Temporary marriage, permanent destruction

August 14, 2013

Marriage is in the news again, and not just about same-sex marriage. It is, though, about redefining marriage. In early August, a writer at the Washington Post suggested that with marriage being so difficult these days and divorce rates so high, it may make the best sense to expect the inevitable—divorce—and pre-plan for it by placing term limits on marriages; what he calls “wedleases.”

In his own words,

Here’s how a marital lease could work: Two people commit themselves to marriage for a period of years — one year, five years, 10 years, whatever term suits them. The marital lease could be renewed at the end of the term however many times a couple likes. It could end up lasting a lifetime if the relationship is good and worth continuing. But if the relationship is bad, the couple could go their separate ways at the end of the term.

The author doesn’t say everyone should enter a wedlease, but that it should be available for those whose expectations are low on making it a lifetime in one marriage.  Comparing marriage to a piece of real estate that one may or may not own for their entire life, the author compares love and commitment to flavor-of-the-decade status. He states,

The messiness of divorce is avoided and the end can be as simple as vacating a rental unit.

Lives, memories, and people’s aspirations—reduced to expediency (and rental units). Like a pre-nuptial agreement, wedleases aren’t just a pre-written contract negotiating the settlement should divorce happen; wedlease assumes it from the start. The terms of the marriage’s demise are not only written, but also signed and mutually agreed-upon. The author actually designates his idea as a “post-nuptial agreement.”

But if marriage is assumed to last, say, ten years, why expect it to last even one? Why expect people to join together in holy matrimony if dissolution is the purpose? And that’s the hidden premise in the article: If marriage is contractually bound for ten years or one year, it isn’t bound at all. And that gets at the heart of the Christian conception of marriage and our pursuit of the common good. 

While public policy is often cast in mechanistic, laboratory-like terms, it is people—moms, dads, and kids—not perfunctory widgets that bear the burden and cost of social policies, policies often that leave an unintended path of wreckage in their wake.  Aside from the obvious harms to children and the undermining of such notions as trust, loyalty, and fidelity, Christians should have particular concern for what message is being preached in a society where marriage—the chief icon of the gospel—is trotted out as little more than term-limited preference, not long-suffering love. But notice that the author never uses “divorce” as a way to describe a marriage’s end. He caresses the morbidity of divorce by downgrading it: The marriage doesn’t dissolve; it just contractually vanishes. This is the same bill of goods that the god of this age has been selling for thousands of years: deception. 

Marriage is the union that unites man and woman into a new reality—the “one flesh union” (Gen 2:24). Wedleases offer a veneer of marriage without the demands of marriage. Wedleases offer a marital deception that better sold as convenience, which is what they offer: the craven appetite of exceptions, exemptions, and self-protection. But if term-limited marriages are true, then we’re also all in hell. 

Picture a term-limited gospel; one where the extent of Christ’s atonement is binding for a pre-determined time, but not permanent. A gospel based on mutually agreed-upon conditions, not the all-enticing surrender of the will to the gracious call of God in the gospel. Who enters marriage with the expectation that it will end? Not Christ. From beginning to end, the Scriptures speak of marriage with the expectation of permanency. That’s why as the Kingdom marches forward in a post-same-sex marriage world, Christians must announce that marriage is permanent; not because it’s just personally fulfilling, but because the gospel, which binds all of us in Christ, is permanently sealed with a radiating, unlimited, permanent love. 

Tragically, Christians have contributed to a culture where wedleases become possible by paying lip service to the sanctity and permanency of marriage, but also allowing the onslaught of an outside divorce culture to create one internally within the church. For the church to distill a marriage witness, it must combat the temporariness of mutually assured divorce and the mutually assured destruction that comes with it. 

Each of us has a strident, go-it-alone pace that, apart from Christ, is determined to rove about eternally seeking one new adventure from the next. Whether it’s the man whose affection for his wife is determined by frequency of intercourse or the perpetually dissatisfied church-hopper looking for a suitable church, the gospel calls us to a permanency in our affections and announces that as Christ first loved us (permanently), so we must love others (permanently).

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is associate professor of Christian ethics and apologetics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. He is also a research fellow with the ERLC.  Read More by this Author