by Frank Turk
This is an important point in this story: the Pharisees came to undo Jesus, to ruin him as a teacher and a leader, and in some sense as the very Messiah, with the Law. They came to him with a point of law, with which they were experts, and they believed they asked him a question that could not be answered wisely – from the Law. But Jesus gives them an answer that exceeds the requirements of the law.
“Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?" They asked him. He replied: "Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery."
Jesus doesn’t really give us a lot of wiggle room here by saying this. If Jesus were conducting the argument for marriage in public today, he probably wouldn’t say to people, “well, as long as the law makes it clear that it’s men and women in biologically-compatible pairs we’re talking about, OK. That’ll do. Maybe that’s all you folks can keep up with anyway.” Jesus says here something far more incriminating.
He says that the only purpose of the law regarding marriage is to manage your “hard hearts” – an interesting term lifted from the Old Testament. He means that Moses gave that Law to manage your disobedience and your uncanny ability to do what is right in your own eyes. It’s an effective way to tell them plainly: you’re asking this question because you are just like your fathers, just like the people in the book of Judges, and Joshua, just like the people in Kings and Chronicles and Isaiah and Ezekiel and Daniel and Zechariah. Why did Moses give you the Law? Because the Law is for law-breakers, and even with the law, it turns out that you fellows are still prone to abuse the Law and make yourselves and your wives into adulterers anyway.
In one sense, Jesus has painted a pretty hopeless picture here. It’s so hopeless that the scene ends with his disciples saying, “wow. In that case, maybe it’s better that nobody should get married at all.” That is: when they understand what it means to have marriage defined by the law, it looks like a recipe for failure. And let’s give the disciples credit here for knowing themselves pretty well: as they hear Jesus say these things, they realize that this is actually how they think about divorce: it’s an escape from something they no longer want, but Jesus says using the law like that only makes you worse, guilty of adultery.
So this brings us to the serious question we are considering today: do either the church or society even need marriage? I mean: if the disciples could hear what Jesus was saying here, and their response was, “um, maybe we should just not do this thing,” what should our response be? And how do we communicate that to society? Does society need marriage, really?
Well, what are the choices? For example, what if we compare those who are married, and stay married, to those who are either not married or not able to stay married.
In 2010, The National Review reported on the CDC numbers on birth rates in the United States, and Robert Rector had this to say about the results:
America is rapidly becoming a two-caste society, with marriage and education at the dividing line. Children born to married couples with a college education are mostly in the top half of the population; children born to single mothers with high-school degrees or less are mostly in the bottom half.So plainly, having children outside of marriage is not a great idea – but can people thrive without marriage? That is: does the average person do better or worse if they are married?
Consider this: the common way to determine whether or not people are “in poverty” is to take the total number of households in a nation (in our case, the US), order them from the lowest household income to the highest household income, and divide that set of data into 5 groups, each containing the same number of households. This is called dividing the population into “quintiles” of income. In the US, there are roughly 113 million households, so each quintile has about 22.6 million households.
When you do this, you can examine the characteristics of each quintile to see whether or not there are other features in common in each quintile besides income. I know this is a little boring and seems off-topic, but follow me here: in the general population, 51.3% of all households are married couples – 58.1 million households. Of those, 13.085 million are below the middle quintile – which is 22.5%. The other 77.5% of married households are in the middle quintile or better, meaning that more than 3/4th of all married households are well above the poverty line. Most tellingly, 80% of all households in the top quintile are married couples, and when you narrow that down to the top 5% of all households the percentage grows to more than 85% being married.
Far more telling is that single-person households only account for 16% of all households, and less than 8% of all households in the highest quintile. It’s sort of an invincible fact that marriage is good for household units, and it’s not a very far leap to say that when you aggregate that family-unit benefit to larger sociological or political measuring units – town, city, county, state, nation, culture/society – the benefit for the household unit is a net benefit for society.
But that is merely the economic impact of marriage on household units. Does society benefit is other ways from marriage? Let’s consider another product of marriage: People. That is: children. This information is mind-blowing, so pay close attention.
In April 1998, City Journal published a study of birth rates based on the CDC annual review of birth rates in the United States. The author of the article, Heather MacDonald, had this to say about that review:
"Illegitimacy is the greatest cause of long-term poverty in this country; unless it comes down, the poverty rate won't, either. [women] who give birth [out of wedlock] will [statistically] drift in and out of low-paid work for the rest of their lives, futilely seeking the holy grail of a permanent, ‘living-wage’ job."In April 2010, Robert Rector wrote the following in the National Review:
The disappearance of marriage in low-income communities is the predominant cause of child poverty in the U.S. today. If poor single mothers were married to the fathers of their children, two-thirds of them would not be poor. The absence of a husband and father from the home also is a strong contributing factor to failure in school, crime, drug abuse, emotional disturbance, and a host of other social problems.And that’s a fairly-broad claim by Rector, but it is substantiated over and over again by all manner of sociological research. David Kopel, former DA for NYC, has pointed out that in that jurisdiction “Almost 70 percent of juveniles incarcerated in state reform institutions come from homes with no father or without their natural parents. Most gang members, 60 percent of rapists, and 75 percent of teenage homicide perpetrators come from single-parent homes.” (1997) Nationally, according to the CDC and national law enforcement agencies:
- 63% of youth suicides are from broken homes. (Source: U.S. D.H.H.S., Bureau of the Census).
- 71% of all high school dropouts come from broken homes. (Source: National Principals Assoc. Report on the State of High Schools).
- 85% of all children that exhibit behavioral disorders come from broken homes. (Source: Center for Disease Control).
- 80% of rapist motivated by displaced anger come from broken homes. (Source: Criminal Justice and Behavior, Vol. 14, pp. 403-26).
- 85% of all youths sitting in prisons grew up in a broken home. (Source: Fulton County Georgia jail populations, Texas Dept. Of Corrections, 1992).
- 90% of all homeless and runaway children are from broken homes.
It’s simply unquestionable: whatever it is that happens in a home where there is a father and a mother, it completely outstrips the socialization and behavioral characteristics of homes without 2 parents.
So marriage as such is a massive benefit to society – it is more likely to create financially-prosperous household units which, by and large, produce children less likely to commit suicide, drop out of school, exhibit behavioral disorders, and break the law. Society needs marriage.
Listen: society knows it needs marriage. You cannot find a society at any point in history which doesn’t have some sort of norms for establishing marriages and households. We didn’t really have the rattle off the long list of liabilities of non-married arrangements to make this case. The question is only this: how and from where do societies get their ideas of marriage?
Every society has marital norms, right? That’s actually a secular argument here -- You can find all manner of marriage arrangements if you do a little research. Wikipedia – the fount of secularized information that it is – lists dozens of types of marriage:
• Arranged marriage
• Boston marriage
• Celestial marriage
• Chinese ghost marriage/Spirit marriage
• Covenant marriage
• Female husband marriage
• Fleet Marriage
• Ghost marriage
• Group marriage
• Hollywood marriage
• Intermarriage or Mixed marriage
• Interracial marriage
• Lavender marriage
• Levirate marriage
• Line marriage
• Love marriage
• Multiple marriages
• Open marriage
• Serial monogamy
• Sexless marriage
• Sister exchange
And let’s be honest: this is an attempt by secular advocates to say that as long as we call it “marriage,” it doesn’t matter what definition we use. That is: the definitions here aren’t important, and the same outcomes will come under any of these arrangements – so let’s just settle on some kind of simplified version of this, something which appeals to the common denominator and common sense, and let’s move on.
Or worse still: it’s the way society reproaches us, the church, for the foundation of Jesus’ argument: “Have you not read,” and “God has said.” You know: if it’s that clear, and God has said something, how do we come up with dozens – maybe hundreds – of different definitions of marriage when we look across cultures? We may say that we should have read about this, but see here: none of these people have, and they’re perfectly fine.
A few years ago, Newsweek ran a cover story and featured articles about the definition of marriage, and this is what they had to say about the subject:
Let's try for a minute to take the religious conservatives at their word and define marriage as the Bible does. Shall we look to Abraham, the great patriarch, who slept with his servant when he discovered his beloved wife Sarah was infertile? Or to Jacob, who fathered children with four different women (two sisters and their servants)? Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon and the kings of Judah and Israel—all these fathers and heroes were polygamists. The New Testament model of marriage is hardly better. Jesus himself was single and preached an indifference to earthly attachments—especially family. The apostle Paul (also single) regarded marriage as an act of last resort for those unable to contain their animal lust. "It is better to marry than to burn with passion," says the apostle, in one of the most lukewarm endorsements of a treasured institution ever uttered. Would any contemporary heterosexual married couple—who likely woke up on their wedding day harboring some optimistic and newfangled ideas about gender equality and romantic love—turn to the Bible as a how-to script?
Of course not, yet the religious opponents of gay marriage would have it be so.Listen to that: “Would any contemporary heterosexual married couple turn to the Bible as a how-to script? Of course not!” Not only does this writer get the narrative of the Bible on this subject completely wrong, she runs rough-shod over the historical fact that the way we view marriage today as “harboring some optimistic and newfangled ideas about … romantic love” is completely and utterly a function of the Christian influence over this cultural institution.
But let’s be a little self-aware about confusion: it’s a direct consequence of the Protestant Reformation. Both Luther and Calvin, while having a very high view of the union of marriage, reacted against the Roman Catholic view of marriage as a sacrament by making it an important and God-ordained institution which, like all other vocations, ought to be administered by the civil magistrate. Calvin had second thoughts about this before the end of his life, but it is unquestionable that the Protestant states of Europe were the ones which, in an effort to take this power out the hands of ecclesiastical courts, put it in the hands of the civil courts. This migration had little immediate impact on the definition of marriage in Europe and America because all the judicial precedence for the civil courts were the decisions of the ecclesiastical courts. But over time as Western culture moved through the enlightenment, the legal definitions of contract became more and more the model for how the Law ought to view marriage. It was only in the 19th century that divorce became commonly legal in the English-speaking world, but the rate of divorce has become an epidemic in the last 50 years.
The collapse of the definition of marriage, folks, is because Christians wanted the Law to decide the answer to the question: “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?" Because we have handed it over to the courts to decide, they are deciding it.
Well, to respond to that, let’s consider this: how did the West ever get a Christian view of marriage? That is: Western Civ predates the church, the Christian faith. How did marriage become the domain of the church in the first place?
The ancient Greeks considered the relation of marriage a matter not merely of private, but also of public or general interest. The laws were founded on the generally recognised principle that it was the duty of every citizen to raise up strong, healthy and legitimate children to the state. The ancient Athenians liberally allowed divorce, but only the state, the magistrate, could declare the divorce.
In the earliest periods of Roman history, Marriage meant that a married woman would be subjugated by her husband, but that custom had died out by the 1st century, in favor of Free Marriage which did not grant a husband any rights over his wife or have any changing effect on a woman's status. With this, the reasons for any divorce became irrelevant. Either spouse could leave a marriage at any point.
This was the state of things into the second century -- as the Christian church entered the ancient world. At that time, the Christians had no political power, no economic power, and were seen as weird and irrational atheists because they only worshipped one god. They had nothing -- no publishing houses, no televisions networks, no newspapers, no blogs. They had absolutely no advantages in the society in general.
In our view, that means the game is over. I think our view of it is deeply influenced by our own prosperity and our own good standing in the culture, but if we had no legislative recourse and no way to make movies about what we say we believe, we would see the problem of helping our culture rethink, refine and restore the institution of marriage as completely without hope.
Yet, the Christians in the -pre-christian west didn’t see it that way at all.