Why the real challenge to marriage is heterosexual

Editor's note: This piece originally appeared on the Cardus blog.

Marriage has a heterosexual problem.

When the termites have done their work on the foundations of the home, it doesn’t take much to knock it down. Such is the case of traditional marriage. It does not face a homosexual crisis as much as a heterosexual one.

Don’t place the blame on politics, Hollywood or a beleaguered minority. The problem lies with the vast number of Christians who fill church pews week to week. Their views on the pattern and power for marriage are no different from the surrounding culture. Their reality of failure is also no different.

This is marriage season. Many, perhaps most, couples will be entering their marriages with expectations that are inconsistent to reality. It is only a matter of time when reality catches up to their relationship. Houses do not long stand when their foundations are gone. This much can be assured in marriage - in time the winds will come and the water will rise. Only those marriages with a firm foundation based on reality will survive.

This becomes abundantly clear when reading the first chapter of Tim and Kathy Keller’s book, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. Two things are true about society’s attitudes toward marriage.

First is a growing skepticism over the validity of the institution of marriage. The Pew Research Center found in 2010 that nearly 40 percent of Americans believe that marriage is becoming obsolete. And many, particularly the young, are acting accordingly. There are few examples in popular culture celebrating the institution of marriage as a means of human flourishing. Rather it is the butt of jokes, just the remaining cultural challenger to the taken-for-granted idolatries of the age: individual freedom, autonomy and self-fulfillment. For many, marriage is a problem, not a solution.

Second is an unrealistic expectation for marriage. This is the flip side of the skepticism. Here a romantic therapeutic consumerism dominates. The common search is for one’s soul mate as the one who loves without question and meets every need. This is the premise behind ABC’s dating game shows “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette.” The assumption that placing a random grouping of men and women in exotic locations to pursue romance can lead to the basis for a meaningful relationship is about as far-fetched as a group of chimpanzees launching a NASA rocket. Everything about the show, for all its lust-filled emotional appeal, belies the stated goal to “find one’s true love.” And when the cameras are turned off and the contestants return to reality, the track record for success is overshadowed by the cloud of repeated heartache and failure. The consumer nature of finding a spouse via a game show seems justified—a romantic shopping spree the likes of which are only depicted in the glossy pages of a bridal magazine.

But in fact, this is not how marriage works - or is supposed to work. The Kellers counter, “[A] good marriage is more painfully hard to achieve than athletic or artistic prowess. Raw, natural talent does not enable you to play baseball as a pro or write great literature without enduring discipline and enormous work. Why would it be easy to live lovingly and well with another human being in light of what is profoundly wrong within our human nature?”

Here we come face-to-face with Biblical realism. The Bible calls marriage a “mystery.” Its secret is this: it only works when it is based on self-denial and self-sacrifice rather than self-fulfillment and self-achievement.

The Kellers ask, “Is the purpose of marriage to deny your interests for the good of the family, or is it rather to assert your interests for the fulfillment of yourself?” Marriage only works on the basis of “mutual fulfillment through mutual sacrifice.” This is the only pattern of marriage that works. The pattern of the cross is the shape of a happy home. It’s more than a religious issue, it is simply the way the world works and marriages endure.

This realism has been lost in the public’s imagination. Self-denial and self-sacrifice are not the message of romantic comedies, reality game shows or Oxygen sitcoms. But they are the message of the gospel, of which marriage is an embodied picture. It is time, especially for Christians, to rebuild our lives and relationships on this foundation.

What Do You Think?

  • Do you agree that Christians have allowed a cultural definition of marriage to supersede a Biblical one?
  • What does a Biblical view of marriage mean to you?
  • What are ways Christians can ensure their marriage is a God-honoring one?


Comments (1)

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1. Yes.
2. “Marriage only works on the basis of “mutual fulfillment through mutual sacrifice.” “
3. Assume it’s not and keep working at it!

I’m a 3Xr.  Divorced once, widowed once…this one I’m gonna kill!  Seriously.  My first marriage was a disaster.  My husband was a sex addict and I was lonely and looking for that fairy tale that never comes true.  My second husband was a healer.  He taught me to love unconditionally, to believe in myself, to have faith, to grow, to explore, to forgive.  He died.  Not the fairy tale ending I wanted.  Husband #3 came in 18 months after #2 passed away.  We were lonely strangers.  He coped with disagreements by threatening to bolt.  This didn’t sit well with my fear of abandonment!  We’re celebrating our 11th in a few months.  Things are better.  I figured God was asking me to be the healer this time.  #2 was there for me when my fears got the best of me.  I held on for #3 until he stopped running.  It’s work.  But you don’t find true intimacy without it!

BTW: I can’t speak for God on the topic of gay marriage but two things stand out for me.  1. God doesn’t need my help determining what is or isn’t a holy union.  And, 2.  They can hardly make a bigger mess of it than the heterosexuals have!

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