There is a saying among economists: “Bad Money drives out good.” It’s called Gresham’s Law. It means that if different forms of money are accepted in a society, say paper and a precious metal such as gold or silver, then pretty soon the gold and silver will disappear from circulation. They will be hoarded somewhere, but they will not figure in the majority of day to day transactions. Paper will prevail. If the paper is backed by the metal (redeemable on demand like the old silver certificates) the currency will keep a strong relative value over time. If that arrangement is abandoned, then the weakened paper money becomes weaker still, steadily losing value through inflation.
This is what has happened to marriage in our society. A bad marriage ethos is driving out good marriages. Not necessarily your good marriage (you may be a gold hoarder), but good marriages in general. This idea, that marriage is cheapened by accepted practice, is scoffed at in many media and society at large. But anyone involved in pastoral ministry, who is engaged in pre-marital counseling or performs weddings on a regular basis knows that the value placed on marriage has changed exponentially in our lifetime, and not for the good.
Immediately prior to the financial meltdown of 2008 some highly placed people were saying, “The fundamentals of the economy are sound.” There were many bright people who created alternative financial instruments such as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs); i.e. selling other people’s debt as investments in the belief that the chances of repayment were very high. For a time, at least, they became wealthy. These were brilliant people who could do monster math problems. In this atmosphere of deceptive euphoria, they created worthless financial instruments. You might call these brilliant professionals “high-degreed thieves” to borrow a phrase from Bob Dylan.
Intense political and regulatory pressure pushed a flood of bad loans to people who couldn’t repay. And there were plenty of unqualified clients who were happy to take the money and run. Bad loans became politically expedient for bankers, even while eroding the financial solvency of their institutions. Re-packaging and marketing these loans, and creating ‘new kinds of wealth’ generated tremendous activity in the financial industry, but to what effect? Of course, the rest is history.
In the same way, the practice of creating and promoting alternative marriage arrangements is becoming expedient for judges, counselors, journalists, and others, both here and around the world. To resist this pressure is nearly impossible for those who want to keep their place in the professions. In their minds, they will pay too dearly for offending the guardians of their guilds if they push back against the new standards, the moral equivalent of marriage CDOs and subprime loans. So they remain silent. In essence, they have accepted the system’s mark on the hand or forehead. Eventually, participation in any profession will be refused to those who will not worship at the altar of the new morality.
The common argument is that devalued marriage doesn’t harm my marriage or yours. Other peoples’ defaults don’t harm your mortgage, either, at least not directly. That is, until housing prices tumble, credit tightens, and neighborhoods are abandoned driving down the value of everything.
The Gold Standard
Jesus established the gold standard for marriage. In the midst of a severe societal conflict over the definition and practice of marriage, Jesus declared the actual nature of marriage. Other definitions were in circulation and even practiced. That did not change the actual nature of marriage, it just affected its practice and the quality of the culture in general. In other words, there were differing marriage currencies in circulation in Jesus’ time, and differing opinions about their value. Not unlike our day, it was a controversial issue. Two rabbinical schools dominated the public discussion, one which endorsed strict guidelines, the other more lax. Jesus clearly sided with the stricter view and tied the question of marriage to the creation narrative.
The school of thought named for Rabbi Hillel had established something called divorce for any cause. This included the generally recognized cause of infidelity or sexual immorality, and expanded it to include other causes such as neglect. Eventually, at least for the male, it came to include the nebulous category which we would today call incompatibility (or even bad cooking or burnt toast for that matter). It was, in essence, a “no-fault” divorce, at least for the male initiating it. No charges, no courts, no proof. All that was required was a willingness to declare the marriage over and the act of serving the legal document, the certificate of divorce. Jesus clearly condemned this approach, which closely resembles our “no-fault” divorce today, except that today’s procedure is not gender specific.
Another school named for Rabbi Shammai restricted the allowable causes of divorce to biblically-supported causes such as sexual immorality, or failure to fulfill other biblically-defined duties of marriage such as provision of food, clothing, and shelter — essentially abandonment.
When approached about the practice of marriage and divorce in his day, Jesus recognized that Moses had permitted divorce because of the hardness of heart, but stated the original intent and nature of the marital relationship. He went to the Genesis account and established the gold standard for marriage.
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
Matthew 19:3-9 ESV
Jesus’ pronouncement defined the nature of marriage and restricted the practice of divorce for the early church. It did not eliminate divorce altogether, either in the church or society, but wielded immense influence. Paul had to re-visit the question during his ministry to the churches made up of the Jewish diaspora and the Gentiles. Jesus and Paul established a gold standard which has deeply affected not only the church but has been a formative influence in western civilization for two millennia. That standard which defines marriage as a lifetime covenant between one man and one woman for the purpose of companionship, support, and procreation also includes sexual immorality or infidelity and abandonment as biblically justified causes of divorce.
The gold standard has been repeatedly devalued in recent generations. We have not only re-defined divorce as justified on an ‘any cause’ basis, but we have re-defined marriage in its most foundational traits. In other words we have created the moral equivalent of sub-prime mortgages and collateralized debt obligations which are creating a euphoric glow of newly created wealth, but which have, in fact, devalued the entire currency of marriage itself. Make no mistake, it will affect everything. It’s only a matter of time. As in the lead-up to the financial meltdown, we will skip along our merry way until reality overtakes and demolishes the fantasy.
Three Forms of ‘Bad Currency’
So how has marriage been devalued? First, is the advent of the divorce culture as embodied in the ‘no-fault’ divorce. Let’s be clear, there are serious, legitimate reasons to initiate divorce proceedings. But the no-fault divorce has institutionalized the marriage of convenience and established the trivial such as incompatibility, or just plain boredom, as grounds for divorce. It is the equivalent of the ‘burnt-toast’ rationale for divorce of the ancient rabbinical school of Hillel. This just proves there really is nothing new under the sun.
California established the first no-fault divorce law in 1969 and by 1980 nearly every state had followed suit. Since that date divorce rates have increased dramatically. In 1969 there were approximately 57,000 divorces in the United States. That number rose steadily to app. 165,000 in 1993 and declined to 119,500 in 2010. Though some scholars reject this cause and effect analysis between the no-fault divorce and increased divorce rates, common sense recognizes that the increased rate after the introduction of no-fault cannot be a simple coincidence.
As stated in the book, The Divorce Culture,
No fault divorce law offers even more compelling evidence of the abandonment of the norm of marital permanence. As legal scholar Donald S. Moir notes, no-fault divorce carries the message that “the marriage covenant is freely and unilaterally terminable, that the welfare of children is subservient to the personal fulfillment of adults, that a parent’s affective relationship with his or her children may be terminated at any time without cause at the will of the other parent.
(Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, The Divorce Culture, 1996)
Addressing the affects of divorce upon children, Judith Wallerstein came to this conclusion after following the children of divorce for 25 years:
Divorce is a life-transforming experience. After divorce, childhood is different. Adolescence is different. Adulthood – with the decision to marry or not and have children or not – is different.
Whether the final outcome is good or bad, the whole trajectory of an individual’s life is profoundly altered by the divorce experience.
(Judith Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis, Sandra Blakeslee, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study, 2000)
The implication of this study is that the adult children of divorce have a more difficult time committing to and feeling secure in their own marriages. Anyone performing pre-marital counseling, or involved in their wider community through pastoral ministry knows, at least anecdotally, that this is true.
The second form of bad-currency is the rise of cohabitation. According to a New York Times op-ed by University of Virginia clinical psychologist, Meg Jay,
Cohabitation in the United States has increased by more than 1,500 percent in the past half century. In 1960, about 450,000 unmarried couples lived together. Now the number is more than 7.5 million.
Couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages — and more likely to divorce — than couples who do not. These negative outcomes are called the cohabitation effect. Women are more likely to view cohabitation as a step toward marriage, while men are more likely to see it as a way to test a relationship or postpone commitment, and this gender asymmetry is associated with negative interactions and lower levels of commitment even after the relationship progresses to marriage.
(Meg Jay, The Downside of Cohabiting Before Marriage New York Times Op-Ed, April 14, 2012).
Now we have a new, third, ‘financial instrument” — same-sex marriage. According to Glenn Stanton, writing in First Things, in a study of Scandinavian same-sex unions, the break-up rate of male unions was twice that of heterosexual marriages and that of female unions was twice that of males.
In a study of extra-marital sexual expression,
Only 4% of male-female couples had (agreed upon open marriages) compared to 40% of gay men in legally recognized unions and 49% in long-term cohabiting unions . . . even for those who pledged true monogamy the range was from one to sixty-three (sexual) “slip-ups” with a median of five. (What We Can Learn from- Same Sex Couples, Glenn Stanton, First Things, May 31, 2013).
It is impossible to say that recognizing this behavior as the equivalent of marriage does not radically transform and grossly devalue the institution as it has existed for two millennia in the west and beyond.
All of these new arrangements are the moral equivalent of sub-prime loans leading to moral collapse. As a matter of conjecture, I believe we will see new pushes for new expressions of ‘marriage.’ Next stop? Legalized polygamy and polyamory.
In a generation and a half marriage has been re-defined. Marriage defined as a lifetime covenant between one man and one woman for the purpose of companionship, support, and procreation and which includes sexual immorality, infidelity, or abandonment as grounds for divorce is fading from the common currency. Marriage is re-defined simply as an emotional connection between (temporarily) committed partners of any gender for any duration of time. In others words, many of today’s marriages are not worth the paper they’re printed on.
What can we do? Christians must continue to be unashamed and unafraid to insist on a biblical definition of marriage. We must recognize this is not simply a Christian duty, but a public good, and become equipped to say why. We must extend grace to those who fail to fulfill their vows without compromising Jesus’ standard of lifetime, monogamous, heterosexual commitment. And we must insist that even if the state or our professions require compromise on this matter, our conscience demands otherwise.