First Things First

Michael Metzger

by John Seel
If you make secondary things primary, you lose both. C.S. Lewis put it this way: “You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.” Such has been our failure in the marriage debate. By debating the definition of marriage, we have lost the debate over the value of marriage. It is no longer an unquestioned assumption that marriage is a social good. It is a choice, but not a necessity. That is the perception of many moderns today, particularly among the young.

It was once assumed that the family was the indispensable foundation of society – so goes the family, so goes civilization. That is not the perceived reality of many. Marriage is a legal encroachment on individual freedom, an outdated social pattern that is gradually going the way of the horse and buggy. The Pew Research Center found that 40 percent of Americans view marriage as “obsolete.” While the debate has centered on “same-sex” marriage, the bigger question is marriage itself. For the first time, there are more adults that have never been married than have been married. There are more couples without children than with them. Common law marriage in Canada accounts for 44 percent of the total. Approximately 60-70 percent of couples cohabit before marriage. And cohabiting is not just for young adults, the 50-plus group represents nearly one-third of the approximately 7.5 million people of all ages who were living together in 2010. The new normal is not only differing arrangements in marriage, but alternative to marriage.

Marriage is no longer perceived as an unquestioned social good. Canadian philosophy Charles Taylor observes, “Every person, and every society, lives with or by some conception(s) of what human flourishing is: What constitutes a fulfilled life? What makes life really worth living? What would we most admire people for?” Marriage is no longer linked to human flourishing. Today’s society places a premium on independence, freedom, and self-fulfillment, not dependency, community, and boundaries – values that marriage requires. One can conceive of a society where marriage is no longer central, because we are already becoming that society.

When Nietzsche spoke of the death of God in 1880, he was anticipating a world in which appeals to the transcendent were no longer a social reality. This is our world. University of Pennsylvania sociologist Philip Rieff writes, “Culture and sacred order are inseparable, the former the registration of the latter as a systemic expression of the practical relation between humans and the shadow aspects of reality as it is lived. No culture has ever preserved itself where it is not a registration of sacred order.” Our cultural situation, he concludes, is “unprecedented in human history.” Nietzsche asked, “Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?” Marriage as a sacred gift, as a legal contract, as a social good are all being wiped away from our civic horizon.

There is a big “But” in this discussion. For social perceptions do not create reality, which is why Rieff observes that no culture has ever been preserved under these conditions. There is a huge disconnect been the cavalier manner in which marriage is perceived and the measurable social impact of its demise. The sociological research is pretty uniform across cultures that marriage is a social good – a benefit to both individual and civic flourishing.

Novelist Lisa Dierbeck noted on Oprah, “I don’t believe in casual sex. It’s not that I’m opposed to it exactly, it’s just that – in my own experience – no such thing exists.” She goes on to say, “casual” is a “code word for apathy.” “If someone says, ‘This is only physical,’ my translation is: ‘I don’t care about you.’ Forget casual. The more accurate word is heartless.” Casual, apathetic, and heartless is the relational dynamic played out week to week on HBO’s hit series, “Girls.” Hannah Horvath, played by Lena Dunham, depicts this apathy and heartlessness in her on again off again relationship with Adam Sackler. The tagline for the show is “Living the dream. One mistake at a time.” “Girls” is a painful depiction of narcissism and nihilism – and the relational collateral damage that stems from it. Friends with benefits doesn’t work, a point even acknowledged by the actors that depict the concept in the Hollywood film of the same name. When perceptions don’t square with reality, reality wins.

The same is true socially. Dysfunctional families are the source of a myriad of social pathologies. It may seem like a religious cliché to appeal to the fifth Commandment, “Honor your father and mother that you may enjoy long life in the land the Lord God gives to you” (Exodus 20:12). This is the first commandment with a promise attached to it. In fact, it is not a religious promise as much as a sociological reality. Dallas Willard observes, “The promise is rooted in the realities of the human soul. A long and healthy existence requires that we be grateful to God for who we are, and we cannot be thankful for who we are without being thankful for our parents, through whom our life came.” And the sociological studies back this up repeatedly.

Social pathologies, incarceration, poverty, depression, health, longevity, cost of government, graduation rates, domestic violence are all tied to stable families and marriages. We have embraced a lie and from it we will reap a whirlwind. There is a civic cost to living out of touch with reality.

Sadly, the reality of Christian believers is not greatly different from those with no religious convictions. What is the story being told behind closed doors within one’s own home? Dick Keyes writes, “If Christian parents want their children to be Christ-like, the parents’ lives must be ‘good stories.’” “A child looks out at the many options that life offers, and compares stories.” Finger wagging about abstinence, or the evils of cohabitation and the like, will have far less impact than the joyful love expressed between Christian spouses. How many couples do you know that have a joyful, loving marriage? Perhaps this is the ground zero of cultural renewal. We should stop blaming politics, Hollywood, or a beleaguered minority. The problem lies with the vast number of Christians who fill church pews week to week.

If marriage is the building block of civilization, then we need to start with our own marriages. Do our marriages make a compelling case for human flourishing? Is it a witness to the “good life”? We can talk abstractly about cultural renewal, but surely it begins at home. It’s time to make first things, first things once more.


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  1. This should be required reading in every church,school and home. Post it no your walls write it on the inside of you eyelids but especially live it.

  2. One of the best-articulated arguments I’ve read on the issue, thank you! Could you please share the references for Rieff, Taylor and Keyes?

  3. Thank you for the kind comments. Here are the requested references:

    Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks. Virginia, 2006 .(Introduction by James Davison Hunter)

    Charles Taylor, A Secular Age. Harvard, 2007.

    Richard Keyes, True Heroism in a World of Celebrity Counterfeits. NavPress, 1995.

  4. From one who’s immersed in the culture war over marriage, you’ve hit the nail on the head, John. I feel like the Dutch boy at the leaking dike and I’m running out fingers. The heart of the problem is indeed spiritual and we desperately need a whole new dike through revival and awakening. As I recall from my classes at GCTS, a culture is essentially defined by unity in religion and language – we’re rejecting both at our own peril.

  5. “Joy is a net by which you catch souls” was the philosopy of Mother Teresa whose life of poverty paradoxically exuded joy to the entire world.
    So it is with marriage, nothing speaks as powerfully as the Gospel joyfully lived in a family. When same sex marriage proponents criticize the poor example given by divorce and cohabitation statitstics, we have no choice but to agree that we are making a poor case for traditional marriage.
    We can do better!

  6. John – Great read, but I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this question: I completely agree that the church’s witness in its understanding of marriage and the way we’ve commended marriage to others has been poor. And I completely agree that if all we’re doing in the gay marriage debate is using a political issue to beat up the gay community, then we’re in sin. I wouldn’t question any of that. But here’s my question: What does a righteous, grace-saturday, joy-filled view of marriage look like socially? If we want to value marriage and show it for the beautiful, life-giving thing it can be, doesn’t part of that witness involve trying to preserve the proper definition of marriage in the public square?

    Here’s what I’m thinking of: I used to think of the gay marriage debate in terms of civil rights and believed that gay people ought to have access to the same civil rights obtained through marriage that heterosexual people do. But then I saw a picture of a good friend on Facebook marrying her partner at a ceremony in Iowa. And the first feeling I had before anything else could inform my response was sadness. But then I stopped and tried to figure out “Why am I sad? Isn’t this what my political desire is for her? I desire her and her partner to have the same rights that I would have with my wife, so why do I feel sad when I see this? My political desire for her is being realized. I should be happy, shouldn’t I?” From there, I eventually arrived at the conclusion that honoring marriage is a holistic, all-encompassing pursuit. And if I’m failing to honor marriage in my personal relationship to my wife or in the way I speak of marriage to my male friends or in the way I respond to jokes that demean marriage, etc. etc. then I am failing to honor marriage. But what does honoring marriage look like in the voting booth? And if it looks like treating a gay couple the same way I would a heterosexual couple… why is my voting behavior saying one thing – that gay couples are the same as heterosexual couples – when everything else in my sexual ethics says otherwise?

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