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:
- The Universe is ordered – life proceeds in accordance with a fixed order.
- Order within the world is learnable and teachable.
- By learning and aligning yourself with that order, you can achieve ‘success’.
- 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)