25 January 2012

2 of 3: Does Society Need Marriage?

by Frank Turk

This is part 2 of 3.  You can find Part 1 (from yesterday) here.

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.

... to be continued ...


Rachael Starke said...

Trying to decide if I should offer up a "Best. Series. EVER." comment now, or wait until you've posted the third part and made it official and indisputable.

Robert said...

Anxiously awaiting part 3. Good job doing your homework and presenting relavent statistics.

Internet said...

When Luther and Calvin handed Christian marriage to a totally depraved civil magistrate, why didn't they anticipate the cliff that Christian marriage has finally fallen from in our day?

Jason T said...

I rarely leave comments, but I just wanted to say this is a great series. Can't wait for part 3!

FX Turk said...

Calvin actually witnessed it when he started the ball rolling in Geneva, which contributed to his turn around -- but remember this: they didn't live in a post-Christian society like we do. They were living, in many ways, at the height of Christendom -- the peak of the influence that the norms and sociological markers of Christianity were having on the society.

In their view, the Magistrate was likely to be a Christian.

C. T. Bennett said...

The list of marriages leaves out a new form that is a modern example of the Romanticism that craves meaning in the midst of a world view that provides no basis for it: The Jan 2012 issue of Paris Review describes a recent "fake wedding" with fake bride, fake groom (both selected at random from the group), fake shower, fake bachelor party, fake rabbi, fake ceremony (held in New Orleans). Perhaps you think this a way of showing cynicism about marriage but it is not -- it is all taken quite seriously. The motivation: "we love weddings," "we are in love with love." None of them would be getting married (or not, at least, any time soon) but loved the feeling, the emotion, the sentiment, the experiencing of weddings. This is the "as if" view ported to the marriage ceremony: as if it were a real wedding, feel the emotion, bathe in nostalgia, enjoy the festivities. Leave out the meaning: leave out the oath, the covenant, the purpose. They are already planning next year's fake wedding, they said.

FX Turk said...

There are literally dozens more types of marriages listed at Wikipedia. Dozens.

C. T. Bennett said...

I just thought this type particularly sad. Reading the article made me feel so sorry for that group.

donsands said...

"Because we [the Bride of Christ] have handed it over to the courts to decide, they are deciding it."


Very thorough post. Thanks for your hard work on this important subject.

Aaron said...

To be fair, the relationship between the church and civil government was a significant issue throughout the reformation and one on which many reformers had varying views. Who was to control discipline in the community, the church or the civil magistrate?

Although Calvin technically called for the magistrate and the church to be seperate, his views of seperation are nothing like the modern definition.

Aaron said...


You actually touch on a topic that drives me a bit batty. One does not go to a historical narrative to look for instruction on how to do something. Historical narratives can only serve as illustrations...showing us by example what somebody did or did not do, why they did it, and how it worked out. That's helpful because we can see when you drive down the wrong side of the street, you run into other cars. So we conclude that we shouldn't drive down the wrong side of the street. But historical narratives are not instruction manuals. A narrative of a drunk driver will not instruct us on how to drive. We can draw conclusions based on them that serve to illustrate and instruct but we don't look at the narrative as a "how to".

So why do people constantly go to Genesis, a historical narrative, for instruction? If one wants to learn the "how to" of marriage he should go to the books of the Bible that tell us how to do it.

Anyways, that's my pet peeve because I see even Christians use historical narratives as "how to" manuals from dating to child rearing.

FX Turk said...

Sir Aaron:

Well, that Jesus! Always doing things that drive us batty!

Internet said...

"Because we [the Bride of Christ] have handed it over to the courts to decide, they are deciding it."

How does each of our denominations and independent churches snatch Christian Marriage back from the Magistrate before he once-and-for-all destroys this vital institution?

Aaron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
FX Turk said...

The magistrate cannot own Marriage. They also can't destroy it. Because Marriage is a picture of the Gospel, the worst they can do is to ape marriage.

The church only has to believe the Gospel and live like it's true.

Aaron said...


Ok, I deserved that one. You could have hit back harder, I mean the gospels themselves are historical narratives.

I didn't intend to say that historical narrative is not good for instruction generally, meaning "teaching". After all, Scripture itself says that all of it is good for teaching. What I didn't articulate well is that not everything Scripture records is an instruction, meaning a specific direction on how to do something. Just because an event is recorded doesn't mean it is indicative of an action (i.e, an instruction) we should follow. (Wasn't that how we got the Prayer of Jabez books?) And yet, heathen and Christians alike read the Bible like that.

I get a little annoyed when people raise objections about marriage because Scripture records that our forefathers like Abraham were sinners (like us). The Bible is replete with explanations and commentary on OT passages that give a clear picture of how we are to conduct ourselves. We don't model our lives based on everything Abraham did. (Similarly I get annoyed when people point to OT characters on child rearing---so should I pick my namesake as an example or somebody else I ask.)

Does that make better sense or am I just babbling now?

Aaron said...

"each of our denominations and independent churches "

Is that a veiled snipe at Protestantism?

F Whittenburg said...

Internet posted:

How does each of our denominations and independent churches snatch Christian Marriage back from the Magistrate before he once-and-for-all destroys this vital institution?

I did a Bible study on true Biblical marriage that addressed this very thing. I saw a statistic once that showed that the divorce rate in the church was just as high as in the secular community, so apparently what pastors today are preaching from the pulpits, just don't seem to be working, so I thought I might throw my two cents in the search for the solution. If I missed diagnosed it in my expounding of the true root problem of divorce in the churches then no harm is done to these statistcs, nothing from nothing leaves nothing.
Because of this observation of statistics, I thought I might have some insight into this problem of divorce in the church, and during my study, I actually found THE CHURCH in some instances, and not the Magistrate, to be a main part of the problem with helping destroy marriages, albeit inadvertantly.
It is entitled "Marriage: Till Death Do Us Part?. It is found on my christiannewbirth website as Marriage Explained. I wrote this marrige study for pastors who are looking to help strengthen their married couples relationship and to avoid practices that are very common in churches today that are doing more harm to marriages than good, and many pastors just don't see it.

F Whittenburg

F Whittenburg said...

Here is a couple of paragraphes from the end of my Bible study "Marriage: Till Death Do Us Part?" on dealing with the possible youth pastors inadvertant damage to the family. I discuss some of the senior pastors practices and woman practices in the church that may be causing damage to marriages in previous paragraphs.

"The youth pastors in the church have stepped into the families and become the children’s spiritual leader instead of their father. There are many teenagers and children that would never fuss, cuss, and fight with their youth pastor like they would talk bad and argue with their father. Why is that? Because the youth in the church today look at and reverence the youth pastor as God’s representative to them. The father used to hold that position also, as being God’s representative to their children.
In many ways, the church today has stepped in and taken away the ministry of the husband to his family. I think Paul was warning about this very thing happening to a marriage in 1 Corinthians 14:34,35 KJV. In these scriptures, Paul was not trying to claim that women were any less spiritual or less of a person in the Lord’s eyes, but it could be damaging their husband’s credibility in his family’s eyes.

Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church (1 Corinthians 14:34,35 KJV).

Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband (Ephesians 5:33 KJV).

(excerpt from Marriage: Till Death Do Us Part?)"

Have you noticed anything similar, Frank? Could possibly youth pastors help out this situation by promoting the fathers and parents more often in sermons to the children they are ministring to?

Does sermons about "Obey your parents" go far enough toward instilling reverence in the parents, or do children put these sermons into the same catagory as "Obey your principle" or "Obey the policeman" and reduce the father down to just authority figure who should be obeyed, instead of the spiritual leader of the home? Just asking..

Do youth pastors already do this? Are youth pastors maybe replacing parents in some cases?

I welcome any input from youth pastors on this. This is just one potential problem I saw. Surely there is enough Christians with Biblical insight that visit this blog, we should be able to come up with solutions to fix this marriage and divorce problem in the church. Good way to frame the problem in your post, Frank. Now all the body of Christ needs to do is frame the solution.....I'll start.

F Whittenburg

Tim Bushong said...

I'm sure Frank will post it, but for anyone who can't wait- I just cleaned up all the audio and it's ready for download here:


Robert said...

Sir Aaron,

I also am frustrated by people acting like the Bible instructs us on marriage based upon how Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon lived. What the world misses is that the Bible shows us that all people are sinners and need to see truth of the Gospel.

The best way to counter that is to let our marriages be an example of the Biblical model so that we can exemplify the grace and mercy that God shows to us. That is much different than the worldly perspective on marriage.