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What is Marriage? And What is It Not?

For millennia, all societies have viewed marriage as an exclusively heterosexual club. But in the last few years, more and more people are saying it’s time to open the marriage door to homosexuals. After all, we are told, if marriage is all about love and mutual commitment, gay people can do that at least as well as straights — who have thoroughly messed up the institution in any event. And besides, it would be discriminatory to deny homosexuals the right to marry, no?

But according to authors of a great new book, we’re on the wrong track already if the marriage debate gets bogged down in the issues of love or rights, because marriage is founded on something far deeper. The book is called What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, and it’s written by Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and my friend Princeton professor Robby George. “What we have come to call the gay marriage debate,” these three scholars write, “is not directly about homosexuality, but about marriage. It’s not about whom to let marry, but about what marriage is.”

Girgis, Anderson, and George say that on the one side is the traditional view, which they label the conjugal view. “The conjugal view of marriage has long informed the law — along with the literature, art, philosophy, religion, and social practice — of our civilization,” the authors write. “It is a vision of marriage as a bodily as well as an emotional and spiritual bond, distinguished thus by its comprehensiveness, which is, like all love, effusive: flowing out into the wide sharing of family life and ahead to lifelong fidelity.”

On the other side, they say, is what they call the revisionist view. They write, “It is a vision of marriage as, in essence, a loving emotional bond, one distinguished by its intensity — a bond that needn’t point beyond the partners, in which fidelity is ultimately subject to one’s own desires. In marriage, so understood, partners seek emotional fulfillment, and remain as long as they can find it.”

Friends, homosexuality is not mentioned in the authors’ description of the revisionist view of marriage, nor is it necessary. In fact, many heterosexual couples define their marriages exactly this way, summarized as, “as long as we both shall love.” The argument is not with homosexuality, per se, but with a misunderstanding of marriage that makes supposed gay matrimony just the next step in civil rights.

The stakes for our society are high. “The health and order of society,” the authors write, “depend on the rearing of healthy, happy, and well-integrated children. That is why law, though it may take no notice of ordinary friendships, should recognize and support marriages.”

Gay-rights advocates claim that heterosexual marriage would not be harmed if gay marriage were legalized. But that’s not so. What Is Marriage? meticulously details some of the critical social goods at risk if we go down the revisionist marriage road — gay or straight: real marital fulfillment, spousal well-being, child well-being, friendship, religious liberty, and limited government. These are not trivial matters! The book tells us why in masterful detail.

Of course, the book also makes us think about our own marriages: Are they other-directed and God-directed, or are they merely self-directed? It’s fair to ask, are we part of the problem, or the solution?

This book, What Is Marriage?, makes an argument, but it’s not argumentative. Instead, it is philosophical, reasoned, and fair. It provides the kind of intellectual energy we need when so many involved in the marriage debate — on both sides — are busy producing more heat than light. Please pick up a copy at the Colson Center Bookstore at

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.

Publication date: February 12, 2013

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