolute tosh.

        Firstly no one at all is suggesting any child be removed from its mother to be given for adoption. Period.

        Secondly women with hysterectomys etc who will never have children in your eyes should not ever be married, you can’t use one logic on one side and not on the other.

        And the fact is there are thousands of children in care who face a terrible life ahead of them, and rather than being spared that life, by living with two loving parents, you would rather see the child suffer. Your logic is extremely flawed. I think you need to read some non Christian extremist literature.

        • Darren, please refrain from using insulting language like “half a brain”, “drivel”, “tosh” etc. It’s not necessary and doesn’t help your case. I don’t think it’s a big ask. Thank you.

          It seems to me that there is data which indicates that introducing same-sex marriage leads to a decline in marriage rates (which is exactly what happened in Spain, and I think the Netherlands). Whether or not you interpret the data like that is up to you. We’ll see what happens here.

          “Firstly no one at all is suggesting any child be removed from its mother to be given for adoption. Period.”

          But, in a sense, isn’t that exactly what happens with same-sex marriage? Gay couples *depend on* taking a child away from at least one parent, however it happens. Any gay couple who have a child will, by definition, have taken it away from a mother/father. It seems to me there is a contradiction in thinking that says “marriage is an institution which wants all children to be born to and be raised with its biological parents in the context of a lifelong relationship”, and then extending that institution to same-sex couples where by definition a biological relationship with mother and father is impossible.

          Please understand I’m not denying same-sex couples the right to adopt etc, I’m just not sure calling it “marriage” is the right thing. See the first post I did on marriage which talked about civil unions.

          Also, as I said, I think a child has a right to be raised with its biological father and mother, something which same-sex parenting denies it. See, for example, this guy’s story.

          As for your example, if a woman has had a hysterectomy that is something she has done to herself which destroys the ability to have children on her part. I still think there is a fundamental logical difference between that and a couple who by definition can never have children. Heterosexual couples usually have children; homosexual couples cannot. You can’t legislate for every little situation, you have to legislate for the general case.

          “And the fact is there are thousands of children in care who face a terrible life ahead of them, and rather than being spared that life, by living with two loving parents, you would rather see the child suffer.”

          Not at all. You don’t have to believe in same-sex marriage to want all children to have two loving parents. I just happen to think the best way of doing that is by promoting and supporting traditional marriage. I fear what is actually going to happen is that same-sex marriage, IF it leads to a decrease in numbers of people getting married, will lead to more children in broken homes.

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