Fundamental to the social order designed by God at creation is the joining of three glorious things: marriage, sex, and children. One man joined to one woman in a permanent sexual relationship marked by love, mutual service and sacrifice, within which children are created and nurtured. I like to think of marriage, sex, and children as a kind of Holy Triumvirate, not of three persons sharing power as in ancient Rome, but of three pillars joyfully and harmonious united to produce human welfare and social stability.
This Holy Triumvirate was disrupted and damaged by the Fall in many ways. None of us have ever been part of a human society in which these three things are perfectly and uniformly united and lived out. Divorce, abuse, illegitimacy, fornication, infidelity, and polygamy are just some of the more obvious problems we see and have seen almost from the moment Adam and Eve were cast from the Garden of Eden. Yet one of the great accomplishments of Christian civilization was to elevate and prioritize the unity of marriage, sex and children, establishing it as ideal aspiration in culture and law.
In recent decades and especially since the 1960’s we have witnessed the disconnection of marriage, sex and children to a breath-taking extent. This appears to be accelerating and developing new and often weird facets and wrinkles almost monthly. Increasingly, folk like me calling for a cultural and legal restoration of the old moral ideals are seen as dangerous and bigoted. At points we are even accused of being responsible for the very pathology that are caused by disuniting marriage, sex and children, because we refuse to accept and reconfigure our society around the new , and constantly changing, moral order. For example, if children suffer from being born out-of-wedlock, or from their parent’s divorce, it is because people like me don’t support tax codes that transfer more money from married couples to single parents, want to use government means to erase the marriage advantages, or because our morals inevitably stigmatize the affected children and their households. If two of every five sexually active teenage girls are afflicted with sexually-transmitted diseases it is because narrow-minded people don’t want them to get free condoms and plenty of sexual education starting at increasingly early ages. If more than half of all births to women under the age of 30 occur outside marriage, we can be sure that the “real” solutions to problems faced by these women include cheaper (taxpayer-funded) and easier abortions, more condoms, loads of social acceptance and (again) a lot of state-induced wealth transfer. The notion that we should seek to return to a culture that uses all normal social and legal channels to encourage people to have sex and procreate only within marriage is seen as not only impossible, but intolerant. Most Americans today appear to believe that we can have real compassion and care for those who fail to achieve the old ideals only by discarding those values. They really believe we should completely stop judging sex within marriage to be morally and practically superior to its alternatives, evidence or not.
Let me briefly consider some of the main ways in which we have pulled marriage, sex, and children apart. I think you will see how new possibilities for doing so continue to emerge, and perhaps you can also think of others that I have inadvertently missed.
Separating marriage from children.
First, we have the obvious high rates of out-of-wedlock births. A little over 40% of all births in the United States are to unmarried women, a figure that ranges from a low of about 16% for Asian-Americans to a high of over 70% for African-American women. The proportion of these that occur within cohabiting unions and are even intended has been increasing rapidly, from 41% in 2002 to 58% in 2006-2010. Given the awful instability of cohabiting unions, along with higher levels of pathology in such households (which I will tackle in an upcoming blog, and which are well-documented by research) this is not a good thing. Moreover, most Americans now find out-of-wedlock child-bearing to be morally acceptable. So, we have lots of babies being born to unmarried women, it is increasingly intentional, and generally Americans are fine with it.
Second, we have our incredibly high divorce rate. Often, this means separating children from an existing marriage. Roughly 40 to 50% of marriages in recent decades have or will end in divorce, and the presence of children does not appear to lower the risk.
Putting these two realities together, a grim picture emerges. According to the U.S. Census, as of 2013, only 58.5% of children under the age of 18 lived with two married biological parents, with about another 1% having two adopted parents. For African-American children, the situation was especially grim: in 2015 only 34% lived with two married parents, and this latter percentage includes kids living not only in adoptive homes but with a step-parent. And many of these children who are living with two married biological parents today will see their parent’s marriage break up before they turn 18. In recent decades, about half of all children in America see their parents divorce before they turn 18, and of those who do, another half will witness the divorce of a parent’s subsequent marriage as well prior to age 18. About one million children a year experience parental divorce.
Separating sex from children
The most obvious thing here is of course contraception. I personally don’t see this as necessarily a bad thing, and believe there are good reasons why married couples might choose to limit child-bearing. My more conservative Roman Catholic friends (unlike most Catholic people generally) would disagree with using any device or pill to prevent conception, and I respectfully dissent. Used however to enable out-of-wedlock sex, this is a wrongful use of this technology. As we saw above, cheap and easily available contraception has not helped us that much with STD’s or out-of-wedlock births.
Abortion, in all but cases of absolute medical necessity, is an unqualified evil, and another way we separate sex from children. Despite recent declines, in the United States roughly one of five babies in the womb are killed by abortion. Imagine the population of a small city being wiped out every year, much of it by organizations whose freedom to kill is arguably better protected by recent Constitutional decisions than the right to bear arms or free exercise of religion. My hope is that someday in the future, we will look back at this era of abortion on demand with profound horror and shame, as Germans used to feel about Dachau, Buchenwald, and Treblinka.
Beyond that, we have the rise of fertilization techniques that bypass sexual intercourse such as In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) or some (not all) Intrauterine Insemination (IUI), with perhaps even more technologies on the way. (Note: there are plenty of fertility therapies that do not bypass sexual intercourse, and thus do not separate sex from children. These are obviously not what I am talking about.)
Infertility can be heartbreaking for a married couple. When other fertility treatments fail, they may consider therapies that fertilize an egg outside of sexual intercourse. However, there are numerous serious ethical issues involved. These types of solutions should be considered only with counsel from someone well informed on the technologies and solidly grounded in Biblical teaching, in addition to expert medical advice. My opinion is similar to Roman Catholic moral teaching on this particular subject. Inseminating or being inseminated by someone other than one’s spouse, techniques that require the husband to masturbate into a container (usually while viewing pornography), and especially those that involve creating numerous fertilized eggs and then freezing them (with the “excess” typically banked or destroyed) are all seriously problematic. Using a surrogate to carry an egg fertilized by a husband and wife, typically called “gestational surrogacy,” is also dicey for a number of reasons, though less obviously a moral difficult than the latter issues.
Another common practice that rose as a result of various types of fertility drugs and some approaches to doing IVF is accepting the clear risk of multiple-child pregnancies. When this is done with the assumption that “excess” fetuses can later be “removed” (aborted), this is unacceptable. This awful form of abortion, now even requested by women carrying twins and triplets that were not caused by fertility treatment, is often called “pregnancy reduction.” We now even face the specter of a Canadian religious hospital fighting for the right not to selectively reduce one woman’s healthy twin pregnancy to a single fetus!)
Increasingly, the use of non-intercourse means of impregnation like IVF are a matter of choice, not just something that heterosexual marriage couples use to deal with infertility. There are growing numbers of women who, either because they wish to delay childbearing to pursue professional careers or simply want to have a child without a man or marriage, opt for IUI or IVF to some degree or another. We now even have scientists working toward fertilizing eggs with artificial sperm, eliminating the man entirely! Of course, increasingly, homosexual couples are using fertility techniques to have babies without sexual intercourse; for males this means using a surrogate mother as well. Pop singer Elton John and his “husband” are a famous example here. And some (heterosexual) women are coming to fertility clinics to be impregnated without sex so they can have “virgin births.”
Separating marriage from sex
Obviously, the first thing that comes to mind here is the normalization of sex outside marriage. This is not so much adultery, which though more common that we’d like (about 15% of wives and 25% of husbands admit to having had sex with someone other than their spouse while they were married), is still morally rejected by the vast majority of Americans. On the other hand, premarital sex between consenting adults is widely accepted—in 2014, 58% of General Social Survey respondents said it was not wrong at all, and another 15% thought it was only wrong sometimes. And we can say now that almost all Americans have sex prior to getting married, in recent years over much longer periods of time and with many more partners than decades ago.
Beyond that however, less obvious is the creation of homosexual “marriages” in which sex, in the true and fullest sense of the word—sexual intercourse—never takes place at all. This takes us back to two concepts: annulment and consummation. In a marriage, an annulment is a declaration that a true marriage never took place. That is, there was a marriage ceremony, license, vows, and more, but the conditions or requirements of marriage were not met. It was not a “true” marriage. Annulments may be granted by a church (most well-known in this regard would be Roman Catholic annulments) or by a court. Consummation refers to sealing a marriage through sexual intercourse. This is the sex act that is of the type that leads to procreation, and that in the Christian understanding is the physical expression of a one flesh union between husband and wife. Literally, man-man and woman-woman cannot have sexual intercourse, just as they cannot procreate through the various types of sex acts they engage in.
This is hardly an esoteric point. Although in America these laws are set by state and conditions vary, failure to consummate, understood to mean failure to have sexual intercourse, is a typical grounds for annulment. Great Britain, in drafting final legislation legalizing same-sex marriage in England and Wales in 2014, had to confront this head on. In their common law tradition going back centuries, a grounds for annulment was failure to consummate, with a clear definition of the specific sex act that the latter involved. No one could think of a single thing that man-man and woman-woman do sexually that was equivalent. The final decision was to specifically exclude homosexual marriages from this ground for annulment (since by definition they could then all be annulled!) but leave that protection in force for heterosexual couples. In that sense, they were authorizing marriages without “sex” in them, in the oldest and strictest sense of the word, and distinguishing them from the vast majorities of marriages which would still be expected to be united through sexual intercourse.
It gets stranger. To be consistent, Parliament also excluded adultery as a grounds for divorce for homosexual married couples. Why? Because adultery is clearly defined as having sexual intercourse with someone other than your spouse when you were married, and man-man or woman-woman cannot do that, no matter what other kinds of mutual sexual activity they engage in with people other than their “spouse.” So in Britain, gay married couples literally cannot commit adultery. Only heterosexuals can.
All of this is tragic and we should have great compassion toward those caught up in and suffering from the fallout from these ever-expanding fractures in our Holy Triumvirate of marriage, sex and children. We are called to speak the truth, but always in love, to a Western culture in which the very seedbed of society is coming apart at the seams. Meanwhile, lets redouble our passion and fidelity to our own marriages and families. Let’s celebrate them and demonstrate the daily fruit of the lives of married people united in loving, one-flesh union welcoming children and committed to nurturing them in the Lord. Let’s speak to our neighbors and fellow citizens about these things, not mocking or denigrating them but not shying away from the truth either. May God give us grace to do this.