In response to my post, “Marriage, ‘Marriage,’ and Why the Difference Is Important,” a friend’s comment raised some important questions that deserve to be considered in more detail (thus length) than the comments section allows. To avoid any distortions, it would be a good idea to read the original July 20, 2013 post. I also have included the entirety of the comment, as you will see beneath the previous post, while addressing it in sections. Feel free to browse to the topics that interest you most.
The purpose of language is to communicate clearly.
More specifically, language is a means to communicate clearly. This requires what Gunton called de-synonymy, but also an appreciation for the fluidity of language over time that I was describing. In what we call “dead languages” there is the blessing of using words that will forever keep the definition they last had when they were abandoned as a means of public communication. In the differentiation of living and dead languages, though, both synchronic and diachronic issues require us to discern that which the word denotes at the time it is being used (whether in historical or contemporary compositions). In short, per Gunton, we make synonyms more specific until they are no longer synonymous. Likewise, exclusive terms often tend to become more inclusive as well. This occurs regularly, much to the chagrin of trademark holders like Kleenex, Scotch Tape, and Saran Wrap. The same problem arises when Evangelicals attempt to reclaim a trademark like “marriage.”
Marriage communicate something that has the weight of both history and culture - it involves the union of a man and a woman.
As ambassadors for Christ, we need to communicate synchronically within the communities we are called to serve. The diachronic shift in meaning for “marriage,” while more dramatic in recent years, began far earlier when the term for a Christian sacrament was applied to civil contracts. The shift in the nature of this civil contract has included many non-biblical and anti-biblical modifications within the surrounding culture, while still being called by the same term that had previously applied exclusively to the relationship Evangelical Christians generally mean by marriage: “One man and one woman, forming a household, with the intent to produce and raise children.”
It is declared publicly - which is important for society.
Among the many historical shifts that culture has accommodated, of course, is that there is no universal mandate for the “solemnization” (California’s legal term) of a marriage through any public ceremony, and there are even provisions for “confidential” marriages in which neither witnesses nor publicly available details are components. I believe that the Christian sacrament of marriage is, in fact, exceptionally helpful to society. But society, even when the dominant culture more fully reflected Christian values, has made allowance for multiple options outside of the wedding as a Christian worship service (as we require at Glenburn), and for relationships other than those which recognize the subsequent marriage as a divine creation of one (nearly) indissoluble flesh from two individual lives.
Reducing the concept of marriage to a civil versus a religious distinction doesn't do justice to what it communicates.
I think the confusion of using one word when referring to two conflicting concepts fails to do justice to either one. But “marriage” does not communicate solely the biblical relationship, even to many Christians who enter into one (and, frequently, another one or two or many more). In fact, it is our habit of combining two concepts into one, under that single term, that greatly hinders not only communication, but our testimony to the unique nature of the relationship God alone can create.
As you said, society has an interest in marriage. People who procreate have a responsibility to society.
I’m guessing a little at the meaning of these two sentences. What I had intended to communicate is that godly marriages and families have been “seen to benefit the broader society.” Therefore, society has made “social and financial benefits” available to such families and, in subsequent application of “marriage” to additional definitions, other “families” that are not remotely similar.
I agree that wherever those benefits are accepted, there should be a commensurate responsibility to the broader society providing those benefits. But at present, “people who procreate,” whether responsibly or irresponsibly, are substantially subsidized (and, in fact, incentivized to procreate far beyond their visible means of support) at levels that are soon to prove unsustainable, no matter how fully they may undertake their responsibility to society.
Worse, in misapplying the concept of “marriage,” our systems routinely extend benefits to individual parents, despite their actions being detrimental to others and society as a whole, purely on the grounds of biological procreation. In the communities I serve, this regularly occurs even where the partner with whom a child is placed has had no relationship with the other parent since conception, and even where those individuals present documented risks to the child. The cyclical disruption of repeated preferential placements, solely caused by punishing and rewarding the variable status of the prioritized, biological procreators, causes far-reaching, systemic harm to our communities, and far more so to the individual children serving as pawns of these policies.
Society’s interest in even Christian marriage, then, hardly recommends that we engage in the reciprocal relationship they offer by accepting the benefits that initially blurred the two categories represented by our single term, “marriage.”
Blurring the definition based on an non-procreating few hardly benefits society as a whole.
Successful procreation is rarely held as a necessary condition for continuing marriage. Where that has been the case, as with Henry VIII, the distinction has been widely condemned. Again, the blurring of the definition long predates any consideration of applying the term to homosexual couples (which I am assuming is meant by “non-procreating” in this context). That deserves its own separate point below.
At a time when society was becoming fairly supportive of recognizing civil unions (which answers the civil equality question), the intrusion of homosexuality into the centuries-old understanding of marriage is an necessary overstep.
While society may have been “becoming fairly supportive of recognizing civil unions,” the church (more specifically, National Association of Evangelicals’ policy statements and the Manhattan Declaration) publicly held that “marriage,” which both define as entailing contractual obligations, must prevail in reserving special rights and privileges only to partnerships comprising two individuals of opposite sexes. This hardly reflects civil equality, even if “domestic partnership” laws were to offer the same status and benefits as are available to those participating in the sacrament, albeit under different terminology.
But tracing any contemporary understanding of marriage back into prior centuries would require us to ignore the liberalization of divorce laws in this past century, not to mention women’s suffrage and property ownership, the abandonment of arranged marriages, as well as our tradition’s very early establishment of government benefits subsidizing those participating in the sacrament. To all but a handful of Evangelical Christians, North Americans would appear to understand the term “marriage” to relate primarily to the government sanctions, not the Christian sacrament. And that began long before “the intrusion of homosexuality.”
It would not be so big an issue if it did not have other implications. At what point are churches that will not perform or recognize such unions, based on a biblical worldview, become outlaws?
Determining the legitimacy of one’s philosophical or theological position based on the potential for negative outcomes is always a bad idea. In the cruciform, sacrificial servanthood of following Jesus Christ, we aspire to fulfill His calling, applying the belief that we are responsible for obedience; He is responsible for the consequences. If one of the consequences of my obedience is that a particular sin is made less convenient, then, once I get over my childish disappointment of having to subjugate my will to His, I should rejoice, shouldn’t I? How much more, then, would it please God to see North American Christians repent to renew an actual adherence, rather than the mere lip-service we offer, to the concept of a Free Church (i.e., free from state subsidy, and thus free from state sanctions). As it is, though, to answer your question directly: It is entirely appropriate for a parent organization to regulate or even prescribe the nature and actions of its subsidiaries. Where churches presume upon government subsidies (sales and property tax exemptions, as well as deductible contributions, to name the most commonly encountered), the government holds an interest in our beliefs and actions. When the government sanctions us, it should only be commensurate with their subsidies of us. But U.S. history suggests that they will do far better at regulation than they will at support (as embodied in the objections of states and counties to “unfunded mandates”).
And so, this is the crux of the conflict: Where we have accepted social benefits provided on the basis of our presumed benefit to the society around us, we adopt a responsibility to conform to the definitions of that society as to what they consider beneficial. Therefore, where we claim to differ from that society in belief, we should also differ from them in action.
Subsidized preachers and subsidized procreators alike must negotiate their own conflicting allegiances. Biblically, though, it seems clearer. Caesar should only get that which belongs to Caesar. God should always get that which belongs to Him. But no matter how vehemently we claim that our own exclusive definition should supersede the broader use of the term “marriage,” from which we previously benefited, all we really accomplish is confusion in our communications.