Should Christian marriage be considered separately from non-Christian marriage in a predominantly secular society? Are there two types of marriage? Frank Brennan, an Australian Roman Catholic priest has argued recently that same-sex marriage should be legalised ‘for the common good’. He bases his support for homosexual marriage on a distinction between marriage in the Roman Catholic Church and marriage in wider society. But are there two types of marriage? From a civil perspective, marriage either in the Roman Catholic Church or out of it enables the married couple to enjoy the same civil privileges. No distinction is made, and the government does not distinguish such marriages as religious and non-religious.
1. Secular Marriage
Marriage between a man and a woman has been the norm in pagan societies down through history. Often, even in the Christian west even by the medieval church, a marriage was considered a true marriage, when a couple just decided to become man and wife. No official sanction by the government or the church was involved in all cases of marriage. As countries became Christianised, the Roman Catholic Church increasingly regulated marriage and even made marriage a sacrament. Eventually marriage required a license from the government, probably because of the legal and welfare issues implicit in a marriage union. In most societies today, marriage is administrated by the government.
The church down through the ages has not denied the legitimacy of non-Christian marriage, marriages which to all intents and purposes looked very much like what we call today common law or de facto marriage.
It is only very recently that a plea has arisen in Western democracies for permitting homosexual couples to marry. Much of the argument for such marriages resulted from alleged unfairness in the way a same-sex partner was treated under the law. Visiting a sick partner in hospital, for example, could be problematic for the homosexual. Other privileges granted to married couples in these societies were also denied to same-sex couples.
2. The biblical view of marriage
As in all areas where moral decisions need to be made in a society, the now predominantly secular world understands marriage as an institution in purely contractual terms between marriage partners, but licensed by a state bureaucracy. The modern definition of marriage, therefore, does not involve any kind of input from divine revelation or the claims of God upon the institution. For this reason the same-sex marriage debate usually revolves around arguments of fairness and discrimination. Since these secular societies have already decided that homosexuality and homosexual unions are morally legitimate, inevitably this logic will result in homosexual marriage becoming legal in all secular democracies. This is unavoidable.
Those, however, who do not derive their moral distinctions from the secular ethical system, but from the Bible, oppose same-sex marriage because we consider it to be morally wrong, since the Bible both teaches that homosexuality is sinful and therefore contrary to God’s will, and that marriage is to be monogamous and heterosexual.
And the reason the biblical viewpoint affirms that the institution of marriage is monogamous and heterosexual is because God instituted it that way at creation. The account can be found in the first two chapters of Genesis 1 and 2. This is why Frank Brennan is wrong to suggest that there are two types of marriage, religious and civil. This distinction is not found in the Bible. A consistent biblical view is that all marriages are defined by God in monogamous and heterosexual terms. The idea of same-sex marriage is not countenanced in Scripture. Marriage as instituted by God, is therefore to be the norm for all men, even atheists, pagans, or any non-Christians. There is only one type of legitimate marriage and not two types of marriage. There is not a gold-standard and a bronze version of marriage.
What Christians have to realise, however, is that while there is a cultural memory of biblical marriage, and an innate aversion to marriages, such as same-sex marriage, which do not comply with biblical norms, inevitably the culture is shifting in a completely secular direction. What are Christians, then, to do? We must continue to bear witness to the teaching of the Bible on this question, but realising that unless society becomes predominantly Christian again, homosexual marriage will become the law of the land. Our focus, therefore, should continue to be on spreading the Gospel message and prayer that God will bring revival and reformation.
Dr. Garnet Milne