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From the December, 2001
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When Marriage Is Dying by Peter J. Leithart

When Marriage Is Dying

Peter J. Leithart on the Meaning of Christian Marriage

Marriage is dying. That has been a recurrent theme of cultural conservatives for several decades. Recent census figures indicate that the number of single-parent families increased by 25 percent in the past decade. The 1990 census found 3.1 million unmarried couples living together, and that number had risen to 5.4 million by 2000. Nearly a third of American children are being raised without two parents.

Surveying this and other data, some commentators go further, and pronounce what amounts to a postmortem. Several years ago, Maggie Gallagher published a book on The Abolition of Marriage, and the Weekly Standard announced the “end of marriage” after the Vermont Supreme Court decided to extend marital rights to homosexual couples.

A number of factors have conspired to produce this crisis. Relaxation of divorce laws has led, unsurprisingly, to an alarming rise in divorce. Gay rights groups are trying to expand the legal meaning of marriage to include “same-sex unions.” More recently, detailed attention has been given to the effects of divorce on children, and the links between divorce, crime, educational decline, and other social pathologies have been documented.

Cultural shifts since the 1960s and 1970s have led to radical changes in the way many Americans view marriage and family. Instead of being viewed as a lifetime commitment, sealed with an oath before God, marriage has come to be viewed as a temporary alliance that either party can leave without fault. This instinctive view of marriage was upheld by American institutions; in 1885, the US Supreme Court decision in Murphy v. Ramsey stated that nothing was more important than that the law give support to “the idea of the family, as consisting in and springing from the union for life of one man and one woman in the holy estate of matrimony.”

Something More Fundamental

All this is no doubt true, and legal efforts to fix the problem must be explored. But something more fundamental has happened: Marriage is dying because we have forgotten that marriage is always about dying. When a man and woman appear for the marriage ceremony, they have usually spent the better part of their lives under the oversight of their parents. Parents have provided them with physical necessities, loved and cared for them, instructed them, and set an example for them in ways that no one can fully understand. At the wedding, that world dies. And when that world dies, the couple dies too.

This wedding marks the end of the former man and woman. Before vows are exchanged and they are pronounced man and wife, they were a single man and a single woman. When the rites have occurred, they will no longer be single ever again. They came separately, but go out as a couple. Two become one flesh.

The wedding is only the beginning of death. A man and woman who go through the ceremony and then live as they have always lived have not really understood what their marriage requires. Death at the wedding is a call to continual dying. At their wedding, a man and woman die to singleness, to the old relation with parents, to old habits and plans, and that death has to be worked out throughout the course of the marriage. After being married only a short time, most married couples discover just how self-centered they are, and they are called to die to that self-centeredness.

Weddings are not only a call to death for the couple, but also to everyone involved, especially the parents. Attentive parents naturally get into the habit of telling their children what to do, and that is a good habit. As children mature, of course, that habit is modified and curtailed, but on the wedding day it has to die. It is no longer the parents’ place to tell their married children how to order their lives. If the children are wise, they will seek advice and counsel and honor their parents. But they will not seek advice or honor their parents as they did during their years in their parents’ home.

And that means that parents, too, must die—show restraint, hold their tongues, stand back, even if it means standing back to watch their children make foolish decisions. The wedding day is a day of death for parents, after which they will never again be parents in the same way.

Marriage is about dying because, as the Bible says, marriage is a covenant, and death is always a prominent feature of a covenant. Every time a covenant is made, an old arrangement comes to an end and a new arrangement of things comes into being. When Israel came to Sinai, they did not have the Torah, a tabernacle, a priesthood, or Yahweh dwelling in their midst. When they departed from Sinai, after entering into covenant, that old Israel was gone and a new Israel had come into being. For Christians, this is the significance of Jesus’ death, which brought an end to the order of the first covenant in order to bring a new order and a new creation. Covenant-making normally requires bloodshed because covenants always mean death.

An Oddity

Though marriage is (allegedly) dying, young people continue to get married willingly and joyfully. This oddity can be explained in various ways: Either they are simply ignorant of what is at stake, or they have some hope that the death involved in marriage does not have the final word. Getting married is either an act of supreme folly, or it is an act of faith (which may also be supreme folly).

More precisely, it is an act of faith in resurrection, in the possibility of new life, hope that a new and better life lies on the other side of this death. At this point, we see that secularism is profoundly ill-equipped to support marriage. Secularism promises that marriage will be a means of self-realization, and people are astonished to find that it demands continual self-denial. Secularism sends off the newlyweds in a shower of birdseed, without warning that together with the happiness of marriage they will face heartache and a thousand natural shocks. Secularism sends them unsuspectingly to death, and refuses to offer any hope of resurrection.

A Christian couple, by contrast, comes willingly to die at the wedding altar because they believe the gospel that says that Jesus is risen indeed. Because he is raised from the dead, Christians hope that we too will one day be raised, but we also hope that all the little dyings that we experience in life will lead to resurrections. An old world and an old self dies on the wedding day, but the gospel promises that a new self and a new world will be born. Christians can welcome the death that marriage brings, because they follow a master who said, “Whoever seeks to save his life shall lose it; but he who loses his life for my sake will find it” and “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Nearly four decades ago, Alexander Schmemann argued that the problem with modern marriage “is not adultery or lack of ‘adjustment’ or ‘mental cruelty.’” Instead, he wrote, the problem is the “idolization of the family” that identifies “marriage with happiness” and refuses “to accept the cross in it.” God’s presence as a “third party” in the marriage spells “the death of the marriage as something only ‘natural,’ and directs it to its true end of the kingdom of God.

In short, Schmemann continued, with characteristic elegance, the glory of marriage is “that of the martyr’s crown. For the way to the Kingdom is the matyria: bearing witness to Christ. And this means crucifixion and suffering. A marriage that does not constantly crucify its own selfishness and self-sufficiency, which does not ‘die to itself’ that it may point beyond itself, is not a Christian marriage.”

Today the choice is even starker than it was for Fr. Schmemann. It is still true that marriage without the cross is not a Christian marriage. It has become more obvious that marriage without the cross and the open tomb can hardly be called marriage at all.


Peter J. Leithart is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and teaches theology and literature at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho. He is the author of Ascent to Love: A Guide to Dante's Divine Comedy and Against Christianity (both from Canon Press). He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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“When Marriage Is Dying” first appeared in the December 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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