Indiana’s United Methodist bishop recently opined against Indiana’s proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of man and woman. As other United Methodist officials nearly always do, he omitted that the United Methodist Church officially declares, in its Social Principles: “We support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.” He also signed an ecumenical statement against the amendment whose only other signers were from declining liberal Protestant denominations that have redefined marriage to varying degrees. No orthodox or growing Christian entity signed the statement, except for the United Methodist bishop, who ignored his own denomination’s official stance.
More interestingly, the bishop seemingly advocates an ultra-libertarian perspective that would remove marriage from civil law altogether:
Perhaps most importantly, I do not want the State of Indiana or any other governmental unit to define the meaning of marriage for those of us who are Christians and United Methodists. We only want the state to defend the civil rights of all persons, and we don’t need the state to define marriage for us in its constitution. I prefer that the government stay out of the way and not interfere with our religious freedoms, definitions and practices.
This laissez-faire stance on marriage is more significant because it carries weight with some orthodox Christians, especially among evangelicals, who affirm traditional marriage but are unsure about how or whether the state should define marriage.
So why should Christians affirm, as the United Methodist Church does, laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman?
First, realistically, government will always legally codify marriage, as it has for millennia. No government can plausibly delete marriage as it deals with property, inheritance, taxes, criminal rights, entitlements, and, most importantly, child custody. The question is, whether government should adhere to natural marriage or redefine marriage to include same sex unions, polygamy, or other domestic arrangements.
Some Christians mistakenly portray marriage as uniquely a Christian or religious rite, like baptism or the Eucharist. It is not. Marriage predates the church and is rooted in Creation. As St. Augustine wrote, “the first natural union of human society is the husband and wife.” Natural marriage has always existed in all societies and is defined as much in natural law as in Christian teaching. Civil law in ancient society recognized marriage long before the church developed its own wedding rituals.
Of course, cultures outside Christianity were often more accepting of supplements to the lifelong union of male and female, including polygamy, concubinage, incest, homosexuality, child brides, harems, officially sanctioned mistresses and prostitution, as well as easy divorce that typically privileged the male, or unions lacking full consent by both parties. Across the centuries, in nearly every culture, the church fought to affirm marriage in law and habit as uniquely the voluntary union of one man and one woman in lifelong, monogamous union. (The prim but sincere New England missionary played by Max von Sydow in James Michener’s Hawaii who insisted natives abandon incestuous unions encapsulates this battle.) The church waged the cultural and political fight because it saw marriage as a means of grace not only for its participants but for all of society. Women, children, and the poor were especially the beneficiaries of the church’s reforms of marriage in traditional cultures, which previously had legally advantaged the caprice of men especially if wealthy.
Should the church now abandon one of its most noble, uplifting historical accomplishments by stepping back from marriage and acquiescing to Western societies’ legal redefinition of marriage into other domestic arrangements? Even setting aside natural law and historic Christian moral teachings, what would be the impact on societies where the church and traditionalists surrender?
The consequences of traditional marriage’s legal and cultural decline in the West are already well known. Easy divorce and social acceptance of cohabitation and illegitimacy have created tens of millions of children in America born outside marriage between husband and wife. Millions will spend their childhoods exposed to a revolving door of cohabitating partners and remarriages. Divorce, cohabitation, and illegitimacy are among the leading predictors of chronic poverty, poor nutrition, poor academic accomplishment, poor health, greater exposure to and involvement in crime, and wider emotional instability. Interestingly, upper income and better educated people continue to practice far higher rates of traditional marriage and reap the benefits of it. The poor, especially women and children, are the primary victims of traditional marriage’s decline.
These negative trends have accelerated after marriage is redefined in law. In places like Canada and Holland, where same sex marriage has long been legalized, very few have actually practiced same sex marriage. In Canada, for example, with 33 million people, there are reputedly only 21,000 married same sex couples at last count, a number that may mistakenly include 4,500 migrant roommate “couples” who are actually married to opposite sex partners. Holland, with 17 million people, has only 15,000 married same sex couples. Instead, the redefinition of marriage was followed by lower marriage rates overall and increased cohabitation and illegitimacy. Legally redefining marriage typically is just one more step in downgrading marriage.
The spiral of traditional marriage and family life in Western societies, accompanied by falling birthrates, is sociological but also spiritual. The church is uniquely equipped to proclaim the truth, grace and love of traditional marriage and family as benefits to all society including both the married and unmarried, the religious and non-religious. Christianity has always understood the law not just as the state’s coercive tool for order but also as a moral teacher. Traditionalists of all stripes have long understood that civilization is typically a delicate accumulation of tissues gathered organically across generations, which once torn asunder, is not easily reconstructed.
Abetting the collapse of traditional marriage in law and culture would betray the church’s divine vocation to proclaim the truth, to advocate justice, and to care for the most vulnerable. Methodists have been especially renowned as social reformers who advocated laws that extol social righteousness. Neither Methodists nor any branch of Christianity should shun the battle in defense of natural marriage. The church has fought far fiercer battles, against far greater odds, to its glory and vindication.