By Drew Griffin: Over the past several years few issues have been debated, discussed, and fought over more than the issue of marriage. Countless column inches and blog pages have been devoted to the discussion of its definition or its redefinition in culture. Evangelicals lament over the fact that marriage is under attack; homosexuals lament that marriage is being defended. The rampant redefinition of marriage in our culture from a stalwart staple of traditional values to a simple socioeconomic status symbol is troubling. Amid all this debate some have begun to ask the question of whether we should bother with marriage at all.
Recently the New York Times published an editorial by Andrew Cherlin, professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins, entitled “In the Season of Marriage, a Question. Why Bother?”. In his editorial Cherlin illuminates the secular view of marriage and inadvertently displays why the gospel is so essential to any proper understanding of marriage.
Cherlin correctly observes that American views on marriage and co-habitation have changed greatly over the years. Yet this change in American views has not led to a decrease in marriage. Cherlin describes our current condition,
“When the Pew Research Center asked a sample of Americans in 2010 what they thought about the “growing variety in the types of family arrangements that people live in,” 34 percent responded that it was a good thing, and 32 percent said it made no difference. Having a child outside of marriage has also become common. According to a report by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, 47 percent of American women who give birth in their 20s are unmarried at the time.”
But then he observes the following that, “demographers project that at least 80 percent of Americans will marry at some point in their lives.”
Fewer people hold a tradition understanding of marriage; as a life-long union between two heterosexual adults, under God, with the result and often desired goal of producing children. More and more people simply co-habitate in loose, often temporary arrangements, sometimes producing children, sometimes not. Yet marriage endures and will mark the lives of the vast majority of Americans.
Cherlin’s answer for this discontinuity is that American’s “are now marrying for a different reason.”
“This is not to say that marriage is less important than it was in the past. But it is important for different reasons. In the mid-20th century, there was nothing exceptional about marriage. Respectable people married; there was no other decent way to share a home with a partner. Shame attached to those who bore children out of wedlock. Spinsters and bachelors were suspect, the subject of collective social wonder.
“Today, marriage is more discretionary than ever, and also more distinctive. It is something young adults do after they and their live-in partners have good jobs and a nice apartment. It has become the capstone experience of personal life — the last brick put in place after everything else is set. People marry to show their family and friends how well their lives are going, even if deep down they are unsure whether their partnership will last a lifetime.”
Cherlin concludes with this observation,
“In the 1970s, when cohabitation began to increase and divorce rates skyrocketed, it seemed marriage might fade away. Four decades later it remains an important part of American life — not in its older role as the first step into adulthood, but in its newer role as the last step one takes after becoming an adult in almost all other respects.”
What are we to make of this? Does marriage matter? Does it matter if it no longer represents what it used to represent? Cherlin shows us a picture of post-modern marriage and he illustrates our culture’s need for the gospel.
When we discuss marriage, it is always important to recognize that we are not arguing for any mere cultural institution; but we are advocating for the God-given mandate for mankind. It is easy and perhaps even tempting to adopt the language of the culture, and many Christians have given into this temptation. We do not argue for the societal benefits of marriage alone, but primarily for the soul benefits of marriage. Absent an understanding of the role of marriage in perpetuating the image of God and imaging the unity of Divine relationships, marriage slowly descends into what it has become today. We see in Cherlin’s editorial, that marriage in the post-modern American age is but a capstone of adult achievement, rather than a cornerstone of cultural stability.
The Gospel as Indispensable:
When we begin to tug on the fabric of God’s design for marriage and culture it does not take long for both to unwind. It is not enough that evangelicals argue for marriage. It is not enough that we argue for traditional forms of marriage against the liberal tide of redefinition. We must proclaim the value and indispensability of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For marriage is an image of mutual submission which reflects the Son’s submission to the Father; and an example of selfless sacrifice modeled after the Cross. This is why Paul maintains the gospel at the root of all relationships. In Ephesians 5, Paul declares that we submit to one another “out of reverence to Christ.” This example of submission is then traced through the gamut of human relationships beginning with marriage. As evangelicals, we must continue to make the gospel and its message the center of our case for marriage. For if our argument for marriage is to have any strength, its strength will come from pointing to Christ and Him crucified.
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