October 22, 2017

Should We Use the Term “Traditional Marriage”?

Don Johnson

When I hear or use the term “traditional marriage,” I have a definite meaning in mind. In the shortest form, I mean “one man and one women for life.” Dictionary.com shortens it even further as “marriage between one man and one woman” and then adds this parenthesis: “(primarily used by opponents of same-sex marriage)”. Presumably this shortened form reflects the ease of divorce in Western society, but there are even more worrying things in this definition than the loss of lifetime commitment (as serious as that is). The term may originally have been sourced in anthropology, as that is the first definition offered at the same site: “Anthropology. the primary established form of marriage recognized in a given country or religious or social group at a given time.” Both of these definitions imply some weakness to the term “traditional marriage” that make me wonder whether it is that useful in the rhetorical battle with proponents of so-called “same-sex marriage.” Perhaps by using the term at all we are already conceding too much ground. In this article I’ll try to explain what I mean.

First, proponents of “same-sex marriage” make a vigorous case against “traditional marriage” by vigorously challenging the notion of any kind of fixed tradition. They do this by attacking our notion of tradition and comparing it to many changing traditions from ancient times to more recent history. They also attack the “tradition” of “traditional marriage” by claiming a hidden agenda of injustice that accompanies our notions of tradition.

At the outset, I should say that I don’t think we should discard the term simply because “same-sex” advocates heap scorn upon it. However, I think that their attack exposes a weakness the term carries which could be called a kind of “historical pragmatism.” Our arguments for what we mean by “traditional marriage” are much stronger than mere tradition. It really matters little how traditional our notion of “traditional marriage” is. In fact, our notion may not be all that traditional when you think about it, but that is to get a little ahead of my story.

First, I’d like to survey some of the things said by advocates of “same-sex marriage” against our notion of “traditional marriage.” Here, for example, is a typical statement from Steve Chapman, a columnist with the Chicago Tribune:

What conservatives regard as traditional marriage is not very traditional at all. It’s radically different from what prevailed a century or two centuries ago. And if you want to talk about “thousands of years,” you’ll find that almost everything about marriage has changed.

The biblical King Solomon, after all, was a dedicated polygamist, with 700 wives. Monogamy has always been the norm in Christianity, but not as part of a marriage of equals.

The Rational Wiki says:

The Religious Right promote the “one man, one woman” model of marriage as “traditional”, ignoring the many Old Testament examples of polygamists, such as King Solomon — and that the Christian practice of monogamy was derived more from the pagan traditions of the Greco-Roman world than from the Bible. Indeed, this idea of traditional marriage being between “one man and one woman” wholeheartedly ignores the concept of the harem (one man and many women) which has been dominant in many, if not most, human cultures throughout history.

I’ll add one more, from a site called “Faith in America.”

The tradition of marriage in Old Testament times meant the man and his wife could have the same father.

  • In the Bible, the patriarch of the Hebrew people, Abraham, and his wife, Sarah, couldn’t have children so Sarah put forth her slave Hagar for Abraham to have children by.
  • In Old Testament times, it was normal, sometimes even required for a man to take multiple wives. A man having multiple wives was accepted by the church as late as the 5th Century, 500 years after the teachings set forth in the New Testament. The church for a very long time apparently did not interpret biblical teaching as an edict for one-man, one-woman marriage.
  • The tradition of marital unions in the 1700s and 1800s in America doesn’t seem to measure up to God-ordained – especially from the female perspective.
  • One third of brides were pregnant at the altar in Concord, Massachusetts during the 20 years prior to the American Revolution.

I don’t know if all these statements are accurate. Some are at least partly accurate. I am offering them as examples of arguments made against “traditional marriage” by proponents of “same-sex marriage.” The main thrust of the arguments are along this line: “Tradition? What tradition?” That is, they are saying, marriage is and has always been in a state of flux, with new laws and new conditions coming up all through history.

In more recent history, these articles will cite changing laws of marriage allowing women the right to own property, changing laws of contraception (not struck down until 1965), the authority of husbands over their wives, and so on. One lengthy article I came across claims that there is a “Traditional Marriage Agenda,” that is using the controversy over “same-sex marriage” as a tool to try to re-impose repressive laws negating women’s rights. The bottom line is that if there is a tradition we are arguing for, it was one that existed only a short time ago and lasted only for a very short time at that.

The ideal of marriage enshrined in the 1950s reflects a myopic nostalgia for a phase that didn’t last. The 1960s brought no-fault divorce, which allowed wives as well as husbands to dissolve their bonds without proving some terrible transgression by the spouse. (Chapman)

All of this argumentation is a smoke-screen and obfuscation, of course. Through all these permutations, marriage has been considered a male-female institution. Notwithstanding various changes through history with respect to the rights of women and with respect to polygamy and other aberrations, marriage has always involved opposite-sex coupling. In that sense, my view of marriage is certainly traditional and has been traditional among human beings since creation. “Same-sex marriage” is an innovation and an attack on tradition in that sense.

However, as the argument swirls over “what tradition,” we have to realize that we aren’t arguing for “one man, one woman, for life” simply on the basis of tradition. We are arguing on the basis of revelation from God (both natural and special) that marriage involves male and female and nothing else. The Biblical record of polygamy, levirate marriage, concubinage and even allowance for divorce are aberrations, all allowed in ancient Israel because of the “hardness of heart” as Jesus said of divorce (Mk 10.5).

There is a second reason why the term “traditional” may be less useful to us than we think. That is that by its use, we may be subtly conceding by its use that there are other forms of marriage that are possibly legitimate. Yes, there is “traditional marriage,” but that doesn’t make “non-traditional marriage” illegitimate, does it? By using the term, we imply that our idea is one among many, that there are other forms of marriage out there.

The fact is, there is just “marriage” – not “traditional marriage” vs. “non-traditional marriage” or “same-sex marriage,” just marriage. “One man, one woman, for life,” that’s what I argue for. Leaving off the “for life” part, I will recognize (though regretfully) the realities of divorce, and the notion that marriages can be broken. But the union of two males or two females is no marriage at all, they cannot be. Marriage in its essence is the union of male and female in a covenant relationship.

I know this because of God’s revelation at the institution of marriage in the Garden of Eden prior to the fall. Before sin entered into the world, God said, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” (Genesis 2.24) This revelation is repeated at least three more times in the New Testament (Mt 19.5, Mk 10.7, and Eph 5.31).

When it comes down to it, I am arguing for marriage, full stop. I am arguing for marriage not because it is traditional, not because I have a hidden agenda to oppress women, but because God said it and that is all there is to it. While I understand what I mean and others mean when I use the term “traditional marriage,” I’m not arguing for tradition. I’m arguing for God.

We might do better to keep this aspect of the discussion clear in our minds. The stakes are high, and the issue is no mere human rights issue that can bandied about by men. It is a matter of accepting the revelation of God or defying it.


Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.


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