God, politics, and marriage

Posted on September 30, 2011 at 11:23 am,

This is the next in our series critiquing Wayne Grudem’s book Politics According to the Bible. Today we’re looking at chapter 7, on the issue of marriage. Before we start on what Grudem actually does say, it’s worth pointing out that the chapter doesn’t mention promiscuity and cohabitation, which are, in reality, the biggest threats to the institution of marriage. Perhaps he doesn’t think that there’s anything that can be done about these problems in the political realm, or that his suggested policies to protect marriage will automatically reduce the rate of both promiscuity and cohabitation.

What is marriage?

Grudem starts off with the early chapters of Genesis, pointing to Adam and Eve as the first married couple (Genesis 2:25), that their marriage established a pattern for humanity (Genesis 2:23-24), and that having children was a significant part of the purpose of marriage (Genesis 1:27-28). He then points out that this was Jesus’ understanding of marriage (Matthew 19:3-6),and that marriage was originally intended as a lifelong relationship (Matthew 19:8). He also notes that faithfulness to your spouse is an important part of marriage, citing the command to not commit adultery (Exodus 20:14, Matthew 19:18, Romans 2:22; 13:9, James 2:11), although he does allow that there are some circumstances where divorce is acceptable..

He goes on to say that this definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman was intended to be universal, rather than part of a law meant for the Jewish people. He notes that it dates back to the beginning of humanity, that God holds people from all nations to account for not holding to it (Jude 7, Genesis 12:17-20, Leviticus 18:27, Mark 6:17-18, Revelation 18:3,9). Grudem therefore says that Christians should argue for government to adopt that definition of marriage.

He also says that marriage is the most fundamental institution in any society. He bases this on the fact that marriage is instituted right at the beginning of the Bible, before any other human institution. He argues that the institution is universal – all societies have had some form of marriage, and have recognised and protected it. He cites the work of anthropologist J D Unwin, who looked at the decline of eighty six cultures, and said that “strict marital monogamy” was central to social energy and growth, and that no society flourished for more than three generations without it. Unwin said that there was “no instance of a society retaining its energy after a complete new generation has inherited a tradition which does not insist on prenuptial and post-nuptial continence” (i.e. abstaining from sex outside of marriage).

Grudem also notes in passing that the Bible forbids incest (Leviticus 18:1-18; 20:11-20, Deuteronomy 22:30, 1 Corinthians 5:1-2).

Furthermore, Grudem thinks that it is the role of government to define and regulate marriage, as it fits three of the purposes of government – restraining evil, bringing good in society, and bringing order to society, and lists several reasons why he thinks it does each of these jobs. He points out that government is the only institution that can define marriage for an entire society.

He also says that government should encourage marriage because of the unique benefits it brings to a society. In particular, he says that the first benefit is that marriage provides the best environment for having babies, in terms of security, the child having both a mother and a father who care and provide for it, a greater chance of both parents sticking with it and supporting both each other and the child. He has a long list of ways in which he believes married couples raise and nurture children more effectively than any other relationship. Grudem believes that extending benefits for married couples to other forms of relationships means that society is encouraging harm for the nation by reducing the incentives to marriage.

What about Gay Marriage or Polygamy?

Grudem deals with the most controversial political issue surrounding marriage by pointing to five Bible verses prohibiting gay sex. These are Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, and 1 Timothy 1:9-10. Grudem rejects the claim that these passages refer to only particular types of gay sex on the basis that the passages do not make such distinctions. He doesn’t deal with claims I’ve seen before that 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 (and it may well be the same word in 1 Timothy 1:9-10) has been mistranslated, and that it doesn’t refer to gay sex at all. He cites several a number of writings from near the era of the New Testament which use similar language to these passages to refer to gay sex.

He cites Jeffrey Satinover,a psychiatrist who has lectured at both Yale and Harvard, as an authority who argues that gay sexual practices (particularly anal sex) causes medical harm, and that gay men are far more promiscuous.

On polygamy, Grudem says that Biblical examples of polygamy are cases where God allowed it, even though it wasn’t His original plan for marriage. He points out that there are numerous examples in the Bible where polygamy leads to problems within a marriage or a family, that it doesn’t treat women as equal in value to their husbands (as passages like Genesis 1:27 or 1 Peter 3:7 say should be the case), and that polygamy is explicitly forbidden for church leaders (1 Timothy 3:2).

What about Divorce?

Grudem points out that the law of Moses assumes divorce will happen in some form (Deuteronomy 24:1-4, Leviticus 21:7, 14, Numbers 30:9). And cites Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:9 as evidence that divorce on the grounds of sexual immorality (i.e. adultery) is not sinful, whilst divorce for other reasons probably is. He also cites 1 Corinthians 7:15, where Paul suggests that divorce is acceptable where an unbelieving spouse deserts their Christian husband or wife.

On the basis of this, he argues that the law should seek to protect married couples from abandonment by their spouse and from harm. He advocates mandatory counselling and significant mandatory waiting periods before a divorce could take place. He also advocates abandoning no-fault divorce – returning to a situation where divorce required evidence of adultery, abuse, or abandonment. He also advocates serious penalties (including jail time) for physically abusive spouses, and a strict reinforcement of the obligation for financial support, though I’m not sure exactly what he means by that.

The Legal Case

Grudem also makes some legal arguments relating solely to the US. He points out that appeals courts in the US have repeatedly held that the state has a legitimate interest in protecting marriage between one man and one woman, that no right to either polygamy or gay marriage is found in the US Constitution, argues that restricting marriage to one man and one woman does not violate anybody’s fundamental rights (he compares gay people demanding the right to marry another man/woman to a man demanding the right to marry his sister or his mother), and he wants to see an amendment to the US Constitution to protect the traditional definition of marriage.

Is this imposing morality?

Grudem argues that his viewpoint is not trying to impose a Christian moral standard on society, but is attempting to persuade others that these moral standards are beneficial.

So what does Grudem think marriage policy should look like?

Grudem wants to see the law define marriage as between one man and one woman, and that the law should also keep historical and traditional standards such as having a minimum age for getting married, insisting on consent, preventing bigamy, and preventing incest. He believes that known homosexuals should continue to be prohibited from military service, citing several sources who say that it would have detrimental effects on military morale and effectiveness. He believes that the principle of freedom of association means that private organisations should be allowed to exclude gays from certain positions (he cites the Boy Scouts’ refusal to allow gay scoutmasters).

He thinks that gay and lesbian relationships should not be granted the status of marriage. He is doubtful about the possibility of civil partnerships, but believes that if they are adopted they should be available to a wider variety of long-term relationships (e.g. two siblings living together in a non-sexual relationship). He is happy with gay couples getting rights like hospital visitation and access to medical records, but not to financial benefits. He says that such benefits are intended to encourage the bearing of children, and that granting them would imply that society actively approves of (rather than merely accepts) such relationships.

He also argues that homosexuals should not be considered a “protected class”, which would mean that they have special rights to protect them against discrimination. The basis of his stance here is that those whose morality says that gay sex is wrong would be unable by law to act in a way that it is consistent with those beliefs.

He doesn’t, however, think that there should be laws banning gay sex, because laws prohibiting private consensual acts between unrelated adults are seldom or never enforced, and hence pointless. He also points out that any attempt to enforce such laws would inevitably mean excessive government intrusion into peoples’ private lives.

How close is Grudem to the Bible on this issue?

I think, reading this, that Grudem has missed one element of the Bible’s teaching on the issue from his analysis. As Christians, we should not expect the society in which we live to come anywhere close to living out our sexual morality. In 1 Corinthians 5:1, Paul is shocked that one member of the Corinthian church not only fails to live up to Christian moral standards, but even manages to do something that would scandalise the pagan culture of Corinth. The clear implication is that Paul expects those outside the church to have lower standards than those inside it. This doesn’t mean that Christians can’t try to raise a society’s level of morality, but it does mean that we should not expect to be successful in doing so.

As I said in the intro, the main problem with this section is that Grudem focuses almost exclusively on the issue of homosexuality, with a brief diversion into the issue of polygamy. A fully Biblical approach to the politics of marriage in the 21st Century surely has to say something about generic sexual promiscuity and cohabitation – which are, by far, the biggest threats to the institution. Grudem however, mentions these issues only in passing. Yes, Gay marriage is a live political issue in a way that promiscuity and cohabitation aren’t, but that’s not a good reason to exclude them from the debate.

On divorce, I agree that many of the measures he cites would bring down the divorce rate – particularly compulsory counselling for couples seeking a divorce (though clearly there has to be an exception in cases where there is evidence of abuse on either side). Even those who want to see divorce made relatively easy have to admit that a large number of marriages that end in divorce could be saved if the couple were willing to put a bit of effort into reconciliation. The modern cliché of “we just don’t love each other any more” is a problem that can usually be overcome if both parties make an effort. Love is at least as much something we do as something we feel.

When it comes to the issue of gay marriage, I don’t have space to properly look at the arguments for and against the Bible teaching that gay sex is sinful (that would take a whole series of posts). But I will argue that believing it to be sinful doesn’t necessarily mean you take Grudem’s hardline anti-gay-rights approach (just as accepting that it is morally acceptable doesn’t necessarily commit you to supporting gay marriage). To me, Grudem’s policy suggestions on the issue feel very “ivory tower”, rather than interacting with what can actually be achieved. This may, in part, be a difference between the US and UK political situation as here in the UK revoking civil partnerships (which are, legally speaking, identical to marriage) could only happen following a seismic cultural shift in attitudes towards homosexuality. In any case, his approach lacks the sophistication of somebody like Peter Ould, who regularly interacts with the gay community.

Grudem’s arguments for preserving the traditional definition of marriage are definitely something that can be applied in the political sphere. However, given that we live in a society where same-sex relationships are both commonplace and socially acceptable, it does seems somewhat bizarre to argue that a democratic government should limit its recognition of those relationships. If Christians, or anybody else, wants to change government policy in this regard, then changing society’s attitudes is a necessary first step. Unless and until that happens, the gay rights movement will hold the ground it has won over the last few decades.

If Christians want to protect the institution of marriage, then our first priority in doing so has to be to model good marriages to the society around us. If we genuinely believe marriage to be the bedrock of a society then we need to act in ways that help change the current trends ofpromiscuity and cohabitation – demonstrating the benefits of both Biblical singlehood and Biblical marriage over the kinds of sexual relationships that currently dominate our society. Without doing that, any attempt to make political changes will prove as farcical as the infamous “Back to Basics” campaign the Conservative government ran back in the early 90s.

In short, there are more effective ways of defending marriage than focusing on the issue of homosexuality. Proposing changes in the law is somewhat futile unless and until society starts viewing sex in terms of morality rather than in terms of fun, freedom and self-expression. At most, a law-based approach will hold the fort against the sexual morality that has dominated Western society since the 1960s. And whilst Grudem may be thinking in terms of what his ideal set of laws would be, rather than about how Christians can take effective political action on the issue, this is an area of policy where the cultural context absolutely determines the political possibilities. And for a book about politics, missing that makes it fairly clear that Grudem is writing a theoretical book rather than one that can realistically be put into practice.

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