March was a roller coaster for proud partisans of heterosexual marriage. Voters in California fought an uphill battle but handily passed Proposition 22, defining marriage as between a man and a woman (CT, April 3, p. 15). They thus protected themselves from having to recognize pseudomarriages which other states (such as Vermont) might create between same-sex couples.

In a breathtaking plunge a few days later, Vermont's House of Representatives passed a bill creating the legal framework for "civil unions" between same- sex couples.

The Vermont lawmakers and the California voters were trying to escape the same threat: judicial activism and gay-rights activists working together to empty marriage of its traditional meaning. Indeed, the Vermont lawmakers created their "civil unions" because that state's Supreme Court had given them little choice: either swing wide the door of matrimony for homosexual couples or manufacture a parallel institution to give them the economic and social benefits enjoyed by married heterosexual couples.

Unfortunately, the meaning of marriage has already changed fundamentally in our own era, leaving us with an institution that resembles a caffeine-free diet cola: all synthetic substitutions and no substance. The proposed abandonment of heterosexuality as a key ingredient of marriage is only the latest "improvement" on Marriage Classic.


At its best, the church has understood marriage as a divine gift for the blessing of believers and unbelievers alike in the context of a well-ordered society. Such was not always the case: the church's definition has shifted, sometimes radically, over the centuries. (John Witte's 1997 book, From Sacrament to Contract, is an excellent survey of those changes.)

At times the church treated marriage as second-rate, keeping the married from sexual sin, but not contributing positively to their virtue. It considered celibate contemplation as the higher estate. And for centuries, the church countenanced private—even secret-- marriage contracts.

But as the Protestant Reformers moved marriage out of the sacred sphere and into the divinely ordained civil sphere, they began to unpack marriage in its fullness: a divine gift for mutual support and fulfillment of the couple, a holy protection of the individual from sexual sin, a microcosm of society in which the future members of society were nurtured and formed. Viewed thus, marriage served the good of society, of church, of family, of the couple, and of the individual. Each party had a stake in the institution. No longer was marriage essentially a private affair. Both marriages and divorces now had to be public events, with the couple, the magistrate, the minister, and God each playing a part in forming this covenant relationship.

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With the Enlightenment, all of this began to change. This reason-minded model reduced a social institution to a narrowed focus: two individuals and their mutual contract to enter an intimate relationship. Over the last three decades, the increasing privatization of marriage has become almost absolute: neither the community nor the paterfamilias (does such exist anymore?) has any say in the formation or dissolution of a marriage. What was a community affair for over 400 years has devolved into just one more exercise of personal choice—the essence of both the modern worldview and market economics.


In an amusing but sad essay in The New York Times Magazine, Jack Hitt proclaims he is not afraid of gay folks so much as he fears Adam Smith. Says Hitt: "What is happening to marriage is the culmination of the market's radical reshaping of the culture at large." Just as the invisible hand has transformed our once altruistic hospitals into profit-driven healthcare delivery systems, marriage is now shaped by market forces. Once-rare prenuptial agreements are now routine. Conservatives fight to abolish the marriage-penalty tax.

And dating, Hitt says, is these days "understood as little more than the discovery period before the big merger." In the context of this privatized understanding of marriage, in which the institution is valued for its tax value and its health-insurance implications, it is no wonder that gay activists are making their bid for its benefits. If marriage is merely the private choice of two individuals to enter into an intimacy contract, why not let everyone in on the act?

But marriage is more than that. It is more than merely personal. It is more than a contract. It is more than the legitimization of intimacy. And it is a heck of a lot more than health insurance and jointly filed tax returns. Marriage is a modeling of Christ's love for the church: not as a theological object lesson but as a lived-out parable of the principles that undergird the universe. Marriage is the one arena in which everyone can make a significant contribution to society, for even those who do not marry or do not bear children promise to uphold the marriages they witness. To be married is to ask for an invasion of your privacy.

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What is truly frightening is the degree to which the church has adjusted to this current privatized concept of marriage. Fortunately, pockets of resistance exist in which church and community share in the preparation of couples (CT, Jan. 10, p. 36). But far too many churches fail to help their members think through the theology implicit in their commitment—particularly in its communal dimension.

When Californians passed Proposition 22 they offered the barest definition of marriage. (It's between a man and a woman.) Such a minimalist definition may be all the state can do, but the church needs to put forward an understanding of this divine institution in all its heady fullness.

Related Elsewhere

First Things has a review of From Sacrament to Contract, which can be purchased at the Christianity Online store or other book retailers.

Jack Hitt's essay in the March 19, 2000, issue of The New York Times Magazine, "Marriage Á la Market," is still available online.

About.Com has a page of links about the history of marriage.

For more information, read's news articles about California's Proposition 22 and Vermont's "civil unions" bill, a January editorial about fighting divorce, and our sister publication Marriage Partnership.

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