By Jim Street
For the past 42 years, I have spoken these words in every wedding I have conducted:
The sacred relationship of marriage was instituted by God. . . . The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord.
Those words, or similar ones, derive from The Book of Common Prayer and have been in use for more than 400 years. Most ministers use them because they summarize Scripture, theology, and the tradition and experience of the church concerning marriage. The words describe the nature and purpose of marriage as God intends.
Marriage is an institution given to us by God. It orders, delimits, and governs the sexual and social relationship between husbands and wives, mutually binds parents and children, and locates children in a stream of ancestors and descendants.
Marriage is a lifelong union engaging two whole persons, male and female, in an exclusive commitment. Each person, while biologically complete in every other vital way, depends upon the other to form one reproductive organism.
Marriage exists for the purpose of (1) mutual joy, help, and comfort in every circumstance; (2) the procreation of children; and (3) the nurture of children toward wholeness.
Marriage receives its “amen” from larger community. In the wedding ceremony, the community of family, friends, and church agrees to support the husband and wife in their marriage, endorses the nature and purpose of marriage, and expects the couple to live by their commitments. Marriage is served by the community, but also serves the community when the parties keep their vows.
Christian marriage derives its coherence from the church. Yet, the church does not exist in a vacuum. The church lives in culture. Indeed, the church is called to know, engage, and penetrate that culture with the good news of God. However, because it consists of people shaped by culture, the church must examine itself.
While we often speak of “the changes” that have shaped the institution of marriage in the past decades, the truth is there has been only one major change. This change both feeds and is fed by the changes we witness regularly.
The change, which sociologists refer to as “deinstitutionalization,” sometimes takes the form of an active assault on marriage.1 At other times, it feeds upon and results from the millions of decisions people make in their intimate relationships.
To understand the change, think of the institution of marriage as a divinely appointed “third presence.” That “third presence,” which is invisible to the eye, constrains, orders, binds, and delimits the parties in the relationship.
It places five demands upon people: (1) that marriage be a lifelong, comprehensive, exclusive commitment (2) between two people (3) who are male and female, (4) who order their sexual lives toward procreation, and (5) that is mutually binding between parents and children, evidenced by parents accepting responsibility for nurturing their children. These five demands are so intimately bound to one another that any time one of the demands is assaulted, the other four are weakened as well.
Many resent and resist the “third presence.” Some ignore it while others actively conspire to destroy it. Still others seek to redefine it. The desire of some who resist the institution is to be intimate with whomever they choose, in whatever ways they choose, for however long they choose, and without regard to anyone other than those who choose to be intimate with them. Others do not so much resist the institution as they seek to tweak it so it better serves their interests. Still others ignore it or are indifferent to it.
The change is displayed in multiple ways. Because of space limitations, I will leave it to the reader to think about how these changes work to alter the five demands of the institution.
Divorce, which occurs inside and outside of the church, has been a major contributor to the deinstitutionalization of marriage. Although the rate of divorce has declined since the early 1980s, part of the decline is related to an increased age at marriage as well as an increase in the practice of cohabiting (living together without marrying).
The institution of marriage, with its emphasis upon procreation and the nurture of children, focuses heavily on those who are of childbearing age. Many of the changes that flow from or contribute to deinstitutionalization can be found in that age group.
Most young people want to marry at some point. However, young people are delaying marriage. The average age for first marriage is 29 for males and 27 for females.2 Many positive effects result from this. Many are completing college, paying down debt, and making themselves more employable. While some are doing this as a hedge against divorce, which they saw their parents endure, others believe the older they are when they marry, the more satisfying and stable their marriage will be.
This change produces consequences for the institution of marriage. Delaying marriage presents sexual challenges for young adults. Eighty-four percent of young people have had sex by the time they are 24 years old.3 While some young adults resist sexual intimacy until they are married, others, in college or not, cohabit.
As a result of this relaxation of sexual norms, and in spite of the birth control and abortion revolution, 41 percent of all children are born to couples who are not married.
Nonmarital birth is related to education level. Twelve percent of all births to college-educated women are nonmarital births. For nondegreed women (high school plus some college), the rate for nonmarital births is 58 percent. For women who did not graduate high school, the rate of nonmarital births is 83 percent.4
College-educated people tend to marry college-educated people. Young men who do not have a college degree suffer higher unemployment and greater difficulty in finding jobs. As a result, they resist marriage and make less appealing marriage partners to nondegreed women. Many young women embrace single motherhood or cohabit with their baby’s father.
Cohabitation is an unstable practice. While some couples who cohabit marry, many more break up within a year. People who cohabit after the birth of their first child typically end their relationship before the child’s fifth birthday, which leads to single motherhood or more cohabitation with different partners.5
Children fare better when they live with their biological parents in a stable marriage. Stable marriage is a boon to children. While the courage of most single mothers is impressive and admirable, cohabitation, especially multiple cohabitations, is not good for the flourishing of children.
Another trend in the deinstitutionalizing process involves efforts to redefine marriage. The most public manifestation of this is the “marriage equality” movement, or gay marriage. While some who advocate for it are vocal about their desire to redefine and even destroy the institution, others seek only to marry and to give themselves to strengthening the institution while inviting society to give dignity and respect to the love they share. In either case, marriage equality cannot happen without redefining and thereby contributing to the deinstitutionalization of marriage.6
Critics of marriage equality often claim that embracing it will lead to a flood of other nontraditional marriage and family forms. The fallacy in that argument is that it implies that those advocates need proponents of gay marriage to lead the way. They do not. A small, vocal, and persistent group advocates for “unmarried equality.” Their aim is to secure equal status before the law of any number of relational forms, including polyamory, group marriage.7
Finally, some advocate for the destruction of the institution, which they see as inherently and irredeemably oppressive. A segment of this group supports an array of marital forms not because they cherish marriage, but because they recognize that these efforts at redefinition undermine the traditional institution.8
The community of faith, the church, is a sign, foretaste, and herald of the reign of God. The church points beyond itself to the purpose and intentions of God by its life, communal friendships in Christ, and its word. Called to walk the razor’s edge where the truth and grace of God conjoin, we bear witness to one another as well as to the world.
Marriage, as traditionally practiced within the church, is part of the life and witness of the church. The wedding ceremony bears witness to God’s wisdom and purpose with respect to marriage and family.
Marriage, as described in the ceremony, names a good that is essential to human flourishing as it pertains to intimacy, procreation, and the nurture of children. The married, who are often pressed and discouraged by the challenges of marriage, are called to “remember their vows.” The unmarried, who are sometimes tempted to the point of breaking and beyond, are called to remember that the intentions and purposes of God are not simply ideals, but are life and truth and grace.
The church is called to testify to the truth and grace of God. We do so as broken people who often fail the very message we proclaim. We are called to bear witness with gentleness and respect, lest we practice a truth, which lacking grace, is not truth, or a grace, which lacking truth, is not grace.
First, we must begin by contemplating where we stand. While we might think about the Bible, theology, the times, marriage, family, and the changes associated with it, the topic is complicated. We would do well to take a simpler path and ask, “How do we regard the words of the traditional wedding ceremony?”
The traditional wedding ceremony is not found in Scripture. The ordinary Christian ceremony is a summary statement grounded in Scripture and theological reflection. It comes down to us as tradition proven by centuries of experience.
Does the wedding ceremony convey the nature and purpose of marriage as instituted by God, or doesn’t it? How we answer that simple question will help us to take the next step as we serve others both within the church, in terms of assisting them to a life of fidelity to the vows, and those outside the church, in terms of how marriage ought to be understood and practiced.
Second, we must resist the urge to respond to the world around us. The church is not a social agency whose job it is to identify a constituency and respond to it. Rather, we, the church, are called to bear witness to the reign of God with our lives, with the quality of our relationships, and with our words. We, the church, are to display a way of life that points beyond itself to the grace and truth found in “the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
1Andrew Cherlin. “The Deinstitutionalization of American Marriage,” Journal of Marriage and the Family, November 2004.
2Kay Hymowitz, Jason C. Carroll, W. Bradford Wilcox, and Keleen Kaye, “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America,” 3, accessed at www.nationalmarriageproject.org.
3Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, PreMarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate and Think about Marrying (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
4Hymnowitz, et al., “Knot Yet,” 18.
6David Blankenhorn, The Future of Marriage (New York: Encounter Books, 2007).
8Blankenhorn, especially chapter 6.
Jim Street serves as senior minister with North River Community Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia, and as adjunct professor with Point University in Georgia.