As a plebiscite looms, our country is embroiled in a passionate and divisive debate about marriage.
Or is it?
I wonder despite the thousands of opinion pieces, Facebook posts, Tweets, hashtags and Q&A questions, that when we’re debating marriage, we’re actually talking about different things?
The advocates of same sex marriage ask passionately, ‘why can’t gay people marry?’ As Lenore Taylor of the Guardian writes, “should all adults have the right to marry the person they love?” 
Yet others, often on the more conservative side of politics, fiercely disagree and propose that marriage is a special institution for only a man and a woman.
The ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ camp are locked in a fierce deadlock where it appears both sides feel that the other side present no coherent argument to aide their position.
Yet I wonder if some of the passionate rhetoric and arguments would die down when we answer an often unarticulated prior question: what exactly is marriage for?
When we understand what each side understand to be the purpose and nature of marriage then I think we’re in a better position to understand the alternative perspective. At that point, we’d be in a much better position to debate the question ‘should all adults have the right to marry the person they love?’ intelligently and empathetically.
Because if we don’t agree on these fundamental questions about marriage, then it’s unsurprising that there is such passionate disagreement.
What is marriage for?
So then, what exactly is marriage for?
The view I hold, which is informed by the Bible,  suggests five distinct purposes of marriage:
- The creation of a new and lifelong family unit: joining of two people from separate families
- The procreation and nurture of children
- The appropriate (and only) place for human sexual expression
- The expression of human complementarity, modelled on Christ and the Church which displays God’s love for his people.
- The deepest expression of love between two people.
1. The creation of a new and lifelong family unit: joining of two people from separate families
Today marriage is no longer the accepted ‘signal’ to society that a new and permanent family has been formed.
Our societal standards have changed so that cohabitation, or ‘moving in together’ is reflective of a public acknowledgement of the creation of a new family. Reflecting this is the practice of referring to couples (even married couples) as ‘partners’ rather than spouses. Whilst sometimes ambiguous, this is an accepted norm. Indeed de facto couples are entitled to the same rights and claims when it comes to Family Law matters . These rights are also extended to cohabiting same sex couples.
The slide to cohabitation coupled with the introduction of no fault divorce has changed the expectation that a new family being created will be lifelong. Around a third of all marriages in Australia end in divorce so that some couples now vow to stay married for ‘as long as we both shall love’.
It’s now common to hear that those in same sex relationships have already created a family. Marriage is not for creating a lifelong family unit.
2. The procreation and nurture of children
These days a married relationship is no longer the only legitimate space to procreate or nurture children. Indeed as Lenore Taylor acknowledges gay and lesbian partners already do have children through surrogates or sperm donors. In fact, you don’t even have to be with a partner to have children. Sperm donors are keen to offer sperm to single women so they can have children. 
Marriage is not for procreation and nurture of children.
3. The appropriate (and only) place for human sexual expression
The sexual revolution of the 1960’s has led to the wider acceptance and promotion of sexual activity outside the marriage relationship. Indeed, a school in Victoria was criticised recently for the ‘controversial goal’ of asking students to delay sexual activity.  Sex and sexual expression have been completely separated from marriage . Sexual expression is now even considered a necessary part of human identity.
Often the intention of marriage is to focus sexual expression on a particular person, but this is being undermined by the rise of open marriages and the growing acceptance of polyamorous unions. [6,7]
Sex and marriage have been cleanly and clearly separated. Marriage is not for sexual expression.
4. The expression of human complementarity, modelled on Christ and the Church (which ultimately displays God’s love for his people).
Complementarity is unity amidst diversity. In the marriage relationship this is the joining of a man and a woman, a bride and a groom - two different unique people united in a way which is modelled on Christ and the church and ultimately displays God’s love for his people [e.g. Ephesians 5:22-33]. This is the most clearly Christian purpose of marriage, for in it is reflected and displayed ultimate diversity and unity, willing submission and sacrificial love. It is a beautiful picture ultimately displaying God’s love for his people.
Understandably as a secular society, our culture rejects this purpose and it would be unrealistic for unbelievers to share this understanding on the purpose of marriage. Moreover, in the acceptance of homosexual relationships, complementarity is no longer regarded as a goal of a relationship.
This is the Bible’s ultimate purpose of marriage, but not in our secular society.
Marriage is not for expression of complementarity.
5. The deepest expression of love between two people.
In a theological sense, deep love and unity flow from a marriage reflecting the ultimate love and unity of Christ and the Church. Yet it is still legitimate to suggest this as a purpose of marriage without theological connection.
In our culture, marriage is for the expression of love between two people. Indeed this is the argument at the heart of the pro same sex marriage camp, ‘love is love’. Marriage is for 'love, commitment and happiness'. 
Marriage then becomes meaningless
Hence when consider how our society views marriage, expression of love has become the only purpose of marriage.
What is marriage for? Love. That’s it!
With marriage being understood in this way, it becomes virtually meaningless. Much of the meaning, purpose and even beauty of marriage (particularly compared to the Biblical perspective) is lost.
In fact, marriage has become almost unnecessary because love can be obtained from a variety of different places and can be expressed in a diverse range of ways. Do I really need to get married to express the deepest love for someone? It’s unclear. You certainly don’t need marriage to have love.
The push towards same sex marriage is simply a reflection of, and consistent with, this changing understanding of what our society understands as ‘marriage’.
So what argument remains against same sex marriage?
Therefore if expression of love is all marriage is for, then I really can’t see a good argument against same sex marriage. If marriage is simply for expressing love between two people, then it would indeed be unfair and discriminatory to impose boundaries against people who wish to express their love for each other.
This perception of marriage is articulated clearly and succinctly by atheist comedian Catherine Deveny who appeared on Q&A back in September 2012. The then Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, asked her:
Now, you believe in marriage?
Deveny responded by saying,
No, I don't. [...] I don't believe in marriage. [...] I've never been married but I'm a very big supporter of same-sex marriage because I believe that marriage is a mistake that everyone has the right to make. 
Deveny is clearly making a joke here, yet as is often the case, good comedy reflects poignant societal truths.
What is marriage for? For Deveny, marriage is meaningless and worthless.
Yet her comment reveals the issue which really lies at the heart of the ‘marriage’ debate. Whilst she may not believe much about marriage, she expressed concern about the rights of same-sex couples!
She reveals that the debate is not really about marriage - it’s about freedom and rights. Recall Lenore Taylor’s question, ‘should all adults have the right to marry the person they love?’
The push to ‘equal rights’ is the perfectly logical conclusion flowing from the modern purpose of marriage. If marriage is only for expression of love, therefore two people who love each other should have the right to marry, even if they are homosexual people.
This conclusion is very different to the multiple purposes of marriage outlined in the Bible (and held traditionally). This also reveals why the debate is so acrimonious and why many in the ‘yes’ camp are unpersuaded by arguments against same sex marriage, because when this vision of marriage is held, there can be no persuasive argument against same-sex marriage. Two very different visions of marriage are competing.
Therefore when we discuss same sex ‘marriage’, it would be helpful to clarify what we’re talking about and what we believe marriage is for. Because it’s very likely that we may mean very different things. Once this clarification is made, we might have more empathy towards those we disagree with and it might start a better conversation.
 And also influenced by the very helpful work of Christopher Ash in, Marriage: Sex in the service of God