Don’t believe the media: Christians have always viewed marriage as a fundamentally natural (i.e., secular) institution
Posted by Matthew Tuininga
In the contentious public debates over marriage and the relationship between religion and politics in America today, the significance of religion is viciously contested. The result of the high stakes of this contest is that an awful lot of poor theology and theological history is passed off in prominent forums as hard fact. For instance ,in a recent article in the Huffington Post, Bethany Blankley makes the following claim:
Were it not for the Protestant Reformation, marriage would not be considered a civil institution today. Had Christians followed the early church’s example, marriage would never have been thrust into the realm of the government at all.
This claim is based on an earlier statement she makes about the way in which Jesus transformed marriage:
Early Christians in the first through third century understood marriage to be a union between one man and one woman created by God as a consummated partnership described in Genesis 2. Early Christian leaders, such as the Apostle Paul, explained that marriage was more than just a union between two people. It was an act of worship that pointed to Christ’s sacrificial relationship with the church (Ephesians 5). Therefore, marriage was not about a contract or a financial engagement as had been the custom for centuries prior, but a sacred union that should reflect God’s love. Christ turned the accepted cultural norms about marriage on its head.
So Blankley finds us to be in an impossible conundrum:
In light of this, Christians find themselves in an ironic and divided situation. As citizens of a secular country they must be licensed by the state to validate a practice that is rooted in a religious belief. Should this be the case? Should a practice rooted in a Judeo-Christian faith even be under the auspices of government? If marriage had been left to the church, the church could marry those who practice and follow its beliefs. Civil unions among same-sex couples could be left to the government, providing the full range of civil liberties citizens in a democracy expect. The fact that marriage is governed by the state, defies its purpose intended by God for heterosexuals and prevents civil liberties from being granted to same-sex couples.
The sanctity of marriage, as defined in Genesis 2, would be best preserved if marriage were left to the authority of the church. Instead, most Bible-believing Christians find themselves defending a religious practice that was never designed to be governed by a secular institution.
Now despite all the seeming solid fact articulated in this article, Blankley’s argument horribly misrepresents the history of marriage. First of all, despite what same-sex marriage proponents like to claim, Jesus did speak clearly about the nature of marriage, and when he did so it was to appeal to the original norm of creation in order to judge the traditions of his day. In other words, Jesus appealed to creation norms (if you do not like the more classic term natural law) in order to judge human tradition.
Of course, it is true that the Apostle Paul characterized marriage in redemptive terms, calling Christians to express the loving service of the kingdom even in the natural institution of marriage by making their marriages pictures of the love between Christ and his Church. But did this teaching turn the accepted notions of marriage on their head? Did Christianity really remove marriage from the sphere of government?
It is true that the medieval church turned marriage into a sacrament and that it insisted marriage was to be regulated in church courts, not in secular courts. But this was because the church argued that marriage was relevant both to secular authority and to spiritual authority, and that in all such cases of overlapping authority, the church’s authority should trump that of civil magistrates. But contrary to what is often claimed by liberal theologians, Catholic theologians always emphasized that in its essence marriage is fundamentally a natural and civil institution.
For instance, Augustine argues in his On Marriage and Concupiscence that for human beings in general the natural goods of marriage are the goods of procreation and fidelity, and he suggests that only for believers is there also a sacramental good. This is not a turning of marriage on its head; it is placing a crown on its head. Augustine understood the sacramental good of marriage as a restoration of the purposes of marriage from creation. The natural good cannot be separated from the sacramental good, and the latter is incoherent without the former. After all, for Augustine there will be no marriage in the kingdom of God. If one does not need to marry for purposes of procreation and chastity, continence is the route of Christian love.
Similarly, while Aquinas does say that from the perspective of excellence the sacramental good of marriage is primary, he immediately clarifies that from the perspective of what is “essential” to marriage the natural good is primary. For Aquinas the sacramental good of marriage purifies and elevates the natural goods but it can never be separated from them or opposed to them. Taking faith as “the duty of remaining faithful” and offspring as “the intention of having children” Aquinas writes that “it is clear that ‘offspring’ is the most essential thing in marriage, secondly ‘faith,’ and thirdly ‘sacrament’, even as to man it is more essential to be in nature than to be in grace, although it is more excellent to be in grace.” (Supplement to the Summa Theologiae, Q. 49)
Even in the Catholic tradition, it is clear, marriage has always been fundamentally a natural and civil institution concerned with the procreation and raising of children. When the Protestant reformers eliminated the sacramental status of marriage they were holding true to Jesus’ emphasis on marriage as an institution ordered in creation, and to the clear argumentation of leading theologians like Augustine and Aquinas.
In light of this, Blankley’s claim that marriage as an institution is rooted in religious belief and that it was never designed to be governed by a secular institution is ludicrous. Contrary to what Blankley claims, if it weren’t for Christianity marriage would have always been a civil institution. The Protestants did not deviate from classic Christianity on this point; they used the core teachings of the church on marriage to point out that however the Gospel might elevate a marriage, the union of a man and a woman in the bond of love and for the purpose of raising children is a fundamentally secular institution.
As I said in previous posts, it is the advocates of same-sex marriage who want this to be about religion. But marriage is not first and foremost about religion. Marriage is a secular institution designed to order the sexual union of men and women in such a way as to ensure that procreation and care for the weakest members of society proceeds in the context of justice and accountability (For those of you who haven’t, once again, you must read Robert George on this). For the sake of love for our neighbors, not primarily for the sake of our faith, Christians need to defend traditional marriage.