What Is Marriage? by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George

Joel Carini

What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George. New York: Encounter Books, 2012, xiv + 135 pages, $15.99, paper.

By now, it is old news that the United States, by judicial decree, defines marriage as a legal union of two people, regardless of gender. Christians oppose this judgment because it is directly contrary to the biblical definition of marriage. We also presume that the redefinition of marriage will harm many people, not only by infringing on religious liberty, but by directly changing the very structure of families. But how are we to make this case in the public square? The authority of the Bible is not recognized by many Americans, and especially not by most of those on the other side of the debate. How can we persuade them that the traditional definition of marriage is not only correct but also good for society?

In What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George offer a cogent defense of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, by an argument that does not assume religious faith. They begin by contrasting two views of marriage. The revisionist view of marriage is that marriage is an emotional union of two people, i.e., a relationship constituted by the emotions of the two people toward each other. The conjugal view of marriage is that marriage is a comprehensive union, i.e., a union at every level of a couple’s being, consummated by the sexual act.

Both sides of the current debate on marriage agree that marriage is a relationship that requires legal recognition, that marriage has a connection to sex, and that marriage is monogamous, permanent, and exclusive. But, the authors ask in chapter 1, how do any of those norms follow from the revisionist view? In most relationships, the more intimate a relationship, the less likely it is that a relationship will require public, legal recognition. (Would anyone want the state governing our friendships?) If what is essential to marriage is emotional union, even sex is unnecessary to marriage because emotional union can be fostered by other joint activities. Since emotions are unstable and not limited to a single relationship, why should marriage, an emotional union, be permanent and exclusive? In each case, the revisionist view of marriage cannot make sense of the very relationship for which it argues.

What is the alternative view of marriage that makes sense of these norms? In chapter 2, Girgis, Anderson, and George argue that these norms are accounted for by the conjugal view of marriage. On this view, marriage unites two people not only on the emotional and spiritual level, but even on a physical level. Just as the parts of a single body work together for a single biological end, life, so the bodies of a man and a woman can work together toward the biological end of new life. It is this physical union between a man and a woman that makes possible a unique comprehensive union of two people, marriage. Marriage is a comprehensive union of a man and a woman, a union on every level of their being. The conjugal view of marriage makes sense of all the norms that the revisionist view could not explain. Permanence, exclusivity, and monogamy follow from the comprehensiveness of the marital union. Marriage’s connection to sex, childbearing, and child rearing is obvious in the conjugal view. And the need for legal recognition follows from the objective structure and comprehensive nature of the marriage relationship.

In the remaining chapters of the book, Girgis, Anderson, and George explore the state’s relationship to marriage, the harms of redefining marriage, objections to their case on the basis of justice and equality, and others on the basis of the needs and fulfillment of same-sex attracted people. In every case, they demonstrate the reasonableness of the conjugal view of marriage and the benefits that its recognition brings about.

The book’s argument is compelling and exhaustive. The authors build a compelling case for the rationality of what is, in essence, the biblical definition of marriage, marriage as a one-flesh union of man and woman, built into the very design of our bodies by our creator. They deal with objections fairly and reasonably. Many Christians will ask whether this book capitulates to the secular worldview by making a purportedly secular argument. However, I would urge that readers consider whether this book’s argument is in fact an exploration of the very rationality of the biblical description of marriage.

Why should a pastor read this book? In a nation of genderless marriage, more and more pastors will have to labor to show their congregations and the world around them that the biblical definition of marriage makes sense and is good for society. What Is Marriage? helps uncover the worldview that underlies this new definition of marriage, and it shows the superiority of the biblical, conjugal view of marriage. The young people in our churches especially are bombarded with the propaganda of genderless marriage and need to understand why it falls so far short of the truth and the human good.

Furthermore, religious liberty challenges will continue in the coming months and years. Those who hold to the traditional definition of marriage and intend to live according to it may be able to achieve religious exemptions from recognition of and participation in same-sex marriages, but it will be an uneasy compromise. The worldview of personal autonomy and fulfillment that has driven the marriage revolution will eventually crush dissent in the United States (as has happened to some degree in Canada), unless traditionalists go beyond arguing that their private religious views be respected to arguing that the traditional definition of marriage is good for and necessary for the flourishing of society.

Joel Carini is an MDiv. student at Westminster Theological Seminary, Glenside, Pennsylvania, and is under the care of the Presbytery of Philadelphia (OPC). He also serves as staff of The Student Outreach, a ministry of Harvest USA in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, August 2016.

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Ordained Servant: August–September 2016

Marriage, Sexuality and Faithful Witness

Also in this issue

The Path to—and from—Here: Reflections on Sexual Identity Past and Present

Living under Foreign Law

Ministry to Those with Same-Sex Attraction and Gender Confusion

Sexuality These Days: A Review Article

On His Blindness

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