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Suffer the little children

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)

10 thoughts on “Suffer the little children

  1. Lionel, thanks for this and I believe you and the others who point this out are quite right.

    A proper definition of marriage understands that it has an inherent orientation to children and hence it needs to be male and female.

    Of course, this definition has a subtlety in it, because the immediate objection is that two old people passed the age of fertility can still get married, likewise someone who knows for medical reasons they are definitely infertile, so why not two of the same gender.

    That’s why the concept of ‘orientation’ is important, because a man and a woman who don’t (or even can’t) have children for whatever reason can still model the kind (type, category) of relationship that it is, by their complementary maleness and femaleness, and by the sort of loyalties that rightly belong there. (And in the case of younger couples, can be eligible to adopt as well, if so desired and appropriate.)

    The idea of honouring and modelling a certain type of relationship – optimal for child-bearing and rearing – takes us beyond our individualistic approach to my personal relationships! Of course, as you say, that is totally countercultural today as well.

    More could be said, but I must away.

  2. Hi Sandy, that’s very helpful – emphasising the concept of orientation rather than individual cases.

    As a follow-up, check out the 1662 prayer book service for the “Solemnization of Matrimony”. Among the first words the people hear in the wedding service are that marriage is to be undertaken:

    reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.

    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; 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.

  3. I’m not convinced, at least not that procreation is priority #1. Procreation is in Genesis 1, but not marriage. Marriage is in Genesis 2, but not procreation. If ever there was a time to make the point they missed it!

    But if we’re to get Christological, then the ultimate purpose of marriage is to teach us about Jesus and the church. I’d reverse the prayer book’s order, and change the point about companionship to note that it is not an end to itself.

    • BTW Danii, while it’s great that you’re taking part in the discussion, for the sake of consistency and fairness I should point out that the comment policy on this particular site requests you to use your full name rather than just a first name.

      • Apologise, my browser filled in the name and I didn’t think to check that it had my surname too. I have now fixed it.

  4. Hi Danii, I don’t think that the prayer book is trying to rank the reasons for marriage according to an order of “priority” (in fact, I don’t think “priority” is the right word to use in this context at all). But I do think it’s striking that procreation is the first of three (presumably equal) reasons listed in the prayer book, whereas we moderns are more likely to make it optional, or secondary.

    Jesus thought that marriage is in Genesis 1. I wouldn’t want to contradict him.

    On the Christological view of marriage, the prayer book is ahead of you there too. I did say that the three reasons for marriage are “among the first words the people hear” in the wedding service. The very first words they hear are:

    Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; …

  5. I agree in general, but in the current debate it seems to me that we have to be doing more to point out the paucity of the arguments used by the same-sex marriage activists and not give the impression that we speak only as Christians, but as concerned human beings whatever our “religious” beliefs. Our biblical viewpoint has to be out there of course, but we can argue in this case alongside other types of “religious” believers, atheists, agnostics, liberals, concersatives, and active homosexuals, all of which groups can be found amongst those who can see the absurdity of the whole thing.

    The two main arguments for same-sex marriage seem to be, first, that we shouldn’t stop people expressing their love for one another, and secondly, that we should have “marriage equality”. Both of those as “arguments” can easily be shot down in flames but not many politicians or others seem to be doing it. The “marriage equality” bit is big-time question-begging and we should be saying so as Christians who want to do the right thing as earthly citizens in a mostly non-Christian society.

    If and when people are willing to listen to the specifically Christian view of marriage we of course must be ready to tell them and encourage them if they are having practical or theoretical problems in relation to that.

  6. Please insert the word “in” before “all” in line 9 of my comment and delete “amongst” in the following line, to read “in all of which groups can be found those who…”

    O for an edit facility!

  7. Hi David, I see your point. But doesn’t the common ground between Christians and non-Christians go beyond a common desire to resist change for no good reason? We can share positive things about marriage with our society too, can’t we? In fact, isn’t affirming the deep connection between marriage and children a particularly apt example of something that Christians can do quite straightforwardly, without the need to resort to any special religious pleading?

    • PS my phrase “desire to resist change for no good reason” is ambiguous – I meant that the change has no good reason; I didn’t mean that the desire to resist change is unreasonable. (David, I second your longing for an edit facility; but realise it’s probably unworkable).

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