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  • Writer's picturePaul Coulter

Marriage: Christian covenant or contract of convenience?

Two changes to marriage law in the UK have been discussed in the media during this past week. One concerns when marriages can start, the other how they can end.

The first change is to the minimum legal age for marriage. Currently, a person can be married at 16, with parental consent in England, Wales and NI, and without it in Scotland. The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill aims to raise it to 18. The Bill passed through the House of Commons in February and was considered in the House of Lords this week. If, as seems certain, it becomes law, it will bring the age for marriage into line with the legal definition of adulthood, removing the anomaly of legalised ‘child marriage’ at the ages of 16 and 17 and bringing the UK into line with almost all developed countries. At the same time, as a bishop pointed out in the Lords, a new anomaly will be created. The legal age of consent for sexual intercourse is, and will remain, 16, meaning it will be legal for a 16-year-old couple to have sex and even become parents while they cannot legally marry. This may not trouble too many people, but it reinforces the widespread beliefs that sex and childbirth outside marriage are unproblematic.

The other change to the law concerns the grounds for divorce. The Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act, which receives royal assent in June 2020, took effect on 6th April 2022. It enables ‘no fault’ divorce in England and Wales by removing the previous requirement for proof that one of the marriage partners was guilty of unreasonable behaviour, adultery or abandonment or that the couple had been separated for a lengthy period. Campaigners for the change argue that it will reduce acrimony in divorce proceedings and prevent people being trapped in a marriage when they cannot get agreement from their partner or prove fault. Its opponents, however, express concern that it makes divorce easier and undermines the stability of family life.

In the current cultural climate, these changes may simply seem to affirm what people already think about marriage, but Christians should recognise that they confirm a fundamentally different view from that presented in the Bible. Marriage is now understood as a contract between two people of any sex based on romantic love, which one party can choose to end if that love has gone. Scripture, by contrast, describes it as a lifelong covenant under God between a man and a woman based on sacrificial, self-giving love. Furthermore, the Bible presents marriage as the only appropriate context for sexual activity and parenthood, whereas contemporary society does not disapprove of extramarital sex or illegitimacy.

Changes in marriage law do not create the gap between Christians and culture over marriage. That gap is a result of a general decline of Christian values among the wider populace. Nor will these changes necessarily widen the gap further. The law tends to lag some time behind public opinion rather than influencing it greatly. These changes are just the latest indication that the world and the Church mean two quite different things by the word ‘marriage’. That difference was already clear when the law changed to permit same-sex marriage and when divorce laws changed at earlier stages. How then should Christians respond? I have two suggestions.

Firstly, Christians must be clear in our understanding of what the Bible teaches about marriage and why it is such a good gift of God. From the first explanation of its meaning in Genesis 3 to the principles of the law of Moses and from to the words of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 19 and the teachings of the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, the Bible presents a positive view of marriage as a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman through which they become ‘one flesh’. This relationship was designed by God as the foundation for marriage life partly for the good of people but also because it is a living parable of the love of God for His people. By observing marriage, children can learn about the sacrificial love of Christ and His determination to work to make His bride, the Church, beautiful (Ephesians 5:31-32).

Importantly, as Malachi 2:15 explains, when a couple are married under God, God makes them one with a portion of His Spirit, and, as Jesus taught, no man should separate what God has joined together (Mark 10:9). It is the involvement of God that makes Christian marriage a covenant and that means that human beings do not have the right to dissolve a marriage without God’s permission. When God does permit divorce in His Word – clearly in cases of adultery and arguably also in cases of desertion and abuse – it is an accommodation to our sin rather than part of His good design. To work through tensions and conflict in a marriage is not easy. The church community should not only teach about biblical marriage – it should also support couples to succeed in marriage. Above all, however, the Spirit who is apportioned by God in marriage is available to help the wife and husband to grow in self-giving and service of one another for God’s glory, their mutual sanctification, and their testimony to God to the world and (if they have them) their parents.

Secondly, churches should consider the relationship between legal marriage and religious marriage. I think we need to accept that the divergence of views is here to stay for the foreseeable future – without a widespread revival I cannot see any way that a government will seek to change marriage laws back towards a Christian perspective. So, we must think carefully about how we can make the difference clear and avoid confusion in the minds of people. I sometimes wish we could coin a new word for ‘marriage’ to indicate the Christian view and to distinguish it from the world’s perspective. That seems unlikely, though, so instead we must explain what Christians mean and how it differs from the world’s perspective.

I might also ask whether there comes a point at which churches should dissociate from the State in the area of marriage. I am licensed to officiate in marriages in Northern Ireland because a Church appointed me as its representative to do so. When I guide a Christian couple through their vows and sign the register with them, they are married both legally (in the eyes of the State) and spiritually (in the eyes of God). Yet the State can dissolve the legal marriage I solemnised without consulting me or any other representative of the Church. Might it not be better to separate these aspects entirely? In many other countries that is already the case. The legal dimension of marriage happens in a registry office, not in a religious service. Should churches in the UK decide to separate their marriage services from the State as a sign that we speak a different language?

Marriage is a wonderful gift of God, but only when we understand it within the framework presented in God’s Word. In conclusion, let me summarise what that is. Christian Marriage is a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman under God, sealed and empowered by the Holy Spirit, in which they commit to displaying the mystery of Christ’s love for the Church, to working for each other’s growth in Christlikeness, and to serving together for God’s glory by building a new home in which Christ is honoured and from which they both go into the world to live for God and, if God gives them the gift of children, by raising those children in God’s ways. *

* I could add something to this definition about the relative contributions of the man and the woman, especially in relation to headship, but that may have to await another post!

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