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Matthew Bracey’s “The Institutional Good of Marriage, Family, and Society”: Review and Response

W. Jackson Watts

I was pleased to listen to Matthew Bracey’s excellent paper on marriage, family, and society at the 2018 Symposium in October. This is a subject of great interest to me, and I know one which Bracey has spent an extensive amount of time delving into. Some of his previous reflection on this broader subject can be found in a volume entitled Gender, Sexuality, and the Church (Welch College Press, 2016).

Review

In this presentation Bracey focused on what has been described as the “institutional good of marriage.” To speak of the “institutional good” of marriage is to speak to one of the ends or purposes of marriage. To state it in summary form, Bracey says, “the institution of marriage communicates a procreational good, a relational good, a spiritual good, and institutional good, each being the expression of love” (77).[1]  Each of these goods, then, could also be described as purposes for God’s gift of marriage.

The procreational purpose or good is fairly self-evident to most who have studied this subject. While not all marital relationships have the capacity to bear children (due to infertility, age, etc.), reproduction is tied to the complementary design of the two genders which God brings together in marriage. The design, we could say, gives rise to the good of procreation. Certainly in a world without sin nothing would hinder this good, but even in a fallen world this good purpose still often attains and blesses couples, and society.

A second purpose or good is the relational (or unitive) good. Genesis 2:18 describes the Lord making a helper suitable to the man whom He had made. Scripture then in numerous places unfolds the enrichment and beauty this one-flesh relationship brings, perhaps most notably in the Song of Solomon.

A third purpose is its spiritual good. The Christ-church relationship is uniquely pictured in Christian marriage. The husband’s sacrificial love serves to typify Christ’s supreme, sacrificial love for His people, while the wife’s willing submission and respect to the husband typifies the posture and attitude assumed by God’s people.

The remainder of Bracey’s presentation was focused on a fourth and generally neglected good: an institutional one.  Sometimes described as a public or formal good, marriage is not merely a private affair between consenting adults. Instead, marriage is a public institution whose blessings and benefits extend beyond the threshold of the couple’s home. Perhaps the best example of this larger social impact is the fact that couples will bear and nurture children who will in turn be citizens in civil society, contributing to its betterment or decline. The health and well-being, then, of the marital relationship has a direct bearing on the type of society we will become.

Moreover, rightly ordered sexual relationships contribute to the flourishing of human life, and by extension, the lives of those around us. Bracey summarizes this point best when he says, “The Christian ethic recognizes this reciprocal relationship between the soul and the state, and it places the family as an intermediary between them” (82).

As an aside, Bracey’s observation here feeds into a larger, growing body of literature that emphasizes the importance of mediating institutions between the state and the individual, such as the family, the church, neighborhood associations, civic organizations, and charities. Not only do these serve as a buffer between the state in the face of its tendency to overreach, but these mediating institutions enrich human life in countless other ways.

Bracey’s presentation is helpful as it introduces this fourth, crucial purpose for marriage, and then moves toward offering some practical implications for the institutional good of marriage and family in society. He highlights how marriage helps civil society to flourish and protects people (especially children, the most vulnerable) from harm. He then mentions several avenues for promoting the institutional good of marriage, moving from the individual to the family, the church, society, and government.

Response

Whenever people come to our churches looking for financial assistance, or a place to stay, it is no surprise that divorce and/or cohabitation lie somewhere in the background of the situation. This is not to be uncharitable to those who are victims, at least in part, of others’ bad conduct. Certainly churches must be places of mercy. Yet an understanding of the institutional good of marriage equips us to detect the impact of family breakdown. Perhaps it can also help us to offer marital counseling to people, who may also, along the way, require some help with rent or the utility bill.

Christians who have inhabited the story of Scripture understand the way marriage provides a safe, secure, and sustainable way of guarding the interests of men, women, and the children they bear. When they choose to honor God’s good design in joining together in legitimate marital union, and proceed to bring children into the world in that context, they are embracing a framework that, in the long run, has been proven to be for their good and the good of their neighbors.

None of this, to be sure, will guarantee marital bliss. Certainly we as Christians would want to say a lot more about the components to a healthy marriage. Perhaps as part of our ministries we can make marriage resources available to our communities, ultimately forming connections that can lead to evangelism and care. But Christians have robust biblical, theological, sociological, and historical reasons to contend for the institutional good of marriage.

As elected officials try to do more and more in the way of policy making to address poverty, might Christians lend a voice to the discuss and show where family order and stability is central to long-term wealth-building? Might we point out that those in intact families have better life outcomes by any measure than those who do not?

While we need to work diligently to not make the victims of cohabitation, divorce, and other destructive choices feel guilty for being victims, we do need to be honest about the good design of marriage and its positive benefits for the world.

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[1] Each page number is derived from the 2018 Symposium Digest of Papers.