Thursday, February 28, 2013

What Does "Gay Marriage" Mean?

The New York Times has been reporting on a petition to the Supreme Court supporting gay marriage that has been signed by over 100 Republicans, which has led to speculation of a shift in the party's overall stance. Rather than having a political debate over whether homosexual couples should have the "right to marry" or not, I think a more relevant conversation is to understand exactly what a marriage is. Once we understand that, we are in a better position to evaluate what role the government should play. Maybe a better title would be simply "What Does 'Marriage' Mean?" to better reflect the lack of understanding on this issue!

So, rather than discuss the biblical definition of marriage, I'd like to point out something more subtle. For example, does a Hindu marriage ceremony involving all kinds of idols and other gods fall within the boundaries of a "biblical marriage" if it's between a man and woman? There's a contextual discrepancy in how the word "marriage" is used in our culture, and addressing this issue first will illuminate the subject.

What exactly is a marriage? 

All definitions that I am aware of maintain that marriage is a state of obligation between (at least) two parties and which is codified by a ceremony of some kind. There are many absurd examples of people marrying animals or inanimate objects, and other non-standard examples include polygamy and arranged (sometimes forced) marriages. Marriage may happen before the God of the bible, the Allah of the Quran, the pantheon of Hindu gods, the spirits of nature as imagined by Wiccans, or simply no god at all. There's no standard as to what vows or responsibilities are involved - vows taken by two atheists in front of a judge may have very different stipulations than those taken by Christians. Are all marriages created equal?

Let's divert to a short, ridiculous thought experiment. While we balk at the idea of someone marrying their cat, what makes that absurd? After all, they can have a wedding ceremony with vows (and meows, as the case may be) along with whatever other rituals they wish to include. Imagine if all of their friends agreed that this person and their cat share a deep emotional (even spiritual) bond and agreed that the owner and kitty are "married." Further yet, imagine that they lived in a country where such a union can be granted a license which is indistinguishable from the license granted to two humans stating they are married and have all the privileges and responsibilities of marriage. Again I ask, what exactly is a marriage?

A matter of authority

The distinction, I believe, lies in answering the question of what authority must recognize a marriage in order for it to exist. If someone disagrees with the validity of your marriage, is it still a marriage? That's what the gay marriage debate in America is all about: people want a rubber stamp from the government so that no one can say "you're not married" - after all, the government is the highest authority in the land. When expressed in these terms, I think that many people would disagree with me (the phrase "rubber stamp" may strike a few nerves); however, government sanctioning of and benefits for marriage between homosexuals are exactly what's at stake. No piece of legislation is going to cause anyone who doesn't accept gay marriage to change their views on the subject.

Let's go back to a question that I posed at the beginning of the article: is a marriage between a man and a woman under anti-biblical circumstances, such as between atheists or pagans, still considered a marriage biblically? It's certainly considered a marriage by human governments, and this is my central point: "marriage" in today's world is simply a word that we use to define a commitment accompanied by a ceremony. It does not necessarily refer to the covenant-style relationship between a man, a woman, and God as defined in the bible; otherwise, Christians everywhere would be decrying Hindu marriage, Muslim marriage, atheist marriage, and all other marriages that do not include a covenant relationship with the God of the bible.

What does the Ultimate Authority think of non-Christian marriages?

Does God recognize marriages between a man and a woman when He is either left out of it or replaced by false gods? This is not a question that the bible addresses directly - perhaps something can be gleaned from Paul's instructions to those who were being converted or who are married to unbelievers (1 Corinthians 7), but I don't have any coherent thoughts to offer on the matter at present.

What I can offer is that God hates it when people do not acknowledge Him as the only and true God, and people who are married before false gods or no god have bigger issues to worry about than whether God recognizes their marriage. Likewise, homosexuals have bigger things to worry about than whether God recognizes their marriage; although, in their case, the marriage itself is part of the problem:
Leviticus 20:13
If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.
It doesn't get much more clear than that: homosexuality is sin, punishable by death just like all other sin.

So what should the government do, if anything?

For the specific case of homosexual marriage in America, my view is that the government shouldn't be involved in marriage at all. If the government revoked mine and my wife's marriage license for some reason, does that mean we are no longer married? So far as the state is concerned, perhaps, but the government's opinion changes nothing about our relationship. We are married before God and each other, and our personal commitment is what we value - it's not something that any human being can deny us.

Therefore, I propose that the best course of action for the government is to stop putting their rubber stamp on heterosexual marriages - it's none of their business. Any inequality or injustice brought on by the lack of state recognition for gay marriage is a direct result of the fact that the government is involved in marriage to begin with. If you truly want to "get the government out of the bedroom," then the only solution is to literally get the government out of the bedroom - licensing for gay marriages simply lets the government into the bedroom of more people.


  1. One minor comment, on the topic of the cat. The cat can't give legal consent. So, there can't be a legal relationship. Thus, using human-animal relationships is a bit of a straw man. I tire immensely of human-animal even being part of a discussion on marriage or civil unions.

    That aside, I think there are two options. Either marriage for anyone who can give consent, or get out of the marriage issue and make it about a legal contract for possessions and end-of-life care. My inclination, like you, is to get the government out of marriage. I definitely think there's a need to have some codified policies for end-of-life care and estate planning, which could be handled by a civil union solely as an efficient way of recognizing common relationship needs of people.

  2. Thanks for the comment! I would like to point out that legal consent has not historically been a requirement for marriage, which adds to my thesis here that marriage can mean whatever you agree that it means regardless of the actual stipulations. I wasn't intending to actually reduce gay marriage to a human-feline marriage, but rather to speak to the idea that the validity of a marriage is not dependent upon how many people (or what level of human authority) recognize it as such.

    As far as the government is concerned, I agree with your position - codified policies for those issues would make things simpler for everybody, and doing this while taking government approval of all marriages out of the equation solves the dilemma.


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