Marriage: what are we trying to save?

A Swedish wedding from 1903

With the Marriage Act possibly being amended this year, the debate over what marriage means has reached huge proportions. Many Christians have been very vocal in their opposition to changing the the law on marriage, much to the scorn of those who disagree. I’m a Christian and I believe God has told us quite clearly that he does not approve of same-sex relationships (along with many other relationships.) But I’m not convinced that there’s really much point trying to save the Marriage Act as it is. What are we trying to save? Jesus had some strong words:

Whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries someone else, she commits adultery. (Mark 10:11-12, NLT)

I think our society abandoned the Christian (Biblical) conception of marriage decades ago. Legally this occurred in 1975 with the introduction of no-fault divorces. Similar changes have resulted in almost complete legal recognition of de facto relationships. There may be arguments for no-fault divorce and de facto relationships, but I think the reality is that they have contributed to a shift in the meaning of marriage. I have no evidence for this, but I bet that most Australians would think that the idea of only getting married if you were committed to seeing it through to the end of your life is just as backward an idea as heterosexual-only marriage. Marriage is no longer an exclusive and irrevocable contract, but one of several possible labels you can give to long term relationships. A tiny fraction of Australians may end up in homosexual marriages, but the changes that have led to twice as many Australians my age being in de facto relationships than married, and a third of all marriages ending in divorce, have already happened.

Every minority has the right to express how they think the law should be shaped, so Christians should be free to express their opposition, especially when the facts aren’t settled yet. But I personally won’t be spending much breath to protect a definition I don’t agree with. It’s sad, but that ship has sailed.

I would however support changing the Marriage Act in another way: to remove marriage from it! I don’t think any particular label such as marriage should be privileged and codified in law above any other. If the whole of federal and state law was changed so that there was just a single relationship recognised by law (lets keep the term civil union for this, no one actually wants to describe their relationship as one) then I think we’d all be better off. If up till now marriage has had a religious definition then don’t try to change what it means – just remove it from the law.