As Tevye, the central character of Fiddler on the Roof, considers the upheaval going on all around him (not least with his own daughters’ marriages) he turns to his wife and asks a simple, but penetrating question,
Do you love me?
It seems an absurd question to ask today. How could these two have even got married without being in love? But that, of course, was exactly what happened – just as it has happened in so many cultures across so many centuries across the world.
Golde, the first time I met you was on our wedding day, I was scared
I was shy
I was nervous
So was I
But my father and my mother said we’d learn to love each other, So now I’m asking Golde, do you love me?
Of course, Golde does. For 25 years she’s washed his clothes, cooked his meals … given him children … her bed is his…
It seems like an absurd question to us because, surely, Tevye and Golde have got it all back to front. Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage. Don’t they? But not for our silver anniversary couple. It was marriage first. And then they learned to love each other.
Now why raise this? Well because the notion that marriage is somehow the great endorsing brand to validate love is a key element of the argument in favour of same-sex marriage that we currently see around us. We see it in much of the rhetoric, whether spoken or images,
The ABC here in Australia reported famous talk-radio host Alan Jones as declaring,
My view is that when people find love they should be able to celebrate it. And they shouldn’t be discriminated against according to the nature of that love.
Now consider what is being argued here. It’s important that we get our heads around the nature of this debate otherwise we’ll just continually be responding to the wrong point, nor will we be in any position to helpfully reflect back to our wider society just what is going on and, perhaps, get them to reconsider.
Simply put, the core assumption being expressed is this:
- The term “marriage” is a great affirming and validating label.
- Marriage is all about love.
- Thus to exclude other “loving” relationships from this descriptor is to deny them the public affirmation and validation that is given to heterosexual monogamy.
- In our “tolerant” society this is effectively a state-protected institutionalised bigotry, thus the use of language such as “second-class citizens” etc. which are currently used to describe how some homosexuals feel they are being treated.
It is, I hope, fairly evident, that the steps one and two are the assertions upon which the conclusions 3 & 4 are based. We will not make any inroads into this discussion unless we address them directly, not simply bang our heads up against the conclusions. I want to do just that, show that the basic assertions are false. I also want to show you how the logical conclusion of those false assertions is inconsistently and arbitrarily drawn.
So, first, the assertions are false.
Well, sort of. What we’re seeing here is the end result of a gradual erosion in societal understanding of marriage. What seems clearly false to some of us is simply assumed by others. It used to be commonly understood that marriage was the label applied to a lifelong heterosexual union from which children would be the normal (but not universal) outcome. Put in simplistic terms, when a man and a woman get together one of the normal outcomes is children. All other things being equal, when children don’t arise we know something isn’t working properly.
The relationship between men and women is of a particular form; something we might call complementarity by which we mean that although men and women are different (and different in very obvious ways) there is a clear and obvious sense that their differences are very much like differences in jigsaw pieces. The two are meant to fit together, physically and emotionally. It’s the difference that actually makes it work.
Thus “marriage” is a term that is used to describe this particular form of relationship. Yes, it does mean that we place a high value on it, but not simply because we think it is something to be morally affirmed. There’s far more going on; we are recognising that “marriage” understood in this way plays a vital and central part in good societal order. Placing boundaries around this protects the institution, not to affirm the individuals in it but to affirm it’s particular place and role. Those boundaries including effectively penalising those who breached marriage contracts and seeking to safeguard the more vulnerable members of a marriage, usually (but not always) women and children. There is a reason why bigamy and polygamy are crimes, and it’s got nothing to do with love and far more with restraining lust that ends up harming the vulnerable.
Coupled (every pun intended) to this is the breaking down of the second assertion – marriage is all about love.
Now please read me carefully; I am not saying that love has no place in marriage! On the contrary, in our culture it is normally love which prompts people to marry. I knew my own wife for no more than 6 months when it was clear to me that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her, and it had little to do in my own mind (as I understood it at the time) with any great notion that I was contributing to the greater good of society. Of course now, almost 15 years later, I can look back and see how our marriage actually does do just that.
So love compelled us to marry, but marriage is not love. For one thing the Marriage Act 1961 here in Australia makes no mention of it. And, frankly, why would it?
marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life
Tevye and Golde weren’t in love but they forged a successful marriage. Marriage has never been about validating or endorsing love, even though it does provide an appropriate space within which love may flourish. And what business is it of the state to regulate love anyway? All of this is well summarised in an excellent video put together by the Australian Christian Lobby.
Marriage may often be the consumation of love, but it does not require love in order to be consumated. Do they go together like a horse and carriage? Often, yes. But not always.
Love is the carriage which the horse of marriage very, very oftens pulls along. Love is not the horse which pulls the carriage.
If love is the horse then the “marriage equality” advocates are absolutely correct! Why should we not allow other carriages to be hitched up? What makes one carriage better than another if all that it’s really about is a horse named “love” that has more than enough clout to pull all sorts of gloriously different carriages?
Except, of course, they don’t actually believe this themselves. Ask an advocate of “marriage equality” why polygamous or polyamorous relationships can’t hitch up their wagons and you’ll get a howl of protest. Nobody is asking for that! (except, of course, they are). The hypocrisy here is breathtaking. We are roundly criticised for only allowing the blue/pink striped carriage of heterosexual monogamy to be hitched up to the horse of love. Why not the rainbow carriage?
And yet lined up in the queue right behind the rainbow carriage fans is the polyamory parade float with it’s logo of a heart entwined with the infinity symbol. Now if you ever wanted an expression of love, then there it is! If marriage is about affirming love and all love is equal then here is a veritable stallion. I hope that the double standard at play is entirely obvious.
No, the call for “marriage equality” isn’t about equality. It’s about demanding that the state publicly affirm a particular form of relationship; homosexual partnerships. Let the polyamorists worry about themselves!
The gall is particularly breathtaking. Traditionalists are accused of an unwillingness to affirm love, despite the fact that we have never believed that this is what marriage is for. But now along comes a loud shouty group who do want marriage to be about affirming love and they refuse to, well, affirm love. We are accused of showing favouritism to a particular group and excluding others, even though we can mount a pretty robust argument as to why one particular form of relationship ought to be privileged (in that it is recognised as being different to others with unique outcomes). But the very same people charging us with prejudice are up to their knees in it. The horse has stopped dead and unloaded and they simply refuse to acknowledge where the bad smell is actually coming from. They are so desperate to make others affirm them and to mandate moral approval that they pretend there wasn’t just an enormous bump as they ran over another group who mount exactly the same argument that they do. So much for equality all around. So much for generous love.
With me so far?
If you are, then let me make an observation to you to chew on a little. Not a single thing I have written so far is a religious argument. This is an entirely secular argument being made, and one that is repeated by atheist and secular commentators across our western society and, not least, by a number of prominent homosexual activists.
Now that is not to say that I am not a religious man, nor that religious arguments can be made. Quite the contrary. Jesus walks into this pile of manure and promises to make roses bloom.
To start with, Jesus tells us that we were exactly right to view marriage in a certain way. This is just the way that it was designed to be:
Matt. 19:4-6 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
And go figure! Marriage, the way God made it, works for the betterment of society. Who would have thought? Yes, there are numerous departures and aberrations of this basic structure recorded in the Bible. But they are just that – departures and aberrations, and the consequences of departing from God’s good design are consistently laid out.
I’ve set out elsewhere, in much greater detail, what this all looks like and how it points to the gospel; the wonderful news of a the Bridegroom Jesus sacrificially loving his Bride, the Church, and the open invitation to each and every one of us to participate. In this space I want to deal with something slightly different; the desperate need for affirmation that each and every one of us has.
One of the things that is so striking about engagement on this issue is the repeated sense that many homosexual advocates of “marriage equality” cannot cope others’ disagreement and moral disapproval with the way they live their lives. No-one likes being criticised, but there’s something more going on here. To some extent all of us crave social acceptance. Nobody likes being on the outside of things, excluded from belonging. But I think there’s something more going on here. At times it almost begins to look like a form of narcissism; how dare you not approve of me.
It’s a curious thing to contemplate as a Christian because we shouldn’t have those expectations. On the contrary, one of the realities of the Christian life is the realisation that the world around us will not approve. Quite the opposite,
John 15:18-19 “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”
I don’t know about you, but I think I have my head around the realities of this. I live a very different life to many many people around me, some of whom think I’m nuts. But I don’t demand that they affirm me. I don’t ask the government to make it illegal for them to criticise my moral choices.
Yet we all want the world to love us. “Do you love me?” we ask and so many of us can’t cope if the answer isn’t what we were expecting. As Christians we know the most radical form of acceptance and love. It knows exactly what we’re like, warts and all, and loves us anyway.
Rom. 5:8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
And so here is the great conundrum. We want to love a world that equates love with acceptance. We are headed to a major confrontation (and I think we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t think it’s coming) over acceptance and love and there appears to be no positive outcome. We know what it means to be loved and to love despite the obvious flaws and immorality. But we want to love a culture that cannot accept things it holds dear being called immoral and calls such a response unloving.
The world loves because it thinks things are good and lovable. God loves a world that is anything but those things. No wonder we will be misunderstood at every turn. So how do we respond? I want to suggest 2 important things:
- Keep telling the truth. The truth is a terrible thing for those who don’t want to hear it. Like light shining in dark places, truth will cause all sorts of angry responses. But truth also brings freedom and if as Christians we genuinely believe this then we’ll keep going, for the sake of the society that we live in because we care about it. Our society is made up out of people made in the image of God and so silence as it tears itself apart can surely not be acceptable. Love demands we tell the truth.
- Keep speaking about Jesus. There is a cogent argument to be made for a “traditional” view of marriage that requires no religious component. I trust that I’ve made that point well enough above. Strategically this is no bad thing; it demonstrates that the conservative position is no mere hold-out of religious zealots. But a purely secular argument is ultimately of no benefit to anyone. We don’t save our culture by pleading for morality! Morals will ultimately save no-one and an entire society that goes to Hell while holding to a traditional view of marriage does nobody any good. Don’t get me wrong here – I’m all for arguing the case in a variety of ways and I think there’s rhetorical force in being able to say “look, so far this isn’t a religious argument”. But at the end of the day it’s only Jesus that can sort anything out so let’s please make sure that it’s to Him that we turn and point others to.
“Do you love me?” asks Tevye. In a Western culture that wants to celebrate love yet is incredibly discriminative in it’s own love and increasingly can’t cope if it’s current versions of love aren’t affirmed, it’s a powerful question. “Do you love me?” has led to bakers being sued and people losing their jobs. It’s a strange love we’re looking at that is so unloving at times.
The only truly productive response is a love that appears equally strange to its recipients. It’s a love of an eternal and divine husband for his wayward bride. It’s the gospel of Jesus’ tremendous love for us; sinners. It’s a love that a world that thinks it is an expert on love actually knows nothing about.
But as they ask “do you love me?”, surely it’s the only real response we can make.