Mulling the Definition of “Marriage”

Thirty-five years ago, when I was teaching at Mississippi University for Women (and men, too) in Columbus, Mississippi, one of the ten papers students had to write in first-year composition was a definition paper.  The list of possible topics for that paper included “Marriage.”

Of the at least fifty papers submitted to me on that topic, every single one focused on the rite of marriage, i.e., the wedding.  Not one focused on the institution of marriage or on the union created at the time of the rite or on the right of marriage.  For those college students, mostly young women in their very late teens or their twenties, “marriage” was all about a white dress, flowers, bridesmaids, groomsmen, carriages, partying, and a handsome young fellow, even for the young women who were already married.

The historical 26 June 2015 Supreme Court Obergefell vs. Hodges ruling also focuses on the definition of “marriage” exactly as I wanted my students to focus on it.  I suggest that everyone read that decision (available online) for what it says and for what it does not say.

After reading the decision, peruse numerous surveys available online having to do with reasons for marrying.  It seems that when married people are asked why they married, they usually give one or more of the following reasons: to become a family, to save money, to share life, because of tradition, to love and be loved, to grow old together, for support, for motivation, to have children, because of societal norms, because of finding a soulmate or partner, or even because it is time.

What is missing from the decision as written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy for the majority and from the lists often reported of reasons to marry is any mention of sexual relations.

Northland’s Senior Pastor Joel Hunter’s remarks regarding the Supreme Court decision (made on FOX television and in print, both available online) focus on what the written Court decision states rather than focusing on sexual relations.  He mentions his lack of “surprise” and acknowledges the government’s “responsibility . . . to define civil marriage” while asserting the “responsibility of a religious group to interpret its scriptures and act accordingly, including defining the parties and parameters of holy matrimony.”  To his remarks, I say “Hear!  Hear!”

That is in sharp contrast to Pastor John Piper’s assertion in his daily devotional Desiring God that the Court’s ruling that “states cannot ban same-sex marriage” gave “approval to those who practice” homosexual acts.  He goes on to declare that “[w]hat’s new is not even celebration and approval” of homosexual behavior because that has been present a long time.  But “[w]hat’s new is the normalization and institutionalization” of homosexuality.  He implies that the Justices (by their decision) “glory in their shame” with approval of the sin.  He admits that “there is a distinction between the orientation and the act” of homosexuality, but he conflates the Court’s decision covering same-sex marriage with an imagined Court decision covering same-sex sexual behavior.

Pastor John Piper, whose Desiring God devotionals I read and contemplate frequently and my husband reads and contemplates every day, has many supporters, many in complete agreement with his opinion regarding the Supreme Court decision.

But I have to wonder at his naïve thinking.  Does Pastor Piper (and his champions) believe that only married same-sex or opposite-sex couples have sexual relations?  Does he think that declaring that same-sex or opposite-sex couples cannot marry stops their having sexual relations?  Does he think that declaring same-sex or opposite-sex couples can marry is necessary to start their having sexual relations?  Have minimum-age marriage laws stopped teenagers from having sexual relations?  Did laws denying marriage to interracial couples stop their having sexual relations?

Does he think that all married same-sex and opposite-sex couples have sexual relations?  Do same-sex and opposite-sex couples marry only for the reason of having sexual relations?  (See the reasons for marrying above—a recognition that having sexual relations is not the only—or even one often mentioned—reason for marrying.)

Does he not see a reason for same-sex marriage between two people who have been in a committed relationship for thirty, forty, fifty years (as are some I have known and have seen featured) and for whom having sexual relations may well be a thing of the past (as it is for many opposite-sex couples the same ages) but who want to be able to care for each other in their last years?  As is true of many opposite-sex marriages?

Conflating marriage and sexual relations regarding the right of either having or not having sexual relations in the relationship seems preposterous to me, just as seeing marriage as only a wedding, only a ceremony, only a rite did thirty-five years ago.  To say one has nothing to do with the other is going too far, but to say they cannot exist as one without the other or as one with the other only is nonsensical and based on ignorance of opposite-sex marriage and same-sex relationships.

Marriage is not only about a white dress, flowers, bridesmaids, groomsmen, carriages, partying, and a handsome young fellow.  Neither is it only about sexual relations.  The church as it performs “holy matrimony” and the courthouse as it performs “civil marriage” have separate responsibilities, as stated by Pastor Hunter.  I am grateful to God for all His creation.  For me, His Court will be a different court and its decision will be final, but I agree with the Supreme Court’s decision as it pertains to civil and Constitutional law and with its definition of “marriage”:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed. It is so ordered.

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One Response to Mulling the Definition of “Marriage”

  1. Well written. And I agree wholeheartedly.

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