Rebuilding a Marriage Culture: A Fourfold Mission for the Church

by
July 15, 2015

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, redefining marriage everywhere in the United States, has left many of us wondering: What do we do now? In my just-released book, Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom, I present a comprehensive roadmap on how citizens of every walk of life should respond to the Court’s ruling. Here I want to suggest four things the church in particular should do to help rebuild a strong marriage culture. After all, the church—either through action or inaction—will play a major role in the debate over the meaning of marriage.

First, the church needs to present a case for biblical sexuality that is appealing and that engages the best of modern thought. The virtues of chastity and lifelong marriage are enriching, but after fifty years, the church has still not devised a compelling response to the sexual revolution. The legal redefinition of marriage could take place when and where it did only because the majority of Americans lacked a sound understanding of the nature of man and the nature of marriage.

The church needs to find a way to capture the moral imagination of the next generation. It needs to make the truth about human sexuality and its fulfillment in marriage not only attractive and appealing, but noble and exhilarating. This is a truth worth staking one’s life on.

In the face of the seduction of cohabitation, no-fault divorce, extra-marital sex, nonmarital childbearing, pornography, and the hook-up culture, what can the church offer as a more fulfilling, more humane, more liberating alternative? Until it finds an answer, the church will make no headway in the same-sex marriage debate, which is the fulfillment of those revolutionary sexual values.

A proper response to the sexual revolution also requires engaging—not ignoring—the best of contemporary thought, especially the best of contemporary secular thought. What visions of the human person and sex, of marriage and personal wholeness do today’s thinkers advance? Exactly where and why do their ideas go wrong? The church needs to show that the truth is better than a lie. And that the truth can defeat all lies. I provide a philosophical defense of the truth in Truth Overruled, we need theologians to continue developing theological defenses.

In these efforts, we shouldn’t discount the potential of slumbering Christian communities to wake up. It’s easy to forget that, in 1973, the Southern Baptists were in favor of abortion rights and supported Roe v. Wade. Today they are at the forefront of the pro-life movement. Christians who are on the wrong side of the marriage debate today can change their minds if we help them.

The church’s second task is to develop ministries for those who experience same-sex attraction and gender identity conflicts. Such persons, for whom fidelity to the truth about human sexuality requires special courage, need our loving attention. Pope Francis’s description of the church as a field hospital after a battle is especially apt here.

These ministries are like the pro-life movement’s crisis pregnancy centers. Abortion is sold as the most humane and compassionate response to an unplanned pregnancy. It’s not. And pro-lifers’ unprecedented grassroots response to women gives the lie to that claim. Likewise, those who believe the truth about marriage should be the first to walk with men and women dealing with same-sex attraction or gender identity conflicts, showing what a truly humane and compassionate response looks like.

Young people experiencing same-sex desire can face isolation and confusion as their peers first awaken to the opposite sex. They suffer humiliation if they say too much, but they bear the heavy burden of a secret if they keep silent. Parents and teachers must be sensitive to these struggles. We should fight arbitrary or abusive treatment of them. As relatives, coworkers, neighbors, and friends, we must remember that social hardship isn’t limited to youth.

A shining example of ministry to the same-sex attracted is Courage, an international apostolate of the Catholic Church, which has produced the documentary film The Desire of Everlasting Hills. Every community needs groups like this to help their same-sex-attracted neighbors discern the unique life of loving service to which God calls each of them and find wholeness in communion with others. But this work can’t just be out- sourced to special groups and ministries. Each of us needs to be willing to form deep friendships with men and women who are attracted to their own sex or struggle with their identity, welcoming them into our homes and families, especially when they aren’t able to form marriages of their own.

After all, the conjugal view of marriage—that it is inherently ordered to one-flesh union and hence to family life—defines the limits of marriage, leaving room for meaningful nonmarital relationships, especially deep friendships. This is liberating. The same-sex attracted, like everyone else, should have strong and fulfilling relationships. Marriage isn’t the only relationship that matters. And as I explain in my new book, the conjugal view of marriage doesn’t denigrate other relationships. Those who would redefine marriage as a person’s most intense or deepest or most important relationship devalue friendship by implying that it’s simply less: less meaningful, less fulfilling. The greatest of Justice Kennedy’s errors may be his assertion that without same-sex marriage some people are “condemned to live in loneliness.” His philosophy of marriage is anemic. And as our society has lost its understanding of marriage, it has suffered a corresponding diminution, even cheapening, of friendship.

We all need community, and those who for whatever reason never marry will know certain hardships that the married are spared. We should bring those left dry by isolation into other forms of community—as friends, fellow worshippers, neighbors, comrades in a cause, de facto members of our families, big siblings to our children, and regular guests in our homes.

The church’s third task is to defend religious liberty and to help conscientious Christians understand how to bear witness to the truth when a radical sexual agenda has become a nonnegotiable public policy. What should bakers and florists and photographers do? What should directors of local Catholic charities or Evangelical schoolteachers do?

There is no one single answer for every circumstance. Each person’s situation will require a unique response, based on his vocation and the challenges he faces. The answers for schools and charities and professionals may vary with a thousand particulars, but the church will need to teach Christians the moral principles to apply to their own circumstances.

The church also has to help the rest of society understand the importance of freedom, particularly religious freedom. The national conversation on this important civil liberty hasn’t been going well, and Indiana revealed how extreme a position the corporate and media establishments have staked out. They have the money and the megaphones. We have the truth. Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom helps make the case for a vast future of freedom.

The fourth task of the church is the most important and the most challenging. We need to live out the truth about marriage and human sexuality. Husbands and wives must be faithful to one another for better and for worse till death do them part. Mothers and fathers must take their obligations to their children seriously. The unmarried must prepare now for their future marital lives so they can be faithful to the vows they will make. And they need the encouragement of pastors who are not afraid to preach unfashionable truths.

Pope Benedict was right when he said the lives of the saints are the best evangelists. The same thing is true when it comes to marriage. The beauty and splendor of a happy family is our most eloquent testimony.


Ryan T. Anderson
Ryan T. Anderson is the William E. Simon Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and author of the just-released book, Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom, from which this essay is adapted.