“What is Marriage?”: Five Apologetics Every Student Needs

This is the fourth article in our series, “Five Apologetics Every Student Needs.” The dictionary definition of ‘apologetics’ is: “systematic argumentative discourse in defense (as in of a doctrine).” In the current world culture of skepticism and relativism, it’s critical now more than ever that our next generation be equipped to defend their beliefs as true. In this series, we will present five Christian apologetics every student needs. Our hope is that you may use this series as a resource and guide to these often challenging conversations in your own ministry. Read the first, second, and third articles here.

Our culture’s knee-jerk to the Biblical definition of marriage has been so quick, and so forceful that even the youngest in our ministries struggle to wade through the loud and clanging voices. While the chant crying for Marriage Equality is deafening, it’s the sheer tonnage of exposure that demands a response. Debates on the resurrection, or the inspiration of Scripture rarely get prime news time, their own TV shows, recognition in Emmy Award-winning Sit-Coms, celebrity weigh-ins, or Twitter battles. The world preaches its view of marriage incessantly and with unprecedented vigor; Christians must respond in kind. 

What follows are two of the most common “street-level” answers to the question “What is marriage?” As well as my off-the-cuff responses to them. 

First Answer: “Marriage is when you love somebody, and want to spend your life with them.” (In other words, “If you love someone, marriage is your right.”)

There is so much truth in these statements that it’s easy to take them as the final definitions of marriage. All of our parents told us they married “because they loved each other.” But embedded in these definitions is a value that should be viewed critically. Namely: the unifying good of marriage is romantic self-fulfillment and self-expression. 

My response to someone proposing this would be: “What makes your belief that love or romantic self-fulfillment should be the irreducible, marriage-making element in a relationship?”  Normally, their response will be something along the lines of “It’s self-evident that love or self-fulfillment is the best ground for successful life-long relationships.”

Here are two reasons to be critical about this point of view:

  1. Many cultures, both current and past, do not see mutual love or self-fulfillment as the unifying good in successful marriages. Other cultures value financial security, or social status, or procreation and child-rearing as axiomatic (sometimes these are even called traditional views of marriage). A short plane ride will prove the legitimacy and potential for these types of relationships to create loving, safe, and successful marriages. Love is, of course, important – but romantic self-fulfillment isn’t marriage’s raison d’être. I would ask: “On what grounds then do you hold the current western view of marriage to be superior to another culture’s view?”
  2. There is good reason to suspect that self-fulfillment is a potential poor ground for stable, life-long relationships. Divorce rates continue to climb, and increasingly more children live in single-parent households – disproportionally among minority families. While it’s difficult to causally link these trends to our culture’s view of marriage. Criticism of “self-fulfillment” as the unifying good is not unwarranted. 

Second Answer: “Marriage is just a human creation and institution, so we should do what we want with it.” (Watch this short TedEd video for an interesting demonstration on the evolution of marriage, and this point of view)

Sometimes this statement is affixed with “for tax benefits” or to “insure inheritance money.” These are frivolous appendages. Marriage as a social institution has existed long before tax and inheritance laws. But the idea that marriage is just a human creation has important consequences. If it is just something we have “made up” at some past point, it’s easily something that we can change at a future point. This line of thinking makes the legitimacy of same-sex marriage hard to argue. 

But is marriage a human creation? I don’t believe that it is. It’s astonishing that all societies, all cultures, and all people throughout history have had some concept of marriage. While the universality of marriage could potentially be linked to an anthropological cause, there would need to be evidence of a society where marriage does not exist, so that it could subsequently be “created.” I would point out that no evidence of such a society has ever existed. Since all cultures have a marriage tradition, the idea that marriage is a human creation is based on no verifiable evidence. If the possibility exists that marriage is an eternal institution, it should give us pause before redefining it. 

What is biblical marriage, and why is it more convincing?

According to Volume 34 of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, the current media storm over same-sex marriage is really a battle between two competing views of marriage.

The traditional view sees the unifying good and legitimizing force of marriage as having, and raising children. The revisionist view understands the unifying good and legitimizing force of marriage to be self-fulfillment. Neither is the biblical view, and both are deficient at representing the Biblical vision. 

As Christians, we must hold up a third way: that marriage was created by God for one man and one woman (Genesis 2:24), for the purpose of revealing the glories of Jesus’ sacrifice for his people (Ephesians 5:25). The word ‘sacrifice’ is a far cry from the aforementioned typical legitimizing forces (family and self-fulfillment). 

Traditional views of marriage have often led to legitimizing divorces when spouses are infertile. These views can discriminate against couples who never have children, or exclude individuals unable to have children. Revisionist marriage, while upholding “love” as its preeminent virtue, turns the sustained feeling of that couple’s love or their personal fulfillment into sacrosanct. If these feelings fade, so can the marriage, leading to total instability. In both views, there is no reason to stay together if its legitimizing force has been left unfulfilled.

Gospel marriage is another animal entirely. Marriage, like the gospel, comes from outside of ourselves. Gospel-Marriage is instituted by God, not sustained feelings of love, or the ability to procreate (Mark 10:6-9).

Since Christian marriage’s ultimate purpose is to glorify God, it relieves the burdens of child-raising and our feelings of constant romantic love from carrying the weight of sustaining it. What will make our marriage last, in the final analysis, isn’t our own efforts, children, or emotions, but rather the God who carries us through. Marriage for God’s glory gives us solid resources to deal with feeling “out of love,” since we have the infinite delight of a loving Father, and sacrificial Son. It frees us from the vacuity of self-fulfillment, since our example of true love was self-denying (1 John 4:10). Finally, marriage for God’s glory allows us to have (or be unable to have) children, and enjoy both outcomes to the glory of God since our truest sons and daughters are those that treasure Jesus above all earthly families. 

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church (Genesis 2:24, Ephesians 5:31-32).

To learn more about gospel centered youth ministry, check out more articles and podcasts from Rooted’s youth ministry blog.

Seth Stewart is a husband and a dad, and after a decade in student ministry is now working as the Editor-in-Chief at Spoken Gospel. Spoken Gospel creates online resources that point to Jesus from every passage of Scripture. Seth spends his day writing, speaking, and being his family's chef.

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