The aim of the ‘Keep Marriage Special’ campaign is summarized in Viscount Brentford’s petition:
‘This petition calls upon HM Government to support and protect the uniqueness of marriage, for the good of all in our society. It affirms the biblical teaching that marriage can only be between one man and one woman. Marriage cannot be redefined because it is not a human invention but an institution ordained by God for the good of mankind. The Christian understanding of marriage is at the heart of family life, is good for children and is a vital part of our country’s heritage. We therefore call upon HM Government not to legislate to permit same-sex marriage.’
Many people will agree with and be willing to endorse what is stated in the petition wording, without further persuasion that it represents the biblical position on marriage and that no government has any right or authority under God to propose a different definition of marriage.
However, others will want to question at least some of the propositions, in particular:
Does it represent the biblical position on marriage?
The biblical teaching on marriage is to be found in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, and many of the subsequent books that make up the Old Testament and New Testament. The following is a far from complete summary, but it sets out some key verses that establish the parameters of biblical marriage.
Nowhere in the Bible is there any suggestion that marriage can be between two people of the same sex.
In this first account in Genesis of man’s creation and purpose, we see that God created man and woman with the intention that they should procreate and rule over the earth, with his blessing and as his image-bearers and representatives:
‘God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over … all the creatures” … So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it ”’ (Genesis 1:26-28).
Building on this, the following passage indicates that biblical marriage involves the union of a man and a woman; that God considered nothing and no-one to be ‘suitable’, to be united with Adam, but a woman; and that this was a God-ordained sacred union that would result in procreation, but ‘no shame’:
‘Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air … But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’, for she was taken out of man.” For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame’ (Genesis 2:19-25).
After the ‘fall’ of man into a state of rebellion against God (Genesis 3), marriage became to some extent corrupted, along with the rest of creation. There are accounts of recrimination and power-struggles between husband and wife (Genesis 3), polygamy (Genesis 4) and abandonment (Genesis 12); but no suggestion that the Genesis ideal should be redefined. The Old Testament goes on to record other degradations of the ideal marriage of Eden, including divorce, adultery and marital disfunctionality; but never with God’s approval and always in such a way that the essential goodness of marriage is upheld within the bounds set by God.
Jesus affirmed that God-given marriage is the union of one man and one woman. When the religious establishment wanted him to endorse divorce, he replied:
‘“Haven’t you read … that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate … Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery”’ (Matthew 19:4-8).
Jesus is here upholding the Genesis definition of marriage, and teaching that adultery and divorce represented a departure from God’s design. He was speaking thousands of years after Eden, in a culture that was obviously dramatically different from that of Eden; yet there is no suggestion of any need to change, update or reinterpret the Genesis definition, to take into account the characteristics or preferences of first century society or otherwise for the sake of ‘progress’.
The teaching of his apostles was consistent. Paul says of marriage that it was ‘[created by God and] is good’ (1 Timothy 4:4). He relies expressly upon the Genesis accounts (cf 1 Timothy 2:13,14), indicating his view that marriage is a divine creation ordinance, affected by the fall but not redefined by it. He teaches expressly that marriage was ordained not only as a sacred blessing for the married man and woman and their offspring, but as an enduring illustration of the relationship between Christ and his church (Ephesians 5:22-33). Christ is the loving husband of the church, as man is to be the loving husband of his wife. The roles of husband and wife are complementary but not the same, nor are they interchangeable. There cannot be two husbands and no wife in a biblical marriage, any more than there could be two Christs and no church.
The Old Testament teaching on marriage is not confined or applied only to believers; nor is that of the New Testament (cf 1 Peter 3:1). Not all in society will accept it (Matthew 19:11,12); but that does not entitle man to redefine it.
Who ‘owns’ the definition of marriage and should the biblical definition be generally accepted?
These are the questions being asked (and answered) by HM Government and the homosexual lobby, who appear to be speaking with essentially one voice.
The following is an extract from a Daily Telegraph report:
‘Lynne Featherstone directly challenges the role of the Church in the debate over homosexual weddings, saying it does not “own” marriage. Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Miss Featherstone says the Government has a right to change the definition of marriage and pledges to challenge those who “want to leave tradition alone”. Citing the words of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, who is a prominent opponent of the Coalition’s plans to allow same-sex couples to marry, she insists that how marriage is defined is up to “the people”. In a direct address to the Christian opponents of the proposed changes, she says: “We understand how strongly some religious groups feel about the issue, which is why we are listening and we want to work with them. But there is a range of other views we need to listen to as well. I want to urge people not to polarise this debate. This is not a battle between gay rights and religious beliefs. This is about the underlying principles of family, society and personal freedoms.”
‘In her article, the Liberal Democrat minister insists the Coalition has a duty to push ahead with the changes. “The fierce debate over the past few weeks has shown people feel very strongly about marriage,” she says. “Some believe the Government has no right to change it at all; they want to leave tradition alone. I want to challenge that view – it is the Government’s fundamental job to reflect society and to shape the future, not stay silent where it has the power to act and change things for the better.” She warned that the Government would not back down on the plans, which she said would extend equal rights to gay and lesbian couples. “[Marriage] is owned by neither the state nor the Church, as the former Archbishop Lord Carey rightly said. So it is owned by the people,” she said’ (Daily Telegraph, 24th February 2012).
In the same article, it is reported that Lord Carey said that Miss Featherstone had put an ‘unwarranted slant’ on his words. ‘When I said that not even the Church owns it I meant that the Church has no authority to change the definition of marriage as far as Christian thinking is concerned – there is a givenness to it.’
The Government’s answer, therefore, is that the definition is ‘owned’ by ‘the people’, therefore the Government, on behalf of the people, can redefine it. As society changes, the definition must be changed to continue to reflect whatever is the current view of society – or presumably just a subset of society, assuming that there is no consensus view.
This is a logical position, in a democracy, if there is no God. It is how most laws are made. If God is written out of the picture, then those who object to change may appeal to tradition, and may have strong pragmatic arguments. But ‘society’ (or a subset of it) will not necessarily accept that keeping to tradition is best, and may not be won over by pragmatic arguments. It may instead be persuaded that ‘equality demands it’, or that it should go with the notion of ‘live and let live’ as the course of least resistance. Governments may believe in the equality arguments, as Miss Featherstone appears to do, or (as some have suggested in relation to this proposal) may simply go with the option that promises the most votes or a convenient distraction from the country’s economic woes.
The Christian answer is that there is a God; that he does know what is right and best for society; and that he does want what is right and best for society – even a society that has largely rejected his authority. The Christian will accept that ‘the church’ does not own the definition of marriage, but will be in no doubt that God does.
The primary argument against the proposed redefinition of marriage is therefore theological: what God has ordained in his written word, neither society nor any government is free to redefine. Christians will not be able in good conscience to accept or live by a definition that is inconsistent with what God has ordained.
That there are strong pragmatic arguments for retaining the Biblical definition of marriage will be of no surprise to any Christian. God’s ordering of society will be best for a healthy society. It is good for society to uphold the distinctiveness of marriage as a God-ordained holy institution. It is good for couples to live in God-ordained relationships, even if they are not Christians. It is good for children to benefit from the greater relative stability of families in which the parents are married, compared with the instability of families of unmarried parents, even though many marriages still fail. It is good for children to benefit from having a mother and a father, even though marriage does not guarantee that that ideal will be maintained through their childhood. The empirical evidence is strong, that marriage as defined by God is good for society. But pragmatic arguments can only be secondary arguments for the rightness of the biblical position.
Christians are bound to persist in urging the societies in which they live to live in God’s world in a way that honours Him and upholds His commands and wisdom. They do so not for personal advantage, but because it is the right thing to do (Revelation 4:11), knowing that no society can ignore His commands and expect His blessing. They are bound to persist even if society prefers its own wisdom to the wisdom of God – as it so often does. ‘Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? … [but] the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom’ (1 Corinthians 1:20-25). They are bound to persist even if society ultimately goes its own way, and reaps what it sows.
In short, the answers to the above questions are that God ‘owns’ marriage; and that Christians (and others who accept the authority of the Judeo-Christian scriptures) can only commend to society – and themselves live by – the definition of marriage that he has ordained.
Isn’t it unfair to confine marriage to heterosexuals?
The unfairness that is being complained of here is that heterosexuals have an advantage, in being allowed to marry, that is not extended to homosexuals.
It is not an advantage in terms of legal rights, because the Civil Partnership legislation has provided equality under the law. It is an advantage in terms of the more intangible benefits of marriage, which may include its connotations of respectability and social acceptance.
The alleged unfairness, then, is inseparably bound up with the homosexual lobby’s concern for homosexual behaviour to be put on a level with heterosexual behaviour and protected from criticism. The homosexual marriage debate needs to be seen as part of this much broader debate. Society has moved a long way in recent decades towards meeting or appeasing the lobbyists’ strident demands that criticism should be deemed unacceptable. ‘Progress’ in this direction has been well documented.
But it is not ‘unfair’ to criticize something that is rightly – in a free society – open to criticism. Nor is it ‘unfair’ to decline to protect such a thing from criticism. Censorship needs to be resisted.
The thing in question is homosexual activity. Homosexual acts, even between consenting adults, are morally wrong according to the Bible. They cannot be made morally right by seeking to redefine marriage to legitimize them, nor by seeking to reinterpret the plain teaching of the Bible – for example Romans 1:26-28.
Christians are to show love and respect for all people. But they must be free in any context to explain the biblical position that homosexual activity is inherently sinful and contrary to God’s will for mankind. They must not do so judgmentally. Homosexual activity is but one manifestation of mankind’s sinful rebellion against God. The Christian message is that God is patient, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. God will forgive and restore every repentant sinner. A judgmental Christian is one who has forgotten that he too is a sinner, just as much in need of God’s forgiveness as anyone else. But in a society where some are aggressively teaching that homosexual activity is good and to be celebrated, it is necessary for Christians to be free to explain that that is untrue and that God hates all manifestations of sin. Christians must be free to teach what the Bible teaches.
It is therefore not a question of fairness or unfairness: it is a question of what God has ordained. It is unreasonable to accuse God of being unfair, for having defined marriage and morality as He has chosen to do. We are living in His world. It would be equally unreasonable to accuse a Christian of being unfair simply for seeking to live by and uphold God’s word. Christians are bound to do so as a matter of faith.
Can’t Christians live by one definition and the rest of society live by a broader definition?
There are a number of problems with the notion that Christians should get on with living by their outmoded definition of marriage while allowing the rest of society to live by a more inclusive definition.
First, as explained above, Christians have a legitimate and God-given role both in urging society to live by God’s laws and urging individuals to repent of their sin and turn to Jesus Christ as their only hope of salvation, forgiveness and eternal life. It is not in the best interests of society to enact ungodly legislation. A healthy society is a God-honouring society. Christians are acting for the good of society generally by urging it to uphold the God-given definition and institution of marriage. It would not be right for them to stay silent.
Secondly, it is naive to think that Christians will be allowed to live quietly by their consciences if this legislation is passed. If the sacred institution of marriage is redefined to include homosexual marriage, homosexual activity will as a matter of law have been put on a level with heterosexual sex within marriage. Christians will be pressured to endorse the legitimacy of that, but will not in good conscience be able to do so. They must be free in any context to decline to accept the unbiblical definition of marriage.
That may necessarily include Christian churches, organizations and individuals declining to provide marriage-related services to those who declare themselves to be married as a matter of law, but cannot be married in God’s eyes. Recent history shows that this will not be tolerated by homosexual activists, politically-correct local authorities or even the police. If a Christian photographer could face prosecution under the Sexual Orientation Regulations for refusing to take pictures of a civil partnership event, is there any reason to think that he will have greater protection if he refuses, on yet stronger conscience grounds, to be involved in a homosexual ‘wedding’? More discrimination and litigation against Christians who seek to live by their consciences is inevitable.
Thirdly, Christians and the rest of society need to appreciate that the currently-proposed redefinition of marriage is unlikely to be the last. If it is ‘un-egalitarian homophobic bigotry’ to oppose the redefinition of marriage to include two men or two women marrying, one may expect that next it will be argued that it is only fair for bisexuals to be allowed to marry two partners. It may not be the current proposal, but the homosexual lobby has always worked on a ‘one step at a time’ basis. The Netherlands legalized homosexual marriage in 2001, and has since gone further in legalizing bisexual polygamy in all but name. Why should not the law in this country be further redefined to allow polygamy, or to allow siblings to marry, all in the name of equality? Once the precedent is established – that in Miss Featherstone’s words, ‘how marriage is defined is up to the people’ – all that it will require is for a small minority to lobby and persuade the Government either ‘that it is the right thing to do’ or that there are votes in it.
Miss Featherstone is plainly wrong in asserting that the homosexual marriage debate is unconnected with the broader conflict between ‘between gay rights and religious beliefs’. Much closer to the truth is Baroness Warsi’s assessment of where we are heading:
‘Examples of a “militant secularisation” taking hold of society could be seen in a number of things – “When signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings; when states won’t fund faith schools; and where religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere.” She also compared the intolerance of religion with totalitarian regimes’ (BBC News, 14th February 2012).
‘For me, one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant’ (Daily Telegraph, 13th February 2012).
In conclusion, it would not be good for any part of society for Christian views on this issue to be ignored and then silenced. Only a return to Christian values and the biblical teaching from which they come can give the necessary foundation upon which to build the Big Society for the twenty-first century. If this Government insists on ‘playing God’ by rejecting his definition of marriage and refusing to ‘Keep Marriage Special’, then it will become very apparent that its Big Society is being built on sand.