We often mean several quite different things when we say or think “marriage”. What is marriage? If we are to talk of marriage we need to know what we mean.
I’m preparing for a TV interview about marriage for a series on “issues” like “environment, war and peace, poverty and justice, sexuality race, relations…etc.”. The first question listed as a probable topic of conversation is: “What is marriage?”
This is a great beginning, and the answer is more complicated than we usually think. For a start when we say “marriage” in most societies there are a whole range of different things in mind. In ancient Mesopotamia1 there was a sort of scale of marriage relationships perhaps beginning with concubinage where the woman was owned (the situation was sometimes more complex with the concubine being owned by one of the man’s wives)2 up to a form of marriage in which the wife had not only the legal rights of a wife but also those of a sister. In Congo marriages went from ones contracted informally between the couple3 through “mariage coutumier” where the relationship is sealed by the families and appropriate presents have been offered by the groom to the bride’s relatives,4 a marriage registered and recognised by the state, and finally, often years later when the couple could afford it, one celebrated in church.
In NZ the situation is both simpler and more confused. We have “living together”, which simply means the two people share their a home and are assumed by others to be in a sexual relationship, through various complex stages by which this relationship is recognised by family and friends or by government departments and the legal system – a de facto marriage, to “marriage” which is recognised in law, but often celebrated in a church ceremony. Alongside this we now also have “civil unions” which are also legally much the same as marriages, but can be contracted by gay couples as well as hetero ones.
So, when a conversation, like this TV interview, talks about marriage it might be talking about a relationship that is:
- recognised as such by the NZ state (a civil contract)
- consecrated as such by a church5 (religious vows)
- recognised by the NZ state, but not named marriage (civil union)
I will leave out “living together” in all its varieties because in common speech this sort of relationship is distinguished from marriage and couples often have lengthy discussions about whether and when to make the transition, so they seem to be two distinct “things”.
For the other three it might seem sensible to also separate out civil unions, as they also are explicitly not called marriages. Yet their legal status is the same.6 And for any theological consideration that is the rub. Marriage (the religious institution) and marriage (the legal institution) whether certified by the state as such and/or indeed by anyone else7 are intrinsically muddled together.
This muddle makes perfect sense for a secular state. At least in so far as the goal is to reduce benefit payments. But it muddies the water for Christian/Theological discussion. So, in reply to the question: What is marriage? I must first ask for clarification: Do you mean the theological institution, the legal one, or as a state recognised by society?
- I believe, those of you who are more expert than I please correct me! [↩]
- Think of Jacob sleeping with Leah and Rachel’s slaves Zilpah and Bilhah in Gen 30. [↩]
- What in NZ we’d call “living together”, or de facto. [↩]
- Often suits of clothes and crates of beer, though in the hilly East until recently a bride’s value was often calculated in cattle. [↩]
- Or other organised religious body. [↩]
- Actually things here get even more confusing, since de facto relationships (living together) when, spotted by the state, also legally incurs the same obligations and benefits! [↩]
- A couple living together are treated as if they were married. [↩]