Would you like a punch?
"Punch" is an example of a word with more than one meaning. It might look like this in a dictionary—and you'd better be clear which I mean before you answer!
punch n. 1 a hit or a strike with a fist. 2 a device for punching holes. 3 a drink, generally warm, fruity and alcoholic.
"Marriage" is also a word with more than one meaning. That has been the case for a long time, but until recently it hasn't been important to distinguish between the two. Here's how it might look in a dictionary:
marriage n. 1 the voluntary sexual and public social union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others. 2 an honour bestowed by the state on certain relationships.
Until recently, it has been possible to use these definitions more or less interchangeably. The state would bestow the honour of "marriage" only on relationships that were "the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others", and you would never meet anyone who seriously expected to be treated as married who hadn't received the honour of "marriage" from the state. "Marriage" as a union and "marriage" as an honour given by the state overlapped perfectly.
In fact, so close have the two definitions been, that probably most people think of "marriage" as having but one definition: an honour bestowed by the state on certain relationships.
But now those who hold to this double definition of marriage need to be careful to make it clear which definition they are using.
- When a church says they are running a marriage preparation course, they need to be clear that they are preparing couples to enter a union of one man and one woman (definition 1). They are not preparing the couples to receive an honour from the state (definition 2).
- When a church has a marriage service, they need to make it clear whether they are recognising the union of a man and a woman, or whether they are acting as agents of the state in bestowing on two people the state honour of being "married". Or, indeed, if they are doing both, and if so, how the two are connected. (It might be better to make a clear distinction between the two by having two separate ceremonies, as Jonathan Chaplin suggests.)
- When a Christian school-teacher is required to promote the value of marriage, he or she needs to be clear that they are required to promote the value of the legal institution of "marriage" (definition 2): the legal benefits that accompany the honour of being "married" in the eyes of the state. They are not (it seems) required to promote a particular kind of relationship, but merely the benefits of having that relationship legally recognised.
- When we use language such as "redefining marriage" or "introducing same-sex marriage", we need to be very, very clear that we are talking about marriage as an honour bestowed by the state (definition 2).
I'm convinced that most of the kerfuffle about the issue of same-sex marriage is caused by failure to distinguish between these two meanings of the word "marriage". Once we start being clear about the distinction, it might be possible to approach the issue with some sense of perspective.
We might even be able to stop (metaphorically) punching each other, and manage to "live at peace with everyone" (Rom 12:18, NIV).