Marriage is for Life

Marriage is more than just one man and one woman; it's for life and to the exclusion of all others | by Janis Balda

As tension grows over the pattern of counties granting marriage licenses to homosexual couples, many evangelical Christians are objecting. This is not surprising given that many Christians consider marriage a sacrament, and almost all agree that marriage is instituted by God and serves as a figure of Christ and the church.

The classic legal definition of marriage was given by Lord Penzance in 1866. When hearing the case of Hyde versus Hyde, he defined marriage as "the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others." After 30 years, this is one of the few definitions I remember - no doubt, because of its coherence with Scripture.

Now as I follow the news, I am saddened to see the concept of legal marriage expanding to gay couples. Why? Partially because for me it violates God's intentions for man and woman, but also because it purports to offer in one quick decision a method of completely rewriting a number of significant and related laws.

As I pray about my concerns and seek a righteous response, I am brought back to the people of Israel - those people the Church resembles in so many ways, particularly in its stubbornness and propensity to condemn others when it is in the wrong. Though the people of Israel were often disobedient, they blamed their problems on others and in their frustration and anger lashed out at people around them. There is no question many of their opponents were evil, yet God's word to Israel was repent for redemption and healing to come.

We, too, often wage war against people who challenge our understanding of God's call to obedience. However, only as we view ourselves as aliens in a strange land, struggling to align our purposes with an authority not recognized by any earthly power, can we gain a right perspective - a perspective that frees us to speak out on behalf of that which is right in God's eyes. But the words cannot be spoken if we have not first declared our own fallenness, recognizing areas where we follow our own counsel rather than God's. When we have first offered obedience to God's rule - in our marriages, families and churches - then we can legitimately and honestly speak out on behalf of the institution of marriage and the family.

The problem with denouncing those who endorse gay marriages is that we, the church, have conveniently discarded the rest of the prescription for marriage in the church community. While we loudly attest to "one man and one woman," we neglect the "for life" and to the "exclusion of all others." We are selective in naming the sin that must be rooted out.

Grace abounds because sin abounds - but do we recognize the sin? The world around us sees no difference in the marriages we have than the ones they have. How can we speak out to sustain the institution of marriage as we believe God decreed it, when we only selectively protect it? Hopefully, we will continue to love and embrace the divorced among us. But at the same time, we must create an environment of commitment and maturity, both within marriages and within our communities of faith. The threat to our society is not gay marriages but the potential destruction of the institution of family - with all it means for living life to its fullest in all our human interactions.

We have a duty to marriage and the family - but the duty does not lie primarily in ensuring that gays do not marry. At least not yet. We have a duty first to repent of the way we have treated marriage and our disregard for such "outdated" values as commitment, fidelity and maturity. We need to celebrate the joys of commitment, of love and of shared life. When we neglect the "soul" of the family - that commitment to interdependence, we become what we feared - people whose lives are wrapped up in private moments of isolated pleasure missing the intimacy and the rootedness of personal relationships that mold us into beings whose ultimate concern is not with our own immediate needs, but with the desires of those we love and whom we serve, as Christ loved and served us.

Of course the will and the power to sustain this can only come from our first love, Jesus, who calls himself the bridegroom - who comes to us expectantly, with love, and gives us what we need to live a life that is abundant, where we openly and honestly esteem others better than ourselves.

Janis Balda, assistant professor of management, teaches Law and Ethics at George Fox. She is an ordained minister and an attorney specializing in nonprofit organizations.