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  • Accounts of marriage that deny permanency, exclusivity, and complementarity will work, inevitably, to rethink how we conceive of marriage altogether.  Tweet This
  • A recent article in the Wall Street Journal confirms that Americans are de-linking the goods and norms of marriage and thus unraveling the point of marriage. Tweet This

As the semester ends, I am concluding a class on Christian ethics and the family at the seminary where I teach. I’ve approached the idea of the family from a philosophical and theological foundation—what is it that makes the natural family unique from other types of associations in society and what might that say about the reality of a divinely-ordered design to society?

To accomplish this goal, we’ve explored how the sequence to family formation is central in Christian social thought: “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes so-and-so pushing a baby carriage.” Yes, and amen to that order of operations. This issues from the Genesis 1-2 pattern in the Bible where God weaves family formation into the very fabric of creation. In Genesis 1:26-27 and 2:18-24, God commands man and woman to leave father and mother and become husband and wife through uniting in a one-flesh act that seals their love, and which can bring forth children. The formation of family is part of humanity’s call to a loving stewardship of creation and culture.

The Christian tradition has theologized about the so-called “goods” of marriage; “goods” being the intended fulfillment of marriage’s purpose that its participants encounter and are blessed by. Theologians debate what all the goods might be, but St. Augustine summarizes the concept well when he says that the goods of marriage are children, exclusivity (chastity), and permanency. Augustine is saying that every marriage needs to be open to children, faithful to one another, and sealed by an unbroken bond of life-long commitment. Notice that marriage for pleasure alone and kidless brunches on Sundays are conspicuously missing. One could imagine that St. Augustine would not be a fan of the reigning soul-mate conception of marriage that dominates our thinking.

As I have stressed to my class, all of these goods are distinguishable, but not severable. That is, according to Christian thought, the goods of marriage are packaged together. They are a unified whole; if you take away one of the core “goods” of marriage, it threatens the integrity and intelligibility of the overall institution. In the same way that removing a hydrogen molecule from water means there’s no longer water, if you remove one of the goods of marriage from how it is conceived, the whole thing falls apart. It loses its internal consistency that gives it shape and definition. Social conservatives have predicted that deviating from the script of love, marriage, and babies will necessarily lead to a decline of marriage across the board. Once certain cultural moods and technocratic advances are mainstreamed that thwart the goods of marriage, marriage would inevitably collapse. 

But was that all fear and speculation? No.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal further confirms that Americans are de-linking these goods and norms and thus unraveling the point and intelligibility of marriage. According to the article, Americans are marrying at the lowest rate since measuring marriage rates began. The report does not say that people are foregoing romantic lives or living together; they’re simply not marrying. The Journal accounts this as primarily an economic reality. I do not discount the role of economics, but I think more is going on at the level of first principles, which informs how the public mind conceives of marriage. 

We are now inverting the Genesis 1-2 mandate as a culture. We cannot persuade ourselves that marriage is worthwhile enough to channel our energies to discern its essence.

For roughly 70 years, America has engaged in a massive shift in reconceiving sexuality, marriage, and family life. Facing little-to-no stigma, people increasingly cohabit without a covenant and seek companionship apart from consecration. The routineness of easy sex means there’s no need to enter marriage to experience the sexual union historically experienced within the confines of marriage. Unquestioned acceptance and use of contraception ensure that sexual fulfillment can occur consequence-free (or so it’s assumed). Artificial reproductive technologies have reconfigured parenting to mean something that can be intrinsically non-marital. All of this means that we can have sex without babies and babies without sex. Polyamory continues its march from the margins into the mainstream, gutting marriage of its exclusive bonds. Accounts of marriage that deny permanency, exclusivity, and complementarity will work, inevitably, to rethink how we conceive of marriage altogether. 

So, of course, we should not be shocked at marriage’s race to the bottom. We’ve engineered this outcome.

Theologically speaking, all of this means that we are now inverting the Genesis 1-2 mandate as a culture. We cannot persuade ourselves that marriage is worthwhile enough to channel our energies to discern its essence. We are content elevating human desire over the human need to organize ourselves as families. We are engaged in a mass project of cultural disintegration. Where Christian Scripture portrays a world imbued by familial order, late-stage modernity is adopting, with no signs of reconsideration, a world of atomized individuals governed by their libidos. The result will be increased isolation and a growing foreignness to the idea that couples marry not for their own sake, but for society’s as well.

Even conservatives can miss this. David Brooks’ much-heralded article in The Atlantic rightly picked up on the necessity of having family-like relationships that can fill-in the gaps when tragedy strikes families. But while Brooks was no doubt correct to champion the necessity of the family for social stability, he overlooked the natural foundations of the family. In lambasting the idealized concept of the “nuclear family” as a cloistered historical innovation (which he was right about to a degree), his analysis seemed to downplay the fact that no amount of self-chosen families can overcome the reality that humans are a begotten species. We do not bring ourselves into existence or ooze asexually. Each of us has a mother and a father; the question is whether society is practicing the sort of family arrangements that make it possible whether any of us will know both under the same roof.

Speaking as a Christian ethicist, the antidote is to unsettle the comfortability and entitlement of a society that denies marriage is essential to stable social order. It is to keep championing the old paths of Genesis 1-2 and to keep making the point that we are to live with the grain of the universe, not against it. And we must question the vices that produce despair, even as we invigorate the moral imagination around marriage and family as irreplaceable ingredients to individual joy and social stability.

Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.