When two people make promises to one another, those promises can be enforced in three basic ways: by the people themselves, by an external institution with authority over those people, or by God.
Marriage then, as such a binding promise, has three possible sources of enforcement.
Libertarians want a private agreement that is enforced only by the people involved in the agreement. As we have seen, this solution allows for a great deal of abuse. For one, the more powerful of the two parties will always have the upper hand. For another, private agreements do not have merely private consequences. For instance, a landowner might privately agree with a big corporation to allow them to dump nuclear waste on his land for a set sum of money. But this waste begins to seep into the ground and contaminate the surrounding area’s drinking water supply. Private agreements with moral connotations also affect more than the people involved in the agreement. We like to think that we are all individual atoms responsible for ourselves, but the fact is that the national moral environment (to which we all contribute) profoundly affects everyone within that environment. When it comes to moral issues, seemingly private agreements have externalities. And it is because of these externalities that the strictly libertarian approach runs into difficulties.
On the other extreme, Statists want marriage to be a legal contract bound and defined by the civil government. As we have seen, this too creates abuses—more damaging than the libertarian ones by far. It allows the civil government to intrude into one of the most private areas of human conduct and dictate the formation and boundaries of the family nucleus. We have seen throughout history that a largely autonomous family power structure is necessary to combat centralized tyranny, so we must protect the independence of the family where we can. On a similar note, this means we should also be working to abolish the inheritance tax, but that is another story.
So it seems that the only sure footing for marriage is one based, not in nature, or in human government, or in the innate reasonability of humans, but on an authority and source of law that transcends us. In other words, marriage, properly understood, is a covenant between two people before God to love each other as God has dictated. So God must define the terms and penalties of that covenant. It would take more space than I have here to go into all the implications of this. Some people would say, “Where has God set these terms? The Bible? It is merely the work of fallible men, etc.” Others would say, “God is love. Love is the fulfillment of the law. Therefore, anything that is love is good.” I understand all of these objections. It’s the very reason why we are where we are on the question of marriage.
Part of me wonders what has happened to marriage. Why do homosexuals want to get married? Why do non-Christians get married in church? What does it mean to them? The sad fact is that we are very far from loving truth and goodness as a country. Our national character is low and only getting lower. And any definition of marriage or statement of morals that we make is almost assuredly doomed to be hollow. And who is responsible for this? Have homosexuals wrecked marriage? No. Have non-Christians? No. The church is firstly responsible. The divorce rate within the so-called church is the same or worse than outside of it. The percentage of pastors who are addicted to pornography is pathetic. Honestly, there is a lot of work to be done concerning marriage. And the church must get to work doing it. Not by telling everyone else what we aren’t willing to follow ourselves. We must first be an example of the strength of true marriage and the independent power of self-governed families. Less talk. More action. Once we are this example to the world, we won’t really need to say much more.