The following is an excerpt from an exclusive feature available only in Issue #6 of the Christ and Pop Culture Magazine. For more features like this, download our app for iPad and iPhone from Apple’s App Store.

After a one-week free trial, monthly and yearly subscriptions are available for $2.99 and $29.99 respectively. New issues are made available every other week. More information here.

Too often, the term “gay marriage” lands on the table with a thud and Christians seize on the “gay” part. Let’s be very clear: our sexual mores are not a basis for public policy.

Missing this point wastes so much time. Very few people suggest prohibiting homosexual relationships or homosexual behavior. Regardless of your position on the wisdom of such attempts, the ship sailed on that long ago. Whether it is worth your time to advocate for such policies is your decision to make, but it is not a conversation that the public is having, and it is not the issue in any of the marriage policy debates.

That’s not to say that homosexual sex is irrelevant to the debate — far from it! For some, homosexual sex isn’t really sex at all, but rather, a harmful and cheap facsimile that cannot consummate marriage. For others, it is a different mode of expressing “pair-bonding” intimacy and adds to the case for allowing same-sex marriage. However, talking about the physical act alone tells us little about marriage policy. Failing to connect it to the debate risks the credibility of the speaker.

This applies whether you are a traditionalist observing that same-sex partners don’t fit together in certain ways, or a revisionist ascribing opposition to a simple “ick” factor. These observations are a premise, not a conclusion. You still need to make an argument.

What Is Marriage?

It is impossible to discuss marriage policy without a robust conception of what marriage actually is. My experience is that skipping this question leads to endless misunderstanding. Starting here will still lead to deep, visceral disagreement, but will at least keep us from lobbing Jesus and Macklemore quote grenades back and forth.

The Book of Common Prayer describes marriage with characteristic beauty:

“…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; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee; and is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all men: and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.”

The sublimity of that passage is inspiring, but it is not a reason to make the law a certain way. For starters, a lot of people disagree with it. Religious arguments are not sufficient to create public policy. The Bible is a true book and its teachings bind the conscience, but it does not follow that all of its strictures are matters for public regulation. Law is the authority by which matters of public concern are regulated. Thus, the discussion needs to start there.

Nor can history or (secular) tradition determine the outcome. These things can and should guide us, but they cannot rule the living. For starters, most of us are ill-equipped to discuss the history of marriage. Sure, Blackstone talked about marriage channeling babymaking urges. But did you know that the Romans had two different kinds of marriage, one of which the church tried to appropriate and strengthen? John Locke thought that once upbringing and inheritance were settled, spouses should be able to divorce at will.

Christian orthodoxy may not logically compel any particular view of marriage as a metaphysical reality, and in fact, it is not wholly ridiculous to hold that marriage really is mostly a social institution. I think that view is wrong, Biblically and philosophically, but the important thing is to make the definition part of the conversation.

What features must a relationship have to warrant public recognition? There are two answers vying for supremacy. Judge Walker, the federal district court judge who blocked California’s Proposition 8, defined marriage this way:

Marriage is the state recognition and approval of a couple’s choice to live with each other, to remain committed to one another, and to form a household based on their own feelings about one another, and their agreement to join in an economic partnership and support one another in terms of the material needs of life.

This is what I referred to above as the “love + consent” view. If this view is right, then it really is arbitrary discrimination to exclude some from participating solely on the basis of their chosen partner’s gender. On this view, marriage law is about affirming individuals in their life choices and promoting a general stability between consenting adult relationships.

Sherif Girgis, et al., define marriage this way:

Marriage is the union of a man and a woman who make a permanent and exclusive commitment to each other of the type that is naturally (inherently) fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together.

They call this the “conjugal” view because it is based on the uniquely conjugal nature of man-woman pairs. On this view, marriage’s public purpose is to channel the natural impulses of human beings that lead to children, and to ensure that children are raised by their biological parents to the extent possible. You can also call this the “procreative” or “child-centric” view.

Judge Walker’s skepticism might be excused. Even if marriage really is as the second definition describes (as I believe it must be), most of us stopped treating it that way a long time ago. Even many orthodox, conservative Christians talk about marriage as if it were primarily the recognition of an emotional connection. Put simply, our neglect of marriage started long before DOMA. No-fault divorce is the most commonly identified villain, a development that took over forty years to overcome the cultural capital that protected the institution of marriage.

Is marriage really about procreation? The answer is “yes.” Metaphysically, there is always this particular relationship that one can deduce from human nature and biology. But the answer is also “no.” Sociologically, we’ve been incoherent on this for decades, maybe longer. It looks mighty suspicious for us to treat our own marriages like an official registry of long-term special-friends with benefits, then turn around and say that’s not really what it is. A common refrain from libertarians or conflict-avoiders is the call to get government out of the marriage business altogether. Maybe that would be best, but first it requires us to adopt a very specific view of marriage.

Is marriage a purely private institution, or is it essentially public? As Christian marriage practice is to our shame, so too is our slippery grasp of marriage as a public good. If you want to see just how much we’ve lost, ask a typical traditionalist why elderly people are allowed to marry if marriage is about procreation. There are effective responses of varying quality to this facile objection, but it’s likely that you won’t get one. Pro tip: If the modern mind can’t reconcile a rather obvious example with millennia of social practice, chances are the problem is with the modern mind. This is not an argument from tradition, but a warning about easily surrendering to the zeitgeist.

Thousands of pages have been spilled on the question of the essence of marriage. Here, it will have to suffice to insist that we begin with the question, “What must something be to count as a marriage?” A full treatment of this discussion is far too much for this short article. For more, I highly recommend starting with this book (the source of many of my terms and arguments), but for those so inclined, an excellent place to canvass the serious arguments is to follow the conversation found here. Starting the conversation here, however, will avoid confusion and discord and may even help save some relationships from the strife of misunderstanding.

To read the rest of this thorough and thoughtful feature, download Issue #6 of CaPCMag from the Apple App Store today! 

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.


  1. Well, the two links you gave about elderly marriage were totally unconvincing. If you want to make marriage depend on reproduction, a lot of people will be excluded on that basis, not just gay couples.

    1. I’d encourage you to read the whole feature and read the Girgis piece for more thorough responses.

    2. I don’t care who “should” or “should not” be married, or what people want to call it, or which religions will or will not perform such marriages. I care about legal recognition, period.

  2. I appreciate that this is a thoughtful piece on a difficult subject. I do not hold with the child-centric view of marriage for a number of reasons. When God created an ‘ezer k’negdo’ (helper, also used to describe God), He does not include a command to procreate when He says, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” (gen. 2:24) A marriage between people unable to procreate (e.g. with medical conditions, such as azoospermia or endometriosis; or age) is no less sacred than that of fertile couples. The idea that complimentarity in consummation is what is truely important without fertility rings hollow to my ears. Impotence exists. What of people who marry without the intention of having children? I know increasing numbers of young Christian couples who feel we have more than fulfilled the command to be fruitful and multiply, to the point of harming the earth. This may seem to be rejecting God’s blessing of children, but these people do exist. Their love for each other is not perverse and not-blessed by God because they are ecologically minded, even to the point that they wish to be good caretakers of the Earth as God commanded.

    “What must something be to count as a marriage?” It is a difficult question to answer, perhaps because, as you’ve said, of our sociological incoherence. If I am unwilling to accept the answer that there should be many fewer marriages based on child-centeredness, I must therefore, if I have integrity, be willing to consider an opinion wherein two committed, loving gays can marry, even if this strikes me as unconventional, and makes me, in the eyes of many, less of a Christian.

    1. Susan – that’s certainly the calmest response I’ve had to these contentions. Thank you for that. The idea of one-flesh union is expressed in the biological combination of reproductive organs, a union that attains even if those organs are in some way defective. This is the only context in which one biological unit – a person – is incapable of a biological function on his or her own and requires another biological unit. In my view, this is a rational way to pick some relationships out over others. “Relationships between two persons capable of actual biological unity” have a lot more implications for society and is thus of more public concern.

      We should never disparage other people’s love for one another, whether they are of the same gender, unmarried opposite gender, etc. Or to put it more felicitously, for whatever reason marriage is impossible.

      Finally, yes, if you conclude that there is no rational difference between man-woman relationships and man-man or woman-woman relationships, then gay relationships can obviously be marriages. In the piece, I try to confront Christians with that so I hope you’ll give it a download!

    2. Lee, I appreciate your point. However, if your argument is that if same-sex sexual relations are merely a simulacrum of the biological “real deal”, it only touches SSM. A host of other male/female unions would not be prohibited by such a standard…most of which are prohibited in this country.

      I hope I don’t sound like a broken record, but frankly, I can’t seem to see how the State has a right to limit “marriage” as just heterosexual or homosexual parings between non-related parties…using either the common arguments against SSM or for it.

  3. I really appreciated Scalia’s dissent on this topic yesterday. Even though the court rulings were disappointing for conservatives, a good Scalia dissent always cheers the heart:

    [begin quote]

    The penultimate sentence of the majority’s opinion is a naked declaration that “[t]his opinion and its holding are confined” to those couples “joined in same-sex marriages made lawful by the State.” Ante, at 26, 25. I have heard such “bald, unreasoned disclaimer[s]” before. Lawrence, 539 U. S., at 604. When the Court declared a constitutional right to homosexual sodomy, we were assured that the case had nothing, nothing at all to do with “whether the government must give formal recognition to any relationship that homosexual persons seek to enter.” Id., at 578. Now we are told that DOMA is invalid because it “demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects,” ante, at 23—with an accompanying citation of Lawrence. It takes real cheek for today’s majority to assure us, as it is going out the door, that a constitutional requirement to give formal recognition to same-sex marriage is not at issue here—when what has preceded that assurance is a lecture on how superior the majority’s moral judgment in favor of same-sex marriage is to the Congress’s hateful moral judgment against it. I promise you this: The only thing that will “confine” the Court’s holding is its sense of what it can get away with.

    [end quote]

  4. There is no justification for the state to not allow two people to get married regardless of sexual orientation. Your church has the right to recognize (and not recognize) a marriage as it sees fit. The civil institution of marriage is a state sanctioned grouping conferring special rights and privileges to couples. There is no reasonable reason to deny this to any two consenting adults.

    Religion does not belong in the marriage debate, because the rights being fought for have nothing to do with religion.

    Marriage has always been an evolving institution as well. This idea that it’s about a consenting man and a consenting woman and always has been is nonsense. We used to let twelve year old girls get married, with parents helping to pick the husband. That’s not something from 1000 years ago that’s something from 100 years ago. Sixty years ago inter-racial couples were prohibited from marrying in certain parts o the country. Obviously we’ve moved beyond that.

    Marriage has evolved over the centuries, I suggest your thinking do the same.

    1. I can truly understand your perspective; but the question to me is not so much what they state can “permit” but what it can “not permit.” I think everyone agrees that the state has a role in keeping certain unions not recognized–for example, when minor children would be involved, or incompetent people who may be taken advantage of.

      But why limit the discussion to “two people?” I still have not seen any logical legal argument why polygamy and/or incest should be barred by the State. By the argument that “these people are in love, therefore, they should have the right to marry” would provide no barrier to two brothers marrying, two sisters, a brother and a sister, or multiple men and women.

      And I think the eugenic argument against incest is probably not going to be held valid, unless you think the State should also bar those who carry specific genetic diseases from marriage as well…and let’s not even get into the incredible hypocrisy of using the “ick” factor against other forms of relationships if one finds it invalid to use against homosexual unions.

    2. Polygamy is not unbiblical and I don’t know how you can make a ‘religious’ argument against it. They are not uncommon among Mormons, and frankly, I have no objection, although I am an evangelical. I would not object to the same for muslims. I see that as freedom of religion. Polygynous communities are not uncommon, esp. in cults. The other unions you mention do happen, but they and polygynous marriages will probably not be legalized. What is icky for some is fine for others. Remember John the Baptists (a Nazarite) needed to survive on locusts as a protein source… ick!!!

      While I won’t actively promote any of the aforementioned unions, I also will not promote the ungodly behavior of attacking supporters of same-sex marriage marriage by comparing that situation to an objectional one. That is

    3. Thanks for the response, Susan. You wrote:
      “The other unions you mention do happen, but they and polygynous marriages will probably not be legalized.”
      I’m interested in knowing why you think they will not be legalized. Is it because a greater number of people find these “icky” than those who find monogamous heterosexual or homosexual unions “icky”, or is there some other reason? Upon what legal basis–not an “ick” factor–could the State legitamately object to these unions?
      You also wrote:
      “While I won’t actively promote any of the aforementioned unions, I also will not promote the ungodly behavior of attacking supporters of same-sex marriage by comparing that situation to those that are ridiculous and objectionable.”
      I understand why some might think examples such as child marriage or inter-species marriage “ridiculous and objectionable”, but do you consider polygamy, polyandry or Incesteous marriage “ridiculous and objectionable”? If so, why?
      I could well imagine that back during the debate concerning interracial marriage that some made “ridiculous and objectionable” arguments that making these unions recognized by the State would “inevitably” lead to homosexual marriage. While I am a firm supporter of interracial marriage (I actually am in one), I reject homosexual marriage as unbiblical. (However, the question of what is biblical is NOT the same as the question of what should be legal…for example, the worship of other gods is protected by the first amendment and I would be among the first to object to make the unbiblical practice of worshipping other gods illegal.)
      If someone considers polygamy and incest as “ridiculous and objectionable”, then I’d like to know why are they considered so. is it merely an “ick” factor to call something “ridiculous and objectionable”, or is it some logical reason why something should be considered “ridiculous and objectionable”?
      “That is a poor thinker’s response and will only cause animus in these already loaded culture wars. I can’t think of a single time Jesus used sarcasm in Scripture, and we are called by Him to be like Him.”
      My response was anything but sarcastic…I am completely sincere on learning upon what theory of rights leads to the conclusion that homosexual and heterosexual monogamous relationships are “legitimate” forms of marriage, but polygamous and Incesteous relationships cannot be considered as such. The arguments that I hear most about how we should respect the love that people have for each other is well and good, but it can be used quite easily to support “ridiculous and objectionable” relationships such as polygamy and incest.
      I would agree that I can’t think if Jesus using sarcasm; however, it abounds in the prophets. For example, Elijah’s comments on Mt. Carmel were pretty sarcastic and made fun of what his opponents found sacred.
      And my apologies if I misunderstood what you meant by “ridiculous and objectionable” arguments against homosexual unions.

    4. This is a really long comment and I am unsure where or if to begin. First, Jesus did not call us to to follow Elijah, He called us to be like Him. He saved His lengthy rebukes for hypocrites, not for sinners and broken ones.

      You were not being sarcastic with your questions? I do apologize. I’m sorry I misunderstood you. Please forgive me. I have seen gays attacked in this way before – by indirectly comparing them to pedophiles or polygynous relationships or incest or bestiality. I find it offensive, as offensive as I would an interracial marriage being compared to these things. If the ultimate question you’re asking me is why these other relationships won’t fly, I’m not 100% sure that they actually will not (except for bestiality and incest), but that will come after we are gone.

    5. Thanks for your reply, Susan. And apology accepted; and I’m sorry if I sounded offensive. I really want to know why the State should make any particular relationship illegal. The initial offense that some take at the question is confusing and ironic to me; is the offense because of an “ick” factor that “all decent minded Americans should agree with”–which sounds curiously like the arguments from the right against same-sex unions (or 50 years ago, against interracial unions). On the other hand, are there legitimate concerns why such unions should be banned? (Again, we’re talking about relationships between consenting adults, not confusing it with non-humans and/or minors.)

      As to acting like Jesus and not Elijah–of course. He was gentle with those sinners who knew and admitted their sin, but harsh against those who didn’t consider themselves “sinners.” But please remember that hypocrisy is not limited to the “religious”; many today would not consider themselves “religious” but, like the Pharisees that Jesus condemned, adamantly refuse to recognize their sinfulness and utter dependence on grace. (Indeed, I would argue from a reformed position that that unwillingness to admit one’s own sinful nature is the essence of unregenerate humanity before God’s grace turns their hearts to Him.)

      As to us not living until other relationships are recognized, I’m not so sure. Change itself is accelerated these days…remember, DOMA was made law just 20 years ago (along with “don’t ask/don’t tell”). And unless someone can make a compelling LEGAL argument against these unions, I can’t see what should stop SCOTUS from extending marital rights from beyond just monogamous unions between two unrelated people.

    6. If someone were to ask me why some Christians are hypocrites, I would say “Because people are hypocrites, and Christians are people!”

    7. Thank you, WH, for your gracious response. I wish all my responses were so gracious. Why people are offended by these questions is that they do not address the concern (SSM), but rather extrapolate to relationships (some seriously offensive, like pedophilia) which are not sanctioned yet. Why should that be accepted as a valid argument? It sounds paranoid and baiting. Imagine the first interracial marriages, and please forgive me because I know you are in one; imagine someone arguing that you have a responsibility not to mongrelize future generations (that was an argument). What if they asked you, why then should we not legalize marriage to one’s horse or a monkey? It is not the issue.

      “I am not a slave,” declared Jack Johnson, the first black world heavyweight-boxing champion. Under national scrutiny for his seeming propensity for marrying white women, Johnson claimed, “I have the right to choose who my mate shall be without the dictation of any man. I have
      eyes and I have a heart, and when they fail to tell me who I shall have for mine, I want to be put away in a lunatic asylum.” Does this not sound appropriate to SSM?

    8. And thank you for your continuing gracious dialogue, Susan.

      Johnson’s quote is beautiful; and yet, phrased that way, it could not just apply to interracial marriage (as he meant), and not just SSM (as he probably didn’t, but we can’t know for certain how he would react to that, but to a host of other kinds of relationships.

      Again, not knowing Jack Johnson’s take on this, I can merely speculate on what he would think of SSM (unless you can point to specific information about what he felt on that.) He might say “well, gee, you’re right, if I think I have the right to marry any willing woman regardless of race, maybe someone else should be given the right to marry any other person regardless of sex.” Or maybe he would have said “How dare you equate our love with a perversion!” It may have seemed incredibly offensive to make the equation of interracial marriage with SSM, but critics would have a point: if “feelings of love” transcend race, why not gender? Why limit it to monogamy? Why limit it to non-closely related people?

      I agree that the discussion should not bring in baiting arguments like pedophilia or bestiality, in that the law already argued for centuries that there is a distinction between competent,consenting people (although “consent” in times past would be “approval of the patriarch” in the case of child marriage, the child’s wishes usually ignored–and given that “consent” is impossible for a minor child for good psychological reasons.)

      So I come back to just alternative relationships of competent adults: what is the compelling interest of the State to bar these relationships? And why would these specific examples be considered so “offensive” to proponents of SSM?

      So I truly ask again (not necessarily just to you, Susan, although I would like to hear your perspective): when is it right for the State to limit the right of marriage, and when is it not? Is if merely a concession to whatever morés exist in a society, or is there a timeless principal involved? And if it is a timeless principal, is that a principal that all members of a free society would accept as just?

    9. I had a long answer that just disappeared. yuck. I’ll need to be more brief.

      “Is if merely a concession to whatever morés exist in a society, or is there a timeless principal involved? And if it is a timeless principal, is that a principal that all members of a free society would accept as just?”

      My answer was that I think there are no timeless principles. To me, murder is always wrong, but in the last century 100 million people were murdered by many with no regrets. I had other examples of “timeless” principles that have not existed even in modern times.

      I am a Christian, and I believe in absolute truth. But I am only part of society, which is not in our case a theocracy.

      There are disgusting ideas being exclaimed by The North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). Agitating for acceptance of sex with toddlers. But that is a small part of society which finds it acceptable.

      It’s sad but true. We (a society) make our own laws, and they are at odds at various times in history.

    10. Thanks for your reply, Susan.

      I think that NAMBLA is the fringe of the fringe, and they support something about as popular today as chattel slavery. That said, it does represent a viewpoint not wholly absent from western culture (ancient pagan Greece comes to mind)–just like slavery has a long history in western culture.

      I think one of the principles of modern law is the idea of keeping the innocent from harm. Therefore, we create laws against murder, theft, fraud, etc. more recently, a fairly bed-rock taboo is do not coerce children into sexual relationships.

      That does not mean it does not happen; it does mean that as a society, the overwhellming majorIty believes that it should be sanctioned.

      But certainly our law does not just wholly flow from certain principles. We tend to frame questions as competing moral goods, rather than absolute right and wrong. (Schaeffer well pointed out that this is ultimately unstable; our sense of “fairness” or justice, without a divine basis, merely becomes the opinion of the moment. But we cannot live consistently like this–we banish God, and then act surprise that the consistent ones among us demonstrate with crystal clarity that regardless of what most people want, the only check on people’s actions is what others might think (and act upon that thinking.)

      So, we use a form of “justice” that says “it is not fair that same-sex couples cannot marry–we need to change that.” But they will not march for those “weird polygamists” or “those disgusting Incesteous couples.” But why? Is our “justice” dependent upon public approval? If so, Prop 8 was the correct method to settle the question: take a poll, and whatever the majority says, we will implement.

      Yet we try to have the moral high ground, saying we act on principal. That I question, because our legal code is fraught with contradictions and absurdities. We pretend to act on principal, but reject any ultimate principal as absurd.

      I don’t long for a return to theocracy. But I do want people to squarely stare into the abyss that their hollow decisions mean. (By “hollow decisions, I don’t mean “evil decisions” I mean that their decisions rest on absolutely no ultimate foundation, and are as absurd.

    11. I see that we agree more than we disagree!

      I would love to live in a theocracy, so long as Jesus was the leader. But even then, the ‘people’ element would render it untenable; we can’t even get along with other denominations.

    12. “I can’t think of a single time Jesus used sarcasm in Scripture, and we are called by Him to be like Him.”

      Okay… I’m not even going to try to argue with you on polygamy and gay marriage (at least you’re “consistent” enough to support everything, for what that’s worth), but I genuinely wonder if you’ve read the gospels lately that you could make this statement!

    13. So you are the arbiter of my familiarity with Scripture? (for what it’s worth) I am trying to prevent someone from ugly name calling, regardless of whether you think, for yourself, you think it is necessary. I think it is not only necessary, but harms the body of Christ.

    14. 34″You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” I see no sarcasm here. I see condemnation and wisdom. “39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” Same. Matthew 23 is about the Pharisees. I just don’t see sarcasm here. I see righteous anger and rebuke.

    15. Well if you define sarcasm narrowly as the modern American genre of saying one thing while meaning another, then of course Jesus wasn’t speaking that language. But Jewish snark? Absolutely. I threw in the vipers because he’s calling them a name (!) The wicked and adulterous generation one is pretty snarky to me, because they’ve just asked for a sign and he throws it right back in their faces. “So YOU guys want a miraculous sign. Seriously?” All the rest of those are really good examples too. Some delicious insults in there. My favorite is “Then I should be a liar like unto you.” Another one I didn’t include was when they ask him a question, then he says “I’ll only answer if you tell me who you think John the Baptist was.” When they can’t answer, he says, “Fine. Then I won’t answer your question.” Which reminds me of another one about John the Baptist where he starts taunting the crowd. “What were you expecting to see? A reed shaken in the wind? What did you come out here to see? Huh?” He was great with the subtle jabs too. A brilliant rhetorician all round.

    16. He called them, not “names”, but ‘eph`eh, hissing (poisonous vipers) because they were poisoning the word of the Lord. Jewish snark or Godly reproach?

    17. Jesus was God. Jesus was a Jewish rabbi. Why not both at the same time? In any case, I for one get a great Jewish flavor out of Jesus’ sayings. Very rabbinical.

Comments are now closed for this article.