FamilyLife Today®

What Is Marriage?

with John Stonestreet, Sean McDowell | April 21, 2015
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Before we redefine marriage, shouldn't we understand what marriage really is? Authors Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet walk us through the fundamentals of marriage as God defines it.
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  • Before we redefine marriage, shouldn't we understand what marriage really is? Authors Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet walk us through the fundamentals of marriage as God defines it and warn of what might result once marriage is redefined.

Before we redefine marriage, shouldn’t we understand what marriage really is? Authors Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet walk us through the fundamentals of marriage as God defines it.

What Is Marriage?

With John Stonestreet, Sean McDow...more
April 21, 2015
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Bob: Does it seem to you that, more and more, your views on life, and love, and marriage, and sexuality are out of step with our culture?  John Stonestreet says, “We still have to hold our ground.” 

John: It’s not going to be easy. I mean, listen, we’re going into a time where having these views is going to have high social costs. It already has high social costs—maybe, even, costs when it comes to employment, retirement benefits, and promotions. I mean, there is going to be high costs for this; but that doesn’t remove two commands. Number one is that we respect and obey God. That includes how we define marriage and sexuality. Number two [is] that we love our neighbors. These aren’t options—they are both commands—and they are active. We’ve got to do it.

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, April 21st. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine.  How can we be full of both grace and truth, as Christians?  We’re going to talk more about that today with Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet. Stay tuned.


And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. So, if somebody asked you, “Where does the Bible define marriage?” where do you take them? 

Dennis: I take them to the book of beginnings, the Book of Genesis—“Male and female created He them. In the image of God, He created them.”  He commanded them to leave, cleave, and receive. It’s very clear that God created marriage to be the image-bearer of who He was and to declare His greatness to all of creation.

Bob: And we don’t have the freedom to alter that if it suits our needs? 

Dennis: Well, we think we do—not the Christian community—but there is a group of people who think they do have the right to do it. In fact, we’re going to talk about the tale of two definitions—or, as the authors of the book, Same-Sex Marriage, Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet, write—we’re going to talk about a collision of two definitions.


John, Sean, welcome back to the broadcast.

John: Thanks.

Sean: Thanks.

Dennis: John Stonestreet is the Executive Director of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has authored a number of books. He and his wife Sarah have been married 12 years, and they have 3 children. Sean McDowell works at Biola University. He’s married to Stephanie for 15 years, and they have 3 children as well.

You guys lay out the essence between an old definition of marriage and a new definition of marriage. Why is it important that we understand these two definitions? 

Sean: Well, there is a lot of discussion on this marriage issue about discrimination / about equality. What we want to do is say, “What’s the most basic, fundamental question that this issue of marriage rests upon?” The central question is: “What is marriage?”  Is marriage something that’s fixed, within human nature / fixed within the world—that we can call it something different but it doesn’t change its nature?  Or is marriage something that is evolving and changing?—



—and we can call it and adapt it to two people of the same sex, to three people, to whatever we decide on? 

We make a case, in the book, that there is something fixed about men and about women—about the union between a man and woman—that children come out of, obviously—and that societies, as a whole, almost universally, have recognized this as an institution that is different from other kinds of relationships that we have.

We can start to call two men / we can call a man and three women marriage; but it doesn’t match up what a marriage is—when we look at the way societies have recognized and human beings are biologically made.

Dennis: You guys have done the research on this. In all of history, has any civilization, that has survived, ever redefined marriage and lived to tell about it? 

John: No, anytime, actually—and it’s even, maybe, a little more dramatic than that—anytime sexuality is not protected within marriage, it ends up consuming that civilization. You know, an illustration would be—fire is great, when it’s in a fireplace. 



When it leaves the fireplace, it causes a lot of damage. And that’s exactly what we see.

There was a Harvard sociologist named Pitirim Sorokin. He actually started the Sociology Department at Harvard. He tracked every civilization, of which we had record at the time. He basically boiled it down to this: Civilizations that are on the decline are civilizations that are living for immediate gratification. Civilizations that are building, and growing, and expanding are those civilizations that have—are living out of some sort of ideals for the future. They are building and investing for the future.

The number one indicator, he said, is what you do with sex because sex, when it’s not protected—when it’s not in the context of marriage—consumes you; right?  It makes you think about immediate gratification and so on. That’s really how he measured the rise and decline of civilizations.

Bob: You know, it was a couple of years ago that a prominent marriage advocate—a guy named David Blankenhorn, who had been a defender of marriage—came out and said, “I think I’ve been wrong on this issue of gay marriage.” 


He said: “We should be celebrating two people who want to live together in the bonds of matrimony and want to pledge themselves to one another in marriage because the big problem we’ve got in the culture are people who won’t stay together. So, I don’t care if you are gay. I don’t care if you’re straight. If you’ll just pledge to stay together, I’m on your side.”  What’s wrong with that thinking? 

Sean: Well, from a cultural standpoint—at least, politically-speaking—if a man and a man or a woman and a woman want to commit to each other, then, so be it. But that’s not what marriage is. If you change the definition of marriage, you’re not just changing it for people who are gay—you’re changing it for everybody. That’s going to not only lead to confusion but filter down and hurt kids.

So, for example, there is a science writer named Paul Raeburn, who wrote a book about Do Fathers Matter? As far as I know, he’s not a Christian—he’s not writing from a religious standpoint. But he says: “One of the perspectives in society, over the past number of decades—



—the assumptions, in sociology and psychological research,—is that a father is not necessary. Dad just exists to create the bond with the mother.”  He said: “What we’re starting to realize is that a father is critical for the healthy development of a child. There are unique things that a mom brings to the table / there are unique things that a father brings to the table.” 

So, to step back—if two people want to be committed to each other in our culture, I mean, that’s fine. We live in a pluralistic, multicultural setting, where we have to have and allow people to have different perspectives and moralities. I get that, but that’s different than changing the nature of marriage. That’ll have implications for the next generation.

Bob: So, do I hear you saying: “Civil unions—I’d be behind legal civil unions. Just don’t call it marriage”? 

Sean: Personally—I mean, I can’t speak for John. I’m okay with civil unions. I’m fine with that and some of the rights that come behind it; but that name, “marriage,” is more than just a word.

John: Well, I think underneath what Sean is saying is—



—the reality of where he began, just a few minutes ago, is—we have two different definitions of marriage at play here. Before we decide whether we should expand marriage, we need to answer: “What is marriage?”  Now, we can talk, culturally, as well; but let me just go back to the Scriptures because, even recently, books like God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines have confused the central text in the Scripture about marriage.

It’s a verse in which God—after creating the world, He creates Adam. He says, for the first time, before the Fall—after everything is “…good,” “…good,” “…good,” “…good,” “…good,” / you know, He repeats it over and over—something is” not good,”—“It’s not good that man is alone.”  Then, He goes on to say why it is not good that man is alone: “I will make him someone,”—not to keep him company—but someone “who will be a suitable helper for him.”  Why does Adam need help?  Well, he needs help because God has tasked him with filling the earth—being fruitful and multiplying—and he can’t do that by himself.


If you pick up God and the Gay Christian—at that kind of key crux-point of that verse—“It is not good that man is alone,”—magically, those words are transformed, in that book, into: “It’s not good that man is lonely. I will make him someone to meet his deep emotional needs,”—that can be, just as well, same gender as it can be opposite gender. That’s the crux of the problem: “Is there a design to the universe?” 

Now, see, I didn’t get married until I was 27. I shared a house with a good buddy of mine, named Ted. Ted and I were good friends. I love coming home to Sarah a lot more than coming home to Ted. I’ll just be honest; okay. [Laughter] 

But the deep point is that companionship is not the primary purpose of marriage. Marriage is the way that God designed for civilization to be built and promoted. He didn’t start civilization with a government. He didn’t start it with a church. He started it with a wedding—and so, that gender complementarianism is so absolutely fundamental—it is not a social construct. 



It’s an obvious, biological, observable reality that we are— now, in our culture—pretending is irrelevant to the conversation of marriage.

Dennis: Both of you guys are raising families today. I want both of you to take a shot at this question: “What do you want your children to know, first and foremost, about marriage?”  And you both, already, have said it in various ways: “What do you want them to expect out of marriage, going forward?” 

Sean: Well, first off, I want them to know that marriage is sacred / that marriage is a gift from God—that it’s beautiful. Marriage has been trashed, a lot, in our culture—just listen to music / watch the movies of today—and marriage gets a bad rap. I want them to know that marriage is something special and unique. It’s worth saving themselves for—emotionally and sexually. It’s a gift that God gives us.

But I also want them to see that their marriage is a way that they can honor God in the world and be a reflection of who God is and His love for the church.



So, I don’t want them to think that marriage is just about their happiness, about their pleasure, and about their lives and fulfilling the American Dream. I want them to experience the goodness of marriage as a way of reflecting God’s character to the world and being a light in our increasingly dark culture.

John: I think Sean nailed it. I don’t know how much I can add. I mean, to be human is to be a steward of the world that God made—we’re not just like the animals. We have inherent dignity and worth.

Right now, my daughters are bearing God’s image, as children. When they enter their teens and twenties, they’ll bear His image in a different way. As long as they are single, they are fully bearing God’s image. And then, in marriage, two become one; and they bear God’s image in a way that’s different. It’s a way that’s good for the world, and it’s a way that helps them steward.

So, it’s almost a continuation of what I want them to know about who they are as their deepest identity—that they are made in the image and likeness of God and that they are to steward the gifts, and the culture, and the resources, and the relationships that God has put around them.



Marriage allows them to do that in a unique way. So, as Sean said, at the end of the day, I want them to know it isn’t about them—marriage, ultimately, is about God.

Dennis: That God made marriage, not man.

John: Amen.

Dennis: And in this debate, we have around the definition of marriage, the question is: “Who has the right to define what God created?”  It seems, to me, only one does.

John: No, you are exactly right, Dennis. And this is one of the things I remember from Chuck Colson—in the closing line of a document that he wrote, called the Manhattan Declaration—in which he said, “We will ungrudgingly render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but we can never render to Caesar what belongs to God.” 

This is the place that Christians now find themselves. It’s a place that we haven’t been in / in America. Our brothers and sisters, around the world, have been in—which is a loyalty to God and a loyalty to Caesar and finding that place of conflict. The legal status of marriage does not change, one bit, our moral responsibility before God.



Bob: Here is where it gets hard for a lot of us—you meet somebody, who finally gets the courage to say to you: “Ever since I was young, I have found myself attracted, not to the opposite sex, but to same sex. I don’t know why. I didn’t ask for it, but it’s the feeling that I have. And if I understand you right, what you are saying is: ‘Marriage and that kind of intimacy—that we would all affirm as being a great gift from God—is off the table for me, and I am consigned to a life never knowing that kind of intimacy.’”  That sounds harsh, and that sounds mean. You can understand why people are going, “Gee, I don’t want to be the person who says that to you.” 

Sean: I’ve had many friends and many students say that to me—the first time they’ve come out and told somebody that they have same-sex attraction. My first response is to always put my arm around them—



—give them a hug, and cry with them, if necessary—and say: “Thank you so much for trusting me enough to share this with me,” and “I love you. This does not change my relationship with you one bit.” 

Now, the follow-up is: “Does that mean I’m consigned to a life of celibacy?”  One problem is—in the church—we’ve only talked about family and marriage—but we haven’t really found a role for singles within the church. I mean, we’ve elevated marriage—and we should continue to elevate marriage—but not at the expense of celibacy. I mean, you look at the heroes of the faith—John the Baptist, Paul, and Jesus—were celibate. So, clearly, you can be a fully-actualized human being, and a member of the church and the body of Christ, and be celibate.

Sometimes, in the church, some of my friends, who have same-sex attraction, say they feel like a third wheel. They feel like everyone is always trying to get them married, and they don’t fit in. So, we interviewed somebody in our book, who chose to remain nameless. We asked him: “What do you need from the church, given that you have same-sex attraction?”



He said: “First off, keep teaching the truth to us. Don’t compromise what the Bible says. We know what the Scriptures teach.”  He said, “Second, if you’re going to tell me—which you should—that you cannot get married to somebody of the same sex, don’t withhold from me the intimacy, and the community, and the love, and the family that I need, as a human being.” 

So, part of the reason people find themselves in this is—we haven’t shown the beauty, and the wonder, and the importance of celibacy. But second—I would add to that—I just read an article, last week, about a woman, who is not a Christian—posted online—she said, “I’m a lesbian, but I married a man,” and it got my attention. I thought: “Wait a minute. Why would she describe herself this way?”  And there were plenty of things in the article I disagreed with.

But she kind of went through and said: “You know what? I’ve always been attracted to women. I didn’t choose this. I don’t know where it came from, but I’ve chosen to be attracted to a man. I’ve cultivated this relationship / I’ve cultivated this marriage.”



She described how she was open and honest with her same-sex attraction but still had what she described as a beautiful marriage. So, I don’t think it’s quite that simple, as the culture often says—that: “Oh my goodness—a life of terrible celibacy!” or “I can’t follow Christ.” 

Bob: There’s been a lot of dialogue in the culture, over the last several years, about the idea that, if you experience same-sex attraction, there’s a therapy that can talk you out of that. Have we been wrong on that; John? 

John: Yes, I think in many ways we have and in many ways we haven’t. These are just really difficult terms to clarify. One of the things we say in the book, especially in the second half, which all about “What do we do?” is, really—we have to fight for the definition of words.

Sean, in his last comment there, just really clarified one. We have to fight for the definition of love. We can’t let all love be eros and, therefore, meaning and fulfilment be sex and marriage. There are all kinds of other loves that need to be cultivated.


The other word is that word, “gay.”  It’s a really problematic word because, in our culture, what it means is perpetual attractions that equal identity and justify or even demand our behavior—it kind of conflates all of them.

Now, there are individuals, right now, that are Christians—they’ll use that term, “gay,” because what they say is: “I have these attractions, but I’m still going to be obedient. I don’t know how else to describe myself because I have these attractions. But I’m going to be obedient to the church’s historic teaching on sex, as well as clear scriptural teaching, that sex belongs in marriage; and marriage is between a man and a woman. So, I’m going to choose a life of celibacy.” 

What they are doing is—they are saying that sexual identity or sexual attractions are separated from behavior. Our culture doesn’t give that luxury. So, now, there are other folks—like Christopher Yuan—who say they won’t use that term, “gay,” because: “That’s not my identity. My identity is in Christ. I’m not going to put an adjective in front of my faith because no other adjective…”

So, these are the conversations that are surrounding this issue.



As Christians, I don’t think we have to say that God will promise to make a gay person, or someone with same-sex attraction, have opposite-sex attractions any more than God promises to pull away all of my lusts that are opposite-sex attraction. He hasn’t done that. I still have to discipline my behavior around a norm,—

Dennis: Right.

John: —even though those attractions are still there.

And so, this is a great gift that the church can give to the culture. You are not your sexual longings and your sexual attractions. There is something more important about who you are, and we can separate these two. You can have a life of love, and friendship, and meaning.

Now, I just want to highlight, too, something else Sean brought up, which is—the only way that the church is going to have that message is to go eyeball-to-eyeball with those who are in the boat. We have been talking at people—throwing verses over a fence. We have got to actually love our neighbors as ourselves—and that’s those who identify as LGBT.



We’ve got to find ways to tangibly, not only say it, but embody it and live it.

Bob: And of course, you know, a lot of them will say, “Until you accept my view, you are not loving me.”  They draw the line and say, “The only way you can really love me is to come to my side.”  And you’re saying, “We can’t do that, but we can still love them”?

John: We can, and we shouldn’t use that as a get-out-of-jail-free card. It’s not going to be easy. I mean, listen, we are going into a time where having these views is going to have high social costs—already has high social costs—maybe, even costs when it comes to employment, retirement benefits, promotions, and all kinds of—

We both have a friend who lost a pretty nice consulting job because of views on this issue—that somebody just Googled and found on the internet. I mean, there is going to be high costs for this; but that doesn’t remove two commands. Number one is that we respect and obey God. That includes how we define marriage and sexuality. Number two, we love our neighbors. These aren’t options—they are both commands—and they are active. We’ve got to do it.

Sean: We’ve used the phrase, a lot, in Christian circles, “Love the sinner; hate the sin.”



The reality is—we’ve done a pretty good job of hating the sin, but we haven’t done as good a job in loving the sinner. We do half of that, but not the rest of it. My other problem with that phrase is that it feels like, “Oh, those people are the sinners, not us.” 

Bob: Yes.

Sean: And one of the reasons we haven’t had the compassion—we haven’t had the humility / we haven’t just had the grace with people in this community—is because I think we’ve often thought that we are better than them.

Dennis: Yes.

Sean: “Oh, we don’t commit that sin. Oh, we’re higher.”  “At least, we’re not like them,” and we’ve pointed fingers. What you said a minute ago is absolutely right—we need to just step down from a high tower/from position—and a recognition of our own sin—our own fallenness/our own brokenness.

And if we approach it that way, I think we’ll have so much more understanding for people because on this issue—and my experience and research shows—it’s not just a cognitive issue—that people are debating verses back and forth.



This is an issue where people are asking questions of belonging and my identity, and there are deep wounds and deep hurt. The only way we’ll ever overcome that is by really loving and caring for people.

So, even when they look us in the eyes—like you said, Bob—and they say: “You don’t accept my behavior. You hate me.”  You can say: “You know what?  I have a deeper view of love than that. I don’t accept that behavior, but I love you—period. Even if you keep telling me I can’t, that’s not true.”  And then, show it by our actions. It might not break through everybody, but that will make a difference in the lives of many, many people in our culture.

Dennis: And I just want to go back to moms and dads, at this point, and just say to you: “You are in the most important position in training the next generation of young people, who are going to take our place in society. We must teach them how to think biblically and how to love biblically.” 

And this is not the only issue that is before us today, as a nation.



Ferguson and the racial issues that swirl around it are also a major lesson that families must seize—and teach their children about our own brokenness, and dealing with our stuff, and repent, and talk to them about your own bigotry / your own struggle that you have with lust—as you mentioned earlier, John—and be real with our kids and be honest about our own flesh.

The family ought to be an incubator where we equip the next generation with this book—the Bible. Moms and dads are the incarnate love of Christ and the truth of Christ, living it out before their children. If we don’t do it, the culture will replace us with another message, which we don’t need any more of that.

Bob: I think it’s important for us, as moms and dads, to be thinking clearly on this issue and not be thinking just from slogans that we’ve heard. That’s, again, where I think this book, Same-Sex Marriage, can really serve a mom and a dad to get them thinking rightly about this subject.



Dennis: And you said it, Bob, the book is going to help parents know what they believe and know that they really can anchor their beliefs in the Bible and not be ashamed of it.

Bob: Well, again, the title of the book is Same-Sex Marriage. You can order it from us, online, at Click the link in the upper left-hand corner of the screen when you get there—it says, “GO DEEPER.” You’ll see a copy of the book, Same-Sex Marriage. Again, you can order, online; or if you’d prefer to order by phone, our toll-free number is 1-800-FL-TODAY—1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY.” Again, we want to encourage you to get this book. We think you’ll find it very helpful.

Speaking of helpful books, there are a couple of books that we are making available to listeners this month. If you can help us with a donation, in support of the ministry of FamilyLife Today, we’d like to help you with a thank-you gift.



We can send you either Scott Stanley’s excellent book called A Lasting Promise that deals with the core issues of commitment in a marriage relationship, or we can send you the revised and the updated book by Ron Deal called The Smart Stepfamily. You may want to either go through that book on your own or share it with a friend, who would benefit from having Ron’s insights into the challenges facing stepfamilies today.

Either book is your gift when you help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today with a donation. You can do that, right now, by going to Click the link in the upper right-hand corner of the screen that says, “I CARE,” and you can make an online donation. Request a copy of either book when you do. Or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY, and you can make your donation over the phone. Again, request either A Lasting Promise or The Smart Stepfamily. Or you can mail your donation to us, along with your request for either book.


Our mailing address is PO Box 7111, Little Rock, AR; and our zip code is 72223.

Now, tomorrow, we’re going to continue our conversation with John Stonestreet and Sean McDowell. We’re going to talk about the reality of living in a culture that is sexually-broken. How do we stand for truth and be full of grace at the same time?  We’ll talk more about that tomorrow. Hope you can tune in.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.

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Episodes in this Series

Same Sex Marriage 3
Preparing Our Children
with John Stonestreet, Sean McDowell April 22, 2015
Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet offer parents advice about passing on a Christian worldview to their children.
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Same Sex Marriage 1
What Do We Do Now?
with John Stonestreet, Sean McDowell April 20, 2015
Authors Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet remind believers that same-sex marriage isn't the root of the problem, but the fruit of the sexual revolution that began decades ago.
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