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R. L. Copple's Blog

What is Marriage? – Cultural Basis

Previously, we’ve examined the biological and Biblical basis for marriage. Now we turn our attention to the cultural basis.

When most people think of marriage, they frame it in terms of cultural characteristics. Many see marriage as a culturally conditioned living arrangement and not much more. Too many view marriage as society’s official permission to have sexual relations. However, this is a backwards view of the reality.

Common Cultural Characteristics

First, let’s consider the common culturally expected characteristics. This is by necessity a general view. There are always exceptions and variations. These, however, will be what most people think of as being “married.”

Legal union. If you ask most secular people what makes a person married, you’ll most often hear some form of when the state grants a couple a marriage license or recognizes their union in some fashion. Especially this tends to be a dominate view of the homosexual community who views marriage as a right granted by the government, of which they are being unfairly discriminated against.

The problem is many Christians tend to buy into this view as well, thus the concern that granting homosexuals marital rights will somehow redefine marriage. There may be legal concerns at stake, but as we will see, the government has no ability to change the definition of marriage. We will leave this issue for a fuller discussion in the next article.

What is often missing from most people’s understanding of this basis is history. It wasn’t until the Byzantine empire that a government granted marriage license. Prior to that, it was handled at the family level. A betrothal was a contract between two families to allow a union to take place between their children. At that point, even though marriage had not yet been finalized, a couple would have to divorce to derail the proceedings. But couples nor their families had to get permission from the government to marry.

In the history of man, it is a relatively recent phenomenon that the state granted permission for anyone to marry. The main reason for state involvement was to recognize a union so that if it broke up, assets could be divided equitably through the courts and family ties recorded to prevent inbreeding. The state didn’t grant someone the right to marry. The state recognized that someone was married, and the need to do that arose from the existing or pending marriage, not creating or defining what marriage is.

This reality is obvious in the United States, in that most states have some form of “common law” marriage. That is, if a couple meets certain criteria without getting a formal marriage license, the state will considered them married. Some states require a certain amount of time living together to have passed. Others are even easier.

In Texas, for instance, as of this writing, for a couple to be considered legally married, all they have to do is present themselves as such before witnesses. A dating couple could attend a party and introduce each other as husband and wife, and they’d be legally married in Texas without ever darkening the door of a government office building to secure a license.

A government may attach certain legal benefits designed to support a family structure created by such unions, but it has no power to make anyone married. Marriage is not based upon a legal license, but as we’ve seen, upon a biological and Biblical basis. A legal “right” of marriage is a myth. The government cannot grant such a right, nor take it away. Only support or discourage it through legal channels.

Ceremonial union. The other element most often associated with getting married is the wedding ceremony. Often done at a church, but also at a courthouse or other location by someone the state authorizes to finalize the marriage license. For most, just showing up at a party in Texas and presenting themselves as married doesn’t cut it. They need a wedding ceremony.

We shouldn’t short-change the power of a ceremony. It often makes concrete an abstract idea or belief. It also adds some weight and importance to the occasion you can’t receive any other way. For the secular person, that’s about the extent of it.

I’m in no way advocating that we ditch wedding ceremonies. But does the ceremony itself make one married?

There are two main streams of thought in the Christian community which will undoubtedly parallel other religious beliefs. One, that the ceremony simply recognizes and gives the communion’s blessing upon a couple’s union. The church’s official structure and members act as witnesses that the couple will be united as one, but no more.

Two, that the church performs a sacrament of marriage, by which is meant that God does something to unite the two into one. In this understanding, the church ceremony is not merely a passive witness to a couple uniting, but spiritual realities are actively happening in conjunction with the proceedings as God blesses the union of the two.

One might suspect that based upon the previous two articles, that I would hold to the former view rather than the latter. After all, if sexual union is the point at which a couple become “one flesh,” what is left for a ceremony to accomplish?

If you assumed such, you’d be wrong. This comes from a misunderstanding of sacrament and ceremony, confusing the two. A sacramental act is God acting. A ceremony is us calling on God to act.

This is illustrated by baptism. There can be little doubt the Bible views the ceremony of baptism as important and needed to join one to the Church, and God’s saving act is united to the ceremony. A read of Romans 6 makes this abundantly clear as St. Paul describes God’s activity putting to death the old man and raising us to new life with the ceremony of baptism. Yet we also know that God can act without the ceremony when necessary, like the thief on the cross who was granted entry into Paradise without going through a formal baptismal ceremony.

Likewise, our asking for the two to become one flesh by God’s activity through a wedding ceremony doesn’t preclude God providing not only His blessing upon the union, but at the right time, uniting the two into one flesh upon the consummation of that union. For while the two may take the action to unite sexually, as Jesus noted, it is what God has joined together that we are not to rend asunder. Denoting that God’s activity called upon in the wedding ceremony is completed with the sexual union of the two.

This denotes two main points no matter which of the two views a person may have about wedding ceremonies. While not downgrading their importance and need, God can and does act apart from them to unite a couple upon sexual union, as noted in the previous article on the Biblical basis for marriage. Indeed, like the legal aspect, it wasn’t until the Byzantine empire that the church took on a more formal role in weddings.

This is more clearly indicated in the Jewish wedding, which were what Jesus and Paul were familiar with. The standard wedding involved a bit of drama with the bridegroom arriving at a certain time (which Christ used in the parable of the foolish and wise virgins), but at one point the couple would go into a specially prepared area to consummate the marriage. Upon so doing, a big party lasting a week would begin. It was such a party that Jesus attended at the wedding at Cana.

But while sometimes a rabbi was there to bless them, a rabbi was not required. Weddings were not religious observances. When God was understood to have united the couple is when they sexually united for the first time. One still sees this symbolically represented in the modern day Jewish wedding ceremony, where at a point, the couple go into a private room for a few minutes to rest, but points to the two uniting physically with each other.

The bottom line is, God was busy uniting people sacramentally in marriage long before it was understood to be a church sacrament. It isn’t that the wedding ceremony is not sacramental, only that it is God who does the action when He decides, even if we are calling upon Him to act. The difference in time is not a factor. But, it is still not the ceremony itself that unites, but God doing so through the physical union as clearly spelled out in the Bible.

Living together. This one is not so much seen as a basis for one being married, but is understood to be a normal characteristic of a married person. After all, if marriage is a union designed to foster families, it would be a poor marriage if the couple didn’t normally live together and interact on a regular basis.

But living together is its own type of union, nonetheless. Financially, socially, and emotionally, the two who live together are invested in each other. They share living space and assets and time.

That said, few would claim that merely living in the same house with another constitutes marriage. Friends live together. Roommates live together. Brothers and sisters live together. If sex is not involved between any of them, they are not married.

Full Union

One might suspect that I consider these cultural marriage characteristics to be unimportant, since they are not what makes a marriage a marriage when it comes down to it. May it never be! They may not be the point at which a marital union is realized, but they are what make a marital union full and complete. Sexual union is meant to consummate a marriage, not stand as the only union of a marriage.

For a full marital union, one needs an emotional union, a financial union, a legal union, a social union, a spiritual union, as well as the physical union. As mentioned before, remove sexual union from that mix, and you have good friends living together, sharing living expenses, and keeping each other company.

But take away the others and leave only sexual union, and while you may have a “two becoming one flesh” reality going on, you don’t have an emotional, financial, social, or spiritual support for that union. Without that support, the marriage created by that sexual union isn’t a serious union. It was done purely to have a good time. The union created is real, but the ability to make that a lasting union is compromised.

Creating a marital union between two people involves a big commitment. They need to emotionally invest in each other, to keep the passion burning in their relationship so a strong and secure emotional environment for raising kids is created for years. Both need to make a financial and time investment to sustain a family over the long haul. The state’s witness upon the union acts as a legal commitment, a contract, between the two, making it harder to break apart without good cause, providing stability. Spiritually, the couple needs to be united to bring up children in a their faith. Without a full union in these areas, a marriage created by a sexual union is left dangling. Such a union is very high on the probability ranking to be torn asunder by one or both committing adultery by joining with another.

The cultural aspects of what makes up a marriage may not be what creates a marriage, but it is the necessary ingredients to sustain a marriage and provide a stable environment for the raising of children produced by that sexual union.

Next time we’ll examine some other marital arrangements and see how they jive with the understanding of marriage we’ve developed in these three articles.

About R. L. Copple
R. L. Copple enjoys a good cup of coffee and a fun story. These two realities and inspiration from the likes of Lester Del Ray, J. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, among others, caused him to write his own science fiction and fantasy stories to increase the fun in the world and to share his fresh perspective.
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5 Responses to What is Marriage? – Cultural Basis

  1. Pingback: What is Marriage? – Biblical Basis | R. L. Copple's Blog

  2. Pingback: What is Marriage? – Alternate Arrangements | R. L. Copple's Blog

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  4. Pingback: What is Marriage? – Myths of Divorce, Adultery, and Infidelity | R. L. Copple's Blog

  5. David Leighton says:

    Marriage is between a man and a woman, period! That is true biologically and spiritually. If “civil unions” are not currently used in this country to unite homosexuals, another comparable legal document must be adopted. As human beings, we must preserve not only the definition but the sanctity of marriage as core to the functioning and stability our society.

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