Something really bad has been happening to marriage. I am not referring here to whatever the Supreme Court has in mind on the subject. Less than fifty years ago and not long after I graduated from high school, the U. S. government published their finding that ten per cent of live births were illegitimate. By 2012 that number had risen to forty percent, a 400% increase. Add to this that for every 10000 live births to unmarried women, there are over 500 abortions.
There has been a legitimate concern about the high divorce rate. It would seem a good thing to observe that rate decreasing, which it has. However, something else has been happening. People are living together without being married. What was not long ago considered a societal taboo has now become much more acceptable. One writer stated, “Now that living together seems less shocking, some people have less incentive to tie the knot.” Sexual activity, which was once considered to be one of the singular blessings of marriage, has now become commonplace regardless of the married state.
Though co-habitation seems “less shocking” what of the conscience? It has long been considered the ally of the preacher. Sir Walter Scott describes it in The Monastery in quaint, yet emotive phrases where he portrays protestant preacher Henry Warden confronting the Knight of Avenel over the young woman who is to be seated next to him at a meal.
“In a word, then,” said Henry Warden, “that lady–”
“How?” said the Baron, starting–“what of her?–what hast thou to say of that dame?”
“Is she thy house-dame?” said the preacher, after a moment’s pause, in which, he seemed to seek for the best mode of expressing what he had to say–“Is she, in brief, thy wife?”
“The unfortunate young woman pressed both her hands on her face, as if to hide it, but the deep blush which crimsoned her brow and neck, showed that her cheeks were also glowing; and the bursting tears, which found their way betwixt her slender fingers, bore witness to her sorrow, as well as to her shame.
“Rising and spurning from him his footstool with such violence, that it hit the wall on the opposite side of the apartment–then instantly constraining himself, he [the knight] muttered, “What need to run myself into trouble for a fool’s word?”–then resuming his seat, he answered coldly and scornfully–“No, Sir Priest or Sir Preacher, Catherine is not my wife–Cease thy whimpering, thou foolish wench–she is not my wife, but she is handfasted with me, and that makes her as honest a woman.”
“Knowest thou not that rite, holy man?” said Avenel, in the same tone of derision; “then I will tell thee. We Border-men are more wary than your inland clowns of Fife and Lothian–no jump in the dark for us–no clenching the fetters around our wrists till we know how they will wear with us–we take our wives, like our horses, upon trial. When we are handfasted, as we term it, we are man and wife for a year and day–that space gone by, each may choose another mate, or, at their pleasure, may call the priest to marry them for life–and this we call handfasting.”
“Then,” said the preacher, “I tell thee, noble Baron, in brotherly love to thy soul, it is a custom licentious, gross, and corrupted, and, if persisted in, and the helpless offspring, is worse than the birds of prey; for of them the males remain with their mates until the nestlings can take wing. Above all, I say it is contrary to the pure Christian doctrine, which assigns woman to man as the partner of his labour, the soother of his evil, his helpmate in peril, his friend in affliction; not as the toy of his looser hours, or as a flower, which, once cropped, he may throw aside at pleasure. Can he now raise her to the rank of a pure and uncontaminated matron?–Can he deprive his child of the misery of owing birth to a mother who has erred? He can indeed give them both the rank, the state of married wife and of lawful son; but, in public opinion, their names will be smirched and sullied with a stain which his tardy efforts cannot efface.
“Yet render it to them, Baron of Avenel, render to them this late and imperfect justice. Bid me bind you together for ever, and celebrate the day of your bridal, not with feasting or wassail, but with sorrow for past sin, and the resolution to commence a better life. Happy then will have the chance been that has drawn me to this castle, though I come driven by calamity, and unknowing where my course is bound, like a leaf travelling on the north wind.” (end Scott quote)
The upshot of the conversation ended in the knight rudely handling the young woman, who fainted and fell to the floor injuring her attractive face, and then having the preacher cast into the dungeon where he possibly faced a fate similar to that of John the Baptist. The take away for us is that despite the loose morals of the times the above author described, there was a societal and personal sense of shame and reproach for such arrangements which were outside of the marriage bond. That shame and reproach has been consciously and systematically erased from the public ethos since the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s. What was sown to the wind is now being reaped in the whirlwind.
We are told that people should be free to love whoever and whenever and under whatever conditions they please. Marriage can either be used as a mistress of convenience to be selectively embraced or as baggage of inconvenience to be discarded at will. It certainly is not seen as a master to be loved, honored, and obeyed.
But what of the conscience? Several years ago my wife and I stayed a night in a stately bed and breakfast. On the stand was a guestbook. One of the entries was by an apparently young woman staying with her boyfriend, who wrote longingly, “I hope next year I am here as Mrs. _______.” She underlined the word Mrs. The inner sense of sin and right was not completely dead, nor is it in others, despite the twisted societal norm.
And what of all those children whose lives have either been snuffed out at the greedy hands of the servants of mammon, or who have been shuffled into the deck of nontraditional arrangements, foster care, or even abandonment? From all available data they are in a much poorer circumstance and have a much more dismal future outlook than those who are raised by committed father and mother in a traditional marriage. For those whose selfish purposes have been served at their expense, Jesus said it were better that a millstone were hanged around their necks.
We need preachers who with passion, conviction, and in love, preach that “Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge” (Heb. 13:4).