On 11 August 2012, Huffington Post reported on the first same-sex marriage in Taiwan conducted in a Buddhist monastery. Fish Huang and her partner You Ya-ting exchanged prayer beads in a ceremony that global rights advocates hope will eventually make Taiwan the first country in Asia to legalise gay marriage. According to the AFP report, Shih-Chao Hui, the female monk who presided at the ritual, said, ‘We are witnessing history. The two women are willing to stand out and fight for their fate … to overcome social discrimination’. In May, President Barack Obama openly supported same-sex marriage in an interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts. ‘I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married’, he reportedly said. Interestingly, Obama cites the ‘golden rule’ as the basis for his decision: ‘The thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the golden rule – you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated … And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids, and that’s what motivates me as president’.
Although Obama’s ‘evolved’ view on same-sex marriage is a non-event politically speaking, it has nonetheless contributed to the rapidly changing attitude towards gay marriages in the West. In the US, Massachusetts was the first state to legalise gay marriage on May 17, 2004. This set the precedent that was followed by seven other states in rapid succession: Connecticut (November 12, 2008), Iowa (April 24, 2009), Vermont (September 1, 2009), New Hampshire (January 1, 2010), New York (June 24, 2011), Washington (June 7, 2012) and Maryland (passed on March 1, 2012, and effective from January 1, 2013). The US is of course not the only country that has legalised same-sex marriages; nor was it the first to do so. At the time of writing, same-sex marriage is legal in the following countries: the Netherlands (2000), Belgium (2003), Canada (2005), Spain (2005), South Africa (2006), Norway (2009), Sweden (1009), Argentina (2010), Iceland (2010), and Portugal (2010). Many other countries recognise same-sex couples through non-marital partnership registrations and other policies.
Same-sex marriages or civil unions are not the only developments that have eroded the institution of marriage as traditionally conceived. Rapid and wide-ranging changes in family patterns witnessed especially – but not exclusively – in Western societies in the past five decades such as the growing rate of divorce, out-of-wedlock births, cohabitation, and the rise of single-parenthood have contributed to the current crisis. Psychologists, sociologists and philosophers have cited modernisation, globalisation and the seismic shifts in moral and cultural sensibilities as factors contributing to this unprecedented deconstruction of marriage and the family. In a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre, four-in-ten survey respondents (39%) say that marriage is becoming obsolete because it is no longer deemed necessary. People do not need to enter into a marriage contract in order to have companionship, sex or even children. One’s marital status is no longer a criterion for success or respect in modern society.
For Christians, however, marriage cannot be simply reduced to a social convention that can be revised according to the changing and transient moods of society. For the Christian, marriage as a divinely ordained partnership between a man and a woman is God’s gift. As the narrative in Genesis 2 clearly and beautifully portrays, marriage was instituted by God, through which he completes his creative act. In other words, by joining the man and the woman as one flesh, and by bringing about new life through this special union, God has willed marriage to be the context in which a man and a woman establish a community of love, which is also a life-giving community. This community may be described as the cell of human society and of the Church. Marriage is therefore the most basic of human institutions that is vital for the health and security of the human person as well as for the wellbeing of human society. As such, marriage is a divine institution that human beings must respect and preserve despite changing attitudes and preferences. As the Catholic moral theologian Bernard Häring has perceptively put it, ‘A state or society that is careless about the stability of marriage and family, and about allowing and helping parents to educate their children properly, is undermining its own health and prosperity’.
In addition, for the Christian, marriage cannot be reduced to a contract. Christian marriage, then, is more than just a blessing of a couple or the solemnisation of vows made by two people in mutual responsibility and service. The Christian faith sees marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman that is set within the structure of the Covenant between God and man. Thus, the great Reformer John Calvin could speak of marriage as holy and that ‘God reigns in a little household, even one in dire poverty, when the husband and the wife dedicate themselves to their duties to each other’. He adds: ‘Here there is a holiness greater and nearer the kingdom of God than there is even in a cloister’. This is the reason why adultery is regarded as a fearful sin in both the OT and NT, and is often treated as seriously as murder, blasphemy and idolatry (Exodus 20:14; 1 Cor 6:9-10). This is also the reason why Christians maintain that marriage must be monogamous and exclusive.
Proponents of same-sex marriage have argued that gay and lesbian couples that truly love one another and seek to be faithful to each other should be allowed to marry because they fulfil the basic demands of covenant. But this view fails to take into account the fact that the Bible endorses only one form of marriage – that is, between a man and a woman – and not others. The man-woman requirement for marriage is beautifully and vividly brought out in the account of the formation of the woman from the ‘side’ of Adam in Genesis 2:18-23. This narrative depicts the woman as the perfect ‘counterpart’ or ‘complement’ (Hebrew, neged, Genesis 2:18) of the man. As such the woman is profoundly ‘like’ the man, sharing in his humanity in every aspect. And yet, she is also, and equally profoundly ‘unlike’ the man with regard to sex or gender, and therefore has been rightly described as the ‘opposite’ of the man. In marriage, the two (which originally came from ‘one flesh’) are united to become ‘one flesh’. Thus, the man and the woman complement each other perfectly because each is the other’s sexual ‘other half’. Together, they reflect or image their Creator. Thus, the Reformed theologian Thomas Torrance writes elegantly: ‘It was man and woman in the unity of their inter-personal human being who are made in the image of God, not man without woman, not woman without man. Man is not distinctively man except as a fellow of woman, and woman is not distinctively woman except as a fellow of man’. The Bible therefore clearly indicates the man-woman prerequisite for marriage.
Take away this biblical basis and everything – the notion of marriage, all man-woman relations, ideas of sex and sexuality, and all sexual ethics – sinks into the murky waters of cultural relativism. But if the biblical doctrine is taken seriously, marriage as an institution will serve as the social ballast that would not only provide stability in society, but also guarantee humans flourishing. But more importantly, marriage as a covenantal union of a man and a woman points beyond itself because it symbolises God’s covenant with his people and Christ’s love for humanity. Such is the sacramental significance of Christian marriage. As Pope John Paul II has put it:
‘Spouses are therefore the permanent reminder to the church of what happened on the cross; they are for one another and for the children witnesses to the salvation in which the sacrament makes them sharers. Of this salvation event marriage, like every sacrament, is a memorial, actuation and prophecy’.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in The Bible Speaks Today (November 2012).