Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Reflections on the Institution of Marriage

Amy E. Black


August 24, 2012

by Amy E. Black 

This article was originally published as part of the Alternative Political Conversation Project. We share Amy Black’s “hope that our discussion on this emotionally-charged issue will model a truly alternative political conversation with a spirit of mutual respect and desire for understanding,” and are publishing her piece alongside a companion piece by Paul Brink which draws on similar principles to arrive at a distinct conclusion. 

It is hard to advocate for traditional marriage today because many immediately equate opposition to same-sex marriage with hatred or fear. I support marriage as a union between a man and a woman—not out of dislike of gays and lesbians but out of conviction that traditional marriage is a universal social institution created by God for the good of all humanity.

Classic Christian teaching on the origin and purpose of human marriage looks to the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2. God created marriage as a permanent, covenantal relationship between one man and one woman, each equal image bearers of God created to complement one another and who together, in divine mystery, become one flesh. The late theologian John Stott in his book Decisive Issues Facing Christians Today (1996) identifies three central purposes for marriage as outlined in Genesis: (1) the procreation of children and providing for the nurture and well-being of families, (2) the provision of suitable helpers who supply support, healing and encouragement so that each marriage partner can recognize his or her full created potential, and (3) “a reciprocal commitment of self-giving love which finds its natural expression in sexual unity or becoming ‘one flesh.’” When religious leaders asked Jesus about divorce, Jesus pointed back to Genesis, emphasizing the divine creation and permanence of marriage.

Marriage between a man and a woman has been recognized for millennia as a foundational institution that helps maintain the common good. As an institution, marriage holds greater significance than the individual unions it represents, providing a way to create public and legal rights and responsibilities for the care and continuation of the next generation. As such, it presumes that committed, permanent male/female relationships are the best way (albeit not the only way) to protect and care for children.

In our increasingly individualistic society that encourages instant gratification, it is easy to forget that marriage is not ultimately about personal fulfillment. Rather, it is fundamentally about self-sacrifice and seeking the good of others.

Many proponents of same-sex marriage argue that the denial of marriage benefits violates the civil rights of gays and lesbians. But this argument conflates the notion of civil rights for individuals with rights of institutions and organizations. As the the Center for Public Justice Guidelines on Homosexuality states, “Sexual orientation should have no bearing on a person's status as a citizen with civil rights in the political community. . . When the civil rights of citizens are threatened because of their sexual orientation, it may be appropriate for government to provide special protection against such discriminatory treatment.”

The public debate over gay marriage is not and should not be a debate about private sexual behavior. Consensual private sexual behavior should indeed be private, and government should not seek to regulate it.

But marriage and family law are not rooted in concepts of individual rights; indeed, the goal of family law is to protect the institutions of marriage and the family over and against what individuals might seek for themselves. As the Center’s Guideline explains: “In addition to recognizing the civil rights of individuals, public law should also recognize the rights of certain institutions and organizations—such as marriage, family, church, university, and corporation. Only by doing this can government do justice to the diverse institutions of a complex society.”

Government policies have often encouraged and supported the institution of marriage because it offers the best hope for the next generation. Study after study reveals that children raised in intact, married-parent households fare better on a wide range of matters than their peers without married parents.

Our individualistic and libertine views of sexuality have significantly contributed to the decline of marriage as an institution. We have lost sight of the essential societal role of marriage and have shifted our focus from responsibility, sacrifice and seeking the communal good to individual concerns like personal fulfillment and happiness. These are cultural problems, and they affect us all: Christians and non-Christians, gay or straight.

As Christians, we should first respond to the same-sex marriage debate by examining our own behavior. Far too many Christians have bought into the lie of self-gratification; sex outside of marriage and divorce are commonplace. Christians aren’t living up to the standards that God ordained. If we want to rebuild the institution of marriage, we should start by repenting, changing our own behavior and seeking new ways to encourage our brothers and sisters to live lives of chastity and fidelity.

—Amy E. Black is Associate Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College and the author of Honoring God in Red or Blue: Approaching Politics with Humility, Grace, and Reason (Moody Publishers, 2012).

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”