There has been a lot of talk in recent years about redefining marriage. About making it mean something that it hasn’t meant before.
By my observation, though, that’s already happened. Marriage has been redefined for some time now. And no, I’m actually not talking about same-sex relationships.
Not only have we reinvented marriage, but we’ve rejected the product we ended up with. Far fewer people in our generation are getting married, and many are opting for cohabitation instead. It would be like if I told you that you should try eating with your fork held backwards. And this idea caught on and became cool and everyone started holding their forks by the tines and picking up food with the handle. Until people realized that eating with a backwards fork doesn’t really work; it’s not designed to pick up food that way, and some people ended up getting hurt by it. So, they rejected using forks altogether. This is what we’ve done with marriage: we’ve made it something it was never intended to be, and then rejected it as a bad idea.
The Marriage Contract
So what’s changed? We’ve taken something that was meant to be an unbreakable, holy covenant, and turned it into a consumer relationship.
What do I mean by that? Well, in a consumer relationship, it’s all about what you get out of it. You only give so you can get something in return. For example, if I go to Joe’s Burger Shop for lunch, I give money so that I can get a burger. I don’t give the money because Joe needs it; I give it because I want a burger. It’s a type of contract, which can be broken; if I don’t get a burger, I don’t pay (and vice versa). I can stop going to Joe’s at any time, if I get tired of it or if a better burger shop comes along or if they mess up one time and I get food poisoning.
You’ve probably heard of marriage referred to as a “marriage contract,” which puts it in this same category. If it’s a contract, it can be broken. If it’s a contract, it’s only worthwhile if I’m getting out of it at least as much as I’m putting in. It’s really all about me; the “us” is important just because it benefits me.
That’s what marriage is for most people today, whether they realize it or not. It’s why the divorce rate is as high as it is (as we’ve discussed here, it isn’t as high as most people think, but 30% or so is still far too high). And it helps explain why so many people are willing to expand the definition of marriage: if it’s just a contract, the same as my contract with the cable company, then any two (or three, or however many) people can enter into it.
The Real Deal
But marriage hasn’t always been that way, and you don’t have to look very hard to find proof. It’s right there in the traditional wedding vows:
To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.
That’s pretty straightforward, really. Between this day and the day one of us dies, we’re committed to be together.
Notice that it includes “for worse,” which is a limitless term—there’s no limit to how much “worse” something can get—as well as “for poorer,” “in sickness,” and “until death do us part.” That’s not a contract. That’s not saying, “love me and I’ll love you in return.” It’s saying “I’m committed to love you no matter what. Even if I don’t get anything in return. Even if you’re unfaithful, or you change, or you get sick and end up bedridden. Nothing could cause me to give up on our marriage.”
Some of you may be thinking: “JP, that doesn’t sound like a very good deal to sign up for. That’s kind of one-sided.” That’s actually the kind of response Jesus got in Matthew 19:10 when He was talking about marriage and divorce. And it would be one-sided—if you were the only one making that vow. But when both of you are vowing that to each other, and you live by the vows you make, it becomes a beautiful thing. Two people who are both selflessly looking out for each other, and focused on giving rather than taking from each other.
But what about love? Somehow, commitment sounds a bit more like a chore and less like being madly in love with each other.
It turns out, the biblical view of marriage is actually far more loving.
In a consumer relationship, your main focus is how the marriage benefits you. You may love your spouse, but in the end it’s really more about loving yourself.
The modern marriage also looks at love as a feeling, and feelings change; if you can fall in love, then you can also fall back out.
In contrast, a committed biblical marriage is focused on love as an action. That doesn’t mean you don’t still feel love just as strongly. But, again, feelings change, so if you’re committed to love your spouse always, it has to mean more than just a feeling. True love means serving that person and looking out for their best interests whether you really feel like it that day or not. And when something happens that might lead to a divorce among other couples, that’s when you can love them more than would ever be possible in a consumer marriage: by accepting their shortcomings, forgiving them, and choosing to love them anyways.
That’s why the Bible describes marriage as an earthly picture of God’s love for us (Ephesians 5:25-32). God doesn’t love us because we’re perfect and never disappoint Him or cheat on Him. On the contrary: even though we don’t deserve it, Christ sacrificed Himself on the cross on our behalf (Romans 5:8). Giving up yourself for someone when they don’t deserve it: that’s true love.
So let’s redefine marriage—the way it always was supposed to be. As a truly loving, unbreakable covenant established by God.
(With help from Kevin McConaghy)