As I lifted my head in that hospital room after praying for the family and their newborn baby, I carefully gave the child back to her mother. I saw the grandparents who were in the room glaring at me with astonishment on their faces. The grandfather spoke up and said, "What kind of prayer was that? Why would you already be talking about a husband? She may not even get married! Who knows what she will become?"
These grandparents were not liberal progressives. They were Bible Belt conservative evangelicals who would heartily defend every word of the Bible as God's inerrant Word and would be appalled at the notion of legalizing same-sex marriage.
The moment hit me like a ton of bricks. Without a doubt, the proponents of same-sex marriage have lost an understanding of what marriage really is -- but, in alarming ways, so have evangelicals.
The end result of the widespread legalization of same-sex marriage will not be a broadening of the definition of marriage but the destruction of the institution. We evangelicals must acknowledge that our own failure to communicate the meaning and Gospel significance of marriage has hastened the cultural confusion and decline of the sacred institution. Evangelicals often tell children that their education, career and individual success should be firmly in place before they should even think about marriage. After all, if they marry too young, they won't be able to accomplish their individual dreams and become successful people who lead lives of significance.
At the same time, we act befuddled that a generation we have taught to put themselves first does not understand the importance of self-sacrificial relationships beginning with marriage and family.
Too often we feed our children the junk food of narcissistic self-esteem along with a side of the American dream then wonder why they do not have a healthy Christian worldview. We pair culturally shaped dreams about what our children will become along with a romanticized view of love and marriage, which is rooted in notions of self-fulfillment rather than self-sacrifice. Christian marriage, however, is a Gospel-magnifying, self-sacrificial commitment that teaches us what love is over time as we practice long-term fidelity.
The current divorce culture is grounded in the same perverse idea of marriage as a means of self-fulfillment. If marriage is simply about your means to a personal end, then it's right to consider it an addendum to the pursuit of your personal goals and to walk away when it's no longer functioning to your benefit. After all, many evangelicals reason in abandoning their spouse, God would not want them to live in an unhappy, unfulfilling relationship -- a reasoning that sounds eerily similar to the contemporary argument for same-sex marriage.
In some ways, the younger generation has become more conservative in recent years, as seen by its growing opposition to abortion, while at the same time approving of same-sex marriage. Why? Evangelicals must be willing to face the reality that what we have taught them in our churches about marriage as self-fulfillment provides them no logical reason to oppose same-sex marriage.
Our assertion that marriage is a lifelong monogamous relationship between a man and woman marked by a lifetime of fidelity rings hollow when we have taught them that self-oriented achievement should be valued above marriage and children. When an evangelical parent tells a college-educated daughter who is planning to become a stay-at-home mom, "Are you sure? I don't want you to waste your gifts," it is evident that many evangelicals are just as confused about marriage as the homosexual community. When an evangelical father says to his son, "What do you mean you're getting married? You need to finish law school," it is clear that the confusion regarding marriage doesn't stop at the LGBT meeting.
How can evangelicals effectively defend marriage in the culture when we no longer practice and advocate Christian marriages in our churches?
Could it be that evangelical churches and Christians have been offering an edict about marriage but not an alternative? Could it be that the evangelical sexual abstinence movement has fallen short because it has simply focused on saying "No" to promiscuity without a reciprocal "Yes" in championing Christian marriage? Could it be that evangelical impotence in dealing with the pornography crisis in our churches is partly because we have allowed marriage and sex to be defined in terms of self-fulfillment rather the Gospel-centric, self-sacrificial commitment?
The Creator of the universe pronounced that it was "not good" (Genesis 2:18) that man should be alone, and He gave to man a woman who was bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh (Genesis 2:23), with whom he was to become "one flesh" (Genesis 2:24) and "be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:28). The apostle Paul declared that this marriage union was created to be a living picture of the mysterious one-flesh Gospel union between Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:32).
Being pro-marriage will begin with evangelicals who stop saying it is good that man should be alone until his 30s after he has a good education, career and individual achievements. And with evangelicals who stop saying don't be fruitful and multiply too much; after all, you will not to be able to afford a nice home in a good neighborhood. In fact, we ought to tell them the good news that Christian marriage and the glorious Gospel it represents liberates them from the ball and chain of trying to live the American dream.
David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., professor of Christian preaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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