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In Justin Wishart,marriage,Robert P. George,Ryan T. Anderson,Sherif Girgis

The Definition(s) of Marriage

By Justin Wishart

Recently, a District Court Judge in Australia, Garry Neilson, made some comments that would have been unthinkable in the recent past. He speculated that in the near future, “a jury might find nothing untoward in the advance of a brother towards his sister once she had sexually matured, had sexual relationships with other men and was now ‘available.'”[i] Many traditional Christians are bewildered and often at a loss for a response. Just as our society is in the process of changing our understanding of sexuality, so are we also revolutionizing our definition of marriage. We now have same-sex marriages, and many in the intellectual elite now ponder allowing incest and polygamy as marriage options. It seems as if our understanding of marriage is experiencing a paradigm shift.

What is going on? How did we get here? In Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert George’s book What is Marriage? Man and Woman: a Defense,[ii] it is proposed that there are two basic understandings of marriage that are at war in our society. One is called the conjugal view and the other is the revisionist view. They persuasively argue that when society picks one of these understandings of marriage, there will be fundamental consequences.

One of the first points in the book is that there’s something unique about marriage, which makes society interested in regulating this relationship. The authors provide a mind experiment to highlight what they mean:

Imagine a world in which the law set the terms of your ordinary friendships: You and a coworker could not strike up a friendship across cubicles without first getting the state’s approval, which it could deny you for being too young or otherwise unqualified. Having formed a friendship, you could not end it without the state’s permission. You could even be forced to pay for projects once pursued with estranged friends—until your death, and under threat of imprisonment.[iii]

When we apply these regulations to any other relationships we may have, it becomes clear that there is something about marriage that we recognize as very unique. How can the state feel justified in regulating this one type of relationship? It is here where we begin to see how vitally important definitions are. However, we must first give our definitions.

The conjugal view has been the traditional understanding of marriage for the vast majority of human history. It is the idea that a man and woman combine every aspect of their being so as to create a unified whole, with the apex being procreation.[iv] The revisionist view contends that marriage is essentially a union with the person for which you have the greatest affections, or at least pass a specific threshold of affection.

With the conjugal view, it becomes instantly clear why the state would have a vested interest in becoming involved in this type of relationship. The well-being of children is of great importance to any healthy state: well-balanced children generally produce well-balanced adults, and well-balanced adults generally produce better societies. However, it becomes much more difficult to understand why the state would have any interest in marriage if the revisionist view is adopted. Many strange paradoxes instantly form. What if two brothers live together and this is their strongest bond; is this marriage? What if today my present wife is the one for whom I have the strongest affections, yet next year it is my barber? Is it good for society to have marriages so temporal and fleeting?[v] This understanding makes marriage ambiguous, and one cannot really pinpoint why the state would be interested in regulating it.

What has been done here? It seems as if the conjugal view has as its foundation the understanding that relationships are of different types. A business partner[vi] is of a different type of relationship than one’s best friend. Marriage is of another type than a student and professor. In opposition to this, the revisionist view has as its foundation the understanding that relationships are of different degrees. At least, it has this view for our personal relationships, of which marriage is one. However, when one starts really thinking about the degree at which a non-marriage becomes a marriage, it is very unclear where this line is. Why wouldn’t this apply to polygamous unions? Why not incestuous unions? Reducing personal unions to degrees seems to make marriages difficult, or impossible, to objectively define.

Besides a loss of coherence for what marriage is, this redefinition has some repercussions to society as a whole. As society accepts this new novel definition, it will have an influence on the young people who grow up in it. Their lives will recapitulate what they have learned. Marriage will become more ambiguous and the situation will become more acute and entrenched.

Marriages under the conjugal view tend to allow for the stability in a marriage where the spouses can relationally grow. Lasting marriages tend to make people “healthier, happier, and wealthier.”[vii] However, history has shown that as we adopt the revisionist view, the very concept that marriages should last becomes less important, or even nonsensical. As one falls “out of love” with his partner, there is little reason to stop him from looking elsewhere.

This situation most acutely effects children. With the high rate of divorce and remarriage, the child will be less likely to grow in a stable environment. Children who grow in stable households will experience greater:

Educational achievement: [higher] literacy and graduation rates
Emotional health: [lower] rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicide
Familial and sexual development: strong sense of identity, timing of onset of puberty, [lower] rates of teen and out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and [lower] rates of sexual abuse
Child and adult behavior: [lower] rates of aggression, attention deficit disorder, delinquency, and incarceration[viii]

This, obviously, will have major consequences throughout society.

Girgis and company also make a well-documented case that it is the biological male-female parent partnership that provides the best environment for child rearing, as opposed to man-man or woman-woman partnerships.[ix] They quote W. Bradford Wilcox, who aptly summarizes their scientific case:

Let me now conclude our review of the social scientific literature on sex and parenting by spelling out what should be obvious to all. The best psychological, sociological, and biological research to date now suggests that—on average—men and women bring different gifts to the parenting enterprise, that children benefit for having parents with distinct parenting styles, and that family breakdown poses a serious threat to children and to the societies in which they live.[x]

Girgis summed up the conclusion of the large-scale New Family Structures Study, undertaken by the University of Texas at Austin, as follows: “[T]hose reared by their married biological parents were found to have fared better on dozens of indicators, and worse on none.”[xi]

While I have only touched on the various arguments presented in this book, it should at least be clear that how one defines marriage will have profound consequences on society. If society accepts the revisionist view of marriage, then allowing the status of marraige for all sorts of relationships cannot seem to be prevented. This severely undermines the special status that marriage traditionally had. It becomes difficult to even understand what marriage really is, and the “institution of marriage” will continue to crumble. Marriage will be devalued.

Children raised in this environment will suffer as a whole and so will society. Thus, society has a vested interest in maintaining the conjugal view of marriage as it is devoid of many of these pitfalls. It gives marriage an understandable and obtainable definition. It also tends to encourage committed, monogamous relationships, particularly when society adopts and supports this view. Finally, this view provides the best environment for children to grow into productive members of society, which is of tremendous benefit to us all.


[i] Louise Hall, “Judge Compares Incest and Paedophilia to Past Attitudes Towards Homosexuality, Claiming They Might Not Be Taboo Anymore,” The Sydney Morning Herald, July 9, 2014, accessed October 13, 2014, http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/judge-compares-incest-and-paedophilia-to-past-attitudes-towards-homosexuality-claiming-they-might-not-be-taboo-anymore-20140709-zt0v2.html.

[ii] Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George, What is Marriage? Man and Woman: a Defense (New York: Encounter Books, 2012).

[iii] Ibid., 15

[iv] This, of course, excludes homosexual marriage because procreation is not possible biologically.

[v] The book goes through many different variations to the revisionist view, such as adding the criteria of the relationship being “sexual” and/or “monogamous.” Each additional criteria is shown to be arbitrary and suffering from unique ambiguities.

[vi] It is interesting to note that government also regulates business partners, because of the state’s interest in keeping financial interests stable.

[vii] Girgis, Anderson, and George, What Is Marriage?, 8.

[viii] Ibid., 42 (italics in original)

[ix] Ibid., 60-61. The authors discuss the American Psychological Association’s stance that there is no difference between solid heterosexual and homosexual parenting. They cite Loren Marks conclusions that the studies the APA used to reach their conclusion were drawn from “primarily . . . small convenience samples, [and] are insufficient to support a strong generalizable claim either way.” They then cite many larger studies that all indicate that the evidence favours heterosexual parenting.

[x] Ibid., 59-60

[xi] Girgis, Anderson, and George, What Is Marriage?, 61.