Statistics suggest that marriage is declining worldwide.
America: marriage rates among young adults age 25-34 have dropped precipitously between 1965 and 2010 (from about 80% married to about 50% married) and the divorce rate for first marriage is around 45%.
Europe: In the Netherlands marriages have increased marginally over recent years but marriage rates are still below the numbers common in the early 1970s when more than 120 thousand couples married each year. In both Germany and Sweden the marriage rate has decreased by some 30% since 1965.
Far East: Although marriage remains near-universal in some large populations of East and South-East Asia, levels of non-marriage are increasing - an increasing proportion of people in their 20s, 30s and 40s are remaining unmarried. High non-marriage rates are not confined to particular religious groups; they can be found in predominantly Buddhist, Catholic, and Muslim populations.
UK: According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS) the long-term picture for UK marriage is one of decline from a peak of 480,285 marriages in 1972. Marriages registered in England and Wales fell in 2007 to 231,450, which is the lowest number of marriages since 1895 (228,204). Compared to the 1950s the number of first marriages had nearly halved by 2000.
Despite its decline, there are very clear advantages of marriage. One is health. Professor John Gottman [University of Washington] says of marriage "The benefits are better physical health, more resistance to infection, fewer infections, and a reduced likelihood of dying from cancer, from heart disease, from all major killers. The other health benefit is longevity: people live longer if they are in marital relationships, particularly if they are in good, satisfying relationships."
Consider some health statistics:
Marriage is so important that it is the first sociological guideline laid down for man in the Bible. God recognised the sociological need for such a close relationship:
"It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper ..." (Gen 2.18)
"For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh." (Gen 2.24)
In the first instance then, marriage is for human companionship and mutual help (1 Cor 11.9). As many will testify, companionship and mutual help seems to become more important in the later years of life. But what about the 'one flesh'? It is highly significant that Genesis states how woman was created. She was formed from one of man's ribs (Gen 2.21-23) - symbolically or otherwise, we are not told - implying an intrinsic unity between the two sexes. The two are really from 'one flesh', and it appears God intends this unity to be re-established between two adults of the opposite sex. Put another way:
Jesus underscored this point when He said 'they are no longer two, but one flesh' (Mat 19.6). God ensures this 'oneness' is placed within a special context in order to publicly identify it, protect it and strengthen it. Genesis 2 and 3 makes it clear that, at 'oneness', the woman takes the special role of 'wife' and the man the special role of 'husband'. Today we call this 'the institution of marriage'.
What does oneness mean in the ideal sense? Clearly, it doesn't mean one credit card! Since man has a triune nature (being a reflection or image of a triune God) then oneness implies a bonding in body, mind and spirit (see 1 Thes 5.23). So besides physical oneness (sexual union), it is ideally also one in thinking, objectives and general philosophy of life. The husband and wife should not pull in different directions, and this is clearly helped if both partners have a common worldview e.g. both could be Christian. It is also important to note that marriage is not God's 'bolt on' to patch up a sick society! God instituted marriage within a perfect world, before 'The Fall' (Gen 2.24).
Marriage is the bedrock of society and stable relationships. Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, said that it was important not to rush to "alarmist" conclusions about the latest UK ONS data - the vast majority of people - whether religious or otherwise - (still) recognise that stable, faithful, loving, just and lasting relationships are crucial for the health of society and the nurturing of children.
Social stability: In Gen 2.24 God states that the move to oneness is public - the man deliberately and unambiguously leaves his father and mother to join with his wife. It is a public declaration by both parties that they are committed to each other not only legally but also morally and in terms of companionship. They dedicate the 'oneness' to be between themselves and no other. So,
This is of course the ideal and today divorce is common - some 45% of first marriages in America fail, compared to about 40% in the UK. Many find Jesus' teaching on divorce (Mat 5.32) hard to swallow and point to the fact that divorce was permitted in OT times (Mat 5.31). Nevertheless, God's ideal way is for husband and wife to stay together. Today, a temptation is not to work at it due to easier divorce.
Social morality: It is important to emphasise the moral aspect of marriage. In Matthew 15.19 Jesus refers to the evil thoughts of the heart and specifically mentions fornication (sexual intercourse outside marriage). Paul underscores this by saying 'it is better to marry than to burn with passion' (1 Cor 7.9). The clear injunction is that, to avoid immorality, sexual intercourse should only be within the context of marriage (1 Cor 7.2, Heb 13.4). Within this context, man and woman are to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1.28). So,
In other words, the Bible stresses that fidelity (as in loyalty, faithfulness and devotion) is essential in a successful marriage. Contrast the biblical view with that of the UK government:
"In terms of the law, marriage does not require the fidelity of couples. It is open to each couple to decide for themselves on the importance of fidelity within their own relationship." [Baroness Stowell, House of Lords, 2013]
Astonishingly, and to the detriment of society, the government is stating that fidelity is not a necessary part of any marriage! The good news is that some 70% of dependent children in the UK still live with married couples, see Divorce Statistics.
In the Bible we read:
"What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate." (Mat 19.6)
Does this mean that God is actively involved and acknowledged within every marriage? Is every marriage 'holy' in a sanctified sense? Clearly, no, since many opt to omit any reference to God in their marriage vows. Atheists marry and would not regard their marriage as 'holy' in the biblical sense. Reading both Gen 2 and Mat 19 in context gives a different viewpoint. Both texts stress the fundamental components of marriage:
God intends two people of the opposite sex to be joined just as though they are one person. As discussed, this concept has fundamental benefits, even if God is not acknowledged. It is simply God's sociological plan for man and woman, and it is in this sense that 'God joins them together'. So we refer to 'holy matrimony' not because the man and woman acknowledge God (often they don't), but simply because they are following God's plan for a man and a woman.
What about same-sex relationships? Clearly, same-sex (civil) partnerships - which are now morphing into 'gay marriages' - cannot be termed 'marriages' in the biblical and commonly accepted sense since they omit the male-female component. This applies even if the partnership is platonic - such relationships are simply deep friendships. And if the relationship is not platonic, then the biblical concept of 'one flesh' is being grossly perverted in God's sight. From these two standpoints, the term 'gay marriage' or 'same-sex marriage' is both meaningless and a perversion of God's ideal for a man and a woman. So why use it?
More at same-sex marriage.
The foregoing discussion applies generally across society. Nowhere is a commitment to God implied or required, and so we conclude that marriage is equally applicable to believers and non-believers. Jesus said that people would be 'marrying and giving in marriage' right up to the end of this age, and He cannot just be referring to believers (Mat 24.37-39). So is there any difference between a Christian marriage and a marriage between two unbelievers?
Marriage is an institution and like all institutions it needs guidelines! Where do unbelievers look for such guidelines? The Christian marriage is blessed in that it can look to the Bible. Let's look at what the Bible says about 'headship': God (the Father) is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of every man (and the church), and man is the head of a woman (1 Cor 11.3)(Eph 5.23). The same man-woman relationship is found in Gen 3.16. But this is not a servant-slave relationship; rather, it is one of leadership coupled with selflessness. Christ leads the church, but also gave Himself for her in the ultimate act of love (Eph 5.23). Likewise, man is instructed to lead the woman in a loving, selfless way. Infact:
Christ's relationship to man is man's ultimate model for marriage. Also, headship involves responsibility and accountability - at the end of the day, the man carries ultimate responsibility for major decisions within the marriage.
A marriage with God at the centre is potentially stronger than one that hasn't; 'a threefold cord is not easily broken' (Eccl 4.12). When problems arise, believers can take them to the Lord in prayer. More importantly, God can use a God-centred marriage for His Kingdom, with consequent blessings for that marriage. Even just one believer in a marriage brings blessings and strength to the marriage (1 Cor 7.14).
Do the statistics bear this out? Probably. The Barna study group claim that the divorce rate for born again Christians (evangelicals and non-evangelical combined) is statistically identical to that of non-born again adults: 32% versus 33%, respectively. But when religious commitment is taken into account the stats look different. Leading sociologists claim there is a significant difference in marital stability between those who take their faith seriously and those who don't! They claim the divorce rate among sincere, active Christians is significantly lower than the general population. Some 60% of people who identify as Christians but rarely attend church have been divorced, but of those who attend church regularly, only 38% have been divorced. A similar study found that "active conservative Protestants" who regularly attend church are 35 percent less likely to divorce compared to those who have no affiliation.
The bottom line is that human failing, even in Christian marriage, cannot hide transcendent truth, namely, that marriage was instituted by God for man's benefit, and those who recognise this tend to have better (fuller, healthier and more stable) lives!
Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible