What Should We Call the “Traditional” View of Marriage?

What Should We Call the “Traditional” View of Marriage?
June 28, 2017

I really don’t like labels, but sometimes they are necessary. In the LGBT+ conversation, labels are particularly problematic. They try to stuff complex topics into a single word (or phrase), which usually diminishes various nuances of the topic they are discussing.


For instance, what label do we use to describe Christians who believe that marriage is between a man and a woman? Or what label describes those who believe that marriage should be open to same-sex couples—that is, that marriage is a union between two consenting adults regardless of their biological sex?


When I wrote my book People to Be Loved, I used the words nonaffirming and affirming to describe those who believe, respectively, that sex-difference (male and female) is part of what marriage is (non-affirming), and those who believe that marriage is between two consenting adults regardless of sex-difference (affirming). However, after reflecting on these two terms, I actually don’t think they are as helpful as I once did.


For one, there are many things I affirm about LGBT+ people and same-sex relations. I believe that LGBT+ people are equally created in God’s image and I can affirm many virtues that are evident in same-sex couples—love, sacrifice, forgiveness, generosity, unconditional love, kindness, humility, and the list goes on and on. The term nonaffirming sounds quite negative and suggests that there is nothing I can affirm about LGBT+ people or same-sex relationships. But this isn’t true. I simply believe (with most Christians around the globe) that God has designed marriage to be a one-flesh union between two sexually different persons and that God desires sexual expression to take place within this covenant bond of marriage. I can hold to this view, while still valuing, admiring, cherishing, and affirming many things about my LGBT+ friends and same-sex unions.


Nonaffirming is not the best term to describe my view. And so I’ve explored other terms to describe my view, and yet I’m equally unhappy at these as well.


Some say that my view is the conservative view. They say that I have a conservative theology. But, if I can be honest, I hate the term conservative. It comes with way too much political baggage. It assumes that I voted for Trump, am a card-carrying member of the NRA, and believe that Democrats are a threat to the future of America. None of this is true. Even in theological terms, conservative can be a terrible term to describe my view of marriage. Conservative is way too subjective and assumes that the one using the term perfectly adheres to “the truth.” For instance, some think that I’m “conservative” because I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, while others think I’m quite liberal because I don’t believe that the King James Version is the only inspired translation of the Bible. In other words, the term conservative is profoundly subjective; it assumes that the one using the term has the corner market on truth, and everyone else is either “liberal” or “conservative.” 


Two other terms have been suggested to describe my view of marriage: traditional and historical.


Traditional is better than nonaffirming or conservative, but it also has some baggage. As a Protestant, I believe that tradition has limited value. It can be quite helpful to consult, but my authority is drawn from the Bible not just tradition. The fact that I’m a Protestant means that my Christian expression is derived from a radical break from tradition—i.e. the Reformation. I believe that tradition sometimes departs from the Bible and I’m quite eager to critique tradition in light of what the Bible actually says. I never want to give the impression that I’m blindly believing in something because “it’s what we’ve always believed.” No way. I appreciate what our forefathers have taught us, but sometimes our ancient leaders have butchered the truth. Our Christian tradition is filled with misogynist, racist, slave-owning, violent people who have done many things that have diminished the gospel—and I never want to give the impression that I’m simply adhering to tradition without filtering my tradition through a critical lens. Quite plainly, there are many things about the traditional view of marriage (misogyny, patriarchy, etc.) that I don’t endorse. I simply believe—with tradition and the Bible, I hope—that sex difference is part of what marriage is. But please don’t recruit me to advocate for everything traditional Christianity has believed about women, children, and marriage.


The same goes for the term historical. I love church history. I always cross-check my reading of the Bible with what the church has historically believed. But Christianity has many skeletons in our historical closet, and our treatment of women, marriage, minorities, and others should caution us against signing off on all things historical. Yes, I believe that history got it right in one sense; sex difference is part of what marriage is, and Christian history has affirmed this. But when this view is labeled as the historical view, I want to jump in and write a dozen footnotes about how Christians have historically departed from a biblical view of sex, gender, and marriage.


So where does this leave us? What term best captures the view that sex-difference is part of what marriage is, without signing off on all the misogyny and patriarchy evident among Christian marriages? I honestly don’t have a clear-cut answer. I hesitate using the term biblical marriage, because many…eh em…conservative Christians have slapped the term biblical on all things republican, young earth, and pre-trib-rapture. My concerns about the term conservative equally apply—unfortunately—to the term biblical. Plus, many “affirming” Christians dig into the Bible more than conservatives. The debate is not about what the Bible says, but what the Bible means—the term biblical doesn’t always highlight this distinction.


So I’ve been returning to the term Christian to describe my view of marriage, and I’ve added the qualifier global to show that I’m trying to look outside my western, first-world bubble for ethical guidance. This phrase isn’t perfect and comes with some of the same problems as the labels above. (I obviously don’t endorse what every Christian around the globe believes about marriage.) But the label is both fresh and provocative, and raises other questions that I believe should be raised. Like, why is the affirming view of same-sex marriage unheard of in majority world Christianity? Why is it limited to largely western, first-world Christianity? In an age where many Americans are trying to be less ethnocentric and imperialistic, why are we consistently shunning the voices of our Christian sisters and brohers in the majority world about the ethics of marriage? And so on and so forth.   


I believe in the global Christian view of marriage; that marriage is between a man and a woman. Of course, there are some Christians who don’t agree with this, and there are some Jews who eat shellfish and some Muslims who pork out during Ramadan (several puns there). But Judaism, as a religion, has historically and traditionally forbidden the eating of shellfish, and Muslims typically fast during the daylight hours of Ramadan. The fact that some deviate from these practices does not diminish the unique religious nature of the practice itself. And the belief that sex difference is part of what marriage is has been one of the few things that global Christians have agreed upon. We can disagree on when Jesus will return, whether miracles still happen today, whether women can serve in church leadership, or how old the earth is. Heck, we even disagree on what books belong in the Bible! Christianity—globally—is an incredibly diverse religion. But the one thing all Christian denominations have agreed upon in the last 2,000 years (until the 1960s’…in the west) is that sex difference is part of what marriage is.


So, what’s my view of marriage? I hold to the global Christian view of marriage. I believe that marriage is the one flesh union between two sexually different persons.