What is marriage?
There can be no doubt that one of the most significant events of 2013 was the passing of legislation by Parliament re-defining marriage. At the heart of the debate, whether acknowledged or not , was the question ‘what kind of relationship is marriage?’ And the reason that Christians and our non-Christian friends have found ourselves talking past each other and have failed to find any common ground is simply this; in our society there has been a silent revolution that has taken place over the past 40 years or more in which marriage has ceased to be understood as a covenant and come to be understood as a contract.
What is the difference?
At the heart of the idea of marriage as contract, Tim Keller argues, is the idea that personal fulfilment and individual happiness. So much so that therefore ‘we stay connected to people only as long as they are meeting our particular needs.’ Many might talk of a marriage being over because ‘we have fallen out of love,’ or ‘have drifted apart.’ Marriage vows still give the impression that marriage is a covenant – huge life-long promises are still made – yet the change in mindset that has also seen the introduction of no-fault divorce demonstrating the reality that marriage in our culture is a contract masquerading as a covenant.
Unlike a contract, in covenants we bind ourselves to another ‘come what may.’ The relationship, rather than personal fulfilment, is the centre. Keller argues that perhaps the only covenantal relationship that we can still relate to in our culture is that of parent and child. Parents put the child and the relationship ahead of individual happiness and comfort. Parents sacrifice and serve and seek the well-being of the other ahead of their own. It’s practically unthinkable to imagine someone coming into work announcing that their relationship with their kids was over. Well until relatively recent times it was almost as unthinkable that the marriage relationship could end.
Here’s a table showing how the change from covenant to contract has impacted marriage. In 2011 there were 117558 divorces, in 1860 there were 103. After the 1969 reform act the figures grow exponentially. Why was divorce so rare for so long? Because in our culture marriage was regarded as a binding covenant.
At least three things flow from this biggest redefinition of marriage away from covenant to contract.
1. Falling marriage rates. The reason people say marriage is ‘just a piece of paper’ is because they are viewing it as an economic contract. Whether or not to marry at all is now really no different from going into the phone shop and weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of a contract phone vs. pay as you go. Co-habitation is simply pay as you go. So the table tracks that general decline over 40 years.
2. General acceptance of no fault divorce ad steep rises in divorce rate. Again, that’s what the table shows us.
3. Freedom to redefine marriage and therefore who may enter the relationship. Why should we exclude same-sex couples who wish to make their commitment to each other if marriage is a contract the terms of which we define. And now that same-sex marriage has been accepted by society it’s not surprising that growing numbers of people want polygamous relationships recognised too. Why should we limit a love agreement to 2 people? So in Brazil last year a civil union was established between a man and two women.
What does this mean for Christians and their view of marriage?
The real danger for us in establishing healthy marriages will probably not come from the challenge presented by the re-definition of marriage that took place last year but the cultural shift that represents the redefinition of marriage from covenant to contract over the past 40 years. What tv and Hollywood have done to redefine marriage is far more likely to shape the way you think about marriage, even your own, than recent events.
Tim Keller writes ‘the very idea of ‘covenant’ is disappearing in our culture. Covenant is therefore a concept that is increasingly foreign to us, and yet the Bible says it is the essence of marriage, so we must take time to understand it.’
For, as we will see in our next post, Jesus says marriage is not a contract but a covenant.
At New Year we both take stock of the last 12 months and also begin to give thought to the changes we’d like to make in the year ahead. One newspaper found, last year, that our top 10 resolutions included ‘getting out of a rut’, trying new experiences and the top three were 1. Lose weight, 2. Get fit and 3. Eat more healthily.
But how should we decide our priorities for 2014? One author reminds us that ‘You cannot work on the structures of your life if the ground of your being is unsure.’ In other words if you’re not sure what life is about then it’s pretty difficult to decide how to live it.
A friend of mine pointed me to former pop star Alex James’ autobiography Bit of a Blur (James was the bass-guitarist in the band Blur) in which he looks back on life and decides that his priorities as a pop-star were all wrong. Having lived a pretty wild life, which including spending a million pounds on drugs and drink (!), James says ‘this was the top of the hill. What else could life hold? It’s funny, but when I look back I think that period of my life was the bottom of a pile, rather than Mount Fantasticus. I was a morally bankrupt, drunk fatso with a stupid grin and a girlfriend with a murdered heart.’ What he thought life was all about in his 20′s turned out to be a big dead end.
So how do we decide what it will mean to live well in 2014? Jesus points us to a bigger purpose in life than having fun, trying new things or getting fit. He said ‘Now this is eternal life; that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.’
Jim Packer concludes ‘What were we made for? To know God. What aim should we have in life? To know God. What is the eternal life that Jesus gives? To know God. What is the best thing in life? To know God. What in humans gives God most pleasure? Knowledge of himself.’
And here is the key to making life work. For here we find our purpose that helps shape our priorities. Packer concludes ‘Once you become aware that the main business that you are here for is to know God, most of life’s problems fall into place of their own accord.’
So why not make 2014 a year in which you eat a little better, take up a new hobby but above all else a year in which you discover and enjoy the very purpose for which you were made – to know God and in knowing him to enjoy life.
(HT: Steve Ayers)
One-time atheist and now Christian, AN Wilson ( see why I believe again), has written a super piece in the Telegraph today out-lining why the falling numbers of church-goers and the declining influence of Christianity in the UK are really no reason for us to be alarmed.
He concludes ‘the paradox is that growing or shrinking numbers do not tell you anything. The Gospel would still be true even if no one believed it. The hopeful thing is that, where it is tried – where it is imperfectly and hesitantly followed – as it was in Northern Ireland during the peace process, as it is in many a Salvation Army hostel this Christmas, as it flickers in countless unseen Christian lives, it works. And its palpable and remarkable power to transform human life takes us to the position of believing that something very wonderful indeed began with the birth of Christ into the world.’
The Nobel prize winning Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz writes in his essay ‘The Discreet Charm of Nihilism’;
A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death, the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged. The Marxist creed has now been inverted. The true opium of modernity is the belief that there is no God, so that humans are free to do precisely as they please.
(HT: Martin Ayers)
Living out is a new resource for anyone who wants to think through issues of same-sex attraction from a biblical perspective. Put together by friends of mine their example, honesty and desire to serve the God they love in faithful ways is a remarkable example to us all. Please make use of the resource to equip the church to understand the issues, find help for your own struggles and use it to pray for these men at a time like this.
From tonight (30th November, 9pm) Channel 5 will start to air a 10 part tv series called The Bible. The man behind the project, Mark Burnett, is a Christian and the British-born produced of reality TV shows The Apprentice and The Voice. He said ‘we were very aware that our shows like The Apprentice come and go. But with The Bible we fully believed people would be watching it in 30 years. It’s much more meaningful. This is certainly the most important thing I’ve ever done.’
The Telegraph reported on the extraordinary viewing figures The Bible mini-series has received in the US. The Bible, a visually stunning, epic adaption of a selection of the major stories from Genesis to Revelation, was the number one cable series this year in America. The opening episode was seen by 13.1 million viewers, the highest 2013 figure for a cable channel.
Burnett explained his reasons for making the series in an interview for the Huffington Post earlier this year:
Physically, it took us to Morocco for five months of filming, London for many months of editing and then hop scotching all across the U.S. for the better part of a year as we shared our vision for the project with faith leaders of all denominations. Where it’s taken us spiritually and emotionally, though, is far more profound: we began as two people in love with the Bible and each other, and finished as two people even more in love with both each other and the Bible.
Part of what we hoped to accomplish with the series was to show the Bible is not simply a collection of unconnected stories which are often discussed and analyzed in snippets with chapter and verse numbers. Instead, we wanted to show how the Old Testament connects seamlessly to the New Testament. How they are one sweeping story with one grand, overriding message: God loves each one of us as if we were the only person in all the world to love.
Having made The Bible Burnett and his wife Roma Downey have now also completed a new film version of the life of Jesus entitled The Son of God which will be launched across the US from 28th February.
Justin Taylor & Joe Rigney remember the day JFK and CS Lewis died in this piece for Religion News Service
Former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, Dominic Lawson, recently reviewed a book by Harvard Professor, Niall Ferguson entitled Civilisation: The West and the Rest. In his review Lawson includes a remarkable quote from a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (which describes itself as ‘the highest academic research organization in the fields of philosophy and social sciences as well as a national center for comprehensive studies in the People’s Republic of China‘). Here is what the Chinese have discovered:
One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful.
The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.
Now the Chinese are not alone in reaching this conclusion. Bruce Sheiman in his book An Atheist Defends Religion writes about the impact of Jesus on our world. Christianity he says introduced:
A commitment to human dignity, personal liberty, and individual equality did not previously appear in ANY other culture.
What you and I take for granted, living as we do in the UK, has its origins in Christianity and the Christian worldview.
Matthew Parris writing in the Times talked of his own return to Africa after 45 years away and concluded;
travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.
Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.
Christianity has made a massive difference to our world.
If we were in any doubt that the introduction of same-sex marriage would change the very nature of marriage for everyone then we are in no doubt any longer. If we were in any doubt that the introduction of same-sex marriage would weaken rather than strengthen the institution of marriage for everyone then the recent remarks of Baroness Stowell put that, too, beyond doubt. Baroness Stowell, who speaks for the Conservatives in the Lords on equalities issues, confirmed that faithfulness in marriage is not to be a requirement under the proposed legislation for same-sex relationships. Rather, issues of fidelity would be up to each couple to decide for themselves.
As the law stands, for heterosexual couples adultery has always been a grounds for divorce. The proposed legislation for same-sex marriages will not include the same provision.
Quite simply there are only three options for the government:
1) In order to maintain a level-playing field an adultery clause has to be added to the proposed legislation but how do you define adultery in some homosexual relationships? Hence the governments decision not to include it.
2) Or to maintain a level-playing field adultery has to be removed as a grounds for divorce for heterosexual marriage
3) Or we accept different definitions for marriage depending on whether you are gay or straight.
David Burrowes MP in the Telegraph article said: “This goes against everything the PM has said about his desire to try and strengthen marriage by extending marriage to same sex couples.”
“If the legislation is not urgently amended, it signals the abolition of the law of adultery. It will create an adulterer’s charter across both types of marriage, which far from strengthening this great institution will do irreparable damage to it.”
(HT: Christian Institute)
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