Who owns Marriage?

By Nick Park

Recently, I attended the screening of a film called “God Loves Uganda” as part of Dublin’s Gay Pride Festival. To my knowledge, I was one of only two or three evangelicals in the audience that day. The film explored the influence of evangelical Christians from the United States in passing legislation in Uganda that could see homosexuals sentenced to life imprisonment (an earlier version of the bill called for the death penalty).  It also featured the funeral of a gay activist beaten to death for opposing the legislation.  

I listened to American missionaries to Africa who either supported the Ugandan legislation or who carefully chose their words to avoid criticism, and I tried to hear what those words said about Jesus to the people around me.

Let me be clear: I am a believer who holds to a high view of Scripture as God’s word, and I hold a conservative view on God’s purpose and will for our sexuality.  I believe God created sexual intimacy as a wonderful gift that He intended to be practiced only within the context of a marriage between one man and one woman.  For this reason, I see other expressions of sexuality, including all pre-marital, extra-marital or homosexual behaviour, as distortions of that original purpose.

But at the film screening, it was a different distortion that troubled me - the distortion of the Gospel on display in that film.  I felt immensely saddened that we could ever get distracted from the glorious privilege of telling people about Jesus who can save us and instead become complicit in passing laws that threaten grave sanctions against anyone who doesn’t live by our standards of morality.

New Testament Christians lived lives of courageous faith and holiness in the corrupt and decadent Roman Empire.  They were a persecuted minority who turned the world upside down with their integrity and passion for Christ.  I believe Peter, Paul and the other apostles would weep with frustration if they could see how history turned the Church into a persecuting majority that, at times, has matched the intolerance of the Taliban in using the instruments of Empire (imprisonment and death) to impose our morality on those who do not share our faith.

I believe marriage was created by God.

Thankfully, here in Ireland, no sane Christian would advocate persecution or imprisonment of homosexuals.  But the current debate on same-sex marriage would still, in the eyes of our critics, paint evangelical believers as intolerant bigots.  

At the heart of the issue, for many Christians, is a basic dilemma.  We see marriage as something incredibly important and we believe it is being radically redefined in front of our eyes. How should we respond without forcing our views and beliefs onto others?

I believe marriage was created by God.  From Genesis to Revelation, it is used as a living parable of God’s love for His people. Marriage is more than a cultural add-on to our faith.  It aids our understanding of God.  It is so much more than a legal contract or social convention.  It is a covenant by which one man and one woman become one flesh in the presence of God.

Those who are not Christians may respond, quite justifiably, by saying, “It’s great that you have this notion of marriage but that doesn’t give you the right to force it onto the rest of us.  You don’t own marriage!”

And that brings us to the core issue.  Who owns marriage?  I can sympathise with those who insist that the Church doesn’t own marriage.  But I would dare to ask another question.  Does the State own marriage?  By what right do those in political power presume to dictate who can and can’t get married?

In history classes, most of us learned about Henry VIII and his six wives.  Henry wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon.  Even though he was king, he understood that he had no authority to regulate marriage.  Eventually, to get his divorce, Henry broke with Rome and established a new national Church.

For most of western history, the State has steered clear of regulating and registering marriages.  It was only in 1845, when Britain’s Marriage Act was extended to Ireland, that the government started to tell us whom we could marry and how we should go about it.

Christians accepted this governmental power grab with little protest.  After all, the marriages the State administered seemed no different from the Church’s view of marriage.  True, marriage was viewed as a legal contract rather than a divine covenant.  But a wedding was still an event where one man and one woman were joined in a lifelong commitment. Ceremonies still occurred in church buildings and were conducted “in the sight of God”.

Yet, over the intervening 170 years, the concept of marriage has changed to something vastly different from the biblical understanding.  Many marriages are conducted with no reference to God and they are not necessarily lifelong commitments. Some couples even sign prenuptial agreements, stipulating how they will divide their assets once the inevitable divorce happens. 

The concept of marriage has changed to something vastly different from the biblical understanding.

If we were really honest, we’d agree that most heterosexual marriages today fall far short of the biblical covenant of marriage.  We have ignored how we use the same word to refer to two totally different concepts. Perhaps the current debate over same sex marriage makes us uncomfortable because it highlights how we have been complicit in a cosy yet dubious arrangement between Church and State.  

The State claims that marriage is a legal contract between consenting parties.  But if that were so, the State would hold weddings with no more than the legal signing and stamping of documents.  Instead, a registrar conducts a quasi-religious ceremony, sometimes accompanied by poetry readings, declarations of love and the lighting of candles.  Why?  The State knows that most people, even if they are not “religious”, still instinctively see marriage as much more than a legal contract.

But are Christians any more honest?  We talk about “defending marriage,” but we have happily acted as agents for the State in conducting marriages even where God is not acknowledged and divorce is considered normal.  And we have cooperated without protest in a pretence that “marriage” conducted by the State is the same as the biblical union we preach about.  

If, as seems likely, the Irish people vote next year to legalise same-sex marriages, some may feel uncomfortable.  But perhaps this is an opportunity for us to think more deeply about what marriage is all about.  Once the referendum furore dies down, we will be left with some serious questions:

Are we really interested in defending biblical marriage, or is the current debate just about homosexuality?

Are we prepared to make a distinction between marriage as a dissolvable legal contract (which I believe should be called “Civil Partnership”) and marriage as a lifelong covenant before God?

If the word “marriage” no longer means what it once did, then should we find alternative terms to refer to Christian matrimony?

What happens when a man and a woman who are legally married by the State start coming to church?  Should we just accept them as “married”?  Or should we give them the opportunity to make vows of lifelong love and commitment before God?


The views expressed in this article are Nick's own and do not reflect an official position by EAI or his church.

Nick Park is Executive Director of the Evangelical Alliance Ireland and pastor of Solid Rock Church in Drogheda, Co. Louth.