Empathologism has an excellent post up dissecting a FamilyLife/Dennis Rainey memo on marriage. See the link for Empath’s post and the ensuing discussion, but what struck me about the FamilyLife piece is how utterly devoid it is of a sense of biblical morality. After explaining that at least two thirds of divorces have no possible biblical justification*, Rainey urges his Christian audience:
If you know people in that situation, urge them to fight for their marriage. Tell them not to quit without taking another lap around the track–without stopping to realize that the best marriage to be in is the one they already have.
The advice to not give up isn’t bad from a practical perspective, as statistically divorce doesn’t tend to make people happy. But by focusing soley on the quality of the romantic relationship, modern Christians like Rainey have accepted the modern secular view of marriage. They have abandoned all that truly makes marriage moral and sacred, and substituted in its place a pledge of allegiance to the fickleness of emotion.
In this new Oprafied view of marriage, marriages need constant “fighting” to ward off the ever present risk of divorce, as if divorce was some magical beast which picks out the weaklings from the herd. Rainey uses this framing throughout the piece:
One researcher told me that if a couple can find as little as 20 percent of their marriage that they would call satisfactory, they have a better than 90 percent chance of making their marriage better in two years–if they stick with it, if they keep fighting, if they don’t give up and throw in the towel too soon.
This overlooks the simple fact that there is one surefire way to avoid divorce, and it doesn’t involve fighting, going to marriage weekends, or watching the latest “Christian” marriage video series. The surefire way to avoid divorce is simply not to file for divorce. Not divorcing doesn’t require fighting for your marriage, but instead honoring your sacred vow. Should a divorce occur (absent biblical justification) the person who filed is solely responsible, not some failure on the part of the couple to “fight for their marriage”. But this simple fact disarms the apparatus designed to keep husbands in line, and also doesn’t sell books, videos, and marriage retreats.
This leaves the modern marriage defender completely naked to a very common form of criticism. Seeing the reality of modern marriage, the question many astute young people will ask is:
Isn’t marriage just a piece of paper?
The answer sadly is yes. This new definition of marriage focused on warding off mysterious spirits of unhappiness instead of honoring traditional roles and (true) lifelong commitment really is no different than living together. And living together is itself merely a subcategory of boyfriend and girlfriend. This new form of marriage modern Christians have adopted is truly nothing more than a state registered form of boyfriend and girlfriend.
The truth of all of this is evident with the great difficulty modern Christians face when trying to explain why this new form of marriage has moral meaning. Back in 2008 FamilyLife spilled a great deal of virtual ink attempting in vain to explain why marriage isn’t just a piece of paper. This should be very easy for any Christian to explain, but they just couldn’t do it. What is it about marriage which makes it different from other forms of romantic relationships? What makes it moral and sacred? Is it the certificate from the government suitable for framing? Or, perhaps it is the fact that when a woman ends this form of serial monogamous romantic relationship she is rewarded with cash and prizes? Perhaps it is the fact that married people wear rings, as Director Stanton argues in the title of his book?
As Christians we must stop trying to justify the modern definition of marriage and be honest that the question as posed is spot on. Biblical marriage is sacred, holy, and moral, but it isn’t what the vast majority of Christians are thinking of when they answer this question. We have a great deal of baggage here which we must overcome, but once we do we can answer this incisive question with something other than gibberish.
*This is an area where Protestants and Catholics disagree, as Protestants tend to accept a very limited list of reasons as biblically permitted while the Catholic position is that there are no valid reasons for divorce. However, there is also some disagreement between Protestants on what is biblically permitted and either way in practice the very short list of biblical exceptions tends to be ignored. In addition, from a practical perspective the Protestant and Catholic positions aren’t that far apart, as divorce and annulments are taken incredibly lightly, and very few cases of Catholic divorce turn out to actually involve a marriage after all.