The four dimensions of marriage

Marriage has four dimensions:  personal, social, religious, and statutory.

This post is a follow up to our recent discussion of same sex marriage. Same sex marriage is a contentious issue precisely because of marriage’s four dimensions:

  • Personal:
    Same sex couples maintain that the decision to marry is a personal one. No one outside of the relationship should tell them whether they can or cannot marry.
  • Social:
    Some opponents of same sex marriage assert that changing the definition of marriage affects their marriages, too. It’s a weak argument, in my view. But it is true that all citizens have a stake in the institution of marriage:  it is a fundamental building block of society.
  • Religious:
    Traditionally, church officials are the public figures who solemnize marriages. Some churches insist that the state cannot change the definition of marriage because (in their view) the definition was established by God.
  • Statutory:
    The state is responsible for giving legal recognition to marriages. The state is obligated to treat all citizens equally. On the other hand, there may be public policy reasons for protecting and promoting one kind of family arrangement over alternatives to it.

Each dimension can come into conflict with one or more of the other dimensions. But all of the dimensions must be preserved and respected. In other words, we can’t resolve the same sex marriage controversy by pretending that marriage is one-dimensional:  for example, by emphasizing the personal (as same sex couples tend to do) or the religious (as Christians tend to do).

I intend to explore marriage’s four dimensions in a series of posts. As part of our discussion, I will outline the available data on marriages in ancient Israel.

Too often, Christians have a vague idea that Western traditions about marriage are derived from the Bible. On the contrary:  each culture has a distinctive “take” on marriage. We shouldn’t expect to find a close correspondence between the traditions of ancient Israel and the traditions of contemporary Western democracies.

In any event, when we consider marriage from the perspective of a different culture, that information will clarify the issues we’re debating in contemporary society. What did the four dimensions of marriage look like in ancient Israel?

My primary source for ancient Israel’s traditions will be chapter two ("Marriage") in Roland de Vaux’s book, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions, 2nd ed. (translated from the French by John McHugh; published in London by Darton, Longman and Todd, 1968).


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Bridgett
    Nov 24, 2008 @ 20:55:52

    As a (liberal) Catholic, it drives me crazy. We as a church already limit who can get married in our church (for instance, if you’re pregnant, you aren’t supposed to get married in a Catholic ceremony; if you are remarried without an annulment. Heck, our parish priest didn’t want to marry us because he thought we were incompatible–we sought out a second opinion, and 12 years later, we seem compatible enough. But you don’t see, at least here in the US, a big push by the bishops to require a pregnancy test before marriage, or to outlaw second marriages. I dislike it when my church is inconsistent–it’s why I can accept their stance on abortion and stem cell research and so forth, because in that case, it is consistent. They don’t like in vitro fertilization, either. Where I stand about all that isn’t important–what is important is that it is a consistent, well argued set of beliefs. The foaming at the mouth about gay marriage because it somehow threatens marriage…it doesn’t match how we already handle the sacrament.

    I look forward to your thoughts on the subject.


  2. Rev Dave
    Nov 25, 2008 @ 11:35:59

    This sounds like an interesting series. I look forward to coming back and reading it. One thing to keep in mind will be to see how the relationship between the social, religious and statutory play out in ancient Israel, because I imagine it will be quite different than it is for us.

    For one thing, off the top of my head, the separation between church law and state law would be an entirely different matter.

    Also looking forward to your thoughts on the subject.


  3. 49erDweet
    Nov 25, 2008 @ 17:41:42

    Stephen, I’m wondering how you will intermix the “marriage is a rite” issue vis-a-vis the Catholic Church, and what would be their civil obligations if/when SSM is enacted by a state.


  4. Stephen
    Nov 25, 2008 @ 18:07:22

    49er! It’s always a pleasure to hear from you. I hope all is well with you, the missus, and your children!

    I don’t plan to address the specific issue you raise. (Though I never know exactly what will ideas will emerge when it’s time to actually write the posts.)

    I’ll just say this: The Government of Canada has indicated that it won’t require churches to officiate at same sex weddings.

    There’s always a chance that someone will start a court action, seeking to force a church / clergy to perform a same sex wedding. However, I anticipate that the courts will respect freedom of religion by permitting churches not to solemnize same sex weddings.

    Discrimination is permissible providing that there are legitimate grounds for it. Freedom of religion is an important principle which could be presented as grounds for discrimination in this situation.

    Given that same sex couples have other options open to them — e.g., there are “liberal” churches which will not hesitate to solemnize same sex weddings — I hope that courts will respect the moral convictions of Roman Catholic and evangelical churches.

    In the same way, the state might argue that it has legitimate grounds to discriminate against same sex couples. The trouble is, the grounds that opponents of same sex marriage have put forward to date don’t appear to be compelling.


  5. Chris
    Nov 28, 2008 @ 14:07:37

    I too look forward to reading this series. The same sex marriage issue has been raging on for some time now and the debate has been interesting to watch.

    My allegiances are somewhat indifferent both socially and religiously. But if any organization is so vehemently against same sex marriage, why would one legally force it to change its stance? Maybe look for another group that supports your stance/view or, heaven forbid, start one of your own.

    It would be like forcing a muslim state like Saudi Arabia to allow western women to wander around in bikinis. Its just not done. That’s the way they do it. Accept it and live by it, or move on to something else.

    If you really believe in God, and that God would accept you as you are, isn’t that all that should really matter to you? Who cares what anyone else thinks.


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