There was a time when the state functioned as a witting and willing ally in the preservation of marriage, when it was deemed in the best interest of society and the nation that people be married, that divorce be made difficult to obtain, and that children were given birth and nurtured for the good of the whole community. The marriage laws of most countries were once shaped by the Christian culture within those countries and this formed the legal framework of the institution. Such marriage was able to survive the challenges of the Enlightenment, the rise of the Reformation and even more secular purposes. While the general framework of marriage did not remain untouched, it was not destroyed. The Church was there to act with the state, especially in those of English legal tradition, uphold together the Christian ideal of marriage never really about romance or love.
Never did the vows ask if the husband loved the wife or the wife loved the husband. Instead of love bringing them together, it was the promise to love that bound them as husband to wife and wife to husband. Love was not the premise of the marriage but its fruit. Love was not the precondition of the marriage but the promise of those married, given to each other with their pledge of fidelity.
Stanley Hauerwas noted this in a practical way when a pastor prepares a couple for the marriage rite: When couples come to ministers to talk about their marriage ceremonies, ministers think it’s interesting to ask if they love one another. What a stupid question! How would they know? A Christian marriage isn’t about whether you’re in love. Christian marriage is giving you the practice of fidelity over a lifetime in which you can look back upon the marriage and call it love. It is a hard discipline over many years.
Hauerwas is not an enemy of romance here but a realist. What passes for love in the attraction between two people and the romance of the courtship must be tried and tested before it earns the name. This love is a struggle and not a given, a lifelong endeavor and not a moment of infatuation, a promise that must weather the storms of for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, and in health. And the Church is there to help the couple sustain the promise when the struggle becomes difficult, even painful.
So marriage does not so much need defenders as much as it needs to be taught, lived as example, and encouraged by those around the husband and wife. This is the cause of the Church -- not simply to sanction the marriage or decide who will or will not be married but to equip those whose promises have been made before God and altar so that this marriage may endure the tests and grow into the fruit of the promise made. The Church has the resources to provide this grace to couples, not in the least by teaching them to forgive one another as God has forgiven them, to forbear one another in patience, and to be slow to judge. While the Church most certainly has the gifts from God to provide these tools for the task, she has struggled to find people who are willing to take up the struggle.
Whatever moral consensus and common identity that once defined marriage , it was tested and broken in the wake of World War II, The wartime free distribution of condoms and the expectation that boys will be boys soon led to sex being seen outside of marriage. Soldiers came home looking for love and women were looking for men to love. Add to this the migration from stable communities to swell the cities and couples were often farm from the extended family and churchly cultures in which marriage had been nurtured. The family began to be seen almost exclusively in terms of nuclear family. The wedding took place apart from this extended family or with strangers staring across the aisle from one another. In the end, husband and wife found themselves alone in this endeavor and the push for an easier end to an ill-advised marriage was soon to prevail.
The first major legal blow to this traditional arrangement came in 1969 when then Gov. Ronald Reagan signed into the law the first “no-fault” divorce in California. Now no one needed to be the scapegoat and, indeed, no reasons needed to be provided to obtain a divorce. Where did this idea come from? Another interesting twist is that the first no-fault divorces were enacted in Russia in 1918 when the Bolshevik Revolution swept away the old structures in pursuit of a revolutionary new way on all levels of society, especially marriage and family. The cold warrior with pen and paper replicated the ease by which his communist rivals had decided marriage could be ended.
Modern culture has made unhappiness and suffering the greatest of all ills and so marriage is hardly strong enough as an institution to be preserved if it costs the married some of their happiness, contentment, and comfort. So what of marriage is there left to defend? An idea of life-long union? The marriage of only man and woman? Why these are but remnants of the life envisioned by God and spoken of in His Word. All the great virtues -- patience, endurance, sacrifice, selflessness, generosity, kindness, steadfastness, loyalty, etc., can be seen only in the presence of suffering and sacrifice. Remember that suffering for the Christian is not an impediment to faith but the real domain in which faith is lived out. Our sufferings are not without gain and our life of faith is not without cost. To take up the cross and follow is, in and of itself, a cost of discipleship. We certainly do not earn the Father's love nor do we merit His gracious favor but both of these are evident most profoundly in the context of suffering, pain, and sacrifice -- the things of which we count as joy, says St. Paul. It is not the relief of suffering that is the Christian mandate but the endurance of that suffering for the sake of noble cause, no less than Christ, and a life of virtue that swims upstream of a world in love with expediency. Every heroic action is born of suffering and sacrifice. This is no less true of marriage and the home than it is of the battlefield.
Absent the witness of stable, life-long, self-sacrificing marriages, marriage itself becomes an abstract goal and not a reality, an ideal in a world of make do, and a theory in a practical and pragmatic culture. Marriage does not need defending as much as it begs Christians to live it out within the struggle inherent in the sinful, self-centered will, and made possible and fruitful by Christ whose grace is both the support and comfort of husband and wife and from each to the other. Does it sound a bit like the Benedict Option? Perhaps. We have surely spent enough digital and real ink on the subject, trying to defend marriage against its detractors, but what we have not tried nearly so much is to be witnesses for love that is not premise but promise to those who, until parted by death, live together according to God’s holy ordinance, and pledge each other most of all their faithfulness.