As the element of Christianity in popular culture continues to erode, one of the many things which separates that popular and secular culture from the culture of the Church is the understanding of marriage. In North America, about one half of all marriages end in divorce. Many people live together first, marrying only later, and some choose to live together without ever marrying. In most states and provinces, certain legal obligations bind partners who have been living together for a period of time, whether or not they have married, so that “common law marriages” (as they have been called) differ little in terms of legal obligations from actual marriages.
All this being so, the question naturally arises, “Why get married at all?” What’s the point of marriage? Some have suggested that marriage as an institution is largely pointless, and has no future. Its survival represents only the emotional vestiges of an earlier time, and apart from the romantic splendour of the day (the dresses and the guests at the wedding ceremony; the cake, the music and dancing at the reception) it really serves no purpose. Some have chosen to live together, while deliberately foregoing the marriage ceremony, denouncing it as meaningless. “After all,” the argument runs, “marriage is only a piece of paper”. Can this be true? If marriage is not simply a piece of paper (i.e. the marriage licence), then what is it?
In a word, it is a promise. Our society minimizes promises, unless they are written down, when we call them not “promises”, but “contracts” (such as the modern “pre-nup”). To put it bluntly, we no longer regard the promises we make as binding; our word is no longer our bond. Couples might stand before God and all their friends in church and solemnly promise to live together “until death us do part” (as the traditional western Christian ceremony has it), but society no longer regards these as binding promises. Rather, they are simply a romantic or emotional adornment for the wedding day, a bit of poetry adding to the beauty of it all. In fact, none of the promises we make bind us. They may push us in the direction of a certain course of action, and give us a pang of conscience when we break them, but at the end of the day, we feel free to renege on them if we feel we need to. Contracts bind. Promises do not.
This cultural rejection of the promise is a symptom of decline. Adults may regard promises as not permanently binding, but children know better. Children know that promises are sacred, and the ability to make them an essential part of our humanity. If you doubt that, try breaking a promise you have made to a child. The plaintive objection, “But you promised!” will be immediate, and as far as the child is concerned, it is the final and effective answer. You may attempt to justify it all you like, but the child cannot be conned, for the child retains a simplicity that in our fallenness we have chosen to leave behind. You may produce a thousand reasons why your promise should not be considered binding, but the child is not convinced. The child knows better: a promise is a promise.
It is not just children who think that a promise is a promise. God thinks so too. He also believes that our word is our bond. The Lord says, “Let your word be, ‘Yes, yes’, or ‘No, no’. Anything beyond this is from the Evil One” (Mt. 5:37). The Pharisees thought that promises were binding only if backed up with certain solemn oaths (see Mt. 23:16). They were wrong: all of our promises bind us—especially the promises we make on our wedding day. For whether the promise is explicit and verbal (as in western churches) or implicit (as in eastern churches), at the wedding ceremony, man and woman promise to stay together forever. That is why in the Orthodox wedding service, the priest prays that God will receive the wedding crowns of the newly-married in His Kingdom.
It is not just the Church that declares this union to be a permanent one, one that binds bride and groom together eternally. Love itself demands such permanence, and binds itself with such chains. Love poetry is full of promises of eternal constancy; in it the lover delights to be with the beloved forever. When people are in love, they instinctively and enthusiastically make these pledges. A man in love never defines his beloved as “the ol’ ball and chain”, but as his fulfillment, his life. If a chain binds him to her, it is the chain he has forged himself, and tied on with joy. Echoes of this still persist in popular songs. People of my elderly vintage will recall the words of the old Fleetwood Mac song: “I can still hear you saying, you would never break the chain”. Love wants the chain to endure forever.
However, the point of the promise, the justification of the chain, is not simply the joy of the couple. It is the security of their children. The chains quickly become walls—the walls of a home, made strong and durable to keep out danger and fear. The divorcing couple may come to regard their marriage promise simply as “a piece of paper”, a legal agreement that can be dissolved by lawyers. But the children do not experience the marriage simply as a legal agreement, but as their world, and the walls which keep them safe. Breaking the marital promise may prove to be a heartbreak for the couple; it is a catastrophe for the children, and the escalating culture of divorce sweeping North America normalizes and multiplies such catastrophes. Secularizing apologetics may seek to justify this cultural shift and attempt to minimize its significance to our children. But the catastrophe remains nonetheless, and its effects prove to be long-term.
Why marriage? God has established marriage because only this fits and satisfies the human heart when it is in love. Only this permanence can give the crucial security for family and children. Only this institution can provide the stability any society needs to survive. To be sure, Orthodoxy knows that God can forgive and heal, and the Church allows for restoration after divorce, and even remarriage. The words of this article are not meant to condemn those divorced, but to encourage those still married. Those who are married should take courage: the world may buffet us, and challenge our constancy. But with repentance and hard work, we Christian couples can survive the challenge. We have to. As children remind us, we promised.