Tag Archives: Marriage

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).


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.


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.


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

Legal and Religious Liberty Implications of the Supreme Court Decision on Same-sex Marriage (Part I)

by Matthew Steven Bracey

 *This five-part series is adapted from Matthew Bracey’s presentation, “Legal and Religious Liberty Implications of the Supreme Court Decision on Same-sex Marriage,” Theological Integrity Seminar (presentation at the annual meeting for the National Association of Free Will Baptists, Kansas City, Missouri, July 17-20, 2016), which itself is adapted from chapter five, “Same-sex Marriage and Christian Citizenship,” in Sexuality, Gender, and the Church: A Christian Response in the New Cultural Landscape (Nashville: Welch College Press, 2016), which readers can order by emailing order@welch.edu


 “Get EnGAYged.”[i] Those were the words I saw pinned to a young man’s shirt on the day after Obergefell v. Hodges.[ii] This is the Supreme Court ruling that held that the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants same-sex couples the right to marriage, and that all states must recognize this right.

What followed was the declaration that “love wins” and a rainbow light display from the White House.[iii] Perhaps you had a similar experience. But homosexuality and same-sex marriage didn’t arise in 2015 with Obergefell. They’ve dominated the public discussion for well over a decade.

These cultural developments haven’t left the church, its members, or its ministries unaffected. Now, courts are jailing some who refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses. Workers who decline to accommodate same-sex couples are found guilty of discrimination. Examples include Christian bakers, bed and breakfast establishments, florists, photographers, and wedding venues. Cities are denying church groups equal access to rent public properties and attempting to regulate wedding chapels.

Universities are declining to recognize Christian student groups with traditional religious values. Federal healthcare mandates are attempting to require corporations to cover contraceptives and drugs to induce abortions. One city mayor even terminated the services of a public servant who expressed religious views contrary to city policy. Another attempted to compel pastors to submit sermons that make reference to homosexuality or gender identity.

These developments aren’t over. We haven’t heard the final word. Our denomination, churches, and congregants will continue to be affected. Christians today are facing strong pressure to conform. As a result, many are asking, “What does this mean? What are the legal and religious liberty implications of Obergefell?”

In answering these questions, we’ll consider some social and legal developments. Then we’ll examine several important civic principles. These include religious liberty, separation of powers and federalism, the rule of law, and democracy and liberty.

“I’m just a church member. I don’t know anything about the law,” some may say to themselves. But I submit that all American Christians should know something about these principles. As we’ll see, they help us understand the society within which we serve.

Historically they’ve also helped protect the inherent, God-given liberties we possess—what the American founders referred to as “unalienable rights.” Regrettably, many of these principles and protections are being threatened, which we must work to curb. We live in a democratic republic, and we all can play an important role. But to do this, we must understand what we’re protecting.

How Did We Get Here?

Social Developments

For most of its history, American government has penalized homosexual behavior. However, after World War I, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) rights made a small step forward in the so-called Roaring Twenties.

By the 1960s, the LGBT movement was in full swing. In 1962, Illinois became the first state to decriminalize homosexuality. Prior to this, all fifty states had laws against it.

Legal Developments

In 2003, Lawrence v. Texas decided that laws against same-sex sexual conduct are unconstitutional. This decision set the tone for the expansion of LGBT rights for the next decade as public awareness and sympathy continued to grow.

In 2011 and 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) held that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act also applies to LGBT people. Title VII outlaws discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Now that doesn’t say anything about LGBT rights or gender identity, does it?

Well, the EEOC determined that the “sex” component extends to LGBT people. Previously this had referred to women to protect them from gender discrimination.[iv] Now apparently it also refers to LGBT people.

With same-sex marriage, Massachusetts became the first state to recognize it in 2004. By June 2013, just nine years later, United States v. Windsor said that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional. Congress had passed DOMA in 1996, and President Bill Clinton had signed it. And it had defined marriage as a one-man, one-woman union.

Obergefell v. Hodges

Most recently, Obergefell v. Hodges has said that same-sex marriage is legal across the land.

The facts of the case are simple. The states of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee “define[d] marriage as a union between one man and one woman.”[v] A lawsuit was filed, saying that this was unconstitutional. And eventually it made its way to the Supreme Court.

Keep in mind that Americans had defined marriage this way for over 150 years. And no one had suggested it was unconstitutional.

The question they considered was whether the Fourteenth Amendment gives same-sex couples the fundamental right to marriage. And if so, do all states have to recognize this fundamental right? A 5-4 majority held “yes” to both questions.

Defining “marriage” as a one-man, one-woman union is, according to Obergefell, unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Antonin Scalia wrote four separate dissents.

Justice Kennedy wrote that the Constitution—specifically the Fourteenth Amendment—protects liberties that extend to certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy. Which includes choices defining personal identity and beliefs. Which includes the right of same-sex couples to marry.[vi]

Now, the Fourteenth Amendment reads that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Do you hear anything about that in there?

All of this leads us to ask, “Where do we go from here?” We’ll consider that question in part II, as well as the topic of religious liberty.


[i] Portions of this series are adapted from “Supreme Decision?”, ONE Magazine, October-November 2015: 6–8; “Responding to Intolerance: From Life Transformation to World Transformation,” The Brink Magazine, Summer 2015, 38–42; and “Godliness and Government,” FUSION, December, January, February 2013–14: 66–69.

[ii] Accessible at http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/14pdf/14-556_3204.pdf.

[iii] Molly Oshatz, writing for First Things, writes, “‘Love wins’ has become a catch phrase of the fight for gay marriage. Love wins, yes, but it’s agape that wins, not eros” (Molly Oshatz, “Agape Wins,” First Things, July 6, 2015; http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2015/07/agape-wins; accessed September 25, 2015; Internet).

[iv] See “Civil Rights Act (1964), Our Documents, http://www.ourdocuments.gov/ doc.php?flash=true&doc =97&page=transcript; accessed October 21, 2015; Internet. This legislation does contain a religious exemption in section 702, which provides, “This title shall not apply to an employer with respect to the employment of aliens outside any State, or to a religious corporation, association, or society with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association, or society of its religious activities or to an educational institution with respect to the employment of individuals to perform work connected with the educational activities of such institution.”

[v] Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S ___ (2015), at 1; accessible at http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/14pdf/ 14-556_3204.pdf.

[vi] Obergefell, 576 U.S ___, at 2, 3.

Nervous about Numbers

by Kevin Hester

Numbers can be depressing. When we hear that over half of all marriages end in divorce, we cringe. It doesn’t help that some versions of the statistics show that Christian marriages are no better. What about church attendance? A 2007 LifeWay Research Study documented that 70% of all church-going millennials “dropped out” of church between the ages of 18-22. Of this 70%, 35% reported that they had later resumed attending at least twice a month.

More recently, a Pew Research Center study released in 2015 indicated that 36% of Americans aged 18-24 define themselves as “religiously unaffiliated” with “fewer than six-in-ten (identifying) with any branch of Christianity.”

These numbers, and many like them, are scary; especially to parents of millennials like me. Numbers are used as illustrative bludgeons or avoided at all costs. Sometimes we feel as if we need to protect our flock from numbers. The question is, are we protecting them in the right way?

The Problem with Numbers

Why are Evangelicals so nervous about numbers? I think there are several reasons, both practical and theological. From a practical perspective, many of us just don’t understand them. We aren’t sociologists, and so when confronted with graphs and pie charts our eyes start to glaze over or we have horrible flashbacks to high school statistics.

Others (especially my Generation X peers) are skeptical of anything they haven’t personally observed. We have had too many push-polls, political phone calls, and have seen too many click-bait Facebook posts. Still others make decisions based on their personality. With the advent of genetic testing, it is now possible to determine whether an individual is likely to develop certain forms of cancer or Alzheimer’s. Some believe that this kind of knowledge would hamper their quality of life. In a similar way, perhaps our concern with numbers is sometimes driven by the harsh reality of the situation and the specific needs of our congregations.

Another problem is that numbers can sometimes be deceiving. I referenced the well-known statistic above related to marriage. There is a problem, but the simplicity of this statement belies the complexity of the situation. The truth of the matter is only about 30% of first marriages today end in divorce. What that tells us is that although divorce is a major concern, most of those who experience divorce experience it as a serial problem.

Education is a major factor. Only 20% of first marriages of couples with at least a college-degree end in divorce. Faith plays a role as well. If Christians are more likely to get divorced it is only because Christians are more likely to get married in the first place. Cohabitation has become much more common for non-Christians. But as Ed Stetzer recently pointed out, many of these studies have problems because of their inclusion of nominal Christians in the figures.

There are also theological concerns over numbers. My generation grew up during the Sunday School campaigns of the 1970s and the church growth emphasis of the 1980s. We have seen that a rapid growth in numbers doesn’t necessarily reflect spiritual depth or have a lasting impact, whether individual or corporate. We reason correctly that numbers don’t reflect spiritual health. We have recoiled from ministry based on consumer-conscious business models asserting that Scripture rather than culture is the norming norm for evangelism and ministry. But a Gospel-based ministry need not ignore its community.

Tools, not Techniques

No parent has ever been upset at the thermometer when it indicated that her child had a fever. She may be upset, but it has alerted her to a problem. Not measuring a temperature doesn’t indicate that there isn’t a fever. The number on the thermometer prompts action, but it doesn’t tell her what to do. That decision must be made with all the needs of her family and her situation in mind.  If it’s the first day of the fever and she knows a virus has been going around, she may treat the fever and monitor her child closely. If it is the third day and the fever hasn’t yet broken, she may seek the advice of a medical professional.

The same thing is true for the data that is available for churches to use. If we recognize it as a tool, it gives us a fuller picture of the people in our congregation and those our churches are trying to reach with the Gospel. Just like the mother, it doesn’t mean we will like what the data tells us, but at least we can respond with knowledge. It is always a mistake to see data as an indicator of what a church should do. Such data is useful because it is generic, but this same utility makes it impossible to know how certain actions would impact particular congregations, with particular sensibilities in particular geographical locations.

So then, is there any use for data like this other than sermon illustrations about the impending doom of our culture? Is it possible to use data responsibly? Can a Gospel-centered church committed to the regulative principle of worship gain any benefit from such analysis?

Some Practical Advice

I believe that there is more knowledge available today to help our churches faithfully preach the Gospel than ever before and there are more reasons to pay attention to this data. Being Gospel-centered will keep us as “innocent as doves,” but being culturally aware helps keep us as “wise as serpents.” Nevertheless, I do believe that there are some important principles that will help us leverage this information and avoid some common pitfalls:

  1. Know How to Use the Data. I have already mentioned the biggest overarching concern which is the recognition that data is a tool and not a technique. Data provides a diagnosis, but it can’t differentiate a cure. Data is only information and we err when we attempt to find within it a plan for the future. God has already given us this plan and the process in his word.
  1. Know Where to Get the Data. There are a number of good organizations and groups that widely publish their data. You want to look at sources that are comprehensive in their scope, that clearly delineate the number and nature of their samples, and whose interpretation focuses upon what the numbers say and not what we should “do” about them. Good studies are analyses and don’t move beyond the data. Some well-respected sources known for strong data and quality techniques are: Pew Research Center, Barna Group, and LifeWay. All of these groups regularly post studies and material that get picked up by Christian and mainstream media outlets.
  1. Know How to Read the Data. The key component of this hint is to read critically. One of the reasons many people are skeptical about studies is that they have seen interpretation articles or references that argue for a particular implementation based on the data. Don’t just cite a study when it agrees with your position and deny it when you don’t like the result. The numbers mean something, but they may not mean what the interpreter is claiming. Always go to the study itself. These should be linked from quality articles or will be easily discoverable online. Read the fine print, including the methodology, rather than the headlines. It is important to know who the respondents were and what the limitations of the study were. This will often help you understand and interpret the data for yourself as well as give you some indication of the objectivity and therefore the value of the data. This is one of Ed Stetzer’s helpful pieces of advice in a recent article on the use of statistics.
  1. Know the Relevance of the Data. I would encourage you to put faces on the numbers. When confronted with news that 7 out of 10 of your teen group are likely to “drop out” of church for a period of time, make it personal. Don’t see “seven.” See Emily, Hannah, José, and Charles. Ask in what way your teens resemble the attitudes and actions of the sample presented in the study. What is the correlation of your congregation with the geographical, social, and economic factors? This type of analysis will help you judge whether your teens are more likely, less likely, or as likely to follow suit.
  1. Build your own Data. Generalized survey data may prove helpful in benchmarking the audience for your church’s ministry efforts but ministry is ultimately about your congregation’s relationships within its community. Broad, generalized studies describe, they do not define. The best data for your congregation is what you build yourself. Don’t be afraid to survey your congregation about their perceptions and attitudes. There are even tools that will help you in the process (http://tcat.lifeway.com/). This is really just an extension of what we all do when we look at the faces of our congregation during a Sunday morning service, glance over the Sunday School numbers, or review the giving for the last fiscal year.


We don’t need to be afraid of numbers. They do not define us, but they do give us a snapshot of a particular moment in time. They can’t tell us what to do but they can tell us that something needs to be done. Data doesn’t change the great commission or the Biblical methods we are called to employ, but it does give us tools to measure our effectiveness and suggestions for ways we might improve.

*This is the first of what I hope will be an occasional series on the use of data in ministry. This article sets out the philosophy behind the use of data. In future articles, I hope to explore generational differences, Biblical knowledge, moral issues, and spirituality.