The political pressure to redefine the meaning of marriage has recently become more intense and obvious in certain English-speaking countries. But you might have noticed that the vast majority of people in our society aren’t particularly concerned by these developments. Why is that? Here’s one possible reason: in the hearts and minds of the vast majority of modern Westerners, marriage has already been redefined. We just didn’t notice.
The redefinition of marriage didn’t necessarily happen all at once, with the passing of a single law. Rather, the redefinition of marriage happened slowly, almost imperceptibly. It wasn’t an act of parliament, but a change in our society’s general beliefs about the meaning and purpose of marriage. As I’ve been helped to see by a couple of recent articles, a very significant, if gradual, redefinition of marriage has occurred through the separation of the concept of marriage from the concept of parenthood / procreation. In the Bible, and for many of our forebears, marriage and parenthood are seen as two sides of the same coin. In the modern mind, however, marriage and parenthood are two separate things: two distinct states or activities which may or may not be associated with one another, depending on our own personal preferences.
Marriage, in other words, is now ultimately about our own individual rights and self-satisfaction. And this affects, in a profound way, our attitude to children. Rather than welcoming children as children, we have an unsettling tendency to speak about them and to treat them as commodities which are designed to contribute something special to our own self-gratification. That phrase, “husband/wife, house, 2.5 kids, dog” was once a jocular dig at bland middle-class aspirations. Now the phrase has a chillingly ironic undercurrent. The “kids” belong in the same list as the house and the dog. Children are expendable commodities which, like the house and the dog, only have value if they are “wanted.” And, like the house and the dog, children are optional accessories—but of course they are accessories that we should all have a right to own if we so desire.
This might help us to understand our society’s relatively apathetic reaction to all these political pressures to redefine marriage. After all, if marriage is ultimately about fulfilling our own personal potential through a relationship with another person, then why not extend this right to anybody who wants it (including the right to own children)?
If this analysis is at least partly true, then we need to do more than join in campaigns to oppose the legal redefinition of marriage, don’t we? Join in the campaigns, of course; but we need to do more. We need to keep grasping and loving the biblical vision for human life, in which both singleness and marriage are not means for self-fulfilment, but opportunities to engage in loving service. We need to believe that marriage is not about self-gratification, but about living for the good of others, which always includes the desire for welcoming children (a desire which remains real even when tragically unfulfilled). We need to promote this view of marriage—by speaking it, by repenting, and by living it out, sacrificially.
But even more importantly, we need to keep remembering that a far more fundamental redefinition of marriage occurred long before the twentieth century. When the first man and woman rebelled against God, their own relationship—and that of their children forevermore—was turned upside down, disordered and subject to frustration. That’s why the answer—for all of us—is not ultimately going to come from the law, but from humbly listening to the forgiving and transforming gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
‘Jesus … said unto them: “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.”‘ (Mark 10:14, King James Version)