As I mentioned Thursday I'm continuing my series on marriage today by talking a bit about what it is.
I'll bet 20 - no, maybe even 10 - years ago, this post would have been seen as superfluous. Filler material consisting entirely of the obvious. But oh, how quickly times have changed. Up until recently, the only debate centered around how soon after getting divorced or widowed a single mom needed to get married "for the good of her kids." Now the discussion has focused on what exactly marriage is, and how to fairly enable more people to enjoy the benefits, rewards and privileges of marriage.
All of this, though, has pushed the definition of marriage back into the fore of our societal conscience. What we thought was settled over centuries, nay millenia, of civilization (with few exceptions - which I'll address over this series' concluding week) is now an area of uncertainty.
Marriage has traditionally been a permanent, formally committed relationship between a man and woman of legal age, generally established in a public ceremony or ritual, and often - if not usually - for the purposes of raising children. But that is a cultural definition, and I'm sure there would be slightly different variants in different cultures.
On some areas, we have almost universal agreement - at least historically - about what marriage is: a relationship between adults of the opposite sex for the purpose of family. But in some areas, agreement is less comprehensive. Some cultures allowed for polygamy. Some define the legal age for marriage differently from the way we do here, and in few cases are the actual marriage ceremonies consistent across cultures. Even here in the U.S. we have multiple ways of making this commitment to each other.
In general, I think that some variety in the way cultures define marriage is fine. But I also think there are some absolute foundational truths about marriage that need to be present in order for a relationship to be called, truly, a marriage. First, for a relationship to be called a "marriage" the participants must be one man and one woman. There is no debating this from a Biblical perspective, though for those holding a non-Biblical view this argument will understandably not carry weight. The Bible's first few chapters set this forth unambiguously: Gen. 2:24 -For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. Marriage is one man cleaving to one woman. Nothing in scripture condones any other form of the marital relationship.
Second, marriage is "permanent" - that is, until "death do us part." There are very few circumstances in which divorce is scripturally permissible. In fact, Jesus only names one: adultery. Even here, though, Jesus' words indicate this is a pattern of adultery. One time cheating doesn't an excuse for adultery make - it is the unrepentant rejection of the commitment by one partner that allows for divorce. But even here God would prefer the marriage stay together. (Notice too that Jesus reiterates the definition of marriage as a union of one man and one woman in another address on this topic.) Divorce isn't allowed for such things as philosophical or religious differences. It's a real commitment, marriage, and it means "for life." It doesn't mean "until I'm bored with you."
A third component of marriage is that it is for the purposes I covered earlier in this series, especially childbearing (although there is still marriage for childless couples.) I won't rehash those posts here, but marriage is the sole relationship designed for each of these purposes.
Finally, marriage is a true union. As noted in Genesis, the two become one. Marriage is where one plus one equals one; where a man and a woman become united in spirit, body and purpose. It is not a companionship thing, it's not a fun thing (though indeed, you can have both within a marriage.) It's a unity thing. Something miraculous occurs within the marriage relationship that brings two people together in a way that no other relationship can. My wife was my best friend even before we got married - but something happened when we got married that made us even closer than that.
So if these are some of the things marriage is (and I'm sure I left something out) then there are probably some things that marriage isn't. I'll start there tomorrow.