Jennifer Fulwiler presents this challenge to those who would defend traditional marriage: We need to start engaging in dialogue with our fellow defenders of “traditional marriage” on what that term even means. I totally agree. We need to be honest about where we are at and how we got here.
One of my best friends has a very sharp and astute critique of the current state of marriage. He notes that we shouldn't be shocked by where we are at right now. We allowed ourselves to get to this point. We've allowed the definition of what marriage is to be so skewed that we can't feign surprise when the very definition of marriage as being between only one man and one woman is challenged. In this context, the "we" I am referring to is all Christians. If we want any chance to re-frame the debate and restore the dignity of marriage on a grand scale, we have to first look to the redefining of marriage we've allowed in practice.
Basically, here's the current definition we're now working with based on the behavior of too many Christians:
- There is room for selfishness: Selfless love is at the heart of marriage. Unconditional love means just that: willing the good of the other no matter what. It's the love that doesn't count the cost. We didn't come up with this type of love. It's how God loves us and marriage is meant to be a clear icon of God's love for us. The problem: we have redefined marriage as a way to make me happy. We expect marriage to fulfill all of our selfish desires. We even say silly things like "you complete me." We make love conditional: I'll love you as long as you love me. That is not selfless. That is not unconditional. That is not how God loves us. We love as long as we still feel loved all too often. Marriage is formed more by the ego than by the Cross. We are made to give ourselves away in love. Currently, we settle for much less.
- Being faithful only starts at "I do": When we talk about being faithful regarding marriage, we most often only start the discussion from the wedding on. If that's our perspective, we've really missed the point. The gift of faithful love involves giving a heart that does not belong to anyone else. A major crisis today is the casual regard for the gift of the heart (especially as expressed in sexual relations). Marriage might be viewed as the last time a heart is given away, but it's rare that it's viewed as the only time. No where is this more clear than in our appreciation of chastity. Unchaste behavior is not just breaking a rule or a rejection of the love of God, it is an act of cheating on a spouse...even if someone doesn't even know what the spouse looks like yet. That which is meant for the good of marriage is shared outside of it. Promiscuity isn't just permissible, it's pandemic. Being faithful in the ways of the heart must be approached from a lifelong perspective or "being faithful" risks being meaningless.
- It's really a personal decision: While there are parts of our relationship with God that are personal, the decision to get married isn't one them. Marriage is a communal act. It is not just ordered to the good of the couple, but the good of children and ultimately the society. Everything other people might know that precedes and follows the "I do" of a couple in marriage is a public commentary on marriage itself. Marriage is not a private institution and the effects of marriage are not restricted to the particular married couple (especially when children are involved). However, we have been working under the assumption that each marriage exists in a vacuum.
- Intentional sterility is a responsibility: When did "responsible parenthood" get tied to a fear of children? Real responsible parents view marriage as a relationship of freedom that anticipates and embraces new life. Looking at the behavior of most couples today, condolences instead of congratulations are in order when a child is conceived. The choice to make the conjugal act sterile in most marriages is staggering. We've gone from sterility being a curse to it being a blessing. The "contraceptive mindset" has become a duty instead of a detriment.
- One and done? Maybe in the movies: Like marriage being faithful, marriage being for life is seen as something more poetic than pragmatic. Most couples don't enter marriage aware of an expiration date. Most couples really do want to be married for life. However, most couples will also concede that there may be a point when marriage should be temporary. We seem to forget that once our definition of marriage ceases to include permanence, we cease to understand marriage.
Here's the hope: Jesus is married. He has a beautiful bride, the Church. If we want to promote the dignity of Christian marriage, we must first look to how Jesus loves us. His love is faithful (He has only one bride), forever (it's an everlasting covenant), total (Jesus holds back nothing), free (He doesn't love because he has to, but because he wills it), and fruitful (it gives birth to new life in the Spirit). If we embrace Christ's definition of marriage, we really will prepare many more souls for celebrating the everlasting wedding feast of Heaven. Until we are unified in our understanding of marriage as Christians, we have no right to be shocked when marriage is redefined in other ways. Only when we have a clear understanding of Christian marriage can we hope to effectively shape public opinion regarding marriage as an institution.