The roots of marriage’s redefinition: How we got where we are today

June 26, 2015

Americans now find themselves on the other side of the same-sex marriage debate. The Supreme Court has ruled, and ruled against an understanding of marriage supported by the Bible and all of human civilization. How did we reach a point where an institution older than recorded history could be redefined and altered by an idea unknown before the year 2000?

To most observers not accustomed to monitoring every cultural debate, the pace at which same-sex marriage has advanced throughout American society can easily be characterized as breathtaking. We now find ourselves less than fifteen years removed from marriage’s electoral dominance and stand on a major precipice of marriage’s continued erosion.

Yet, when we examine the academic arguments made, cultural attitudes cultivated, and court rulings issued over the last four or five decades, how we’ve arrived at our current destination is not altogether surprising. Rather, like a domino effect, the culmination of marriage’s redefinition represents a troubling and logical sequence put in place long ago and carried out quite consistently as the result of academic, cultural, and legal revolutions targeting marriage and family life.

In general, a “redefinition” occurs when the composite structure of an entity’s essence or nature has been altered, added to, or subtracted from. What does “redefinition” mean as applied to marriage? In the case of marriage, a redefinition occurs when the goods of marriage are removed from the marital union itself and experienced elsewhere in a substitute, and cheapened form. A “good” is an irreducible feature that is good for its own sake and stands on its own. This will be explained further below. Once the goods of marriage are capable of being actualized apart from marriage, marriage’s composition and poise retain less attractional pull. For the sake of this article’s argument, let us assume that marriage’s goods are threefold: Romantic union, companionship, and procreative capacity. As this article will argue, once these goods were all de-coupled from the bounds of marriage, the likelihood of marriage’s further devaluation and redefinition were inevitable.

Sex as  non-marital

Though precise dates are debated, starting in the 1950s and 1960s with the introduction of industrialized access to hormonal contraception, America began its sexual revolution. For the first time in American culture, sexual intercourse could be experienced recreationally. As a result, sexual activity as something non-conjugal, i.e., non-marital, became an increased reality. Now, it would be both ignorant and naïve to assume that up until this era people who were not married were somehow all sexually abstinent. This surely was not the case. Rather, what occurred starting in the 1950s and 1960s was the idea that sex need not occur strictly within the confines of marriage. Over time, social taboos around promiscuity lessened, such that the formerly sacred assumption that sex be reserved for marriage is now itself a taboo. Whether one calls it “pre-marital sex” or “fornication,” the idea that sex was a privileged commodity reserved only for spouses became outmoded.

No longer was the marital act—what Scripture calls “the one flesh union” (Gen 2:24)—believed necessary to occur only within in marriage. From a natural law perspective, once sex is removed from the marital boundary in which it is assumed necessary, commonplace, and proper to experience, marriage and the goods that comprise it, namely intercourse, becomes de-linked from one another. This notion of intercourse being inherently conjugal (as related to a husband and wife) is echoed in the Apostle Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 6:15-17 to flee sexual immorality. According to Paul’s argumentation, and one that also comports with natural law reasoning, to sexually join one’s self to an individual not your spouse is to engage in an act assumed to be strictly marital in nature. To this line of thinking, a sexual act is a conjugal act and therefore a marital act.

Thus, once sexual intimacy is severed from marital intimacy, a redefinition of marriage and what it is reserved for has already taken place.

Sex as non-procreative

The act that seals or bonds the marriage union is the same act that brings forth life. Through the sexual union of a husband and wife, the potential for children and the common task of caring and providing for any children, are united. Though contraceptive devices vary, and indeed, while some forms are more morally problematic than others, contraception by its very nature acts to disrupt or thwart what would otherwise be the logical and teleological purpose of sexual intercourse—new life. While related to the question of fornication and de-linking sexual intercourse from marriage, the impact of contraception forged a new paradigm of sexual activity: childless sex. Once the effects of sex can be cut off from the premises of sex, it would not take long until sexual activity would be misused (and at no small harm to women and children as a result).

Now, as a Protestant Christian, I do not personally hold to a prohibitionist position concerning contraception. I have grave concerns about the contraceptive worldview taking root as a way of conveniencing one’s sex life and disavowing the blessing of children, but with respect to my Catholic friends, I do not believe contraception in all forms is itself immoral. My concerns with contraception are its effects in introducing and radicalizing sexual autonomy in general; and the aftereffects of de-linking children altogether from the sexual bond.

On the assumption that sex is (wrongly) no longer reserved for the marital union coupled with the introduction of childless sex, yet another redefinition of marriage has taken place. Once the idea is introduced that sex must no longer be procreative or allow for the possibility of bringing forth new life, one will see how overstating contraception’s contribution to marriage’s redefinition cannot be emphasized too strongly.

Once sexual intimacy is severed from procreative capacity, a redefinition of marriage and its inherent connection to family life has taken place.

Marriage and Cohabitation

In recent years, the practice of living together prior to marriage, or in place of marriage altogether, has become routine and often assumed as standard practice amongst the young adult population. Its popularity is widespread and considered yet another step in the path toward relationship success.

The phenomenon communicates something very clearly: deep, life-long commitment that only marriage was once believed to offer individuals is now available through a pseudo-form of marriage known as “living together” or, more technically, cohabitation. Singles unsure of whether their potential mate meets all the criteria, so they think, utilize the practice to test-drive what they’re eyeing as a long-term investment. This is, of course, silly, and cheapens marriage by reducing it to a pre-nuptial agreement based on preferences on whether and how badly their potential spouse impedes on their idea of a perfect spouse. Foregoing living together refines those who commit to make their marriage work, regardless of whatever unpleasant habits one spouse discovers in another.

Once sexual intimacy and life-long companionship are severed from either a legal or covenantal marker, a redefinition of marriage and its inherent connection to companionship and fidelity has taken place.

Marriage and divorce

Prior to the 1970s, one party had to admit fault in order to obtain a legal divorce. Whether adultery, abuse, or abandonment, simply walking away from a marriage out of inconvenience was not a reality allowable by law.

While obtaining a divorce was always a legal possibility prior to the advent of No-Fault Divorce (NFD) laws, the law upheld marriage as an institution assumed permanent; and divorces as an exception. While hard to pinpoint a definite correlation and causation relationship, one would have to think that it is not by coincidence that NFD arrived on the American landscape right around the time of hormonal contraception. The de-linking of sex from childbearing, the opportunity at recreational and non-committal sex, and the easy dissolution of soured marriages work together too strongly to simply be accidental.

Today, no phenomenon has helped to calcify and atrophy marriage and cause relationship burnout more than the prevalence and availability of divorce, and not without enormous social costs in its wake. From economic hardship brought on by single parenting to the emotional turmoil by those involved in a severed marriage, divorce has fundamentally altered the family make-up of the American experience.

If marriage is no longer a bedrock of permanence, the possibility of its dissolution and abandonment amounts to redefinition.

Marriage and its imitators

We now find ourselves at what seems like the culmination of marriage’s redefinition: same-sex marriage. How did we arrive at this point in time where persons of the same-sex deem themselves eligible for marriage? Because, once again, the goods of marriage that are so enticing and inherent to marriage are now assumed widely available apart from the conjugal union of a husband and wife. Once the connection between marriage and family life is severed; once sex is believed to function non-procreatively; once companionship is esteemed and valuated apart from a bond of permanence, it is necessarily logical that the gay community will desire to imitate what heterosexual marriage once exclusively fulfilled in its own bounds. Thus, arriving where we have at this stage in modernity, it should be no surprise that once the goods of marriage have collapsed beneath the weight of heterosexual revision, attempts by gay persons to experience not only the goods of marriage, but the essence of marriage, will occur as well.

Same-sex marriage represents the height of irrationality that attends to marriage’s breakdown. The logic of same-sex marriage presents no limiting principle in itself that won’t further chip away at marriage’s intelligibility. There’s no inherent principle attending to same-sex marriage that explains why loosening marriage of its complementary structure won’t also lead to its loosening of exclusivity and permanency as others grounds of marriage’s intelligibility. Those of us engaged in the debate about family structure in America have been predicting this for some time, often to the laughs and jeers of our opponents. But if any principle can stand true amidst the sexual revolution, it is this: Give it enough time, and anything is possible.

Conclusion: Defining marriage down

Marriage is threadbare in America. We’ve reached a time where the marriage rates show fewer persons choosing to marry. At the same time, individuals who do choose to marry are doing so at later ages than ever before. While still regarded as a cherished institution due to the attention and flare of the wedding industry, marriage cannot be said to be in a prosperous state in American culture, and throughout must of the Western civilization. What we’re witnessing amidst the redefinition of marriage is the negation of marriage itself. Once the goods of marriage are redefined apart from marriage, and celebrated and heralded as goods located outside of marriage, the prosperity of a civilization and its connection to marriage and family life grow dimmer.

We lament the moment we’re in. But that won’t stop our advocacy.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24