Prior to the 21st century, no society had defined marriage to include same-sex relationships. Sadly, the political landscape has changed dramatically in recent decades. On June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell vs. Hodges that same-sex marriage was constitutionally protected.
The Obergefell ruling essentially legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states. In the years since Obergefell, Christian individuals, churches, schools, and businesses have faced immense cultural pressure and a torrent of lawsuits from LGBTQ activists to affirm same-sex marriage as morally good and to treat same-sex marriage as equal to traditional marriage.
Christians holding a traditional view of marriage should be prepared to withstand these pressures by explaining the biblical basis for their beliefs. Understanding the biblical definition and purposes of marriage will aid in this challenge.
According to the Bible, marriage is a life-long, covenant union between a man and a woman (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:4-5), joined together by God (Matt. 19:6; Mal. 2:14), whose relationship is one of exclusive love and provision (1 Cor. 7:2-4; Heb. 13:4), and that supersedes all other human relationships in life.
Biblical marriage is comprised of three aspects: leaving, cleaving, and “weaving” (becoming one flesh). A man leaves his parents’ household (leaving), commits to an exclusive, loving, and supportive relationship with his wife (cleaving), and becomes one flesh with her in a sexual union (weaving).
This biblical definition is clearly in conflict with a contemporary view of marriage that not only includes but celebrates the union of same-sex couples and virtually reduces marriage to a legal union between consenting adults. Clearly, both views of marriage cannot be correct. Either marriage is exclusively male-female or it is not. Either the Bible condones same-sex unions or it does not.
Progressive and left-leaning Christian denominations have embraced the contemporary view and argued that the Bible condones same-sex unions. Worse, Christians holding to a traditional view have been labeled bigoted, hateful, and cruel.
Clearly, the culture and many churches consider the traditional view to be cruel and have moved away from it. But is the Bible really cruel to same-sex couples by limiting marriage to male-female relationships, or does it have good reasons for proscribing marriage in this way?
Four major elements of marriage help us to see why heterosexual, not homosexual, unions are God’s standard.
First, marriage is generative or procreative in function. Only male-female relationships can produce children. Unfortunately, we live in a fallen world where some couples will have children, but some cannot. Regardless of whether or not a couple has children, the heterosexual union provides the natural setting in which children can be produced. In Obergefell, the Supreme Court concluded that there was no essential difference between same-sex and opposite-sex couples. But if only heterosexual unions are procreativity-structured to produce children, there is no reason to think the Supreme Court was correct. Same-sex couples are essentially different than opposite-sex couples, and this essential difference has public ramifications. Given the biological reality of male-female sexual unions, we can quickly see how fundamentally wrong the Supreme Court’s decision was in Obergefell.
Second, marriage is intended to be monogamous and exclusive between men and women, meaning the Bible gives no indication that sex outside of a heterosexual marriage union is morally permitted. Although instances of polygamy exist in the Bible, even among notable figures of the Old Testament, the monogamous heterosexual union is the ideal portrayed in Genesis 2:22-24, supported in other OT passages (Deut. 17:17), reaffirmed by Jesus (Matt. 19:4-5), and reiterated for church leaders (1 Tim. 3:2).
Third, marriage is intended to be a complementary relationship. Each spouse — husband and wife — though equal in dignity before God (Gen. 1:27), has distinct roles in the home and church (Eph. 5:22-28; 1 Tim. 2:11-15; Titus 2:1-6). Heterosexual marriage is compatible with the complementary nature of marriage. Same-sex marriage is not.
Fourth, marriage is intended to model the relationship of Christ and His Church (Eph. 5:21-33). The Apostle Paul explains that earthly marriages between men and women are a “shadow” and a “mystery” that point to the ultimate marriage between Christ and His bride, the Church. Pastor James Garlow calls this union, between Christ and His Church, “the real marriage” that takes place at the culmination of history.
It is no accident that Scripture opens with the first marriage — a union of male and female — and closes with the final marriage: Christ and His bride. Heterosexual couples are capable of modeling the ultimate marriage union. Same-sex couples cannot.
Ethicist Daniel Heimbach sees at least two challenges related to marriage in the 21st century that Christians must face. The first challenge is disputing contemporary understandings of marriage after Obergefell.
Marriage now carries with it no public significance in terms of procreation and raising children, and instead has become a loosely defined concept used to affirm (legally) the subjective romantic feelings between any two adults. The procreative structure of marriage has been destroyed (legally), and its consequences for child bearing and rearing will be felt dramatically in the years to come. This redefinition of marriage touches many issues, ranging from reproductive rights to child adoption and custody. Christians need to be prepared to address these issues with arguments that are biblically based, philosophically sound, and legally robust.
The second challenge relates to religious liberty. In a previous article, we learned a basic framework of religious liberty. That framework is now under siege by the legalization of gay marriage. The new normal has replaced the old normal, and what used to be a universal rule is now optional. What follows from the legalization of gay marriage is political coercion against those who dissent from the new definition of marriage.
The old view of marriage has given way to a new, progressive reality enforced upon everyone by the state, and the culture war has effectively shifted to a battle over religious exemptions for individuals, institutions, and businesses who do not want to affirm same-sex marriage. Obergefell laid the groundwork for religious persecution of those who do not accept the new morality. In light of this stark picture, Christians should be prepared to stand on their convictions, to use every legal means possible in their defense, and to remain faithful to Scripture in the face of cultural pressure.
God created the institution of marriage for humanity to honor and enjoy, not to redefine. God alone defines marriage. Not the state. Not society. Not the individual.
A departure from the biblical definition of marriage may have afforded society a few newfound freedoms in the age of sexual liberation, but it did so at enormous costs to the individual, the family, the Church, and the culture. The costs may not be readily apparent to the average person’s perception, but they are unavoidably present and tragic. Unless society returns to a biblical standard of marriage, these costs will continue to accumulate.
It is incumbent upon Christians to remind society of God’s standard and to draw people back to it, both for the short-term benefit of preserving the culture and the long-term goal of Gospel proclamation.
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Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.